Archive for the ‘Health’ Category
All three were nuclear accidents? True enough. Not what I’m looking for though. The Japanese government report on the Fukushima nuclear accident was released a few days ago. It clearly laid out the cause of the still smouldering Fukushima nuclear disaster: Human error. This is what I was looking for, in both prior nuclear accidents, human error was a huge part of the problem. This isn’t terribly surprising, in numerous industrial accidents human error was a major contributor. The Texas City Disaster. The Piper Alpha Fire. The Exxon Valdez spill. Bhopal. I could go on but I think I made my point, human error is often a major contributory factor in industrial accidents. And that’s being generous I am sure, I’ve yet to find a major industrial accident that didn’t have some component of human error. It’s not surprising. There are so any things that can go wrong with any complex system, some of them unforeseeable, that sooner or later someone is going to make a mistake or mistakes that lead to catastrophe.
I don’t think this is really debatable. Even airliners, where we have spent enormous (and largely successful) efforts to make safe, still sometimes crash. It’s just now been determined that the Air France jet that flew into the Atlantic a few years ago could have recovered had the crew acted correctly. People sometimes make bad calls in a crisis, that’s not ever going to change. The point here is that no matter how well designed something is; no matter how many safeguards, alarms, and back-ups it has; sooner or later someone or someones are going to bypass them all and cause a problem. And this of course applies to nuclear power plants, which are certainly as complicated as airliners. And we now have three “crashed” nuclear power plants, and it is 100% certain it will happen again. No matter how much they learn from Fukushima, it will happen again.
This is a problem. A big problem. A problem the nuclear industry and most of the world’s governments don’t want anyone to know about. It’s a problem because when an airliner crashes, a factory blows up, a ship sinks, etc., the damages are generally local and containable. Chernobyl badly contaminated 1,000 square miles, seriously contaminated thousands more, caused problems thousands of miles away, eventually spreading fallout all over the Northern Hemisphere. There’s every reason to believe that the damage from Fukushima will be at least that extensive. This is serious damage on a global scale from a single industrial accident. When a plane crashes or a factory blows up a few hundred people are killed, but ultimately the damages are limited in geography and over time. The worst fallout (Cesium 137, Strontium 90) from a nuclear accident has a half life of 30 years, which means it might be decades or centuries before the worst contaminated areas are safe again.
Which leads into the second major problem with nuclear accidents. We don’t really know how much damage they cause. Some people say Chernobyl only killed 28 people, most experts put the total at around 10,000. Some experts peg it at over 100,000. And in both of the last estimates, non-fatal cancers are estimated at about ten times the number of fatal cases. Basically one can find “expert opinion” for pretty much any level of death and cancer one wants. How do us worms know? Well, the cigarette industry had no trouble finding “expert opinion” saying cigarettes were more or less harmless for decades after the issue was settled as far as scientists were concerned. The nuclear industry is just as well funded as the cigarette industry, it’s far more difficult to do research on the topic, and it’s very easy to manipulate the data to get any result one wants. And unlike the cigarette industry, the nuclear industry has friends in big government and big military everywhere. In other words, when some government or industry spokesman claims that nuclear energy is “safe,” it should be taken with a large dose of salt.
My only real point here is that the safety of the nuclear industry has been wildly exaggerated, usually by comparing apples to oranges. There isn’t any really comparable industry. What other kind of industrial installation in the worst case scenario can render everything within 15-20 miles uninhabitable for decades, and cause thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands) of cases of cancer over an entire continent, if not an entire hemisphere? And how close is the gentle reader to the nearest nuclear power plant anyhow?
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. I’m not sure who to credit it too, but got it from this fine site. It’s an image from the abandoned town of Prypiat near Chernobyl. I chose it because it is a beautiful and haunting image.)
Sigh. And the American electoral process just lurched downwards again. The next few months is just going to be a cacophony from the right about Obamacare. Can we talk about foreign policy, maybe jobs? I doubt it. Not that they were going to talk about relevant stuff much anyhow, but now it’s going to be so much worse. Once the sound of conservative’s heads exploding from the Supreme Court ruling dies away, they will rise from the dead and begin a howling like we have never heard before. On the plus side, pundits on all sides of the aisle will have a field day, and it’s a good bet people like Rush will outdo themselves in their efforts to demonize Obamacare.
OK, a few thoughts, hopefully adding up to a coherent conclusion. First of all, America’s health care system is a disaster. The numbers speak for themselves, on every metric one cares to examine, life expectancy, etc. … America comes in dead last among the developed countries. Even worse, we actually pay the most for this ghastly health care! France provides cradle-to-grave health care for everyone within its borders, including dental care. Health care that by almost any measure is considered some of the finest in the world, when a ambulance arrives in France, it has an actual doctor on board for God’s sake! And they provide this for about 11% of their GNP. The USA’s system? It costs about 16% of our GNP, and provides health care that is the shame of the developed world.
