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Monday, March 7, 2011

The tragedy as farce continues in Libya. When you have a force with so little training that you can jam an AK-47, you are in serious trouble. The Libyan Army hasn't much training, and most of it is at a very low standard, but the Libyan 'loyalists' at least know the basics of marksmanship and rifle maintenance, and also that ammunition fired into the air in exuberation is not going to be useful against targets that shoot back. Gaddafi is hiring soldiers of fortune. He's mostly getting scrapings since his future isn't going to be decided in Libya. Gaddafi has few friends and no moral position: he's the perfect test case for rule by gold. "Gold will not always get you good soldiers, but good soldiers can get you gold." A Machiavellian truism often forgotten; but gold can get you soldiers good enough to hold a large western slice of Libya absent intervention by outsiders.

Negotiation continues. You won't see what's happening. Gaddafi has done much foolish investment, but he has made some strategic purchases: banks, oil distribution companies, and other assets for avoiding US-NATO-UN imposed sanctions are among them. He also owns or holds a large stake in Italian weapons companies: Gaddafi is not only a good customer of the merchants of death, he's one of them. Of course he could be despoiled of those holdings: there's a powerful incentive simply to strip him of his assets and distribute them as spoils to the US-NATO-UN combine. But then that would introduce critical instability into the world market system. What to do, what to do...

Gaddafi's Libya is up there in moral authority with North Korea and Burma, and there's widespread agreement that it's time for him to go. Democracy advocates naturally despise him, authoritarians think he deserves no authority, and even despots think he gives despoty a bad name. Of course that's true of Dear Leader in North Korea, but North Korea has nukes.

All of this would be moot if for the past two decades the US had been investing in energy independence as I have advocated since 1974. So it goes.


Niven and I had a long hike and worked on Anvil (working title: we have a different title in mind now) and concluded a major change/advance in the plot. Then we had lunch. I like where we are going. Now to do it. I admit to working slower than I used to, and having fewer productive hours in the day. Alas. But I manage to get work done, and it's good work.


The following is worth your attention:

Art Robinson article

Dr. Pournelle --

In case you hadn't heard, there's this at World Net Daily:

"Democrats attack Republican candidate's children"


Even accounting for a father's protection of his children, this sounds far beyond the pale.


I have been a reader of Art Robinson's ACCESS TO ENERGY since Dr. Robinson inherited the newsletter from Petr Beckmann; I was a charter subscriber after Beckmann handed me a copy at a AAAS meeting in Boston a very long time ago. I find the story Dr. Robinson tells in the above so shocking that it would approach incredible, but two factors apply: I have been reading Robinson for a long time and I have never had any reason to doubt the accuracy of his factual statements. I do not always agree with his conclusions, and in particular in those in which I do agree with him I don't share all his certainties; but I have never had any reason whatever to question his honesty: which leads me to the conclusion that there is something very rotten in the State of Oregon.

Given the burden of student loans which are rapidly turning the middle class into bondsmen, science and engineering majors might take heed that displaying independence in thinking about AGW can result in financial ruin: it's bad enough to be burdened with student loan debts after graduation, but it's far worse if you aren't allowed to graduate. Those vulnerable to these tactics might think hard about what student organizations they join, and what blogs and tweets they publish. Not everyone can afford independent thought in modern academia. Scary, isn't it?



  A Dark Age

And on the subject of scary:

The Coming Dark Age, indeed

Spotted this link on a climate web site:


Lawrence Solomon: Don’t count on constant electricity under renewable energy, says UK electricity CEO

 -- Bruce F. Webster

Readers should be aware of Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead. Civilization is more fragile than most believe. Note that a true dark age comes not when we lose the ability to do something, but forget that we ever had that ability: as for instance no university Department of Education seems aware that in the 1930's to the end of World War II, essentially the only adult illiterates in the United States were people who had never been to school to begin with  (see the Army's tests of conscripts). My mother had a 2-year Normal School degree and taught first grade in rural Florida, not considered a high intelligence population. I once asked her if any of her students left first grade without learning to read. She said, "Well, there were a few, but they didn't learn anything else, either." The notion that a child could get out of elementary school unable to read was simply shocking up to about 1950 when new University Education Department theories of reading emerged. Now a majority of students read "below grade level" and actual functional illiteracy approaches 15%.

About 14 percent of U.S. adults won't be reading this article. Well, okay, most people won't read it, given all the words that are published these days to help us understand and navigate the increasingly complex world.

But about 1 in 7 can't read it. They're illiterate.

By my definition of literate even more can't read. My definition of reading is the ability to read any word in the English language that you already know and use in conversation, and to be able to read almost all -- 95+% -- of the rest. Words like polysyllabic and diethyltrinitrotoluene as well as Constantinople and Timbuktu. You may not know what they mean -- indeed some may be nonsense -- but you can read them. For more on this see my wife's discussion and her reading program, which, by the way, is old and looks a bit klunky but it does the job nicely: about 70 half hour lessons, and the student can read, and need not worry about the abysmal teaching of reading in the public schools.

Anyway, that's what we mean by a Dark Age. As with the 5th Century peasant in France who gets a yield of perhaps 3 bushels a year on land that under Roman civilization yielded 12 -- and has not only forgotten how to get such yields, but has no idea that such yields have ever been possible. Or a civilization that spends more and more on schools that cannot accomplish what was once standard in country schools like Capleville (where I went 4 - 8th grade), or even remember what was accomplished.


