Archive for March, 2011

A silver lining to the Fukushima disaster?

by Philip White

The Japan Times (March 30 2011)

The most remarkable thing about the response so far to the “genpatsu shinsai” (nuclear-earthquake disaster) that has engulfed Japan is that there are still people who think nuclear power has a future. Should this be attributed more to the dependence of modern industrialized societies on massive inputs of energy, or to a collective lack of imagination?

We do not yet know how this unfolding catastrophe will end, but we can be sure that if most of the radioactivity in the Fukushima Number One nuclear power plant remains on site, then the true believers will claim that this is as bad as it gets and that the risk is worth taking. The environmental damage of localized contamination and releases to sea will be discounted and long-term health impacts from exposure to low levels of radiation will be denied. Even those workers who suffer from acute radiation sickness will not find their way into the most commonly quoted statistics, unless they die promptly.

The truth is that even in the best-case scenario the environmental and human consequences of this disaster will be enormous. The potential impact of a worst-case scenario is beyond most people’s comprehension. To give an indication of the amount of radioactive material involved, the total capacity of the three reactors that were operating at the time of the earthquake was double that of the Chernobyl Number Four reactor that exploded 25 years ago in the Ukraine. To this you have to add the radioactivity in the spent fuel pools of all six units and of the shared spent fuel pool.

All of this is at risk and, due to the long-term heat-generating properties of the fuel, the situation will not be stabilized any time soon. Even if the radioactivity does not travel far, the release of just a fraction would have incalculable consequences for human beings and the environment.

Besides the true believers, there are also those who regard nuclear energy as a necessary evil. They don’t particularly like it, but they see no alternative. But is it true that there is no alternative? For those who can’t see beyond the current centralized, supply-driven electrical power systems and who assume an eternally increasing demand for energy, then perhaps it is difficult to imagine how modern societies could survive without nuclear power.

But if you allow the possibility of decentralized systems that reward the efficient provision of energy services, rather than the supply of raw energy, then hitherto unimagined options open up.

After last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and now the Fukushima Number One genpatsu shinsai, people must realize that business as usual is not an option.

To claim that nuclear energy has a future represents a colossal failure of our collective imagination – a failure to imagine the risks involved and a failure to imagine how we could do things differently.

If future generations are to say that there was a silver lining to the cloud of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it will be because human beings now looked beyond their recent history and chose to build a society that was not subject to catastrophic risks of human making.


Philip White is the international liaison officer of the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

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Japan careless about radiation dangers

Interview with Professor Chris Busby from the European committee on radiation, London

Japanese authorities have played down the nuclear reactor leak and the significance of informing citizens of minimal danger, but in fact the opposite is the case

PressTV (March 24 2011)

Press TV interviews Professor Chris Busby from the European committee on radiation in London who has tried to warn the Japanese that the facts point to risk at the level of Chernobyl or even greater and that Tokyo is at risk.

Press TV: How serious is the situation regarding a radiation leak from the nuclear plant that is taking place in Japan?

Professor Busby: This situation is very similar to Chernobyl in the way in which at the beginning everyone said it was not a big problem, and then they said there was no much radiation; and then along the line we see them backing away from that position as it is getting more and more serious.

At the present time my feeling is that it is probably getting very close to that of Chernobyl. I don’t believe a lot of the communiques coming out and there is enough factual information from these; however, for me to be able to estimate that a huge amount of radioactivity has already come out of that plant.

For example, on the IAEA website last night a bulletin said the concentration of contamination has spread 58 kilometers from the plant. That level is about twice as high as the level of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The Chernobyl exclusion zone was only thirty kilometers. So we’re talking about levels of that in comparison are greater already.

Press TV: The communiques you say you don’t believe them – Why is there disinformation then coming out of the Japanese media and why is there not more information coming from the IAEA on this?

Professor Busby: I don’t think the IAEA really knows what’s going on. To some extent they have to listen to what they’re being told by Japanese authorities. People are not able to tell what is actually happening inside the reactors because the radiation levels are so high you just can’t approach the reactors without dying. That’s the problem.

And all the instrumentation – the stuff you have in the control room that measures what’s going on in the reactor of course is all destroyed. So there is no way to know what is going on.

They have been making desperate attempts to cool both the fuel rods and the reactors themselves just by tipping water on them, which means they can’t get water into the reactors it seems.

These are concentrations the IAEA have been publishing. So it’s not a question of not believing; it’s a question of deducing what’s happened on the basis of what facts are available. And the two bits of facts which are available are that the radiation levels are extremely high; quite a distance from the plant, and secondly, the contamination level on the ground is extremely high within at least fifty kilometers from the plant.

Press TV: You are saying that you think the situation is as major or almost as major as Chernobyl. At this point in time what do you think they can do? Is there anything they can do to stop this from deteriorating even further?

Professor Busby: I can’t think of anything. It seems to me that the fuel has actually melted inside the reactor pressure vessels and so there is a pool of molten fuel in the bottom of at least three of those pressure vessels – so that’s the first problem.

And it’s not possible to cool that just by pouring water on it. You can cool reactor rods, which are separate, by circulating water through them, but you can’t water down a great hot lump of metal. And the other problem I believe is the spent fuel on top of Reactors One, Two and Three have already been blown up into the air – so that’s something they can’t do anything about – littering the plant all around the area; it’s probably in the sea; the sea is contaminated.

No one has ever seen this happen before and it’s hard to know quite what they can do. I don’t have any solutions except to pray.

Press TV: What has been taking place is black smoke coming out of Reactor Three and white smoke coming out elsewhere. What does it mean – the different color of the smoke?

Professor Busby: I can only guess. All we know is that there is white smoke and black smoke. What I can say for sure is that both the white and black smoke are intensely radioactive; there is no question about that. And my feeling is that some of this smoke consists of very hot radioactive particles – So, very small particles that reflect the light and will float away over the sea or whichever direction the wind is blowing.

In the European Committee on Radiation for about five days now we’ve been modeling the air flows, which took the first and third reactor explosions out to sea and then back over Tokyo. We can see that it goes out and around in a big circle over Tokyo and then it goes north over the country.