Of course the big objection that the Tea Party and ilk seem to have is something along the lines of “Forcing me to pay for my neighbor’s health care is socialism!” Aside from the lunacy of using ideology to support a social policy (a blog on that is in the works,) this is stupid because health care costs are distributed anyhow! When your neighbor down the street goes bankrupt from a sickness or injury, like about a million families a year, guess who the shorted creditors pass the loss onto? When your uninsured neighbor goes to the county hospital at public expense, whose taxes pay for it? When your sick neighbor misses work because of a treatable illness, guess who their employer’s lost productivity costs get passed on to? Everyone pays for the costs of sick members of society. Yet the Tea Partiers and their ilk would apparently rather have a system where they can pretend they aren’t paying for their neighbor’s health care, while simultaneously paying more than anyone else in the developed world. That’s nucking futz.
In the same vein one often sees the most egregious crap about foreign health care systems bandied about as if it were fact by the Tea Party crowd. One routinely hears that in Canada “People have to wait six months for a check-up” or “People have no choice about what doctor they see.” Sigh. Canada has a single payer system. That means you go to any damn health care provider you like, and the government pays the bill. Canada has a vast assortment of modern hospitals and doctors, just chose the one you like. Sometimes there is a wait for non-emergency procedures, but few if any complain. Be honest, wouldn’t having free health care of your choice for life be preferable to having to pay through the nose for health insurance, even if it meant having to wait a few months for some non-emergency services? Of course it’s the better option, which is why numerous completely democratic countries repeatedly elect governments that provide cradle-to-grave health care.
So what do I think of Obamacare? Many of its provisions seem like a step in the right direction to me. I’ve yet to hear any practical objections too it. Yes, it means some tax money will pay for health care for sick people. Um, you have a better use for tax money? That’s one of the things that amazes me about the Tea Partier’s objections, they have a problem with using tax money to help sick and injured people? Excuse me, but that sounds like one of the best possible uses for tax dollars. It beats the hell out of giving buckets of money to the people whose greed and gambling destroyed the economy, or using it to send soldiers to die on the far side of the world to defend corporate profits.
Granted it’s only a baby step in the right direction, towards a health care system where the only people profiting are the actual health care providers, not giant insurance companies that make their profits by denying coverage. How we ever even got to the point where huge corporations took over health care and turned it into a corporate gold mine is a testament to how far from a government “for the people” this country has gone. Still, it gives me hope in this age where the corporations have undue influence in government and the regulatory process that the people can still win a battle. There are plenty of sound reasons not to like Obama, but that the Republicans have thrown their lot in with the corporate death panel vampires that profit from sick Americans is disgusting. Shame on them.
Have a great weekend everyone!
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. I don’t know who to credit but I wish I did, it’s brilliant. For those who haven’t heard, CNN and Fox both initially reported that the Supreme Court had stuck down Obamacare, apparently because in their haste to get the news out they only read the very first page of the Supreme Court decision before hitting send. It’s based on the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline.)
Another week gone, another week older. Still, another week without World War Three, another stroke, or a gunfight outside my door. Not complaining, still blogging. Hopefully I didn’t alienate too many readers this past week, but there’s always a few. And hell, if I’m not occasionally pissing someone off, I have failed at my task. I learnt as a young man that if something pissed me off, not a bad idea to examine my preconceptions about the topic. Sometimes I’m mad because in my heart I know my thinking about something is screwed up, and my annoyance is about being forced to confront and admit the error of my ways. This is how I went from being in a right wing militia to being a blogger for peace and tolerance.
Moving right along, no war in the Middle East yet. On the one hand the US and its allies love the endless war scares, brought to us non-stop since 1979 by the annoying folks in Iran and Washington. On the other hand, they don’t really want or need a war. Israel on the other hand would love to have the right war, a war that would give them the pretext to “transfer” the Palestinians out of Gaza and the West Bank. The rest of the world would call it ethnic cleansing. Or worse. Still, not happening yet, maybe cooler heads will prevail. And in Syria, I have become so suspicious of what we are being told that I don’t want to comment at this juncture.
