Wednesday, February 06, 2013

This blog has moved

To my legions of fans ha ha,

I've started a new blog which will hopefully be focusing purely on nuclear issues in Japan/Australia.
I've moved over all my old posts starting from March 11, 2011. They chart my evolution from nuclear ignoramus and agnostic to supporter.

Here is the link:

I will keep this one and be posting occasionally on anything I see interesting in Japan. I may change the name back to Captain Cassowary too.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Hopefully the Prime Minister takes my advice

The Japan Times this week has published my letter to the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, where I invite him to consider reason and common sense when it comes to the nuclear issue in Japan.

My little letter was sandwiched between two rabidly anti-nuclear opinion pieces. One is an emotionally-charged use of the 'nuclear waste is bad' argument. One could, of course, use 90% of it and just change the topic to 'not using nuclear power'. At least that way the charge of generational betrayal would be appropriate. Regarding the issue of waste, suffice it to say that 95% of nuclear waste can be recycled, and the disposal of the remainder is not so much a safety or technical issue as a political one.

The second piece is a somewhat random scare piece about the accumulation of strontium-90 in childrens' teeth. It's notable for its complete lack of claimed health effects - leading the reader nonplused as to what it was written for. I suspect the editor demanded scientific references for the supposed ill-effects of the reported strontium-90, and the authors were unable to come up with any.

One thing for sure. Now that I have read many, many anti-nuclear articles I am no longer afraid of trying to get my own stuff published. These writers may or may not be professional journalists, but if they are, they are professionals who are either deliberately deceitful or have an extraordinarily poor understanding of the scientific method.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Unnecessary fear of radiation causes obesity in Fukushima

According to data released on Xmas day, Fukushima children are the most obese in the nation. The Ministry of Education, which conducted the study, admitted that the cause may be 'restrictions on outdoor activities due to lingering fears of radiation'.

Fukushima kids are often forbidden from playing outside, even during designated school P.E. class, which often takes place in gyms.

The findings were significant for all childhood age groups. The percentage of obese children is still small compared to obesity levels in the U.S. and othe places: for example, 4.86 percent of 5-year-olds were obese, compared to 2.39 percent of all 5-year-olds in Japan. Yet, over the entire prefecture this adds up to thousands of individuals.

According to wikipedia, obesity has many deleterious health effects, and is one of the leading preventable causes of death in the world. As it is well-known that childhood obesity has a strong statistical correlation with lifelong obesity, we are essentially talking about a health effect that dwarfs any serious scientific predictions of health consequences stemming from exposure to Fukushima radiation. Obese Fukushima inhabitants can look forward to increased rates of cardiovascular disease, asthma, sleep apnea, osteoarthratis, diabetes, and (ironically) some cancers. Overall, obesity reduces your life expectancy by six to seven years.

This is another case of an irrational response to radiation causing measurably more harm than good. It would have been far better for these kids to play outside as usual, safe in the knowledge that local radiation levels are lower than natually occurring background levels in many parts of the world.

We can add this obesity to the list of negative consequences resulting from ill-considered measures taken in response to the Fukushima accident. It is yet another case where the Japanese action, far from addressing any real problem, has merely created one where it need not exist.

Abe's new cabinet

Japan's new prime minister (for a second time), Shinzo Abe, has made statements that probably mean nuclear power will stay on in Japan as part of the energy mix. He has even hinted at the possibility of new nuclear plant construction.

That doesn't mean everything is okay in Japan, however. Far from it. Abe's new cabinet ministries demonstrate, with their Orwellian names and unnoticed irony, the intractable nature of some of Japan's problems.

Hakobun Shimomura is minister for, amongst other things, education reform. Judging by his party's record in past decades when it comes to education however, a more apt title would probably be Minister for the Prevention of Education Reform.

Akihiro Ota is the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism minister. Covering a wide array of sins, he bears responsibility for administering tens of trillions of yen of completely useless public works, plunging Japan's future generations into debt which it is statistically impossible to repay. The construction industry has been having continual celelebrations since the election. While the more realistic of Japan's commentators acknowledge that what the country really needs is a massive deconstruction program, this is very unlikely in what is basically a return to the dreamworld of the 60s and 70s. Looks like more bridges to nowhere and airports for cabbages. As for tourism, he will be managing the Irreversible Decline of Japanese Tourism as the country turns ever more inward.

