Entries in news (15)


An Earthquake Energy Crisis

On Friday, Japan experienced the worst earthquake in its recorded history (in world history, the fifth largest since 1900).

One thing getting a lot of attention is the situation at Japan’s nuclear reactors.  11 plants were shut down in the aftermath of the quake.  However, generators one and three Fukushima I have encountering coolant problems post-shutdown, and hydrogen explosions (from vented coolant) have blown off the roofs of the generator buildings (note: not the reactor containment vessels).   There are also worries of a meltdown at Fukushima I-2 and reported problems with several generators Fukushima II.)

Fortunately, those were not problems with the shutdown procedure itself, all the reactors were brought sub-critical.  However, even with no fusion ongoing, the decay of existent radioactive isotopes releases enough heat to require a functioning coolant system for several days to prevent the fuel rods from melting.  (Which would be a disaster: Newer Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) have tertiary containment designed to contain a full meltdown (a “core catcher”), Fukushima I predates that design.)  Unfortunately, venting of coolant steam during emergency cooling can result in the release of some radioisotopes: Some Cesium and Iodine (byproducts from the fuel rods if primary containment (cover on the fuel rods) is breached, Nitrogen-16 (from the oxygen in the water), Tritium (Hydrogen-3; from the decay of Boron-11 or Boron-12, from the boric acid used to suppress the fission reaction), and Carbon-14).

While some prognosticators are predicting none of the 11 reactors will come back online ever (which would mean really interesting things for Japan’s long-term energy situation), I’d bet that all but Fukushima I (and maybe II) will be up again after inspections and repairs.  But that’s “relatively quickly” in nuclear reactor terms, so that still means that 20% of Japan’s current generating capacity is offline for months at least.

Further reading:  Here’s a lengthy description of the sort of safety devices / procedures implemented at a BWR like the ones at Fukushima I.  And here’s a more detailed analysis of the situation at Fukushima I specifically (I can’t verify the author’s identity or expertise, but the article makes some interesting (and specific) predictions; his assumptions about the worst-case scenario are too optimistic, though the post has now been moved to here and edited for correctness).

ETA: I may yet be forced to eat my words.  Units 2 and 4 at Fukushima I have evidently also had explosions, and those have suffered actual breaches to the containment.  Unit 4 wasn’t running before the earthquake, but it’s still filled with spent fuel.  And unit 2 is probably in the middle of a partial meltdown with a ruptured containment vessel.

(Update again: Word now is that the inner reactor vessel is ruptured, not the outer containment.  The design goes something like this:  Fuel rod, casing, reactor vessel (the inner part of the “double boiler”), containment (the outer part of the “double boiler” and the last layer designed to hold in the core), building (not really designed to keep anything in, mostly there to keep the weather out).  The fuel rods and casings are almost certainly damaged in reactors 1-3, the reactor vessel is damaged in 2, and the building is damaged in 1 and 3.)

The disaster is currently rated at INES Level 4 (“accident with local consequences”). Three Mile Island was 5, Chernobyl was 7. Earlier today, Intrade gave 50%, 38%, and 13% odds that it will be raised to 5, 6, and 7, respectively, before the end of March.  Now those odds are at 95%, 46%, and 20%.


When to Flee: A Guide for Dictators

The events in Egypt are interesting and have not been far off what I’d have guessed at the onset of the protests.  At this point, the Egyptian army has deposed Mubarak, suspended the constitution, disbanded the legislature, and established an interim government.  They’re creating a draft constitutional revision, to be followed (they say) by a constitutional referendum and free elections.  Meanwhile, they’re hoping to disperse the protesters and get trade and tourism back to normal.  The protesters, for the most part, seem happy to clean up and disperse.  This is what you’d expect from a transitional government or a military dictatorship in the making.

The outcome is far from certain, but I wouldn’t rule out all going (approximately) according to the protesters’ plan.  As far as I can tell, the Egyptian military has three priorities:

  1. The general political and economic security of Egypt.
  2. Money for the officials’ families and connections, which mostly comes from tourism and trade dollars.
  3. Future power and influence of the military itself.