A US appeals court struck down California’s prop 8, a proposition that limited marriage to a man and a woman. And they did so in a way that will likely make it though the Supreme Court. I don’t really grasp why anyone would care about two people they don’t even know getting married, but humans get their dander up about all sorts of stuff other people do that really is none of their business whatsoever. I’m pretty sure religion is involved. Times change people. Does anyone know what they call gay marriage in Canada now? Marriage. People got used to mixed race couples, they will get used to this. And the minority that doesn’t, I’m sure there’s people who still foam at the mouth when they see an interracial couple, their problem. Chillax people, you will be able to better deal with it when one of your kids says: “Um, mom and dad … “
I’m considering post about Ayn Rand. A child murdering sociopath was one of her idols, so it’s going to be a tough row to hoe. The submarine conspiracy is coming up. I have another mystery picture. I might just do an Expanding Earth post, it really is kind of an interesting theory with some fascinating historical antecedents. More space exploration posts. Oh, yeah, I don’t have a grammar checker on my computer. If I make egregious grammatical errors, I would be happy to have them pointed out. Conceptual errors too, but of course those are extremely rare. Snort, I wish. Spelling errors, check your Canadian dictionary first.
In last late breaking news, a cure for senile mice as been found. Um, why are scientists trying to cure senile mice? Wouldn’t it make more sense to give mice senility? Kidding aside, this is a very promising study, and might lead to a cure for senility. Hopefully at a minimum it will lead to a better understanding of the condition. At worst it will accidentally release some senile zombie mouse plague that will jump the species barrier and kill 99.99% of the human race before Christmas.
Have a great weekend everyone!
(The above image is being used legally in accordance with the copyright holder’s requirements. Credit and copyright: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA; Colour Composite: Gordan Ugarkovic It’s an image of Saturn’s Moon Enceladus, lit by the reflected light of Saturn, giving it the golden hue. At the lower left ice volcanoes are visible, an indication that Enceladus may have liquid oceans under its icy surface. It’s only a little over 300 miles in diameter, with a surface area somewhat larger than Texas. Click on the image for the full size version. Why did I use this image? Because the fact that humans have had a nuclear powered robotic camera platform orbiting Saturn for years is still mind blowing, and under appreciated I believe. When it comes to space exploration, human’s rock.)
Virginia lawmaker: Children with disabilities are God’s punishment to women who previously had abortions.
The gentle reader read that right. Virginia State Delegate Bob Marshall (R,) speaking at a press conference against state funding for Planned Parenthood had this to say:
“The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children, in the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There’s a special punishment Christians would suggest.”
Yes, this man’s Christian God cripples babies to teach their moms a lesson. Wow. I don’t recall Jesus ever saying anything along those lines, but I missed a lot of Sunday School as a kid. On the plus side, we can be thankful this guy’s a politician, not a judge. “The jury has found you guilty as charged. Bailiff, shoot the defendant’s baby.”
Saturday I was having a normal day, puttering about my apartment, being berated by my cats, playing around on line. At around one o’clock I got up, and my legs were like rubber, it was weird, I’d never experienced anything like it before. Denial of course immediately kicked in, and I decided I was just suffering from stress, and I ordered a burger from across the street and went to pick it up. I made it across and back a busy street, but it was scary. And in retrospect,stupid. After eating I decided to take a little nap, and hoped my legs would feel better when I awoke.
Nope. When I awoke an hour or so later I could still barely walk. I realized this could be very serious, I grabbed my cell phone and charger, stuck a key and a note under a neighbour’s door asking them to feed my cats if I wasn’t back that evening, and went outside. Even then, clinging to the building’s gate to stay upright with passersby staring at me, I still wasn’t quite ready to dial 9/11. I staggered into the furniture store on the first floor of our building, collapsed into a chair, and accepted my fate. I handed my phone to the concerned store clerk, and asked her to call 9/11. Minutes later I was surrounded by concerned EMTs, and a few minutes after that I was in the ER at Highland Hospital. It was the first time I’d ridden in an ambulance in 35 years. It was about as fun as I remembered it from the first time.
In Highland a couple of increasingly puzzled doctors examined me. My heart sounded fine, I didn’t have any obvious stroke symptoms, there didn’t seem to be anything to explain why my legs were rubber. After a couple of hours they decided I had pinched a nerve somehow, told me to stay off my computer chair for a few days, and come back if the symptoms didn’t improve. I was a little dubious, but along came a nurse and I staggered towards the hospital exit. The nurse watched me walk maybe twenty feet, if balancing on two rubber stalks as I careered down the hall can be called walking. Then she said “Did the doctors see you trying to walk?” Well, no, they hadn’t actually taken that particular diagnostic step. She took me back to the nurse’s station and asked some doctors there to watch me walk. I staggered passed them … and five minutes later I had wires attached to every part of my body as I was strapped to a gurney and wheeled into a giant humming machine.
24 hours of CAT scans, ultrasounds, blood tests, X-Rays, and various other tests followed … and the now team of doctors assigned to me still didn’t know what was wrong. Between tests I lay on a gurney in the ER listening to people scream as various medical procedures demonstrated the limits of human pain. I didn’t sleep well. And I still couldn’t walk. Monday morning they got me into an MRI, a far more unpleasant experience than I had imagined, and we finally had our answer. A one cm piece of my brain had died, I was now officially a stroke survivor. Even better, Sunday night they had finally assigned me a room and I was no longer living in the ER.