Charlie Sheen has been dismissed from Two and a Half Men for moral turpitude. He apparently has degraded the moral character of the Warner Brothers owned character "Charlie" on the show. Which immediately reminds me of the story: "Sheriff, some cowboy down at the Long Branch insulted Miss Maisey!"  -- "My God! How?"


Intel Hopes to Boost Cloud Gaming With Ray Tracing

By Agam Shah, IDG News Mar 4, 2011 1:30 pm

A new technology from Intel called ray tracing could bring lifelike images and improved 3D effects to games on tablets and other mobile devices.

The chip maker is creating chips and rewriting games to use ray tracing, which generates accurate images by tracing paths of light and could lead to console-like gaming via the cloud, the company said in a podcast this week.



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Tuesday, March 19, 2011

Shrove Tuesday

Tuesday before Ash Wednesday Commonly Known as

Mardi Gras

It is also the 100th Anniversary of International Women's Day

For those still puzzled, Mardi Gras translates as "Fat Tuesday." Ash Wednesday begins the church season of Lent in which fasting and abstinence from meat figures prominently. Elements of the Mardi Gras or Carnival festivals faintly echo the Roman festival of Lupercalia, but that connection is unlikely. (Lupercalia with its emphasis on fertility is far more likely the origin of St. Valentine holidays.) International Women's Day was first proclaimed as International Working Women's Day at an International Conference in Denmark, and was supported by the various socialist international movements. With the collapse of the Internationals it became a more sentimental day with less political significance. It is not much observed in countries with a strong St. Valentine's Day tradition.

This is also a city election day in Los Angeles. As with many cities, the scheduling is designed to attract a low voter turnout, thus favoring incumbents and those endorsed by large organizations; Los Angeles city elections are in theory non-partisan, which also favors incumbents and various union and brotherhood candidates. Most non-partisan movements are begun by good government organizations in the hopes of ending political party dominance and city bosses; the usual result is that when the good government movements win and proclaim city elections to be non-partisan, then they disperse as googoo organizations almost always do, leaving behind enormous incumbent advantages, and, absent term limits, city council and county supervisor seats for life. The effect is not generally good government. But that's another story.


Newt Gingrich last night said that the Libya policy ought to be obvious: the President should order the Navy to impose a no-fly zone on Libya and do so immediately. We ought then to provide support for the rebels as they request it. In his interview last night he said nothing about the costs or the consequences of yet another intervention in the Near to Middle East. It is the right thing to do; there was a strong implication that only a moral blockhead would oppose US intervention in the particular case. It won't cost much because the Libyan air and air defense force is untrained and obsolete, and it's just the right thing to do.

Others are saying the same thing: we didn't intervene when Saddam Hussein slaughtered his own citizens, but when he continued we eventually did at great cost in blood and treasure. We're eventually going to go in and wring Gaddafi's neck; why not do what we can now, when the costs aren't so high, and we'll save more lives.

Newt's position is supported by Bret Stephens in today's Wall Street Journal:

If Gadhafi Survives

Bret Stephens

Other regimes in the region will wonder just what, exactly, are the benefits of an alliance with a diffident America.


Stephens reminds us of our failure to intervene in Iraq when the people rose up against Saddam, and we did nothing while he suppressed them, then drained the marshlands and in effect sowed salt on their homelands. It was, he says, one of the darkest chapters in American history, and after that we intervened after all at great cost. He has a point.

There is another view, also in today's Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. Should Keep Out of Libya

Richard N. Naass

Gadhafi might survive the current civil war. But the U.S. does not need the burden of another vaguely defined intervention in a country where American interests are less than vital.


If this sounds like dithering, perhaps so: I don't have to decide. I can caution those who will decide to consider all the factors including the possible outcomes. I also don't have any inside information on the state of the Libyan loyalist air defense systems. We now know what has been captured by the rebel forces, and we need not be much worried about such: modern US Look-down/shoot-down aircraft are more likely to auger in during routine carrier proficiency flights than to be downed by ancient optical-sighted AA guns manned by untrained gunners.

What we don't know is whether Libya still has operational Russian surface to air systems, and if so, how many. We know that Gaddafi bought some, and hired expert operations technical support. We know that Saddam Hussein did the same, and his remained dangerous until destroyed when we declared no-fly zones in Iraq. There are certainly missile crews for hire in the world mercenary market; it's probable that Gaddafi decided to economize and laid off some maintenance crews over the years, but I doubt that anyone in the US knows with certainty whether he got rid of them all. Betting that his SAM establishment is gone is not a sure proposition. I make no doubt that we have Marine and Navy pilots more than willing to take that risk.

We also don't know who will win when the fighting ends.

C. Northcote Parkinson was fond of saying that in any international policy situation, there will be several choices, and it is generally better to choose one of them than to do nothing. If a ship is being driven onto the rocks by an on-shore wind, it may be difficult to decide whether to drop anchor or make sail and try to claw off to sea, but the decision ought to be made quickly.

Libya is flanked by Tunisia on the west and Egypt on the east. Each has an air force. Jordan and Saudi Arabia also have air forces. Near and Middle East countries have an obvious interest in what happens in Libya. I make no doubt that Secretary Clinton is well aware of all this. So is Secretary Gates.

Stephens makes this point:

Say what you will about Tunisia's Ben Ali or Egypt's Mubarak, they retained some small residue of conscience: There was a limit to the lengths they would go to keep their grip on the state—belated evidence, incidentally, that they weren't entirely unworthy of Western support. But the moral that Syria's Assad and Iran's Khamenei are certain to draw is that the semi-graceful exit is for history's losers. Better for them to fight it out at all costs—and, if necessary, to go down fighting.