The key to that third point is US military dollars, which might explain why the Egyptian military was willing to tolerate Mubarak long after they’d clearly stopped liking the guy.  But borrowing money to give foreign aid to a dictator who can’t even keep order is probably not going to be the most popular policy in America at the moment.  The optimal strategy for the army may be to actually hold free elections.  (And, probably, to (secretly) tell the Americans that they’re ready to take over at a moment’s notice if the wrong people are elected, so long as the money keeps flowing.)

One interesting article I read was this report, which notes (as Moldbug will be pleased to learn) that Mubarak ordered the military to fire on the protesters on January 30 and (as Moldbug will be dismayed to learn?) that they refused.  If that was the case, I’d say that the outcome was more or less settled then.  If you order troops to fire on the crowd and they say no, it’s probably time to pack your bags.


The Future in the News

If I listed organizations exemplifying significant near-future trends, Wikileaks would certainly be towards the top.  Wikileaks is a platform for the anonymous submission, verification, and publication of classified or otherwise secret documents.  By operating online, with servers in multiple journalism-friendly jurisdictions, information given to Wikileaks becomes incredibly hard to suppress.  The fact that Wikileaks tries (to whatever extent possible under their journalistic ethics) to publish full documents instead of processed stories allows multiple news organizations to do their own analysis of the raw data.  Wikileaks suffered a funding crisis earlier this year, but after a donation drive, their document submission site and their published archives are back online.

Last April, Wikileaks was rocketed into the headlines when they released a video from July 2007 showing a helicopter gunship attack on suspected insurgents.  Reuters journalists with the group were also killed in the attack, as were civilians who attempted to rescue the wounded.  Two children in the rescuers’ vehicle were also seriously wounded.  The video was leaked by Private Bradley Manning, who was arrested and charged this July.

This week, Wikileaks released tens of thousands of pages of classified documents on the Afghanistan war, launching US strategy in the war back into the news and the political spotlight (or so anti-war politicians hope).

That of course means that the US Government has intensified their efforts to capture and question Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder and spokesperson.  That didn’t stop him from showing up to speak at TED Global 2010 in Oxford, but he didn’t show at The Next HOPE Conference (where he was to be the keynote speaker) last week in NYC.

So, this is one to watch.  It’s not clear to what extent Assange’s arrest would hinder Wikileaks.  It is clear that the Anthony Russos of the world now have far better technology at their disposal than a Xerox machine, that this will be a force for governments and businesses to contend with, since the issues of secrecy, security, and democracy are deeply intertwined.



This Monday, Israeli forces boarded and captured the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla”, a convoy of ships carrying food and medicine to the besieged territory of Gaza.  Nine activists were killed, many more activists and some Israeli soldiers were injured.

Gaza has been under a near-total blockade since 2007, though Israel formally ended their occupation in 2005 and denies that their near total control of the land, sea, and air borders, complete blockade (save for limited humanitarian aid imports), and complete prohibition of any kind of military development qualifies them for any of the responsibilities of an occupying power.  It’s not clear at all that the blockade is legal under international law.

Meanwhile, the organizers of the flotilla had a stated intention of breaking the Israeli blockade, but they were sailing under the Turkish flag (the lead ship was a Turkish ship, the convoy departed from a Turkish port, though the vessels in the convoy were from a bunch of different countries) and attacked in international waters.  The activists claim that Israeli soldiers fired on them before boarding, Israel claims the soldiers only returned fire after coming under attack (with improvised weapons and their own weapons).

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here.  Legally, the act was either a crime commited by Israeli soldiers on a Turkish vessel or an act of war by Israel against a Turkish ship.  Israel argues that the flotilla presented a danger to Israel that justified acting in international waters instead of waiting.  Turkey is understandably upset that an ostensibly friendly country expects them to ignore such a provocation, and is threatening to send a naval escort with the next such attempt.  It’s brinkmanship, it’s not clear that the Turkish navy would stand by while Israel attacked a Turkish ship in international waters, not clear that Israel would wait until the ship entered their territory (since that would demonstrate that their decision-making was affected by something as trivial as the Turkish navy), and it’s not clear that an actual naval battle between warships wouldn’t lead to a war.  Which would be an awkward situation for the United States, to say the least, given that Israel and Turkey are both allies.

Brad Hicks, one of my favorite essayists, has an excellent analysis of the incident.