Monday and Tuesday I spent slowly recovering in my room, talking to my roommate, and still wired up like a Christmas tree. I learned a lot being there. For example if they announce a “Code Pink” over the PA, it means a baby is missing. And all the interior doors close and lock. And a “Code Grey” means a combative patient. There were several of both while I was there, I guess hospitals are as exciting as they show on TV. I’d be upset about being prematurely discharged, but it was an understandable mistake under the circumstances. I didn’t have any of the classic stroke symptoms, and I had confused the issue myself by thinking both of my legs had turned to rubber. By Monday I realized that my right leg felt fine, and likely had all along. It had just felt so weird losing the use of a leg that I’d thought both legs were malfunctioning.
I’m home now, slowly but surely getting better. And I’m lucky as a stroke survivor, my speech and cognition are fine (or as fine as they ever were,) and there’s every reason to believe I will make a full recovery. Well, most of me, the 1 cm part of my brain that died is going to stay dead. And I will be with me the rest of my life. I can’t help but wonder, does this mean that I’m now part zombie?
(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law, as its creator has been dead over 500 years. It’s a woodcut called “Dance of Death” by Michael Wolgemut in 1493. I’m the one laying helplessly on the ground. I chose it for many reasons, mortality has become a much bigger issue for me the past week.)
Part of the reason my blogging has slowed down recently is that so much of what is going on today makes me mad. So I decided to vent about it, maybe it will be cathartic, maybe it will just make me madder. In no particular order, and in no way comprehensive, here are ten things I spend my time seething about. Be warned, I may use some harsh language as the situation warrants.
1. The rich are ass raping us all, and tens of millions of Americans are clamouring for more. The rich have been getting richer in the USA since the 1970s, while the middle class has slowly and steadily lost ground. This is not debatable. They’ve moved our factories to foreign lands, slashed their taxes, taken over our government and mainstream media, and stolen trillions from the public till. And most Americans are so brain-washed and propagandized that they blame immigrants, liberals, conservatives, atheists, shriners, whatever. Anyone but the people who have actually gotten us into this mess.
2. The debt, an extension of number one. The Federal government has been running in the red a record breaking 33 months now. State and local governments are no better. How in the name of God did the richest country the world has ever seen run up debts so insane that there is no conceivable way to ever pay them off? The infinite greed of the rich and the apparently infinite stupidity of the great unwashed masses is my guess.
3. The Pentagon. There was a reason the founding fathers were adamantly opposed to a standing army. Armies get involved in politics, and then get the country involved in wars. All of which costs the country blood and money. And it just keeps getting worse, while tens of millions of Americans regurgitate the crap that our legions overseas are fighting to “defend our freedoms.” No, they are fighting and dying to make the rich richer and create endless new enemies for the USA. Frankly the US army needs to be disbanded it’s so out of control.
4. The historic last flight of the space shuttle. Good riddance. The space shuttle was one of the biggest boondoggles in history, it should never have been built in the first place, and it most certainly should have been canned after the first one blew up. Yet Americans are celebrating the lives lost and the billions wasted on this flying cash cow.
5. Iran is going to have nukes soon! Yes, another right wing think tank claims that Iran is going to be building nukes soon! Yes, the exact same claim that has been made by Israeli and American war mongers since the 1980s! Yes, for nearly thirty years Iran has been “just about to” build nuclear weapons! Meanwhile Israel and the USA have massively increased their war spending, including the creation of an Israeli nuclear arsenal. The USA spends more money on air conditioning for its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than the entire Iranian military budget, yet we are supposed to quail in our boots because Iran might someday acquire a few fifties era nukes?
6. Casey Anderson. A woman was acquitted of a terrible crime in a fair trial … and millions of Americans are braying for her blood. Literally. How does this make them any different than stone throwing Muslims? It doesn’t.
7. Health Care. France spends 11% of its GNP on health care, and provides everyone in France with cradle to grave health care of the highest quality. The USA spends 16% of its GNP on health care and provides its citizens with the worst health care in the industrialized world. Anyone who isn’t mad about this is a fool.
8. Fucking the globe. From climate change to deforestation to over-fishing humans are making widespread and unprecedented changes to the surface of our fine planet. Humans are now the greatest force for change operating on the surface of the Earth in numerous realms, in most cases either ignorant of what the end result will be, or worse, deliberately proceeding even though our best minds say the end result will be catastrophic. Collectively we are no smarter than ants.