Before it turned around it had clipped Okinawa and that’s why they thought that the power plant there was melting down because they got a sudden hit of radiation there.

So these radioactive materials such as Uranium and Tritium and Iodine of course and others are now contaminating the island of Honshu, which is a large distance from the plant and this will have significant effects on the health of the population there.

Press TV: Evacuation orders were carried out within twenty kilometers of the plant. If you were in a position of decision making inside Japan, would you have ordered the evacuation to cover a greater area?

Professor Busby: Yes and right from the beginning. In fact I did advise them – we put advice on various websites including the European Committee’s website to take it more than 100 kilometers. Now I believe they should consider taking people out of Tokyo. I don’t know where they’re going to put them, this is problem – it’s a nightmare.

Tokyo itself is certainly under risk from radioactivity not just from the iodine, but from a host of other radioactive components including those that are not easy to detect. Tritium will be all over the place and that causes genetic defects, cancer and all sorts of diseases.

To try and play it down in order to establish that the nuclear industry is still viable and that they can still go on building nuclear power stations and so on and to try and talk up the uranium share prices and all that, I think that is criminal. People are going to die as a result of this and they should get people out of there as quickly as possible.

Press TV: You say people are going to die from this. Japanese officials have admitted that there are higher radiation levels in the environment, but say it is nothing more than regular x-rays that people would be exposed to and nothing of significant importance. What would you say to that?

Professor Busby: Criminally irresponsible. After the Chernobyl accident there have been huge increases in cancer and other forms of ill health. And for instance, in Sweden, a study done in 2004 showed there was an eleven percent increase in cancer in northern Sweden in areas contaminated by the Chernobyl accident. We could get double the amount of cancer in those areas of contamination even without considering the future.

The problem is that the risk model being used in order to make all of these statements is out of date and incorrect. The secretary of the International Commission of Radiological protection has admitted that this risk model is in error by up to 900 fold.

So we know from all sorts of studies that the model is false and doesn’t work for the kinds of exposures taking place in Japan now and they should get people away because people are going to get cancer at a much higher rate than is predicted from the risk model.

Press TV: There are reports that iodine will help protect people from the effects of radiation. Does it help and should the Japanese people be taking it?

Professor Busby: Yes. The people should take stable iodine as it will block the absorption of the thyroid gland by radioactive iodine and that will mitigate a lot of the effects of the iodine on causing increases in thyroid cancer. There was a large increase in thyroid cancer in Chernobyl, which has been blamed on iodine. It does help keep the radiation out if you fill yourself up with ordinary iodine. But that’s only important for thyroid cancer, which is quite rare.

The cancers that are going to come about as a result of these sorts of releases are going to be increases in breast cancer, leukemia, a whole range of cancers and other ill health as well as congenital malformation and fertility problems that we’ve seen in the ex-Soviet territories affected by the Chernobyl accident.

Press TV: What about the food aspect? We’re getting news about different vegetables and products from the sea that has had radiation detected. The US has banned imports from the area and the EU is trying to control that also.

Professor Busby: What I have to say here will save lives and is very important. People should get stable iodine tablets and give it to the children. Secondly they should try and drink bottled water, bottled before the crisis, or to bring water up from the south, which is pure. Milk should not be drunk. They should not eat any seafood or fresh vegetables, and the food that they do eat should be out of cans.

As long as this crisis lasts, those actions will save a lot of lives.

Press TV: What is the worst scenario?

Professor Busby: That there is an explosion – that enough of this stuff gets together that it forces an explosion and I believe it is possible for that to happen. Other scientists may not agree, but I see it as being possible. There was an explosion in the Mayak facility at KyshTym in the Soviet Union in 1957. It was a nuclear explosion in a spent fuel tank where the same situation happened – the water boiled away, the fuel melted into a lump and then it exploded. And that caused the contamination of about 1,000 square miles of land. This land has been radioactive ever since. If that happens then the material outburst will go all over the place and we have already suspected that some of this material has reached the US.

The best scenario is if it melts and dissipates into the ground, doesn’t explode, but makes it very very contaminated. Then they have to pile a load of sand and slate et cetera on it and fence it off about 100 kilometers away somewhere.

But the problem is that they (Japanese authorities) are saying the radiation levels are low and that people can live outside the thirty kilometer zone. They want to continue making nuclear power stations, mining uranium and making lots of money. It’s criminally irresponsible.

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Worse Than Chenobyl

2011/03/30 2 comments

When the Fukushima Meltdown Hits Groundwater

by Dr Tom Burnett

Hawaii News (March 27 2011)

Fukushima is going to dwarf Chenobyl {1}. The Japanese government has had a Level Seven nuclear disaster going for almost a week but won’t admit it.

The disaster is occurring the opposite way than Chernobyl, which exploded and stopped the reaction. At Fukushima, the reactions are getting worse. I suspect three nuclear piles are in meltdown {2} and we will probably get some of it.

If Reactor Three is in meltdown, the concrete under the containment looks like lava. But Fukushima is not far off the water table. When that molten mass of self-sustaining nuclear material gets to the water table it won’t simply cool down. It will explode {3} – not a nuclear explosion, but probably enough to involve the rest of the reactors and fuel rods at the facility.

Pouring concrete {4} on a critical reactor makes no sense – it will simply explode and release more radioactive particulate matter. The concrete will melt and the problem will get worse. Chernobyl was different – a critical reactor exploded and stopped the reaction. At Fukushima, the reactor cores are still melting down. The ONLY way to stop that is to detonate a approximately ten kiloton fission device inside each reactor containment vessel and hope to vaporize the cores. That’s probably a bad solution.

A nuclear meltdown is a self-sustaining reaction. Nothing can stop it except stopping the reaction. And that would require a nuclear weapon. In fact, it would require one in each containment vessel to merely stop what is going on now. But it will be messy.

