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The settling dust from the steam explosion must have been pretty heavy. A day after, just after the 4, 5,6 line had begun stopping at Grand Central again, you could still smell it inside the station. Glad I wasn't there.

As for the Japanese radiation leak, well, all I can say is that if Godzilla rises out of the ocean a couple of years from now to wreak havoc on Tokyo, whose fault will that be? Why you'd build nuclear facilites in a seismically active area like Japan is beyond me. Oh the hubris!

I suppose we need to decide whether radioactive waste is better or worse than carbon emissions.

Another thing about dirty bombs is that they'd be easy to fake, if the powers that be were so inclined. On an average city block, how many people have a geiger counter, or other device that can detect radiation?

You're all wrought up over a possible leak of radioactive materials, but you don't give any facts: how much material was released? Should we care? When you disagree with van Cleef on the dangers of low-dose radiation, is that because you have better facts than he does, or just because radiation gives you the creeps?

Orphan radioactive sources are definitely a concern - though you don't mention it, the Goiania incident is one of the worst nuclear disasters ever. But they don't have very much to do with nuclear power: a nuclear plant necessarily has a systematic process in place for disposing of the waste it produces, high- medium- and low-level. Orphan sources are much more likely to come from nuclear medicine applications, as with the Goiania incident, or things like household smoke detectors.

Waste disposal is definitely a concern, but there are a number of schemes for safely disposing of waste that do not involve burying it. (We do know how to bury waste safely - we learned by examining the Oklo natural nuclear reactor, in which the waste products were safely contained for (IIRC) a couple of billion years.) Some fast reactor designs can consume all the transuranics in the waste, extracting energy from them, and leave behind only relatively short-lived lighter elements.

I think that nuclear power has its problems - serious ones, including a finite fuel supply - but it is the best currently-available replacement for fossil fuel plants in many cases. (Coal power often releases more radioactive material into the environment per kilowatt-hour than nuclear, by the way, just from the natural radioactivity of the coal.) What power source would you have suggested Japan use? Hydro? I'm willing to bet every site in Japan that you can build a hydro dam has one already. Wave or tidal systems? We still don't know how to make those work, and they have serious environmental impact on delicate coastal ecosystems. Wind, solar? Not a lot of power density, they'd be big land-occupying projects; they're worth looking into, but I don't think they could provide enough power to run a modern industrialized nation. If it's a choice between a big coal power station, I'd rather they built a nuclear power station. They do, after all, have some experience building earthquake-proof structures.

Gee, Anne, defensive much? Read a bit closer, please. I specifically say, right upfront, that I am NOT all wrought up about the word nuclear, just that it gives me pause and colors my views on nuclear power. It doesn't creep me out in the least, and if you'd been reading more carefully, you would have realized that before going off half-cocked, "calling" me on things I never said.

It is a very complex issue and anyone claiming to have all the answers is either deluded or lying. Personally (and I made this very clear in the post), I am all for striking a balance between overwrought hysteria/exaggerating the risk and downplaying those same risks -- because they are very real. My point is that we need to be upfront and honest about the risks involved. The public needs to be better informed about radiation, what the various levels of exposure/doses are and what they mean to human health (both short and long term), so that they can make better, more informed decisions about what they consider to be an acceptable cost-to-benefit tradeoff. What's acceptable to you might not be acceptable to me, or to someone living in Hanford, for example. Deal with it.

I hope that clarifies things for you. Although you'll probably just read your own biases into it again... :)

The public needs to be better informed about radiation, what the various levels of exposure/doses are and what they mean to human health (both short and long term), so that they can make better, more informed decisions about what they consider to be an acceptable cost-to-benefit tradeoff.

I think though that the pendulum of public opinion has swung too far in the 'freakout for lack of understanding' direction. It isn't that people are under-afraid, it is that they don't know how much radioactivity it takes to hurt you. You clearly seem to have a balanced view, but I think that general public opinion on nuclear energy is that it is mysterious, dirty, and unsafe.* Carbon levels are known to be a severe danger, well-regulated nuclear power is as safe and efficient as it gets.

*(Take for example the way that 3-mile island is commonly bandied about as an example of a nuclear disaster when in fact the fail-safes functioned correctly and disaster was averted without a single case of death or sickness.)