9. Religious nuts. Even the Romans understood: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” – Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.) And here we are two thousand years later blowing each other up, destroying the planet, and breeding like rabbits because people think it’s a great idea to do stuff because of what someone’s imaginary friend said. Jesus wept.
10. We’re all little better than monkeys. Yes, science has now shown that our brains are hard wired to be stupid. When most people are confronted with logical and scientific evidence that refutes some stupid idea they have, it reinforces their beliefs! This wouldn’t be such problem if our leaders weren’t all too eager to promote dumb fuck ideas because it makes them richer and more powerful.
In conclusion, speaking globally, this isn’t going to end well. Speaking locally, despite a missing lime and a recalcitrant pull tab, it’s going quite well and will end up nicely. And when I wake up, maybe the last 31 years will have all been a nightmare. A man can dream.
(The above image is of a painting made in 1562, so it’s currently Public Domain under US copyright law. I expect that to change soon as corporations twist the law to their own purposes. It’s titled “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” by Pieter Brueghal the Elder. I believe it’s self evident why I thought this was an appropriate image for this post.)
Well, as was obvious almost immediately, the nuclear power lobby and their supporters went into overdrive to downplay and obfuscate the seriousness of the Fukushima crisis in Japan. No, this isn’t another Chernobyl. And World War Two wasn’t the same as World War One, that doesn’t mean World War Two was no big deal either. I’ve even read commentaries claiming Fukushima “proves” that nuclear power is safe. My jaw drops on that one, the Fukushima crisis isn’t over yet, so how the hell does this prove nuclear power is safe? Until the plant is safely brought back under control, and that may take up to a year, it’s a little premature to claim that this crisis is even over, let alone claim that Fukushima is no big deal.
The biggest lie I see about nuclear accidents is ones revolving around the death toll. By focusing entirely or almost entirely on how many people died, it’s easy to make nuclear power look safe compared to say coal power. There are two things horribly deceptive about this argument. For one thing it relies on the lowest possible estimates for deaths caused by nuclear accidents, often even limiting it to the people directly killed on site! It’s debatable how many people were killed by Chernobyl, maybe a few thousand, maybe many more, but focusing on this single statistic obscures the bigger picture. What about the people who got cancer but didn’t die? What about the hundred thousand people who were rendered homeless by Chernobyl? What about the area the size of Rhode Island (or Lancashire) that was rendered uninhabitable by Chernobyl? And what about the incredible cost of accidents like Fukushima or Chernobyl? Can a fire at a coal power plant bankrupt a nation?
And speaking of coal power plants, the claim is often made that we have a choice between coal power plants and nuclear power plants. To say this is oversimplification would be unfair, this is simply regurgitated energy industry propaganda. The energy industry has done a fabulous job convincing people that the only way to provide power in the modern world is giant power plants and their attendant giant electrical grids. Conservation, energy efficiency, distributed power generation, etc. are all simply dismissed as hippie nonsense. If this were really the case, the energy industry wouldn’t need tireless propaganda for their cause, and more importantly, it completely obscures the massive public subsidies that the energy industry has enjoyed for decades. From the Rural Electrification Act to the development of nuclear power itself the energy industry has enjoyed generous public subsidies. Not to mention that the health costs of both coal and nuclear power are simply dumped on the public. Anyone who says coal and nuclear plants and centralized power are the “only option” is missing a big part of the picture.
Then we come to the amazing amount of misinformation spread about radiation itself. Mostly through conflating various types of radiation, and by claiming that “radiation” is normal and that a little bit more won’t hurt. Yes, we live in a world where there is a lot of radiation, it’s unavoidable. What the “it’s all OK” people deliberately ignore or don’t mention is that fallout is not normal. Fallout is radioactive particles that get released into the environment. And yes, the radiation produced by fallout is trivial. What they don’t mention, is that if the fallout gets incorporated into bodily tissue, it is horrifically non-trivial. It’s like if someone was shooting at you with a BB gun, close your eyes and you would be safe. If however they could insert that BB gun inside our body at shoot at point blank range at various organs, the results would not be pretty. This is the difference been the radiation one receives on a plane flight and the radiation one receives by ingesting fallout, same “radiation,” wildly different consequences.
The other way that nuclear industry apologists deliberately understates the risk from fallout is that they make the claim that it’s so widely distributed in the environment that the dose anyone gets is small. While this is sort of true, it completely ignores the way fallout in the environment get concentrated in the food chain. Sure, there’s very little fallout on that grass. Then however the cows eat that grass, and a small amount of radioactive fallout gets concentrated and becomes dangerously radioactive milk or meat. In fact there are all sorts of ways radioactive fallout can get concentrated in the food chain, many of them no doubt as yet unknown. This especially goes with the release of fallout into the sea, this is simply a complete unknown at this point. Don’t worry though, the risk is so small that our government is going to protect us by not even bothering to test for it. Phew, see, no problem.