Fukushima was waiting to happen because of the placement of the emergency generators. If they had not all failed at once by being inundated by a tsunami, Fukushima would not have happened as it did – although it WOULD still have been a nuclear disaster. Every containment in the world is built to withstand a Magnitude 6.9 earthquake; the Japanese chose to ignore the fact {5} that a similar earthquake {6} had hit that same general area in 1896.

Anyway, here is the information that the US doesn’t seem to want released {7}. And here is a chart that might help with perspective {8}.

Making matters worse is the MOX in Reactor Three. MOX is the street name for ‘mixed oxide fuel’ {9} which uses about nine percent plutonium along with a uranium compound to fuel reactors. This is why it can be used {10}.

The problem is that you don’t want to play with this stuff. A nuclear reactor means bring fissile material to a point at which it is hot enough to boil water (in a light-water reactor) and not enough to melt and go supercritical (China syndrome or a Chernobyl incident). You simply cannot let it get away from you because if it does, you can’t stop it.

The Japanese are still talking about days or weeks to clean this up. That’s not true. They cannot clean it up. And no one will live in that area again for dozens or maybe hundreds of years.


Tom Burnett has a PhD in Earth Sciences and Physics.

Department of Economics
McGill University
855 Sherbrooke Street West
Montreal H3A2T7
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Make No Mistake

2011/03/30 1 comment

by James Howard Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of The Long Emergency (2005) (March 28 2010)

Taking in Charles Ferguson’s excellent documentary, Inside Job (2010), about the dark doings of Wall Street in our time, I confess I was awestruck all over again at the complete surrender of Obama to the very characters who embodied the corruption that rotted our system from the heart outward. Summers, Rubin, Geithner, and a host of other revolving door grifters who did everything possible to set up the implosion of banking, defeat the rule of law in money matters, and ruin millions who wanted nothing more than something useful to do in this society for a living wage.

Most impressive of all in this brave film were the shameless academic mandarins caught on camera trying to weasel out of their greed-driven misdeeds – Glenn Hubbard, chair of the Columbia University Economics department, a perfectly programmed polished WASP (like out of a “Ken” doll box) on the outside, slithering corruption inside, who played a major role in removing all restraints on Wall Street, then served as a director on the boards of several predatory financial giants, including the biggest, Black Rock, and pretended not to remember if he got paid for it; Martin Feldstein of the Harvard Economics department, in-and-out of government like a rat in a cheese-box, who sat on the board of AIG in the months before it blew itself up on credit default swaps, and who saw nothing about the company’s operations that gave off a bad odor after it entered the most massive government receivership the world has ever seen; and most memorably Fred Mishkin, former Federal Reserve governor, now an academic rover, who wrote a cheerleading report for the Icelandic banking system about five minutes before it collapsed, then changed the report’s title from Financial Stability in Iceland to Financial Instability in Iceland, then denied it on camera in the face of obvious evidence, then forgot whether he got paid six-figures to write the glowing report, then dissolved on camera into a maundering puddle of indignity and humiliation.

How do these rogues survive the disclosure of their turpitudes? Is there no one at places like Harvard and Columbia who has any sense of shame or even an inkling of disappointment that they employ such odious hustlers? Apparently not. This is a system with no mechanism of self-regulation left. And there’s Obama at the tippy-top of it serving like a department store mannequin with a Department of Justice that someone has hung a “gone fishin'” sign on. I voted for him in 2008, and I want to start a movement in whatever’s left of the Progressive core to get rid of him. Being a decent, presentable fellow with a nice family is just not enough. Even his vaunted speech-making abilities have gotten on my nerves. If I hear him say “make no mistake” one more time, someone will have to restrain me from kicking in the flat screen TV. Obama, it turns out, is the mistake.

Can’t any of us begin the reform of the Democratic Party, starting with resigning from being Wall Street’s bitch? Granted, the age of labor unions may be over for a while, maybe forever (who knows?), and the age of government money hand-outs on the grand scale to everybody and his uncle, too. But how about just a party of intelligence and courage? Wouldn’t that be enough to start with? A party capable of setting some limits and enforcing them. A party able to understand the signals that the future is sending us about resource scarcity. A party willing to engage and defeat stupidity, such as climate change denial, and drill-drill-drill cretinism, and “creation science”. and all the pietistic hypocrisies of the Sunbelt know-nothings. A party willing to drag characters like Lloyd Blankfein into a court of law to answer straight-up fraud charges. A party willing to admit that if you can’t control both the terrain and the people’s behavior in Afghanistan, then there’s no excuse for prosecuting a war there.

I have a lot of hope for the millennials, the young people just coming up. They’re going to get sick of living in an ethical vacuum and sick of political paralysis. Their brains are going through the final stage of development where it arrives at the ability to make judgments. They are going to judge the Boomers and their X’er successors harshly and they’re going to remind us that Americans are capable of valiant action even without the trappings of jingoism and sports metaphors.

In the meantime, we can look forward to a year of spectacular unraveling. Our money system probably can’t survive the crack-up of revolving obligations that were ginned up so that bankers could cream off fortunes from every exchange of any sort of paper on the face of the earth. The European banks have nowhere to go anymore with Ireland and Portugal crapping out.  Bond-holders are finally going to have to eat a lot of losses. Governments have fallen and more will go down – but, of course, more to the point is what governments will follow them in power? Probably more audacious ones, run by people who intend to act, perhaps even badly.

The Middle East and North Africa have the look of spinning into World War Three. The action just doesn’t seem like it’s going to simmer down anytime soon in a half-dozen nations that have started gunning down their own people – and there’s Iran sitting rather quietly on the sidelines, or so it appears for the moment, as the whole region rearranges itself to suit them better. Wait until Hezbollah starts lobbing missiles into Israel. You’ll see the big “tilt” sign light up the sky. Anyway you slice it there, America better get ready for a lot less imported oil. There’s really nothing we can do that will change that now, and drill-drill-drill will not come close to mitigating our losses, no matter how much Larry Kudlow wrings his hands.

Poor Obama. On The global chessboard of fate, he’s the powerless king facing down ranks of dark knights and implacable bishops. All he can do is sidestep their onslaughts. Even the pawns are beginning to moil and roister in the background. He’ll be on TV tonight. Make no mistake.