It is a lesson that the United States has taught before. It will be particularly relevant as pressure builds to prosecute Mubarak and send him in a tumbrel to the public square.


  Relevant to the Libya situation:

Here is a link to an article about Chinese troops in Pakistan


The troops alone are problematic, but the railroad and road will allow fast and easy access to Pakistan for Chinese troops. It will also enable building a pipeline for gas and oil. After deftness with which China evacuated ten thousand plus citizens from Libya, the logistical capability should be alarming to the US. Obama/Clinton seem to be unconcerned.

Jim Crawford

The US is committed in many places. Gaddafi is a monster, but do we go forth searching for monsters to slay? There is no end of them; meaning that we let the headlines of the week determine our intervention policy. This does not seem wise.

Note that China withdrew the Chinese from Libya, tens of thousands of them, efficiently and without fanfare. They have made no attempt to intervene in Libya. They do retain interests along the Horn of Africa, and of course all along their borders in India and Pakistan. They have made the conquest of Tibet an internal affair.

He who defends everything defends nothing. The purse of the United States is empty. Who will finance intervention in Libya? One presumes the oil monarchies would be interested. I suspect that one or another might even provide a place of exile for the Gaddafi clan leaders.


More background data on the Libyan Civil War. Tauregs are indeed involved.

Tuaregs In Libya:




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Wednesday,  March 9, 2011

On Public Education

"How Not to Lay Off Teachers" in today's Wall Street Journal (link) rather weakly repeats something that everyone who studies the education mess knows. It's worth your time if you have any doubts that seniority is not the right way to determine who should be paid public money to teach in public schools. Of course just because everyone knows something doesn't mean much.

The steep deficits that states now face mean that teacher layoffs this year are unavoidable. Parents understandably want the best teachers spared. Yet in 14 states it is illegal for schools to consider anything other than a teacher's length of service when making layoff decisions.

It gets worse. "Many people don't realize that teachers are not evenly distributed nationwide," says Tim Daly of the New Teacher Project, which has released a new report on the nationwide impact on quality-blind layoffs. "Fourteen states have these rules but about 40% of all teachers work in those states, and they're the states with the biggest budget deficits." In addition to New York, the list includes California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Actually it gets worse than that. Just because there is no law requiring school district executives to use seniority as the only criterion for laying off teachers doesn't mean that there can't be a rule negotiated by union collective bargaining in one or many or all of the school districts. One reason for the stalemate in Wisconsin is that the Wisconsin law strips teachers unions of the right of collective bargaining over such rules in all the state's school districts (as well as doing the same with regard to county and city employees who aren't in education). The unions have convinced the Democrat senators that since the Republicans have the votes to pass this in the state Senate and Assembly, and the governor will sign it, it's important that no state business be done at all, and the entire Democratic caucus in the state senate is camped out in Illinois.

It is now generally known that the key to school efficiency is better teachers, and that schools would often be a very great deal better off firing the worst teachers and dispersing their students among the other teachers in the school. There's a real productivity boost from firing the worst teachers. We will never get that so long as we have tenure and seniority in the public schools. Tenure is particularly silly: it may or may not make sense to have "academic freedom" in publicly supported institutions of higher education in order to encourage enquiry and research; but primary, middle, grade, and high school teachers aren't paid to do research and aren't expected to come up with new ideas. They don't need tenure to do the job they're being paid to do.

What are they being paid to do?

It is time that the American people began to think about the purpose of public education. It is treated as an entitlement, and the arguments are all given about the rights of the students, but that is a strange entitlement: many students would prefer not to be in the school, and truant officers are employed to deliver the kids so they won't miss what they're entitled to. They are going to get education, and with some teachers they get it good and hard. It seems that the teachers are not only entitled to their salaries and benefits, but also entitled to the attendance of students who don't want to be there.

The only rational purpose of a tax paid school system is to produce more productive and better citizens. If it doesn't accomplish that, there is no justification for making everyone pay for it. There is certainly no justification for taxing a person on a $44,000 income to pay salary and benefits including pensions to someone making $50,000 simply because the teacher is entitled to the money. (In California the top state income tax bracket starts at $44,000, and I think no tenured teacher makes less than $50,000. If those numbers don't apply in your state, supply your own, but you get the idea). The most effective way to get better and more productive citizens is to allocate resources in a way that benefits those who can benefit the most: make sure the best and the brightest regardless of their race or social or economic status get the most education. If you have a little more time to spend with a student, put that time into make the bright ones learn more rather than trying to make the dummies just a little less uninformed.  Of course that is now what we do: the whole system, and particularly No Child Left Behind, is geared in the opposite direction. You can ameliorate that a bit by assigning the best and the brightest teachers to the best and the brightest students, but you can't if the unions are allowed to negotiate the work rules. You certainly can't accomplish much when saddled with tenure and seniority rules.

The American school system is a bad parody of an optimum allocation of resources, and nearly everyone knows it, but we always talk as if it were not so. Of course we never discuss the basic premises of public education to begin with.


President Obama continues to send mixed signals regarding what is to be done in Libya. Perhaps that is a good policy: encourage the rebels, but don't send assets (AKA keeping your options open). It depends entirely on just what we want as a long term outcome in the Near and Middle East. Of course what we want is liberal democracy tolerant of Israel all across North Africa and through the Middle East, but it is not clear that this is possible, and even less clear that keeping our options open while failing to commit anything important makes it more likely.