Nobutera Ishihara is the State Minister of Nuclear Crisis Management. As the Daiichi plant in Fukushima achieved cold shutdown 12 months ago, and there have been no significant releases of radiactive materials since early 2011, it is hard to see what he will be managing. Having worked in a board of education office however, I can imagine what he will be doing. Having meetings about the chair arrangement in the next meeting, for example.

Masako Mori is the State Minister for Measures for the Declining Birthrate. If ever there is an impossible task, this is it. Japan's fertility is on a one-way trip to extinction, and real measures to address it (empowerment of women, free childcare, flexible work hours, immigration of young people) will certainly be out of her control. Possibly they chose her because it was thought she could reverse Japan's declining birthrate merely by virtue of being a woman herself. If she is planning to do it single handedly, she better get started.

Akira Amari is State Minister for Economic Revitalization. Another Mission Impossible. Japan's ageing and shrinking population, not mention moribund political, financial and cultural customs, make economic growth all but impossible.

Tomomi Inada is State Minister for Administrative Reforms and Public Servant System Reforms. Considering that real policy in Japan is controlled by the public servant system, which has no interest in reform and furthermore that the LDP campaigned more or less on a platform of reversing what reforms had been achieved by previous administrations, I predict that Tomomi Inada will be attending many meetings and not doing much else.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Which direction will Japan go?

In an interesting development,  Prime Minister - elect Shinzo Abe today announced that he will consider revoking the ban on the construction of new nuclear reactors once he takes power.

"We'd like to review how to think about the issue nationwide."

Considering that Abe's party the LDP won by a landslide, one is tempted to think that the Japanese public's tolerance for continual energy uncertainty and  unnecessary nuclear fear was waning, and thus many people voted for the LDP because they are the 'pro-nuclear' party.

If Abe continues in this pro-nuclear vein, he may run up against resistance in the form of the NRA. Japan's new Nuclear Regulatory Authority is proving to be a serious hindrance to the restart of Japan's reactors. So far the authority, which debuted in September, has put serious doubts over the restart of two seperate reactors in different parts of Japan, with the discovery of 'active geological faults' running under them. Considering that the NRA has recently rewritten the rules about what constitutes an active fault, we are talking about earth movments that occurred up to 400,000 years ago. In other words, if you go back in time to when the last quake occurred, the only inhabitants to notice might have been Homo Erectus. They then had 100,000 years to consider the earthquake before they became extinct, and then there was another 300,000 years before modern Japanese came along to worry about the next one. If the next quake affecting that fault line is a further 400,000 years in the future one could hardly be expected to write safety guidelines with the future inhabitants in mind. My guess is they would have other things to worry about.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Japanese election

Japan looks set to continue its recent tradition of changing prime ministers every year with a general elections set for Dec. 16. The public is seemingly unimpressed with any of the candidates; poll regularly report that more than 50% of the electorate does not prefer any of the parties.

Among the major contenders Shinzo Abe, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party is seen as most favourably inclined towards nuclear power. He has stated that nuclear electricity production will continue after safety checks have been performed on all reactors. The LDP is also the party most likely to end up in power. As far as it goes, this is good news for Japan; but the LDP is also the dinosaur party; they have ruled oligarchically since the 1950s and are said to be puppets of the bureaucrats. It is impossible to be optimistic in the face of another LDP government; Japan will just continue to the abyss, sleepwalking to oblivion. It is the LDP that is most responsible for pushing the country into the permanent decline it finds itself. For example, their economic policy is simply to 'promote public works to revive the economy', an action so unlikely to revive the economy that you may as well give the money to me and I'll spend it on sushi.

Abe's rivals do not exactly seem promising either. The current government of prime minister Noda is getting support in the single figures and will surely be thrown out. Then there is the rise of the so-called 'third force', which formed when maverick rightwingers Toru Hashimoto and Shintaro Ishihara joined forces to create the Japan Restoration Party. They have expressed contradictory attitudes to nuclear power (Hashimoto wants to get rid of it and Ishihara wants to keep it) and Ishihara is a right nutter. He is 134 years old, and his version of 'restoring Japan' is to discard the alliance with America and re-assert the country's rights against China, whilst re-writing the constitution to allow rearmament and possible nuclear weapons development! Way to go, you can make enemies of everybody! Unfortunately he is just stubborn and crazy enough to get some votes, and may end up kingmaker if nothing else.