I was just informed this morning about the death of Joe Bageant, author of Deer Hunting With Jesus (2008) and the soon-to-be published Rainbow Pie (2011). Joe was a brave and funny soul and we will miss him very much.

My books are available at all the usual places.

Mr Kunstler’s biography is at

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The Trouble With Vaporware

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (March 23 2010)

Observers of the mechanics of decline and fall found plenty to keep them occupied over the last week. As I write these words, bombs are falling in Libya as the Western powers hurriedly resort to military force; Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi’s moves toward selling his oil and natural gas to China and India rather than the European nations that have received most of it to date probably explains this abrupt and almost panicked change in tactics.

Meanwhile, the immediate human impact of Japan’s devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami seems to be ebbing. The Japanese military and rescue teams from a hundred other countries have succeeded in bulldozing open transport routes into the stricken Tohoku region, and food and emergency supplies are beginning to reach the survivors. Still, at least two other dimensions of the crisis are still ongoing, and show every sign of getting worse before they get better.

The first of these is the economic impact of a disaster that leveled one of Japan’s major industrial regions. In a global economy geared to extreme specialization and just-in-time delivery, the sudden destruction of scores of factories, chemical plants, warehouses, and shipping facilities is a body blow with potentially wide-ranging effects. One GM plant in the United States has already been forced to shut down because a Japanese factory that was once a crucial part of its supply chain suddenly turned into a heap of salt-stained debris. Over the months ahead, as products already shipped reach their destinations and the details of the disaster become clearer, we will get to see just how thoroughly the proponents of global economic integration got their wish. The possibility that more factories shut down, more jobs are lost, and some consumer goods are in very short supply for months thereafter can’t be dismissed out of hand.

The second ongoing aspect of the crisis, of course, is the Fukushima nuclear disaster. More than a week on, the situation at the crippled plant remains dangerously unstable. Emergency crews on the scene are putting their lives on the line to keep three partially melted reactor cores and two critically damaged fuel rod storage tanks from overheating; so far, they’ve succeeded well enough that leaks of radiation and high-level nuclear waste have been sporadic, but the struggle’s not over yet. Even in the best case scenario, the utility that owns the plant has just had a very expensive and profitable facility turn into a heap of smoldering radioactive junk, and the ensuing financial meltdown may do as much damage to the nuclear power industry as an actual core meltdown at the plant.

Last week’s post here commented on the ways that proponents of nuclear power have tried to put their spin onto a situation that seems to be taking a perverse pleasure in frustrating them. One of their tactics seems to have shifted into overdrive over the last week: the insistence that even though all past and nuclear technologies have turned out to be far less safe and spectacularly more expensive than their promoters claimed at the time, future nuclear technologies not yet off the drawing boards will surely be safe, clean, cheap, and reliable sources of energy. Those of my readers who know their way around the software industry have heard this kind of song and dance before, often enough so that there’s a useful term for it among computer geeks: vaporware.

The mass production of vaporware in the energy field is hardly limited to the nuclear industry’s shills and unpaid fans, to be sure. Connoisseurs of the absurd will remember the flurry of optimistic claims about algal biodiesel released a couple of years ago by GreenTech, which got plenty of money from venture capitalists until an outside analysis showed that their process wouldn’t make a profit until the price of diesel fuel broke $800 a barrel. Still, for some reason nuclear power seems to attract an uncommon number of vaporware schemes. Whether it’s liquid sodium or lead-bismuth reactors, fourth generation this or modular that – and let’s not forget the fusion advocates, still chasing a phantom that has hovered twenty years in the future since before I was born – bring up energy issues online and you’re sure to get somebody making grand claims about some kind of nuclear vaporware.

There are at least three good reasons to ignore them. The first is that every generation of nuclear technology has been sold with exactly the same sales pitch – those of my readers who recall the Eisenhower administration will remember how, back then, publicists for the industry insisted that clean, safe nuclear power would soon make electricity too cheap to meter – and it’s turned out to be wrong every single time. There’s no reason whatsoever to think that the current crop of publicity releases will be any more accurate. It’s easy to make a technology look good if it doesn’t exist yet, and the inevitable technical problems have not been faced, but after this many rounds of grand and unfulfilled promises, it’s arguably time to roll our eyes and walk away.

The second is that building more nuclear power plants, of any kind, is far from the most cost-effective way to deal with shortfalls in energy here in the United States. Nuclear advocates have made much of claims that the only alternative to more nukes is burning coal, but there’s a much simpler, saner, and cheaper alternative: conservation. The sort of cheap and simple conservation retrofits we’ve been discussing in this blog for the last few months can cut home energy consumption by twenty percent or more. Such measures were at the heart of the industrial world’s successful response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, and the fact that they’re ignored by all nearly all sides in today’s energy debates – including too many supposed environmentalists – does not speak highly of the collective intelligence of our time.

It’s worth noting, for example, that for the amount of money it would take to replace the 23 US nuclear reactors that have the same flawed design as the ones at the Fukushima Daiichi plant – $276 billion, at an estimated average total cost of $12 billion per reactor – we could give every one of the 130 million homes, apartments, and condominiums in the United States a $2000 conservation retrofit, including caulking, weatherstripping, insulation, and the like, with room in the budget to spare. That would save more power than those nukes would generate, and do it with no fuel costs, no security threats, no radioactive waste, no risk of catastrophic meltdowns, and an annual maintenance budget per home equal to a couple of takeout pizzas.

A comparable option, a little more costly per housing unit but with similar paybacks, would involve getting solar water heaters on the roofs of America’s houses, apartments and condominiums, and commercial and industrial facilities. I’ve discussed solar water heating in these essays several times already. It’s arguably the most thoroughly developed renewable technology we’ve got; a century ago, solar water heaters were standard in American housing across the Sun Belt, and only the brief heyday of cheap fossil fuel energy squeezed them out of the market. It’s high time we put them back to work.