A case can be made for sending in the recce-strike forces to decapitate Libya, and then letting things take their course. Unlike Mubarak, Gaddafi has no claims on the United States. We have bombed him before. Blowing him to smithereens will get the applause of millions. After than we can let the armed populace of Libya decide on their own future, and we don't have to ask for gratitude: we still had Lockerbie to avenge. I presume someone has brought this up at a National Security Council meeting.


Questions in Libya 

George Will has some EXCELLENT questions on military interventions in Libya. Although I support military intervention, these are very good questions which I hope Mccain, Lieberman, Obama et al seriously consider before doing anything.



Brian P.

They are excellent questions.

My sympathies are with the rebels, but my constant advice is to invest in America, not take on more international expeditions and obligations unless they are seriously considered to be vital national interests. There would be great satisfaction in wringing Gaddafi's neck -- but what then? I asked that before we went into Iraq. Both times. I never got a satisfactory answer.






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Revolution Now!

As expected, the Wisconsin Legislature, unable to achieve the senate quorum needed to pass fiscal legislation because all the Democratic Party senators have elected to flee the state and will not attend legislative sessions, stripped out the non-fiscal parts of the bill and offered it as a separate measure not requiring a full quorum. On a vote of 18 : 1 (one Republican voted against) they passed a provision stripping public service unions of the right to collective bargaining over most issues. It's hard to find an actual account of just what's in the bill, because all the reporting is so strongly against it that it is more condemnation than actual reporting. After passage of the bill Wisconsin will join about 20 other states that either don't permit public employee unions or put major restrictions on their activities.

The Wisconsin Capitol, recently cleared of demonstrators but not yet cleaned up and repaired from the last occupation, was immediately stormed and re-occupied, with demonstrators breaking into the Assembly chamber as well as in the more public parts of the building.

Some union sympathizers are calling for a revolution, and there were chants for the Wisconsin governor to "leave" in a reminder of the movement in Egypt calling for Mubarak to go.

All this is reminiscent of previous era, in which the International Workers of the World called for a general strike as means of forcing a change in government. In Europe Mussolini's group broke with the "mainstream" Socialist party to form the Fascists, whose "Blackshirt" security force marched on Rome, and seized the government in the name of the people. Street fighting ability rather than elections settled many political issues in Europe, all in the name of the people by socialist organizations. Italian Fascism paid homage to Marx's analysis of society and economic classes, but unlike Lenin who proposed ending class warfare by  liquidating all the classes but the proletariat, Fascism elevated the State (as agent for "the people") above all  classes with the mission of making them work together for the good of all. Mussolini's groups ran candidates in local and national elections, but when his candidates failed to win election, street demonstrations were used.

Events continue in Wisconsin. There are calls for revolution to save union rights and empower teachers so they can save the children. Those who call for revolution seldom end up in charge when the revolution is ended.


IWW Demonstration (1914)

In Libya the war continues, people are being killed, and the powers dither. The rhetoric is that Gaddafi has to go, but now the debate is over who shall bell the cat. (Note). In Cairo the street demonstrators have turned to burning Christian churches and driving the Christians out of Egypt. The Egyptian Army has prevented demonstrators from celebrating in a sit-in in the ruins of a recently burned Christian church. As they did another church not far away was burned.








Note (Those who don't know that story should read this. Aesop was once read in fourth grade in all American schools, but apparently no more.)





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Friday,  March 11, 2011

.Niven and Barnes came over for a conference and a walk. We went to lunch. The rest of the day was devoured by locusts.







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Saturday,  March 12, 2011

The news media are saying there is a danger of a meltdown in one of the Japanese nuclear power plants, and at least one talk show announced as fact that fuel elements were melting. Given the sorry state of journalism in the modern world, I have no idea of how much of that is true. It is almost certain that the quake and tsunami disabled some of the auxiliary power generators that are supposed to insure that in the event of a disaster -- like earthquake or tsunami -- there will be enough electric power to operate the cooling pumps to allow orderly shut down of the plant. Apparently the damage was so great that the plant cooling isn't working properly (or at all) and pressure is building up in the reactor.

Beyond that I don't think the information available on the media is reliable.

My guess is that the worst case scenario will be that the nuclear power plant is damaged beyond repair. There will probably be evacuation of some of the local population. The likelihood that anyone outside the plant perimeter will be killed is extremely low, but the probability that the seventh largest earthquake in recorded history caused great financial damage to nuclear power plants is, I would think, rather high.

Even more probable is that the anti-nuclear press will go wild, as happened after TMI. TMI was a very expensive test to destruction of a nuclear power plant, with the result that no one outside the plant perimeter was harmed, the worst that happened to those inside the plant perimeter was that badge radiation limits were exceeded and workers were sent home, and the worst fears of the anti-nuclear agitators ought to have been allayed. The worst happened and no one (other than the stockholders) was hurt.

Whatever happens in the Japanese nuclear incident we can expect another wave of anti-nuclear propaganda. This isn't to say there won't be some "nuclear" damage added to the horrors of the earthquake and tsunami. When you are dealing with an earthquake of historic size, you expect a disaster, and it won't be astonishing if some of that disaster has a nuclear component. Even more costly will be the lack of electricity caused by disabling the plant' but then that would be the case no matter what the power source.

It's too early to know what's going on in Japan. We can only watch, and try to sort fact from hysteria.


An example of something approaching hysteria:



They keep reassuring us that this isn't TMI. I wish the hell it was. It looks more like Chernobyl. A cylindrical structure with steel reinforced concrete walls makes one he'll of a difference.