Every power source has its drawbacks - wind power kills birds and bothers Teddy Kennedy, hydro-power silts up behind dams, and if we ever get tidal power, it'll undoubtedly play bloody hell with spawning. Coal power does carbon dioxide - and also releases mercury and radiation that happen to be in the coal formation.

The biggest drawback of nuclear power seems to be public hysteria, and/or the occasional dictator with a great desire for atomic bombs. Radiation exposure is a distant whisper beside those.

Mind you, public hysteria and dictators are perfectly valid reasons for concern. Through history they've caused more deaths than ANY technological side effects. But it would be nice to see a debate focusing honestly on these as well as cancer.

I'm 100% in agreement with Dr. Ellen that every power source has its flaws. That's what I mean by a risk to benefit tradeoff. You're always going to have pros and cons. But those are going to be different per the individual. Nuclear power isn't the worst, but it's failed thus far to win me over as THE choice of a power source. I'm more inclined to say, "Um, okay, maybe in a pinch, but what else have you got? I think we can do better. And that's not the opinion of an hysterical, uninformed member of the public.

You know, I really WANT to like nuclear power more than I do, not to mention that as a science writer, I get considerable pressure to change my opinion whenever I express any doubt whatsoever on the topic. But I'd rather be honest that pretend to embrace a view that I don't really hold (I grew up in a religious family doing just that all through high school, and never again, thank you very much). I've heard all the arguments. They are valid points. They just fail, in the end, to convince me. For some reason, this makes some scientists absolutely crazy. Nuclear medicine? No problem. The benefits clearly outweigh any risks. Nuclear power? That's a much tougher call, for a variety of reasons. I wish more scientists would be honest about that. And accept that even when someone has heard the "facts," they might still not be won over. As a tax-paying citizen, that person has that prerogative.

There _are_ other energy options, or combinations of various sources thereof. It need not be "Nuclear power is the best and therefore everyone should use nuclear." I'm much more comfortable with nuclear power as one option among many, rather than having it serve as a primary energy source. Ditto for the other alternatives. Diversity is my preferred strategy.

Sorry if I came off as defensive; I did read your post, and what bothered me was that when you say you have a balanced viewpoint, you seem to be balancing unfounded hysteria against facts and giving them equal weight. I am by no means an unequivocal supporter of nuclear power, but I do think the arguments against it should be based on facts. For example, as a previous poster pointed out, you list Three Mile Island as a disaster costly in terms of human life and health, when in fact the evidence for that is very poor. You quote van Cleef's position on dirty bombs - an interesting, valid one, that points out that the primary problem with dirty bombs is our extremely conservative attitude to radiation exposure (and the panic that would ensue) - then simply say you worry more than he does.

But yes, if you'd like me to list my concerns with nuclear power: proliferation probably comes first: many designs of nuclear plant make plutonium easy to manufacture, any nuclear power plant makes expertise available and weapons-making activities easier to hide, and buried high-level waste becomes a plutonium mine as it cools. Then the shortage of fissionables in the earth's crust: if we don't use more efficient reactors, it might be as short-lived as fossil fuel reserves. Then cost: traditionally the nuclear power industry has been effectively subsidized by the military demand for weapons material. All the work needed to keep it safe and reliable can raise the cost enormously.

My main point is that when we look at nuclear power, we see its risks clearly, highlighted as they have been by horrible example and media coverage. But we don't see the environmental damage caused by many other kinds of large-scale industry, in particular, the environmental costs of its alternatives. The people who build power plants do think hard about the risks of each: for example, one reason there is only one tidal power station on the Bay of Fundy, and not a full-scale project, is because to work efficiently it would have to increase the tidal swing by half a metre all down the New England coast at least as far as Boston. The effects of that on docks and buildings close to the ocean, let alone coastal ecosystems, I leave to your imagination. Frankly, I think I'd rather the Chinese were building a huge nuclear power plant rather than the Three Gorges Dam; the effects of a serious accident would probably be less severe.

Jen-Luc Piquant thinks Widner is being a bit idealistic; she doesn't put it past our government to have simply decided those residents were expendable for the greater good of the nation.