There are three basic types of solar water heater: batch, passive thermosiphon, and closed-loop active. Batch heaters are the simplest and most robust of all; they can be made and installed by an ordinarily competent handyperson for less than $1000 a piece. They consist of a tank, painted black, in a box with glass walls facing the sun and insulation everywhere else. The simple version is operated by hand: in the morning, as long as the weather is above freezing, you fill the tank by turning a tap; later in the day – the interval varies depending on location, size of tank, and intensity of sunlight – you have a tank of hot water that you can use in all the usual ways.

You can also feed a batch heater into your regular hot water system, but there are more effective ways to use solar energy if this is your plan. The reason I mention batch heaters here at all is that, as the simplest and cheapest solar water heating system, they’re probably the one that will be standard a century or two from now, when the end of the age of fossil fuels has broken our descendants of the bad habit of thinking that they have a right to expect energy when, where, and how they want it. Afternoon laundry and evening baths may well be standard in that age, though it’s by no means impossible that they’ll also pick up the trick of running water through pipes in the back of a woodstove when it’s fired up, and use the two systems jointly to keep hot water ready on tap. (We’ll be discussing that, and the possibilities and problems with wood stoves, in a later post.)

Still, for the time being, those of my readers who like hot water throughout the day have other options. If you live in a part of the world that doesn’t get freezing temperatures in the winter, a passive thermosiphoning system is usually your best bet. This has a set of panels through which water flows, and a well-insulated tank located above the panels, so that hot water rises from the panels into the tank, and cooling water cycles from the tank back down to the panels. The tank connects to your regular water heater, which thus has a lot less heating to do – when the sun is out, in a well-designed system, none at all.

In areas that freeze in the winter, the standard approach is an closed loop active system that uses something other than plain water to take heat from the panels and circulate it into the tank. Various antifreeze solutions are standard; they go from the panel to a heat exchanger in a well-insulated tank, and a small electric pump (which can be powered by a photovoltaic panel) keeps the fluid moving. Once again, heat goes from the panels to the insulated tank, hot water from the insulated tank goes into the regular water heater, and keeps it from having to work hard or, under good conditions, at all.

On average, a thermosiphon or closed loop system will provide you with seventy percent of your hot water free of charge, though that figure varies significantly by location; in Sun Belt locations with plenty of clear skies, it tends close to 100%. Since water heating accounts for around fifteen percent of the average household energy bill, a solar water heater in an average location will account for around ten percent of your home energy. The cost for systems of this kind varies widely depending on the details of the system, the orientation of your house toward the sun, and the ease with which pipes can get from the solar system to your ordinary hot water system, but $4000 is a good ballpark for a passive thermosiphon system and $8000 for a closed loop active system. It’s a noticeable upfront cost, to be sure, but here again it’s worth remembering that there are no additional fuel costs for as long as the sun is well stocked with hydrogen.

There are probably other ways to heat water using the sun that haven’t been invented yet, but the three I’ve just mentioned have a major advantage: they represent mature technologies, with strengths and drawbacks that have been tested thoroughly in practice. To put it another way, they’re the opposite of vaporware; when you install a solar water heating system, you know exactly what you’re getting into, and though it can sometimes be necessary to correct for the pitches of overenthusiastic salespeople, most of the firms that install solar hot water systems these days have been around for decades and have learned, as most small businesses learn, that satisfied customers are the advertising that matters. You can also look up the performance of the available models in a variety of independent sources, go fishing for complaints on the internet, and do everything else you would normally do when assessing a piece of technology for your home.

You can’t do that with vaporware. If someone came knocking on your door and offered you a chance to buy an exciting new water heater using advanced technology, you’d probably want to know how well it worked in practice, and if the salesman wanted a dizzyingly high price up front for a heater that had never been built or tested, was ultimately nothing more than an appealing concept, and wouldn’t be ready for decades, I doubt, dear reader, that you’d go running for your checkbook. This is what the proponents of untested new nuclear technologies are doing, and once again, it’s worth recalling that the sales pitches they’re repeating right now are the same ones that were used to justify building the reactors at Fukushima.

That points up the third and, to my mind, conclusive reason to ignore the promoters of nuclear vaporware: we don’t have the time to spare. Peak oil is already here, peak coal and natural gas are a good deal closer than the cornucopian assumptions of previous decades liked to admit, and peak fissionable uranium – the fuel for our existing reactors – is not far off either. We can’t afford to take the risks involved in pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into untried nuclear concepts that may prove to be as unworkable as fusion or as fatally flawed as the Fukushima reactors, and in the very best case won’t produce a watt of power for decades to come. A realistic approach to the looming energy crisis of our time, rather, will have to depend on existing technology, and especially on mature and thoroughly tested technologies that have proven themselves to be safe, effective, compatible with existing systems, and capable of meeting genuine human needs. Those technologies exist; they won’t enable us to continue to waste energy with the unthinking carelessness that most Americans have somehow come to think of as one of their inalienable rights; but they do offer a realistic way of providing a viable, comfortable, and humane existence as we extract ourselves from the tight corner into which the vaporware salesmen of the past have wedged us.


Once again, the starting point for green wizards interested in solar water heating is the Master Conserver papers available online at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website; the papers you want are those on passive solar water heating and active solar water heating. There have been some useful improvements introduced since these were published, but they still provide an excellent introduction to the basics of the technology.

Readers interested in building batch systems should find a copy of Daniel K Reif’s classic Passive Solar Water Heaters; which provides plenty of information and detailed plans for two systems. David A Bainbridge’s The Integral Passive Solar Water Heater Book is a good sourcebook for the range of batch designs in use or under development in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Passive thermosiphon and closed loop active systems are beyond the reach of all but a very few home workshops; if you want to go this route and have the funds, your best bet is to talk to a professional. There are solar energy companies in every region of the United States and a good many countries abroad that can set you up with a system suited to your location.


John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America {1} and the author of more than twenty books on a wide range of subjects, including The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (2008), The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak World (2009), and the forthcoming The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered. He lives in Cumberland, Maryland, an old red brick mill town in the north central Appalachians, with his wife Sara.