Chernobyl was a positive void reactor. There are no positive void reactors in the United States because Edward Teller personally saw to it that no such reactor could be licensed here on any scale and on any circumstance. I would wager large sums that there are no positive void reactors in Japan, either, the Japanese not being in the business of manufacturing weapons grade fissionables, nor into taking the kind of risk that the existence of a reactor on the Chernobyl design implies. A melt down in Japan may release some radiation into the atmosphere. The likelihood is that in the worst case the radiation released will be in the order of the amount of radiation released over the lifetime of a coal fired plant, but all at once. It may be four orders of magnitude greater than that. That will still be not much damage on the scale of the destruction Japan has already experienced from earthquake and tsunami.

Japan’s radiation hazard is incalculable.

Hi Dr. Pournelle,

I’m a radiation specialist. If your readers are interested in the hazards Japan faces from its spluttering nuke plants, my post is here <http://wormme.com/2011/03/12/incalcuable-danger/>  .

The danger is incalculable.

All the best,


Marlon McAvoy

This sounds alarming, until you realize that he is using "incalculable" to mean "too small to calculate." McAvoy says in part

In my quarter-century career I’ve picked up eight rem of occupational exposure.  A (northern lattitude) flight attendant would have about sixteen.  If you stayed in the hottest possible Radiation Area for 30 days you’d pick up 72 rem.  What happens when someone picks up nine times my 25-year dose …in only thirty days?!

Now we’re only probably incalculable.  If we did laboratory-grade bloodwork on you, gave you 72 rem over 30 days, then checked again, we might see the slightest possible depression in your white blood cell count.  But I doubt it.

Note that in my radiation treatment for brain cancer I received 50,000 rad of hard x-rays over 36 days. Of course that was highly focused on The Lump, with the intention of destroying it. That worked, with the result that I'm still here. I did have symptoms of radiation damage, in addition to the problems you might expect when your system needs to deal with a golf ball sized lump of dead tissue in your head that has to be cleared out. I don't recommend radiation sickness as a form of amusement, but it wasn't fatal in my case (and beat heck out of the alternative, deo gratia). (For those interested in rem, rad, and other radiation measurements, I recommend http://www.jlab.org/div_dept/train/rad_guide/fund.html ).

I don't mean to belittle the possibility of some radiation exposure in Japan, but do note that during the weeks when the TMI episode dominated the headlines several people were killed at railroad crossings by coal-bearing freight trains, six miners were killed in coal mine accidents, and I make no doubt that there were some severe injuries among oil field workers. Producing energy has a price. Indeed, the late Petr Beckmann in his Access to Energy used to keep track of the fatalities/megawatt for various energy sources: coal, natural gas, nuclear, etc. The source that had the largest number of fatalities per megawatt of energy produced was -- rooftop solar power. The fatalities were caused by people falling off the roof while installing or maintaining the collectors. Of course there were not many of those, but there were also not very many megawatts of energy produced, so death per megawatt was very high compared to the next one, which was I think coal. Commercial nuclear was near the bottom, even if you included fatalities in research reactors and those incurred during the development of the atomic bomb (which might be thought of as necessary R&D and thus appropriately factored into the cost of nuclear energy).

I hear that there has been a "hydrogen explosion" at one of the plants. Details have been contradictory, but it's pretty clear that this was a chemical explosion that adds to the problems at the plant, but hasn't contaminated any area outside the plant confinement area. I say pretty clear, but what I mean is that I make that inference given the data I hear on the news. The news continues to be very bad quality journalism. The latest I heard was that "crews are attempting to keep the reactor from melting down." No other data are given, but I presume that means  it hasn't melted down yet. I have not heard of any mass evacuations. The Japanese have highly competent nuclear engineers and they don't seem to be in panic mode. I can't say the same for American journalists. I expect more hysteria.

It could be that anti-nuclear hysteria will end up causing as much permanent economic damage to the world as did the seventh greatest earthquake in recorded history. (It is said that there were larger earthquakes in Japan in the 7th and 10th Centuries, but I do not know how the magnitudes were estimated.)


I am told that some areas around the threatened nuclear power plants are being evacuated. Given the chaotic conditions and limited resources in Japan -- there is no electricity in most of the devastated areas -- this is probably significant, but what it means isn't clear. For the record, I would never have been in favor of licensing nuclear power plants without more sturdy containment structures than appear to have been built at this plant -- but once again, I don't have an accurate picture of what containment structures they had. US regulations require that reactors be housed in very strong containments.

I also find this relevant: http://www.nctimes.com/news/


Approaching midnight.

Add this

CNN and your neighbor just blew it Big Time 

Dear Jerry,

No sooner did I think I had seen the bottom of the farce on display in CNN's reporting of the Japanese Nuclear Reactor Mess, which to this point has been on the level of a Godzilla movie, than they brought on your neighbor, Bill Nye to :=clear things up.


Bill Nye explained how concerned he was that the Japanese reactor operator had allowed as that radioactive cesium had been released from the reactor. Nye went on to explain that Cesium is the material that the reactor control rods are made of, and that the only way it could have been released as a gas was if the control rods, and the fuel they were inserted in. had partially or fully melted.

Cesium 137 is a radioactive isotope often produced in reactors. CADMIUM is a component of fuel rods, alloyed with indium and silver, and even hafnium. I can find no evidence thaqt Cesium is used in control rods. I don't believe it is a neutron absorber.

It appears Old Bill got Cesium confused with Cadmium, and then went off the reservation with all that speculation about melting fuel and control rods.

This has now reached the level of a BAD Godzilla movie.