Alas Jennifer, we are all expendable in the name of profit, or freedom & democracy. The thing is though every government may claim to be addressing a country's energy needs for the next generation, every government aims to address short term needs. And let's face it the next generation will have to find a way to clean up the mess, whether it be the industrial waste of the past, the consumer waste of today or the nuclear waste ... set to double

The mysterious ingredients in the hugely popular Red Bull Energy Drinks. It's not the beverage taken as a whole that gives you wings, it's the ingredients: caffeine, to be sure, but also meat sugar (a.k.a., inositol) and, um, bull bile. Yummy! The secret ingredient in bull bile is taurine, a powerful age-defying antioxidant. No wonder Jen-Luc is eternally youthful. She's currently weighing the risks vs. benefits of continuing to drink bull bile and meat sugar on a regular basis -- anything in the name of perpetually youthful skin.

lol Jennifer, does your skin also benefit from JLs drinking preferences. Or is she comparing your half to her half to measure the anti-aging results.
It seems we are still by enlarge eating out selves do death in the land of plenty. Living in the land of Milk & Honey has been interpreted as some to mean eat and drink as much as you can, as much as you will - consumerism it's good for business, and especially the medical & pharmaceutical industry.

A curious trait of humans is that even if we know eating too much of the wrong things or simply over eating will do us harm, we have blind faith that surgery or pharmacy will right all wrongs, and on & on
And ultimately it is all about decay
We just accelerate the process, and then spend our days trying to reverse the process, and ageing too

Our diets were brought up by Quasar9; it's a reasonable comment on the discussion, and also brings priorities to the fore. My take is this: something is going to kill me. I want it to taste good. I think this a reasonable ordering of priorities, even if it doesn't quite agree with the dietary evangelists. The best compromise is to eat a lot of different tasty things, because the evangelists disagree -- across time and space and ideology -- on the particular restricted diet that will make me immortal. They also disagree on what'll kill me most rapidly.

In much the same vein, depending on MANY energy sources makes the most sense. If one of them runs out of fuel, or is proven to be awful, it's better to suddenly lose 15% of our energy, the source that was poisoning us only 15% as badly as it would have were it the sole source.

Jennifer--come to my blog and read my recent entry about "fan death"... Perhaps you will have a professional, scientific explanation?!? ;-) If nothing else, it should give you a good laugh! (Just so you know, it has absolutely nothing to do with your current entry.)

There was a car in a hole locally just a couple of days ago:

My Dear Inebriated Physicis Correspondant,

God forbid that we should ever quarrel, but you have, quite inadvertently I'm sure, raised an issue that invariably sets my teeth on edge. While you have eloquently protested your innocence, I believe that you are in fact afflicted by the deep and thoroughly irrational fear of radiation that sadly pervades our society.

I feel compelled to at least address your fear of nuclear accidents so that you may sleep better at night.

We should first consider the two famous nuclear incidents you mentioned. Three Mile Island still conjures up nightmares, despite the fact that there were no deaths or injuries, the reactor vessel contained the damaged nuclear fuel (as it was designed to do) and a relatively small amount of low grade radioactive material was released. Residents of the immediate area received radiation exposure roughly equivalent to a chest x-ray. In the aftermath of this incident, numerous improvements were made in monitoring and control systems of other US reactors and in emergency procedures. No remotely comparable incident has occurred in the US in the 28 years since Three Mile Island. As disasters go, Three Mile Island was a bit pathetic.

Chernobyl was obviously a far more serious incident. After a comprehensive investigation, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported only 56 confirmed deaths (47 rescue workers and 9 children with thyroid cancer) resulting from the disaster. However the WHO also estimated that 9,000 more people may eventually (and we should emphasize the words 'may' and 'eventually') die of cancers attributable to radiation exposure.

Assuming the 9,000 figure is a reasonable estimate, Chernobyl is one of the worst industrial disasters ever. Although it still pales in comparison to the Banqiao Dam collapse (26,000 immediately, 145,000 subsequent), Bhopal chemical plant explosion (3,000 immediately, at least 15,000 subsequent) and London's great smog (4,000 immediately, 8,000 subsequent).