If you enjoy reading this blog, you might want to check out Star’s Reach, his blog/novel of the deindustrial future {2}. Set four centuries after the decline and fall of our civilization, it uses the tools of narrative fiction to explore the future our choices today are shaping for our descendants tomorrow.




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How the “peaceful atom” became a serial killer

Nuclear power loses its alibi

by Chip Ward

Le Monde diplomatique (March 28 2011)

When nuclear reactors blow, the first thing that melts down is the truth. Just as in the Chernobyl catastrophe almost 25 years ago when Soviet authorities denied the extent of radiation and downplayed the dire situation that was spiraling out of control, Japanese authorities spent the first week of the Fukushima crisis issuing conflicting and confusing reports. We were told that radiation levels were up, then down, then up, but nobody aside from those Japanese bureaucrats could verify the levels and few trusted their accuracy. The situation is under control, they told us, but workers are being evacuated. There is no danger of contamination, but stay inside and seal your doors.

The first atomic snow job

The bureaucratization of horror into bland and reassuring pronouncements was to be expected, especially from an industry where misinformation is the rule. Although you might suppose that the nuclear industry’s outstanding characteristic would be its expertise, since it’s loaded with junior Einsteins who grasp the math and physics required to master the most awesomely sophisticated technology humans have ever created, think again. Based on the record, its most outstanding characteristic is a fundamental dishonesty. I learned that the hard way as a grassroots activist organizing opposition to a scheme hatched by a consortium of nuclear utilities to park thousands of tons of highly radioactive fuel rods, like the ones now burning at Fukushima, in my Utah backyard.

Here’s what I took away from that experience: the nuclear industry is a snake-oil culture of habitual misrepresentation, pervasive wishful thinking, deep denial, and occasional outright deception. For more than fifty years, it has habitually lied about risks and costs while covering up every violation and failure it could. Whether or not its proponents and spokespeople are dishonest or merely deluded can be debated, but the outcome – dangerous misinformation and the meltdown of honest civic discourse – remains the same, as we once again see at Fukushima.

Established at the dawn of the nuclear age, the pattern of dissemblance had become a well-worn rut long before the Japanese reactors spun out of control. In the early 1950s, the disciples of nuclear power, or the “peaceful atom” as it was then called, insisted that nuclear power would soon become so cheap and efficient that it would be offered to consumers for free. Visionaries that they were, they suggested that cities would be constructed with building materials impregnated with uranium so that snow removal would be unnecessary. Atomic bombs, they urged, should be used to carve out new coastal harbors for ships. In low doses, they swore, radiation was actually beneficial to one’s health.

Such notions and outright fantasies, as well as propaganda for a new industry and a new way of war – even if laughable today – had tragic results back then. Thousands of American GIs, for instance, were marched into ground zero just after above-ground nuclear tests had been set off to observe their responses to what military planners assumed would be the atomic battlefield of the future. Ignorance, it turns out, is not bliss, and thousands of those soldiers later became ill. Many died young.

Unwary civilians who lived downwind of America’s western testing grounds were also exposed to nuclear fallout and they, too, suffered horribly from a variety of cancers and other illnesses. Uranium miners exposed to radiation in the tunnels where they wrestled from the earth the raw materials for the nuclear age also became ill and died too soon, as did workers processing that uranium into weapons and fuel. Many of those miners were poor Navajos from my backyard in Utah where a new uranium boom, part of the so-called nuclear renaissance, was – before Fukushima – set to take shape.

How unlikely risks become inevitable

In the future, today’s low-risk claims from industry advocates will undoubtedly seem as tragically naive as yesterday’s false claims. Yes, the likelihood that any specific nuclear power plant reactor will melt down may be slim indeed – which hardly means inconceivable – but to act as though nuclear risks are limited to the operation of power plants is misleading in the extreme. “Spent fuel” from reactors (the kind burning in Japan as I write) is produced as a plant operates, and that fuel remains super hot and dangerous for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. As we are learning to our sorrow at the Fukushima complex, such used fuel is hardly “spent”. In fact, it can be even more radioactive and dangerous than reactor cores.

Spent fuel continues to pile up in a nuclear waste stream that will have to be closely managed and monitored for eons, so long that those designing nuclear-waste repositories struggle with the problem of signage that might be intelligible in a future so distant today’s languages may not be understood. You might think that a danger virulent enough to outlast human languages would be a danger to avoid, but the hubris of the nuclear establishment is equal to its willingness to deceive.

A natural disaster, accident, or terrorist attack that might be statistically unlikely in any year or decade becomes ever more likely at the half-century, century, or half-millennium mark. Given enough time, in fact, the unlikely becomes almost inevitable. Even if you and I are not the victims of some future apocalyptic disturbance of that lethal residue, to consign our children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren to such peril is plainly and profoundly immoral.

Nuclear proponents have long wanted to limit the discussion of risk to plant operation alone, not to the storage of dangerous wastes, and they remain eager to ignore altogether the risks inherent in transporting nuclear waste (often called “mobile Chernobyl” by nuclear critics). Moving those spent fuel rods to future repositories represents a rarely acknowledged category of potential catastrophe. Just imagine a trainload of hot nuclear waste derailing catastrophically along a major urban corridor with the ensuing evacuations of nearby inhabitants. It means, in essence, that one of those Fukushima “pools” of out-of-control waste could “go nuclear” anywhere in our landscape.

Risk is about more than likelihood; it’s also about impact. If I tell you that your chances of being bitten by a mosquito as you cross my yard are one in a hundred, you’ll think of that risk differently than if I give you the same odds on a deadly pit viper. As events unfold in Japan, it’s ever clearer that we’re talking pit viper, not mosquito. You wouldn’t know it though if you were to debate nuclear industry representatives, who consistently downplay both odds and impact, and dismiss those who claim otherwise as hysterical doomsayers. Fukushima will assumedly make their task somewhat more difficult.