Cesium is certainly not what control rods are made of. Perhaps Bill is getting older or has had recent radiation treatment; it sounds like the kind of mistake I might make. I think he is operating from incomplete and almost inevitably faulty information. It's a military maxim that the first reports are generally wrong. It takes time to get reliable information. Detection of cesium in any quantity does indicate that fuel rod integrities have occurred. In the US all that would be confined in the containment. Apparently there was not that kind of containment here.

The news from Japan gets more serious. There are evacuations. It is still not as bad as the earliest reports routinely assumed -- this will not be a Chernobyl -- but it is certainly more serious than I expected. Apparently the Japanese knew these reactors potentially had problems: as I understand it the entire site was to be closed down and inactivated within a year, so it was really bad luck that the earthquake and tsunami happened now.

Announcers are now warning that terrible things will happen to the United States when the meltdowns happen.

The TMI incident essentially ended nuclear power construction in the United States, so it could rationally be blamed for the casualties of the Iraq wars and the US involvement in the Middle East. If the US got 90% opf its electric power from nuclear we would not be so dependent on foreign energy. If we had cheap and reliable electric power we would have developed long range eletric transportation.

If the consequences of the tsunami include ending nuclear power world wide, the cost in blood and treasure of the earthquake and tsunami may literally be very high indeed. Energy is the main ingredient of out modern economy, and without plentiful supplies economic progress comes to an end or even reverses. Oil becomes more vital. So does coal. If AGW has any truth to it, there's that, too.

Los Angeles school district attempted to make the junior college system operate on green energy. Millions were invested in designs and plans for wind energy before it was found that there aren't any windmills that can operate in the average winds that prevail on the campuses. There isn't enough surface area to make them operate on ground based solar. The costs of trying to "go green" have been high and the returns small. The best "green" energy is nuclear: if that goes as a result of the tsunami the consequences will be grave indeed.

But again: we still don't know the whole story. Japan is in ruins. We don't know the numbers on radiation leaks. There is little to no electricity in the areas. We can only wait to find out. What I am fairly certain of is that we aren't going to see a significant fraction of the fuel inventory turned into gasses and fallout. This wasn't Chernobyl. It does appear to be more serious than TMI.

I will also add that all energy has costs. But we said that earlier.


Why We Should Not Panic About Fukushima.


-- Roland Dobbins

Last reports are a hundred thousand evacuated and about 150 people exposed to radiation.


Some information:

Notes on Saturday's View especially on BWR containment

Dr. Pournelle:

Although I'm not an expert on the BWR design and have no experience with such plants, I feel compelled to make a few comments on the Saturday View of the Japanese BWR. I'm mainly basing this on things I remember from the Reactor Design courses I took a long time ago. Of course, since I'm an old Nuclear Engineer, I have the vintage text books and other documents nearly contemporaneous with the reactor in question (which I understand was to be decommissioned very very soon). In fact, my old GE BWR booklets are falling apart as I open them looking for answers.

The containment for this plant appears to be the Mark I design which is described as an inverted light-bulb and torus. I am told that the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 is similar in design to the US Oyster Creek plant both built by the old GE, but I cannot vouch for that. I have a nice diagram for the Mark I containment on page 66 of my 1st edition of Lish: Nuclear Power Plant Systems and Equipment; later editions of Lish are larger and probably have it on a different page. Look at http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/
1203111.html  There is a cutaway drawing there showing that containment though it is not as useful as Lish's. In any event, the BWR containment is quite different from that of a PWR whether Mark I, II, or III primarily because, if I'm remembering correctly, the BWR operates at about 1/2 the pressure of a PWR (about 1000 psia vs. 2300 psia) and the torus contains water able to condense some of the steam. Of course, the design integrity of any containment is influenced by any mitigating features that can be brought to bear. I expect that the Mark I containment's performance would be greatly enhanced by some means of transferring heat to the environment, but there does not appear to have been power for that for a significant time.

From Japanese reports, it seems this steel containment is still intact despite the fact that the "limited leakage building" was destroyed by an explosion. The limited leakage building was a line of defense keeping back radioactive material for a relatively short time allowing the short half-life elements to decay considerably before being released. That line of defense is now gone but the containment survives as best I can tell. I speculate that it was probably a hydrogen explosion that took out the building, but I concede that you have far more experience with hydrogen than I. I figure that hydrogen accumulating in that building may have been sparked by 'things' moving around in aftershocks.

Since Friday morning, I have been corresponding with a classmate who has extensive experience on US BWR reactors. While I have gotten very bad feelings (akin to the downward ride on a very tall rollercoaster) about reports of the water level dropping below the top of the core, she has reminded me that this is a boiler, and it operates normally with part of the core not submersed in water. That is a small hope in this case, and from the radionuclides appearing in the wild, it seems to me that, at the very least, the clad has failed in part of the core. Still, I have had to bear in mind that having a part of a BWR core out of the water is not as dire as the same circumstance in a PWR.

In summary, you are correct about the untrustworthiness of the Press reports. On top of that, there is a translation problem; the Japanese seem to call items by somewhat different names than those we use. It took me a long time to decide that "steel reactor container" meant the Mark I containment and not the Reactor Vessel -- and that is a very big difference. I figure that the Japanese nuclear engineers are very busy with the problems at hand and have no time to waste with the hopelessly undereducated Press. I expect that queries from the IAEA and the US NRC are unwelcome distractions. Even the American Nuclear Society's information site for this event just puts up relevant press reports; I find it to be a useless site. It is a pity that relevant insights on BWRs like that from my classmate are not getting out to the public…at least the public with Physics/Engineering education.