Before we condemn nuclear power on the basis of this tragedy, we should point out that the Chernobyl reactor was a seriously flawed design which is no way comparable to any existing reactor in the western world or any new reactor being contemplated anywhere.

More generally, we might want to think about how the danger compares to other industrial activities. Given a choice between living next door to a nuclear power plant, dam, oil refinery, coal plant (coal dust in air is highly explosive), chemical factory or LNG terminal, the nuclear plant is clearly the safest choice. Not only is a catastrophic accident less likely (nuclear fuel isn't actually explosive), even if the worst does happen the consequences are much lower. If a nuclear reactor melts down, and you aren't physically standing on top of it, the worst that is likely to happen is that will you face an increased risk of cancer. Compared with being instantly obliterated by explosion or swept away by a collapsing dam, this really isn't much of a problem.

"While you have eloquently protested your innocence, I believe that you are in fact afflicted by the deep and thoroughly irrational fear of radiation that sadly pervades our society."

And you're flatly wrong, wrongedly-wrong-wrong. :) Why is it that scientists have such a hard time believing that someone can hear their arguments and still (gasp) disagree (without assuming we're drunk or mentally impaired in some way)? Do you honestly think I haven't heard those arguments over my 10+ years of science writing, especially given the pressure for science-minded types to "conform" to the "gospel" advocated by the nuclear power bandwagon? I made a point of saying that the major nuclear accidents are statistical anomalies, but they still must factor into a risk vs. benefits assessment, and you're just going to have to accept that for some of us, the potential benefits aren't quite outweighed by the risks, however statistically small. Why is that so difficult? You know, respecting people's right to have an informed opinion that's different from yours?

If I were really and truly secretly terrified of radiation, (a) I'd be terrified of MRIs, radiation therapy, x-rays and the like, and I'm not; that's an area where I think the potential benefits definitely outweigh any risks (and how many times must I repeat this before it sinks in?). And (b) II wouldn't be advocating any form of nuclear power at all, whereas if you read my clarifying comments, you'll note that in fact I'm quite willing to accept a small amount of nuclear-generated power as part of a broadly diverse portfolio of energy options. I just think hailing it is the best and brightest most perfect energy solution is incorrect. At best, it is a stop-gap, short-term measure. And it is most certainly not a clean energy source if it generates radioactive waste... perhaps it's not carbon emissions, but then it simply becomes a matter of "pick your poison."

Please, people, I understand your frustration with the hysteria and panic that often ensues in the general population about nuclear power and radiation leaks, but stop projecting that viewpoint onto me.

And now, I must go read the new Harry Potter! So there might be silence for the next 24 hours. :)

An important aspect of the NYC steam system is that using the "waste" steam leads to a huge increase in the effect efficiency of power generation and use in the City. The thermodynamic efficiency of making electricity is limited by Carnot, but the "exhaust" can be used to heat and cool buildings, thereby getting a lot of that back. Systems like that are much more efficient than turning coal into electricity, then electricity into heat or cooling. Better to use low-grade power sources like steam for low-grade uses like heating and cooling and reserve high-grade ones like electricity for high-grade uses.

You may not be bent out of shape over radiation, but your sentence that conflates TMI with Chernobyl, and implying that TMI had a major effect on human life, was seriously over the top. The cost of TMI was economic, not health (outside of the cleanup crews), and was entirely due to the owners not appreciating the economic value of paying attention to basic safety systems. Similarly, we are *not* talking about a "serious potential human health risk" from a minuscule release unless you think cosmic rays are are a serious potential human health risk when flying, so you should not have written that if you did not want to be criticized for it.

Ditto for any analysis of the radioactive waste from nuclear power that does not take into account the radioactive waste from coal (huge amounts of U and Th emissions) or even the production of fertilizer (Rn from U and Th in phosphate tailings). Clear public understanding of the minor risks posed by low levels of radiation will be crucial when (?) a dirty bomb is used somewhere. My car was built in Hiroshima, which was never "cleaned up" after a real bomb was used there.