Hidden costs and wasted subsidies

The true costs of nuclear power are another subject carefully fudged and obscured by nuclear power advocates. From its inception in federally funded labs, nuclear power has been highly subsidized. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that “more than thirty subsidies have supported every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle from uranium mining to long-term waste storage. Added together, these subsidies have often exceeded the average market price for the power produced.” When it comes to producing electricity, these subsidies are so extensive, the report concludes, that “in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy the kilowatts on the open market and give them away”.

If the nuclear club in Congress, led by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, gets its way, billions more in subsidies will be forthcoming, including massive federal loan guarantees to build the next generation of nuclear plants. These are particularly important to the industry, since bankers won’t otherwise touch projects that are notorious for mammoth cost overruns, lengthy delays, and abrupt cancellations.

The Obama administration has already proposed an additional $36 billion in such guarantees to underwrite new plant construction. That includes $4 billion for the construction of two new nuclear reactors on the Gulf Coast that are to be operated in partnership with Tokyo Electric Power Company – that’s right, the very outfit that runs the Fukushima complex. Yet when I debate nuclear advocates, they always claim that, in cost terms, nuclear power outcompetes alternative sources of energy like wind and solar.

That government gravy train doesn’t just stop at new power plants either. The feds have long assumed the epic costs of waste management and storage. If another multi-billion dollar project like the now-abandoned Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada is built, it will be with dollars from taxpayers and captive ratepayers (the free market be damned). Industry spokesmen insist that subsidizing such projects will be well worth it, since they will create thousands of new jobs. Unfortunately for them, a definitive 2009 University of Massachusetts study that analyzed various infrastructure investments including wind, solar, and retrofitting buildings to conserve energy placed nuclear dead last in job creation.

Finally, the recently renewed Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act limits the liability of nuclear utilities should a catastrophe like the one in Japan happen here in the United States. The costs of recovery from the Fukushima catastrophe will be astronomical. In the US, nuclear utilities would be off the hook for any of those costs and you, the citizen, would foot the bill. Despite their assurances that nothing can go wrong here, nuclear industry officials have made sure that in their business risk and reward are carefully separated. It’s a scenario we should all know well: private corporations take away profits when things go well, and taxpayers assume responsibility when shit happens.

Finally, nuclear power boosters like to proclaim themselves “green” and to claim that their industry is the ideal antidote to global warming since it produces no greenhouse gas emissions. In doing so, they hide the real environmental footprint of nuclear energy.

It’s quite true that no carbon dioxide comes out of power-plant smokestacks. However, maintaining any future infrastructure to handle the industry’s toxic waste is guaranteed to produce lots of carbon dioxide. So does mining uranium and processing it into fuel rods, building massive reactors from concrete and steel, and then behemoth repositories capable of holding waste for 1,000 years. Radiation from the Fukushima meltdown is now entering the Japanese food chain. How green is that?

The watchdogs play dead

Over the course of nuclear power’s history, there have been scores of mishaps, accidents, violations, and problems that, chances are, you’ve never heard about. Beyond the unavoidable bad PR over the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, and now the Japanese catastrophe, the industry has an excellent record – of covering up its failures.

The co-dependent relationship between the nuclear corporations and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency charged with licensing and monitoring them, resembles the cozy relationship between the Securities Exchange Commission and Wall Street before the global economic meltdown of 2008. The NRC relies heavily on the industry’s own reports since only a small fraction of its activities can be inspected yearly.

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2010”, which highlights the NRC’s haphazard record of inspection and enforcement, makes clear just why the honor system that assumes utilities will honestly report problems has never worked. It describes fourteen recent serious “near miss” violations that initially went unreported. At the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, only 38 miles north of the New York metropolitan area, for instance, NRC inspectors ignored a leaking water containment system for fifteen years.

After a leaking roof forced the shutdown of two reactors at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility in Maryland, plant managers admitted that it had been leaking for eight years. When Honeywell hired temporary workers to replace striking union members at its uranium refinery in Illinois, they were slipped the correct answers to a test required for those allowed to work at nuclear plants, because otherwise they had neither the knowledge nor experience to pass.

The regulation of Japan’s nuclear industry mirrors the American model. Japan’s legacy of regulatory scandals, falsified safety records, underestimated risks, and cover-ups includes an incident in 1999 when workers mixed uranium in open buckets and exposed hundreds of coworkers to radiation. Two later died. Other scandals involved hiding cracks in steam pipes from regulators in 1989, lying about a fire and explosion at a plant near Tokyo in 1997, and covering up damage to a plant from an earthquake in 2007.

In the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe, we will no doubt discover how there, too, so-called watchdogs rolled over and played dead. In recent years, in fact, the Fukushima complex had the highest accident rate of any of the big Japanese nuclear plants. We’ve already learned that an engineer who helped design and supervise the construction of the steel pressure vessel that holds the melting fuel rods in Reactor Number 4 warned that it was damaged during production. He had himself initially orchestrated a cover-up of this fact, but revealed it a decade later – only to be ignored. During the complex’s construction by General Electric some 35 years ago, Dale Bridenbaugh, a GE employee, resigned after becoming convinced that the reactors being built were seriously flawed. He, too, was ignored. The Vermont Yankee reactor in Vermont and 23 others around the US replicate that design.

Stay tuned, since more examples of reckless management will surely come to light …

Risk is not a math problem

That culture of secrecy is a logical fit for an industry that is authoritarian by nature. Unlike solar or wind power, nuclear power requires massive investments of capital, highly specialized expertise, robust security, and centralized control. Any local citizen facing the impact of a uranium mine, a power plant, or a proposed waste depository will attest that the owners, operators, and regulators of the industry are remote, unresponsive, and inaccessible. They misinform because they have the power to get away with it. The absence of meaningful checks and balances enables them.

Risk, antinuclear advocates quickly learn, is not simply some complicated math problem to be resolved by experts. Risk is, above all, a question of who is put at risk for whose benefit, of how the rewards, costs, and liabilities of an activity are distributed and whether that distribution is fair. Those are political questions that citizens directly affected should be answering for themselves. When it comes to nuclear power, that doesn’t happen because the industry is undemocratic to its core. Corporate officers treat downwind stakeholders with the same contempt they reserve for honest accountings of the industry’s costs and dangers.