----------- Clay Booker

And conflicting reports will continue, almost all tending toward reporting the worst. It does seem that the situation is far more serious than we could hope; whether it is as bad as the catastrophe reporters are making it is not yet clear. I'm glad I don't live there. I am not yet building an internal fallout shelter. But I think I will make sure I have enough duct tape.






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This week:


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Sunday,  March 13, 2011


Perspective on the Japan earthquake

 This article is by a guy from the US living and working n Japan.  He's a regular contributor to Hacker News, a social news site for people interested in technology and startups, and is very well respected there.  Worth your time:


 Phil Rand

I recommend it to your attention. A couple of extracts:


<snip> See, the thing that people don’t realize is that Honshu is massive. It is larger than Great Britain.  (A country which does not typically refer to itself as a “tiny island nation.”)  At about 800 miles long, it stretches from roughly Chicago to New Orleans.  Quite a lot of the reporting on Japan, including that which is scaring the heck out of my friends and family, is the equivalent of someone ringing up Mayor Daley during Katrina and saying “My God man, that’s terrible — how are you coping?”

The public perception of Japan, at home and abroad, is disproportionately influenced by Tokyo’s outsized contribution to Japanese political, economic, and social life.  It also gets more news coverage than warranted because one could poll every journalist in North America and not find one single soul who could put Miyagi or Gifu on a map.  So let’s get this out of the way: Tokyo, like virtually the whole island of Honshu, got a bit shaken and no major damage was done.  They have reported 1 fatality caused by the earthquake.  By comparison, on any given Friday, Tokyo will typically have more deaths caused by traffic accidents.  (Tokyo is also massive.) <snip>

  • <snip>
  • The instant response — scramming the reactors — happened exactly as planned and, instantly, removed the Apocalyptic Nightmare Scenarios from the table.
  • There were some failures of important systems, mostly related to cooling the reactor cores to prevent a meltdown.  To be clear, a meltdown is not an Apocalyptic Nightmare Scenario: the entire plant is designed such that when everything else fails, the worst thing that happens is somebody gets a cleanup bill with a whole lot of zeroes in it.
  • Failure of the systems is contemplated in their design, which is why there are so many redundant ones.  You won’t even hear about most of the failures up and down the country because a) they weren’t nuclear related (a keyword which scares the heck out of some people) and b) redundant systems caught them.
  • The tremendous public unease over nuclear power shouldn’t be allowed to overpower the conclusion: nuclear energy, in all the years leading to the crisis and continuing during it, is absurdly safe.  Remember the talk about the trains and how they did exactly what they were supposed to do within seconds?  Several hundred people still drowned on the trains.  That is a tragedy, but every person connected with the design and operation of the railways should be justifiably proud that that was the worst thing that happened.  At present, in terms of radiation risk, the tsunami appears to be a wash: on the one hand there’s a near nuclear meltdown, on the other hand the tsunami disrupted something really dangerous: international flights.  (One does not ordinarily associate flying commercial airlines with elevated radiation risks.  Then again, one doesn’t normally associate eating bananas with it, either.  When you hear news reports of people exposed to radiation, keep in mind, at the moment we’re talking a level of severity somewhere between “ate a banana” and “carries a Delta Skymiles platinum membership card”.)

There is more. As I write this the news reporters are saying that "Japan is struggling to prevent a meltdown." The same reporters yesterday told me there had already been a meltdown. Today they say "A partial meltdown may have happened." Experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists come on to explain the China Syndrome. Another explains the terrible consequences of detecting cesium off the reactor site. Perhaps so; but I would find that astonishing, because I have yet to hear that the actual reactor vessels have been ruptured. There is clearly excess radioactivity exposure to the workers at the plant, and possibly to some people living near the plant. How much is never stated. Perhaps it is more than a Delta Skymiles platinum cardholder gets in a year, and perhaps not: none of the new reporters seems to have that information.

We do know that the Japanese government is evacuating people from around the power plant. On the other hand the area from which they are being evacuated is all torn up, there are no working roads, there is no fresh water, n0 electricity, and no operating food distribution system: it might be easier to feed those people in refugee areas than to set up a system to maintain them in place.

The overwhelming response of Japanese engineering to the challenge posed by an earthquake larger than any in the last century was to function exactly as designed.  Millions of people are alive right now because the system worked and the system worked and the system worked.

That this happened was, I say with no hint of exaggeration, one of the triumphs of human civilization.  Every engineer in this country should be walking a little taller this week.  We can’t say that too loudly, because it would be inappropriate with folks still missing and many families in mourning, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

Perhaps this from someone living in Japan is overly optimistic and is pooh poohing the dangers to come, but it does not seem so to me. On the one hand we have the breathless reports of the media. On the other we have the above report from someone who lived in Japan.

On the gripping hand, Japan is as well prepared as a bunch of bright people well aware of the dangers can be.  There is no part of the United States as well prepared for disaster of this magnitude: it's now rated at 9.0, about the same as the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755 that was so destructive that it made Voltaire doubt the existence of God. That doubt among the philosophes had a profound effect on the course of the French Revolution.

We wait to hear and we wish them well.


Dealing with Libya

Gaddafi has never been our friend, although he was scared into acting properly toward us, He once respected the United States and its president.

The fighting in Libya continues, So far it has been indecisive, Gaddafi took, and may have lost, the town of Brega in Libya. This is reminiscent of 1941 when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel opened his great offensive against the Brits at Al Agheila and continued the Afrika Korps campaign to El Alamein in Egypt. Gaddafi is no Rommel, and his mercenaries are not an Afrika Korps or even the Italian expeditionary force; but then there is no Montgomery or Waverly among the rebels, and certainly nothing like the Imperial forces of Brits, Anzacs, Indians, and Egyptians who opposed Rommel. Gaddafi will have supply problems, and like Rommel the further east he goes the longer and more vulnerable his supply lines, but his troops have much the same general orders: "If you can't think of anything else to do, find an enemy and kill him."