Which leads to another point. It’s so easy to hide the damage caused by this sort of event. Let’s think about this. Governments and the nuclear industry have incredible incentive to downplay the consequences of Fukushima. Combine this with the fact that the actual risks of this, increased cancer rates in decades to come, are going to be very easy to conceal and obfuscate and deny. Pretty sure any poli-sci freshman can give many reasons why governments lie through their teeth in situations like this. This is just how human institutions work, especially today when the mainstream media is owned lock, stock, and barrel by these very same interests that have reason to lie. Is this proof that they are lying or that the consequences of Fukushima are extremely serious? Of course not, but it’s definitely proof that people need to take government, industry, and media “expert’s” pronouncements of safety with an extremely large dose of salt.
Lastly, a related point that Fukushima illustrates. Nuclear waste. There are decades worth of nuclear waste “stored” at Fukushima, under circumstances that are hardly safe. This is the most toxic waste humans have ever produced, and it’s going to remain dangerous for thousands of years. The fact that the fawning corporate media never even mentions this issue anymore is proof that they are simply shills for big energy and big government. I mean, passing their negative costs onto society is standard procedure for big business, but in this case they are passing the costs on to countless future generations. This should be factored into arguments about how “safe” and “practical” nuclear power is, but instead it simply gets ignored. I’m sorry, but ignoring the nuclear waste issue in the discussion of nuclear power makes about as much sense as ignoring a lump in your breast or testicle in a discussion about your health.
In summary, am I saying that Fukushima is a mind numbing disaster that’s going to kill huge numbers of people and proves that nuclear power is insane? Not at all. I’m saying that Fukushima is a serous disaster of yet untold proportions, and it’s very much proof that the whole issue of nuclear power needs to be publicly debated. And I’m also saying that anyone, government or otherwise, who claims Fukushima is “no big deal” is at best premature in their pronouncement, and at worst simply lying. No one knows the future scope of the Fukushima disaster, especially since the reactors and nuclear waste storage pools won’t be brought under control for months at best. This could still get a lot worse before it gets better. Sadly, I’m betting on worse.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and its use here in no way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image. And yes, I’m kinda skirting the boundaries of copyright law here, but since I’m plugging their show, I hope that in the extremely unlikely event that a CBS corporate copyright attorney sees this blog, they can overlook this copyright violation. At worst, they can tell me to remove the image. Credit and Copyright: CBS. Anyhow, I digress. I chose this image for several reasons, the main one being that it illustrates that the comfortable post World War Two fantasy that most Americans have been living in is rapidly drawing to a close, and Fukushima and its attendant costs and disruptions to the world economy are one of the factors driving this sea change. Wealth can only be funnelled upwards while costs are passed onto the public for so long before the whole rotten edifice collapses of its own weight. And also because it as a really good TV series and I highly recommend it to my readers.)
“Oh, meltdown. It’s one of those annoying buzzwords. We prefer to call it an unrequested fission surplus.” — C. Montgomery Burns
Sigh. Nuclear power. One can read opinion pieces all over the map about nuclear power, from Ann Coulter’s “radiation is good for you” to more sober analysis. Basically, if someone wants to believe this accident is no big deal, there’s plenty on the web to reinforce their beliefs. If one wants to go the other extreme, there’s stuff out there as well. The bottom line is that us sheep will never really know the full story, both because there are so many unknowns that no one knows, and the flood of conflicting opinion and information. However, this doesn’t mean that we should just throw up our hands in despair, there’s still wiggle room for thoughtful analysis. So, in my usual rough order, my current thinking on this unpleasant situation.
The first thing is that like the gulf oil spill, the powers that be have tremendous incentive to downplay this situation. More incentive really, we are talking about one of the world’s most important centres of finance and industry, not just some gulf coast fishermen and tourist traps. This means that it is a given that governments and the media are going to show a strong “everything’s OK, move along now” bias, they have to. Now this isn’t evidence that things are worse than they say, since they are going to downplay the situation no matter what, it just means that we shouldn’t simply take their word for it that this is no big deal. A codicil to this point is that it’s not over yet. IE, anyone who is now saying, everything’s OK, is considerably jumping the gun. The goddamn damaged nuclear power plants are yet to be brought under control, and the final cost is anyone’s guess, it’s way to early to assess the final impact of this disaster.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there’s no such thing as a “safe” amount of radiation. And by radiation I mean radioactive particulates tossed into the air by fires and explosions at the plants. Fallout basically. This is basically highly toxic dust that remains toxic for decades, though it does get less toxic over time. And unfortunately it is dust that gets concentrated in unpleasant ways in the environment, from animals grazing on radioactive grass to collecting in the ventilation systems of ships and buildings. And if it gets incorporated into an animal’s (or person’s) tissues, it continues to poison them for years or decades. Now maybe only modest amounts of fallout will ultimately be released in this accident, in which case, phew, we dodged a bullet. The point I am making is that pound for pound radioactive fallout is easily the most dangerous pollutant mankind makes. It’s been estimated that about 500 tons of cobalt could be used to make nuclear weapons that could destroy most life on Earth. I’m not saying that’s a possibility, but as a counterpoint to the argument so many people make about how dangerous coal power is as well. Yes, there are terrible costs to coal power, but is there any way to destroy the human race with 500 tons of coal?