Other minor parties seem to be dominated by the issue of nuclear power and how soon to get rid of it.

Overall, at best we can expect unimpressive mediocrity. Just lower your expectation and everything will be okay.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Japan, Doha, and other dreams

Japan was once the host and most ardent support of the Kyoto Protocol - the closest thing the world has come to a real agreement as to how and when to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When historic international agreement was reached in Kyoto in 1990 Japan led the world with a pledge to reduce its greenhouse emissions by 25% before 2020. With 30% of its electricity being supplied by nuclear energy and more plants being constructed, it seemed achievable.

Yet that dream seemed far in the past when on Wednesday Japan was awarded the 'Second Fossil Award' by the international environment organization The Climate Action Network for failing even to mention its own Kyoto Protocol pledges in its speech at the Doha Climate Change Conference.

Japan had earlier been awarded 'First Place Fossil Award' on the opening day of the conference for its lack of effort against global warming.

The dismal effort on the part of Japan has served to undermine an already fragile conference. Among the conference's mild ambitions was to gain international agreement to extend the Kyoto Protocol, as the original pledge made by 40 countries- to reduce greenhouse emissions by 5.2% below 1990 levels between 2008-2012 - is in no danger of actually being realised.

Now it looks as if even that modest goal -of extending the Kyoto Protocol - is unikely to be realised.

Few of the developed countries back the extension. The United States didn't even ratify it in 1990, arguing that it was useless to do so when developing countries such as China and India were exempt.

Some might argue that that refusal alone rendered the Kyoto Protocol an empty agreement, but hey, only a cynic would say that right?

Russia, Japan and Canada are pulling out, while major developing countries (including China, now the world's largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions) still have no binding targets.

That leaves, um, well, mainly Australia and the European Union.

The conference has become so ineffective that, in a massive display of unintended irony, Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace, called on conference delegates to prevent Doha becoming a disaster, saying 'This has been almost a laughable exercise.'

Perhaps Kumi was unable to see the link between Japan's failure at the conference and the mothballing of its 54 nuclear power plants? Perhaps Kumi believes that the risk of, um, well, nothing really, outweighs the benefit of having a Japan able to pursue a greenhouse emissisons reduction target of 25%.

That must be an extraordinary level of doublethink.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Japan backpedals on greenhouse emissions pledge

Some chickens came home to roost yesterday when an Environment Ministry official was forced to admit that Japan's 2009 pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% would be difficult to fulfill.

"Japan is discussing how to achieve its pledge of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020, including the possibility of revising it," said ministry official Shuichiro Niihara on Wednesday

As well as being an implicit admission of failure, the statement also includes the interesting claim that you can 'achieve' a pledge simply by changing it and fulfilling the new pledge.

The official did state that the goal of cutting emissions by 6 percent by 2012 was likely to be reached. This would be great if true but of course it is impossible; I would dearly like to see the numbers which show that Japan can produce less greenhouse gas than in 1990 while closing down its entire nuclear industry in 2012.

Unfortunately the confidence of the ministry official has little to do with emission cutting and much more to do with carbon trading. In the carbon trading system, Japanese companies, if unable to cut emmissions enough on their own can buy the rights to pollute from other countries that have not reached their own 'emissions cap'. The thinking behind such systems is that if a price is put on carbon emission, the free market will start to operate on carbon, and those who can reduce carbon emissions most cheaply will do so, thus achieving the pollution reduction at the lowest cost to society.

The end result of all this is that Japan can claim it has reduced emissions by keeping under its emissions cap. The fact that they have merely bought another country's right to pollute is usually and conveniently ignored. Whatever carbon trading schemes are capable or not capable of doing, Japan hasn't actually reduced its carbon emissions.