An interesting question is to what extent did the flotilla activists succeed in their goals.  They failed to break the blockade, and the supplies were not delivered because Hamas would rather make political points than accept another shipment of aid.  Then again, the flotilla protesters clearly shared that objective, they didn’t accept Israel’s offer to allow the supplies in through an Israeli port.  Another shipment of supplies won’t end the chronic food and water shortages in Gaza, won’t restore the destroyed economy.  So here’s an idea that’s worth highlighting:

Idea #2: Nonviolent direct action succeeds when it is disruptive politically or economically.  Getting attention isn’t enough.

Was the flotilla disruptive?  It’s certainly caused a lot of noise.  Turkey aside, Ireland is pulling out the diplomatic threats over a lagging Irish vessel following the flotilla.

But brinkmanship and talk are nothing new, actual war or significant sanctions wouldn’t be.  The former is (fortunately) unlikely, the latter… well, the relevant question is what exactly would it take to cool unconditional US support for Israel?  (Note that attacking a US navy ship was not sufficient to cool US-Israel relations.)


Oil Volcano Apocalypse

The story of the Gulf oil spill have been on my mind a lot lately, I’ve been following it since the initial disaster, and there are some interesting recent developments, so it’s as good a topic as any to start with.

Basic background:  On April 20, there was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig (belonging to Transocean, leased by BP, operating 80 km off of the Louisiana coast).  The resulting fire could not be extinguished, and after two days, the rig sank.  The disaster killed eleven crew and caused a massive oil spill.

The oil spill should have been stopped by the rig’s blowout preventer device.  It’s unknown if the crew tried to trigger the device manually.  The failsafe dead-man’s switch failed to trigger the device.  Subsequent attempts to activate the device with ROVs failed.  Some countries require an acoustic remote control for the blowout preventer on offshore wells, but BP had successfully lobbied against US regulation that would require that.  It’s not clear that would have helped.  Yesterday, the well casing collapsed.

BP and the Coast Guard have been trying various methods to contain the oil spill, with very limited success.  BP does not appear to have had enough boom on hand to contain a spill of that magnitude (a lot, but still actually rather cheap compared to the cost of operating the rigs, where just the lease is nearly a half-million dollars per day).  The general idea is to use multiple layers of overlapping boom to divert oil to catchment basins.  That way, even though some oil sloshes over and under the booms (and it will), the lion’s share of it can be concentrated and removed from the area.  If you see long parallel lines of boom parallel to the shore, that’s a sign that things are being done wrong.

They’ve also been hitting the spill with chemical dispersants, which have several problems:  They’re toxic.  The metabolism of oil by bacteria, which the dispersants are intended to allow, is also pretty disruptive to ecosystems.  It turns the ocean into a giagantic oil lava lamp, which makes the oil harder to track and more disruptive to ecosystems at all depths.  Not surprisingly, oil is being found at great depths and the media are mostly following the spill at the surface.

BP is also considering implementing a “top kill” (circulating mud and concrete through the well to seal it), but it’s not clear whether that plan will work now that the well has disintegrated further.  Also, if they succeed, they’ll face the question of why they didn’t implement the plan sooner.

The spill has been interesting politically.  BP has claimed that they’ll pay “all legitimate claims” of damages from the spill, but it’s not clear how arduous a process they’ll use for determining “legitimacy”.  If they pay more in civil liabilities than required by law, they might risk shareholder lawsuit.  Republicans have blocked attempts to raise that limit from $75M to $10B, but I don’t know if such a change after the accident would affect BP.  President Barack Obama has talked a good talk about making BP pay, but has done nothing of substance (some possible but implausible options).  Sarah Palin has accused Barack Obama of being in bed with big oil (warning: the preceding sentence may contain a lethal dose of irony).  Libertarian (and now Republican congressional candidate) Rand Paul accused Obama of being “un-American” for merely criticizing BP, seeming to assert that BP’s assurance that they’ll pay civil penalties is more than enough.

It’s also been interesting from a media standpoint.  BP’s been trying to restrict access to spill sites.  On the other hand, they put the live streaming feed from their ROV monitoring the drill site on the internet, though that may now be down.  CNN is curating citizen journalism on the spill on their iReport site.

So, interesting stuff.  What am I still missing about this story?  I’ll probably have some political opinion writing to do on the subject, but I think I’m going to wait a bit given recent developments, and because this post is long enough as it is.

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