Concerning the Trinity test: It is very important, living as we are in a time when a tiny army made up exclusively of volunteers suffers 3500 deaths over years, that WW II was the real deal. The father of a buddy of mine landed on Tarawa, where 1000 of the 35,000 Marines who landed were killed within a few days. The risks of the Trinity test pale in comparison to the risk of not winning that war.

An interesting side story here. Not only did Japan have a bit of an issue with nuclear reactors but Germany has been having a media ruffle over the last couple of weeks.

I blogged ( about the political meltdown last week. Angelika Merkel (with a PhD in Physical Chemistry) has been quietly pushing for Germany to drop the planned pullout from of nuclear energy by 2031 (think Sweden) put in place by the previous government.

Now the rather bungled 'cover-up' by the reactor owners (Vattenfall) of an accident June 28 (a transformer fire "perhaps" caused because the owners were trying to increase capacity) have made that Merkel's plan 'politically' radioactive.

This week, *sigh*, German reporters are wandering around looking for "malfunction" of any kind at reactors across the country. The other day they found some switch wasn't in the right position in a backup coolant system - made nation news.

Reaction - Overreaction : That's nuclear power.

Jennifer is right. Nuclear power is probably not a long term solution. It might be a possible midterm alternative to other forms of power but the problem isn't really the boom as much as the tick, tick, tick of the nuclear waste. Solve that problem. We'd have a deal.

I think that in general, the nuclear debate suffers from poor quantification.

The reason Three Mile Island resulted in a shutdown of nuclear power plant building is that the investment community suddenly realized that they were being asked to put money into a risky scheme where the return did not match the risk. In what other industry can you turn a 1 billion dollar asset into a 2 billion dollar liability in the course of a day?

Jennifer: Even James Lovelock, the Gaia guru is a fan of nuclear power, much to the
embarrassment of many of his eco-followers. Eventhough you disclaim any anti-nuclear bias, it
glares through your denials. I guess scientists just have a problem with the degree of
hysteria and flat-out ignorance they encounter in the lay public. Has France, for example, had problems with its nuclear power plants? The hysteria is mostly a North American phenomenon, much like the
ridiculous religion mania that infests the US.

Oh, and to be a complete curmudgeon, read what Harold Bloom has to say about the Harry Potter books.
( I dont have the link, but basically says that JK doesnt know how to write anything but cliches.)

If you like Harry Potter, try Terry Pratchett's Discworld series--before the inexplicable
emergence of Rowling, he was the best selling British author---very funny fantasy novels.
Try "Thief of Time" or "Interesting Times".

Here's the link for Bloom ("The Western Canon" "Shakespeare" etc )
I guess compared with the other drivel on the best seller lists, Potter is
OK, but I wish people could still write like Orwell.

Japan is a nation wrought with contradictions. Since Hiroshima, Japan has been anti-nuclear wrt the military, yet embraces nuclear power fervently. Even to the folly of building their plants on top of volatile tectonic plates. (Though they're hard-pressed to find a place to build them that isn't on a plate.) They're on the cutting edge of building cheapish hybrid cars and buses turn off their engines at red lights (never see that in Canada), yet the wasted energy on vending machines (2-5 on every corner in an urban area, even outside convenience stores) and air conditioning is so freezing in the summer, I need a sweater and so sweltering in the winter, I'm down to a t-shirt on trains/subways. Moderation is not their strong point.
Sure the government here lies to us constantly, but they eventually get caught or fess up. Then the managers do the honourable thing and commit suicide.
I love this country and its wacky dichotomy!
Oh, just so you don't think it's only nuclear powered, there are plenty of hydro-electric facilities too. They're the first thing that Godzilla tramples when he goes on a rampage.

Jennifer: Why would you be terrified of MRIs in any case? This "nuclear" has nothing to do
with IONIZING radiation--just strong magnetic fields and nonionising radiation. Maybe this is why
scientists cringe, not because they are intimidated by the nuclear energy lobby as you seem
to believe.

We do know how to bury waste safely - we learned by examining the Oklo natural nuclear reactor, in which the waste products were safely contained for (IIRC) a couple of billion years.

I'd be interested to see how that's computed.

You can measure how much waste product remains today.

How do you measure how much leaked?

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    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
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      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
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      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
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      151 proof rum
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      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
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    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
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      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
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