It may be difficult for the average citizen to unpack the technicalities of nuclear power, or understand the complex physics and engineering involved in splitting atoms to make steam to produce electricity. But most of us are good at detecting bullshit. We know when something like the nuclear industry doesn’t pass the smell test.

There is a growing realization that our carbon-based energy system is warming and endangering this planet, but replacing coal and oil with nuclear power is like trading heroin for crack – different addictions, but no less unhealthy or risky. The “nuclear renaissance”, like the “peaceful atom” before it, is the energy equivalent of a three-card monte game, involving the same capitalist crooks who gave us oil spills, bank bailouts, and so many of the other rip-offs and scams that have plagued our lives in this new century.

They are serial killers. Stop them before they kill again. Credibility counts and you don’t need a PhD or a Geiger counter to detect it.

This article was first published in TomDispatch (March 24 2011).


Chip Ward was a founder of HEAL Utah, a grassroots group that has led the opposition to the disposal of nuclear waste in Utah and the construction of a new reactor next to Green River. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West {1} and Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land {2}. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Ward discusses the endless legacy of nuclear power, click {3}, or download it to your iPod {4}.






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Usury, Interest, and Islamic Banking

by Thomas H Greco

Beyond Money (March 27 2011)

One of the most popular posts on this site has been David Pidcock’s View on the State of Islamic Money, Banking, and Finance {1 or see below}, which was posted in January of 2008. Over the past few years, these subjects have continued to draw increasing attention, and interest in interest-free financing has continued to grow in both the east and the west. It is not only on the basis of religious belief that the subject of usury is once again being debated (mainly in the Islamic world), but increasingly on account of the obvious and overwhelming expansion of debt throughout the world.

In November of last year (2010) the First World Conference on Riba was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Riba is the Islamic term for usury). In recent correspondence from David, he argued that there still are no truly Islamic banks. He also sent along one of his papers that he presented at the Riba conference. Whatever your preconceived opinions about the subject might be, I think you will find his paper to be interesting and informative. I have made it a permanent part of this website, which can be found in the sidebar under Other Resources, or just click {2}.

– Thomas H Greco





David Pidcock’s View on the State of Islamic Money, Banking, and Finance.

by Thomas H Greco

Beyond Money (January 21 2008)

David Pidcock is a leading member of the Islamic Party of Britain. His views expressed below were provided in a recent exchange of emails.                           – Thomas H Greco


Having spent the last 32 years searching for the right country and the right “Sharia compliant” government – I can say that they do not exist – being as unlikely to find – indeed – as rare as hen’s teeth.

Pakistan – which was “allegedly” established as an Islamic State has never implemented a Sharia Friendly monetary system in the past sixty years. The Pakistani economist, Senator Professor Kursheed Ahmed admitted as much in a seminar at the Islamic Foundation at Markfield, entitled “The Death of Riba/Interest”:

We have all been cowards in this regard.

In a live show on ARY TV, Ken Palmerton, ask(ed) General Quraishi – a spokesman for the Musharaf/Busharaf government that now that the Sharia Court of Pakistan had issued its Fatwa condemning Interest – in that the banking system of Pakistan must become more “user” than “usurer friendly” – he snorted:  “We are not a backward country!”.

Ken and I had already travelled (sic) to Pakistan to give evidence to Justice Taqi Usmani – which included a screening of The Money Masters video – which convinced him that a just, workable monetary system could be established in the 20/21st century in any sovereign state regardless of it’s size – be it Large or Small.

Similar resistance is to be found everywhere in the so-called Islamic States and Countries including Saudi Arabia, Sudan, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. In a seminar at the Bank Feisal, Khartoum, some ten years ago (I have a three hour video of the proceedings) we (the Islamic Party of Britain) addressed the entire banking establishment of the country – including the head of the Central Bank (appointed – we subsequently found out – by the Federal Reserve of New York) which had also appointed Sudan to host the Central Banker’s Conference that same year – Not bad, considering Sudan was already being categorised by the US as being a “terrorist state”.

Attending the meeting was Dr Hassan Al Turabi – Who chaired the session – with Ali Al Hajj, Hajj Noor, Dr Abdul Raheem Hamdi (Minister of Finance and Founder of Al Baraka Bank). We pointed out that the five year plan would fail because it was written by a Thatcherite economist and that the problems for Sudan originated in the fact that their much vaunted Murabaha System was both fraudulent as well as interest bearing – being entirely based on the fractional reserve model.

Dr Hassan Satti – the head of Al Shamail bank – stood up and confirmed my statement. He said that he had been sent to study Central Banking in London – that what the Sudan had established was in fact – “The Bank of England with an Islamic Tarbush (Hat) on it … and that the system was irredeemable”.

Our parting shot was. If the Hudud (cutting of hands) sections of the Sharia Law was to be applied in the Country, then all the bankers in the room would leave minus one or both hands.

Next day people came to our rooms in the hotel admitting that all the money involved in the Murabaha schemes were created through the fractional reserve mechanism.

I then gave evidence to the Ullema Council and Murabaha was suspended. I drew their attention to the fact that the suicide rates in the Sudan could be traced to the growth of unrepayable debt compounded by a rate of interest measuring some 76% in real terms.

I quoted Thomas Jefferson’s observations and those of Imam Ali on this issue.

Jefferson said:

The modern theory for the perpetuation of debt, has drenched the earth with blood, and crushed it’s inhabitants under burdens every (sic) accumulating …

Imam Ali said (circa 650 AD):

We withstood the weight of the iron, the stone and the lash, but found the hardest thing to endure was the burden of debt …”

In 2008 in India, on average, eleven farmers commit suicide every week for the same reasons.

As the correct translation of the Lord’s Prayer makes the solution abundantly clear:

Forgive us our Debts (not trespasses) as we forgive our debtors …

Unfortunately – as predicted – just like the Children of Israel before them the Children of Ishmael have produced the Islamic equivalent to the Kosher Pork Chop – the Halal Kinzir.

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