The rebels have said they don't want help, only now, well, yes, they'll take a no fly zone. This from the people who arrested and deported the British SAS liaison force that landed in Benghazi "looking for hotel rooms." Rebels managed to shoot down a Gaddafi airplane, apparently piloted by a Syrian. We also hear stories of soldiers of fortune from Belorus and Timbuktu. The President of the United States says that Gaddafi is unacceptable and has to go. Debates on imposing a no-fly zone continue. And in Egypt where the revolution was acceptable they burn Christian churches every day or so. In Tunisia the well maintained Synagogue in Carthage cannot gather a minyan and is used as a museum. The old Christian community is pretty well gone.

Last week there were rebel posters in Benghazi proclaiming that Libyans don't need any stinking help, Libya will liberate itself. Libyans protested outside the Arab League headquarters demanding (1) no foreign interference, and (2) a no-fly zone.

We may now predict that the United States, having been told not to interfere in Libyan internal affairs, will be blamed when Gaddafi's forces retake rebel areas and hang protestors from the lampposts. This ought to take about a week. Perhaps two weeks. The President of the United States will declare this unacceptable. The President is now saying Gaddafi is unacceptable and threatening him with the world court, which will certainly give Gaddafi an incentive to hold fast.

The fate of Libya will not be decided in Libya. We have now run the experiment: if you have bags of gold, and you are willing to pay the soldiers enough, you need take no heed of the people, absent foreign interference. Of course you are considered unacceptable, so for you there is no choice: there is no safe place of exile. http://af.reuters.com/article/
libyaNews/idAFLDE72A24U20110311 . If there is outside interference you will have to seek a spider hole. The way to avoid outside interference is to get nukes fast. We have been teaching that lesson for decades. Gaddafi has learned it. His forces thought to bring gasoline trucks and spare ammunition, and are not in the habit of firing into the air. He knows he will be hanged if he loses. He knows his children will be hunted down and killed. He saw that happen in Iraq.

Brian Suits is predicting that there will be cheering in the streets when the Gaddafi armies enter Benghazi. For my view, see the story originally published as "His Truth Goes Marching On," incorporated into Prince of Mercenaries, which was incorporated into the omnibus volume The Prince. (And yes, I am working on getting Kindle editions of those books published. There are rights ownership problems and conflicting marketing strategies. I'm working on it. Subscribe if you want to help.) Absent an Egyptian army, or British SAS units in place in Benghazi, that is the likely outcome. The Brits, having been humiliated in their attempt to offer help, aren't likely to come back. The French have a carrier in the Med and the Foreign Legion, but they are not likely to intervene.

When the dust settles, you will see China come back to Libya. China has evacuated 32,000 Chinese citizens from Libya; the planes flew into Tripoli full of something; they were emptied and flew out of Libya full of Chinese. One can only guess what China furnished as the price of getting their citizens out. Note that China has a UN veto over any UN action against Libya. I suspect that by the time the United Nations Criminal Court takes any action, the Libyan civil war will be long over. It is not likely that China will condemn the Libyan government for using force to hold on to power. The Party is watching with great interest...

The fate of Libya is the Gaddafi dynasty absent international interference. Interference could come from the United States or from Egypt, but the US won't act without the consent of the UN. What the Egyptians want is not clear. What happens next is well beyond my ken, but I do not predict an outcome favorable to the West. I pointed out a long time ago that when you intervene in foreign disputes rather than invest in developing your own resources, you sow the wind. We have sown the wind. Now the world reaps.

One last note: had the US built 100 nuclear reactors of 1000 megawatt capacity it would have cost less in blood and treasure than the Iraqi war even if one of those reactors melted down.


In Wisconsin there is a faction of Democrats who want things decided in the streets rather than in the Capitol building. It's an interesting test of constitutional government.  When one rolls those dice, the results are usually unpredictable as to who will be the winner, but it is trivially correct to predict that they will be considered unfortunate. But the Democratic Senators have returned, in triumph it is said. Stay tuned.


We should not let the confusion about the nuclear problems in Japan cause us to lose sight of the magnitude of the disaster. A 9.0 can be expected to be followed by an aftershock approaching 8.0. An 8.0 would level most of the cities in the United States or anywhere else in the world. Fortunately for Japan the destruction was 200 miles north of the really dangerous area, and none of the Tokyo skyscrapers suffered any real damage.

Japan is prepared and well equipped, but it is still victim of the 7th largest earthquake in the history of the world. Casualties are lower than you would expect anywhere else in the world, but there are still casualties. They deserve our best wishes and prayers.


See mail for other data from Japan.


2200: nothing more definitive on the TV news, but it's pretty clear that the total devastation areas in Japan are the size of a large county in the US. The lights are back on in Tokyo, with some rationing. The other nuclear plants, having scrammed when the shake was detected, are coming back on line.  The one was all right until the tsunami overwhelmed the sea wall and drowned out the diesels. The lesson there is obvious.

Japan will recover. The nuclear damage is extensive but it will be mostly economic, not ecological. The disaster was large, and the estimates are in the order of $60 billion. Contrast that with TARP or the cost of the Iraqi War to put things in scale. Japan has been hurt, but the Japanese are industrious and intelligent. Japan is not crippled.








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