So how bad is it? Is there any way for us to know? Well, actions speak louder than words. The US Navy for example is pulling the nuclear aircraft carrier George Washington out to sea to avoid fallout. And it’s considerably further from the reactors than Tokyo. The fear is that the ship could become permanently contaminated by sucking fallout into its ventilation system. The buildings in Tokyo don’t have the pulling out to sea option, so let’s hope the fallout doesn’t get that bad. It’s bad enough that they warned that Tokyo’s tap water is unsafe for babies to drink. I also find it a little disturbing that they Japanese government dramatically raised the level of radioactive contamination a person must get before decontamination is mandatory. And to me possibly most disturbing at all, a German bond rating company will no longer rate real estate bonds in Tokyo … because it is simply impossible to to assign value to real estate in Tokyo. All of this adds up to … I am not reassured.
A couple of old friends of mine reviewed the videos of the various explosions at the nuclear plant, one of whom whom worked in the nuclear industry his whole life, the other an engineer. The nuclear guy is the guy who pointed out to me that the promise of “clean” nuclear fusion plants is a lie, that a hydrogen fusion plant would have similar if not worse nuclear waste problems than a conventional fission plant. One has to remember that the whole nuclear industry is built on lies and prevarication, but that’s a topic for another post. In any event the nuclear fellow thinks that the biggest explosion was definitely a criticality event, so some sort of partial meltdown at least occurred … and released God knows how much fallout. On the plus side he doesn’t think it poses much danger to North America, but it’s the danger it presents to Tokyo that should concern us all. And again, so far I am not reassured.
Lastly, I should point out something that is also getting short shrift by the media, the nuclear waste issue. When a nuclear plant is refuelled, the old fuel rods are stored on site in what are basically swimming pools. This is because no one has ever figured out a way to properly and permanently store the rods. And these rods are basically just as dangerous used as when brand new, IE they still retain most of their radioactivity. And if not stored properly (say the water drains from the pool) they most certainly can go critical and create huge amounts of fallout. My point here is that decades worth of these used rods are in temporary storage at the plant (not to mention nuclear plants all over the world,) vastly more nuclear material than is inside reactor cores. And unlike reactor cores, there’s no containment vessel around them! This is literally insane, and it’s one of the things the mainstream media has obligingly ignored for the past few decades. We’re passing a terrible problem onto future generations so that we can enjoy the benefits of “clean” nuclear power now. Yeah, coal fired power plants kill a lot of people, but at least when the plant is closed it no longer poses much health risk. The health risked posed by nuclear power will be around for thousands of years, so it’s a little disingenuous to claim nuclear power is safe when it poses a risk of future Chernobyls generations into the future even if every nuclear plant on the planet was closed tomorrow.
I’m not saying that nuclear power is a bad idea, I’m saying that building nuclear power plants (and storing their waste) where they present a danger to great cities is clearly insane. Chernobyl only required evacuating Pripyat, a city of 50,000 people. If Tokyo or other major Japanese cities have to be evacuated, the cost to Japan will be incalculable, and the cost to the world will be non-trivial. I hope nothing of the kind happens, but until the Fukushima plant is safely shut down and brought under control, it’s premature to be claiming that nuclear power is safe. And even when it is, the topic is debatable. “See, it was only a minor disaster after all” isn’t really a very convincing argument.
And speaking of still unfolding world wide disasters, my next post, Libya … where Obama has bravely led Nato crusaders to achieve, well, who knows. The USA has gone from starting wars on false pretexts to just starting the war and hoping to come up with a convincing pretext later. Historically, these sorts of random military adventures don’t go well.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. I don’t know who holds the copyright, but I got it from this site. It’s an image of Pripyat, the abandoned city near the Chernobyl nuclear plant. I chose it among millions of Pripyat images on line because of its ominous sombre feel. That’s the power plant in the distance. For a motorcycle tour of the region, click here: KIDDofSPEED.)