As I observed in my previous post, world carbon emissions, rather than being affected by the Kyoto Protocol or other international agreements, are actually increasing every year. Without widespread adoption of nuclear power this trend will continue and the world will suffer.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Global carbon dioxide emissions up

The journal Nature Climate Change has published a new study with estimates of last year's global carbon emissions, which topped out at 38 billion tons of carbon dioxide. This is a huge number, and it increases every year, despite all the best efforts of scientists and diplomats.

Global warming is a reality. And although there is room for debate regarding the impact this warming will have on the Earth in terms of temperature increase and sea level rise, the scientific mainstream is united in the assertion that global warming is happening and is a serious problem. And though how serious it all becomes remains to be seen, it is worth noting that former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd memorably (and, for him, regrettably) called it the Greatest Moral Challenge of Our Time.

I am always intrigued how this issue tends to take a back seat when it comes to environmentalist groups criticising nuclear power. They are very keen to talk of 'safety' and 'protecting our childrens' future', but don't seem to have available the plans for a working fusion power plant and are always quite happy to plug into a power point that inevitably draws electricity from fossil fuel sources. If pressed, green groups wax lyrical about renewable energy, yet seem immune to answering the hard questions that inevitably arise.

The truth is that renewable energy just doesn't cut it. Essentially, wind, power and tidal are just too diffuse and too unreliable. In practice no large country or city can expect to get more than 10-15% of its power from renewable energy. The problems of distribution, storage and base load provision are just too insurmountable. Germany is finding this out right now.

Just for fun, let's do a little thought experiment with wind power. The electricity generating capacity of Japan in 2010, according to wikipedia, was 283 gigawatts (GW). A typical large wind turbine has a capacity of 3 megawatts (MW), and needs spacing of 6-15 rotor diameters. Generally they are placed 1-2 kilometers apart. As turbines only produce about 15-20% of their capacity on average (and often less than that) to produce 283 GW (283,000 MW) you would need 471,000 huge turbines spaced out at least 1 kilometer apart. This would go around Japan's coastline (34,751 km) more than 13 times, extending 13 km inland, and pretty much making the archipelago uninhabitable. It would cost tens of billions of dollars and be a construction effort rivaling anything yet produced by humanity. 

And what you would do when the wind doesn't blow, well, I can't imagine.

The problems are much worse for developing countries such as China and India, which can't supply more than a small percentage of their power from renewable sources now, let alone in the future with a vastly increased electricity demand. India alone has 400 million people without electricity.

It is obvious that without a reliance upon nuclear energy, the vast bulk of future electricity production will come from fossil fuels, making a mockery of the Kyoto protocol and other international agreements intended to control global carbon emissions.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Coal, mercury and green hypocrisy

 One of the things that pro-nuclear advocates find so irritating is the obsession on the part of many with nuclear waste, as if the waste products from nuclear power were in some way more toxic or uncontrollable than other kinds of industrial waste.

Mercury that is released into the atmosphere becomes methylmercury that is easily absorbed by plankton in the oceans and works its way up the food chain through the process of biomagnification. At each stage in the food chain the mercury is concentrated more and more, so that end stage predators such as swordfish, shark and tuna can sometimes have toxic levels of the element in their flesh. This can cause a serious problem, especially for pregnant women. In the U.S., the largest single source of mercury contamination is the coal industry.

While this is a serious environmental problem it is never accorded the same danger status as minute amounts of nuclear contamination in the flesh of seafood, far too low to actually cause illness to humans, and in fact only detectable because the instruments that can detect the contamination are extraordinarily sensitive. This is the case for various fish catches around the Pacific that have minute levels of caesium that have been attributed to the Fukushima accident.

While reports of radioactive contamination in fish invariably elicit reactions of horror, contamination by mercury while acknowledged as dangerous is considered to be much more routine. In the movie The Cove, which critically examines the dolphin hunting industry in Japan, this mercury contamination is continually mentioned as a reason for humans to avoid the consumption of dolphin meat. Yet the source of the mercury is not mentioned, let alone the only real alternative to this constant release of mercury into the environment, which has to be nuclear power.

I very much doubt that the people who made The Cove (or indeed, many of the people who saw the movie) are realistic about the implications of their obsession with mercury. If followed to the rational conclusion, if indeed people have the goal of reducing the danger of pollutants in the atmosphere and oceans, it is inevitable that the best way to do that is to replace coal power with nuclear.