Pont St Esprit, a small town in southern France. August 1951. There was nothing remarkable about Pont St Esprit, it was just a typical French town in post war Europe. It had been a wet summer, but otherwise unremarkable. And the war had been over for six years, so things were getting back to normal. And normal in France was going to the market in the morning and buying the daily meals, and this would include fresh bread. And that’s what the residents of Pont St Esprit did, they bought the bread, took it home, and ate it. Just like any other day.
August 15 wasn’t just another day though. The first thing that happened was that animals, dogs and some cats, that had eaten the bread … died. This was a little alarming to say the least, and in the modern world there would likely have already been people contacting authorities. In 1951 there were no such authorities, and people had to deal with things like this themselves. And who would get excited about a few dead pets anyhow?
The villagers talked it over among themselves, what else could they do? And talked. And talked. And then noticed the second strange thing going on. No one who ate the bread could sleep. The villagers who ate the bread spent the night standing in the streets talking to each other. Even in this era before horror movies, it’s a good bet that a lot of these people were pretty freaked out. I would be. The second day passed normally, and the second night it was the same. The people who had eaten the bread still couldn’t sleep.
And then, all hell broke loose. People started going, quite literally, insane. Wracked with terrible delusions and complete psychotic breaks with reality, they did terrible risky things. One guy climbed a bridge and walked along the narrow girders, convinced he was a high rise circus tightrope walker. I don’t recall how he ended up, but yes, people died. Many more injured themselves, sometimes in almost incomprehensible ways. One strong strapping fellow was restrained in an asylum with leather straps. He had a fit and tore through the straps holding him down with his teeth. Ripping out many of his teeth in the process. I don’t even want to think about how that must have felt. He survived, but yes, he had life changing injuries. One of the luckier ones became obsessed with the idea that he had some great knowledge to impart. He spent over a week at his desk scribbling furiously before his mind cleared. All gibberish, but he was thankful. It may have been gibberish, but it kept him from doing anything dangerous. Unlike some of his friends and neighbours.
Ina few weeks it was over, people’s heads cleared, and many of them couldn’t even remember what they had done or what had transpired. Imagine a bad acid trip that lasted for weeks, oh Dear God. Seven people died, more than 50 had been locked up in asylums they had gone so out of control. There were minor outbreaks in a few other areas, but Pont St Esprit was far and away the worst. It was traced to the bread, and was identified as ergot poisoning. Well, identified may be too strong a word, it was the best guess but no one knows for sure. Ergot is a fungus that grows on grains, particularly rye, and particularly during wet seasons. Its active ingredients, if one can call them that, are very similar to LSD.
A variety of other causes have been suggested, various toxins like mercury and such that might have gotten into the flour. All of which are intriguing, but none of which seem like a good match for the victims of Pont St Esprit. It’s been suggested that this was a modern outbreak of something that happened in the Middle Ages called dancing mania or St. Anthony’s Fire. In these cases large number of people would dance and hallucinate uncontrollably, continuing to thrash even after they had collapsed from exhaustion. It too is unexplained, though ergot poisoning again has been suggested.
One of the big problems with ergot poisoning for either case is that ergot poisoning restricts the blood flow to the extremities making movement of any kind extremely painful, this doesn’t jibe with people dancing or being wildly physically active as in Pont St Esprit. It’s been suggested that some of the medieval cases were in fact a sort of mass hysteria, with at least one modern example, the Tanganyika laughter epidemic, to show it’s possible. No one has suggested Pont St Esprit was mass hysteria though. The symptoms were too severe and the dead pets obviously didn’t die of hysteria.
It’s recently been suggested that Pont St esprit was actually a deliberate mass poisoning conducted by the CIA. While this is getting headlines in the media, it’s a pretty wild suggestion. And a suggestion that’s not supported by much, the shreds of evidence the originators of this theory have come up with aren’t terribly convincing. On the other hand, by the US military was completely out of control and did such things as conduct secret biological warfare experiments on US cities. So it’s certainly not impossible that the CIA would try dosing a town with LSD to see what would happen. Unlikely, unproven, but not impossible.
And to this day the mystery of Pont St Esprit and medieval Dancing Mania remains unexplained. Pont St Esprit was mass poisoning of some sort, and that’s as far as we get. If it happened today we have the science to detect all sorts of subtle chemical and biological clues, and likely the cause would be identified. Likely. Who knows though, I described this case to show that once again, there are still unsolved mysteries in the world. And as a public service, the next time you have insomnia, and if you remember eating anything that tastes funny, have your friends chain you to your bed. Why take chances?
(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law. It’s a Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) painting titled “The Temptation of St Anthony.” I chose it because I love Bosch’s work, and hopefully to some extent it captures what some of the victims of Pont St Esprit may have experienced. Lastly, I got a lot of the details above from a book I read decades ago on the incident, The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire. Hopefully my memory is reasonably accurate.)