Showing posts with label nuclear energy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nuclear energy. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

America's gift to Japan

The time-honored French TV show called Culture Pub appears to have huge archives of all the publicity-oriented video stuff produced throughout the world. They found this little gem from the 1980s in which a US corporation congratulates itself proudly on being so kind as to have sold nuclear reactors to Tepco in Japan. Today, I can imagine the Japanese bowing politely and crying out with a single voice: "Thank you, General Electric!"

The French-language subtitle at the beginning states: "Tokyo has been equipped with the safest reactors in the world." In French, that kind of offering is referred to as a poisoned gift.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hands up, or you'll die!

This news photo of a child being examined for radioactivity in the vicinity of Fukushima is poignant.

The child is too young to understand what it's all about, but the troubled expression on his face (his brow appears to be wrinkled) and the docility with which he is standing with his legs apart and holding his hands outstretched in the air indicate that he realizes that it's a no-joking situation. His big sister (?) in the background appears to be leaning forward as if to understand clearly what is being asked of her.

If all goes well, and these kids grow up to become normal young Japanese citizens—or, better still, future citizens of a new and more intelligent planet—their parents and teachers will tell them about 20th-century ancestors upon whom the night once descended.

And the adolescents will react: "Yes, we remember that terrible night… when we were kids."

Monday, October 5, 2009

If I were the president of Australia

Readers will realize immediately that the substance of this blog article is no doubt meaningless, for the obvious reason that there is no such thing as a president of Australia, since the country is neither a republic in the French sense nor a union of states like the USA. But allow me to continue my meaningless daydream...

I would set out to convince my compatriots (that's to say, my electors) that the nation's future must be 100% nuclear, in practically all domains (except the production of weapons): mining, processing, energy production and the safe disposal of nuclear waste. I would immediately seek to obtain the people's consensus on two essential questions:

• General democratic acceptance, through a referendum, of the overall project: a 100% nuclear future for Australia.

• The immediate nationalization of every aspect of this future industry. Existing uranium mining sites would be simply repossessed in the name of the Australian Republic, with nominal (minimal) compensation paid to shareholders.

In other words, no greedy capitalists would ever become excessively rich through this project, since all revenues would be poured back into the country, to develop its dilapidated civil infrastructure and defense system. The entire nuclear domain would be declared—through an article attached to the Constitution of the Republic of Australia—as "out of bounds" to foreign investors and run-of-the-mill capitalists.

The first step in this giant project would consist of Australia establishing an in-depth partnership with her sister republic, France, aimed at acquiring (basically for free, or almost) all the existing French Areva know-how in domains such as nuclear engineering and the disposal of nuclear wastes... as it is being performed today at La Hague in Normandy. France would assist Australia in the construction of reactors for the production of electricity, and in the total changeover of Australia's navy to nuclear propulsion. Together, the two nations would become world pioneers in every imaginable aspect of the waste-disposal problem, including security in particular. Their research center and processing installations concerning this activity would be set up in the Northern Territory of Australia, in a geologically stable zone.

In the immediate future, Australia and France would establish an indefinite moratorium on sales of uranium to certain undesirable customers throughout the world. Meanwhile, Australia would authorize France to install various military bases on Australian territory. This latter tactic would reflect the fact that Australia, through its grand nuclear project, might become a desirable piece of cake for ruthless neighbors. Naturally, the in-depth partnership with France would bring about a huge geopolitical shift at the level of Australia's traditional links with English-speaking nations, while drawing Australia closer to the operational heart of Europe.

Seriously, I believe that a handful of imaginative and courageous Australian political figures (whom I don't need to name) would not be totally shocked by my daydreaming. On the contrary...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Danger scale

I've been reading Steven Pinker's bestseller about language, published back in 1994, entitled The Language Instinct. It is indeed an excellent and refreshing book, which insists upon the fact that humans are not really taught to communicate by language, even though many parents surely imagine that their children would never have learned to speak were it not for the teaching efforts of their parents... who've often made a huge effort to become experts in "baby talk", believing naively that this was the only way of being understood by their toddlers. No, as Pinker's title suggests, the basic capacity to use language is a human instinct shared by every individual. The proof that our linguistic ability is instinctive is the fact that we say many things that have probably never been said before. So, how could we have been taught to make such statements?

Anecdote. Many years ago, I encountered briefly an exceptional woman: the English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a world authority on the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889-1951], whose mysterious and celebrated Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus had fascinated me when I was a student back in Sydney. Anscombe, closely linked to friends in Brittany who shared her Catholic faith, told us a weird story about one of her sons who had never uttered a single sound up until the age of four. One day, unexpectedly, he proclaimed loudly in perfect English: "Mother, you must punish my brother, for he just tried to lock me up in a wardrobe." Stupefaction! From then on, he spoke normally, as if some kind of a mental dam had been unclogged. This trivial anecdote would have probably never impressed me so much were it not for the associations between Anscombe and Wittgenstein.

Recently, I was fascinated by a TV documentary concerning the amazing story of the Israeli crooner Moshe Brand, who was a French celebrity under the name of Mike Brant, up until he jumped to his death from the balcony of a building in Paris. He too, as a child in Israel, never pronounced a single word. Then, at the age of four, he suddenly started to speak in Hebrew, revealing an exceptionally powerful and beautiful vocal tone that would contribute later to his international success as a singer.

Getting back to Pinker's book, I'm amused by his debunking of the silly myth about Eskimos having a huge variety of words for snow. The truth of the matter is that Eskimos probably use fewer words than a run-of-the-mill Alpine skier to talk about various kinds of snow.

When I arrived in France, I was intrigued by cases of a single English word being replaced by two or more French terms. For example, whenever an English-speaking person talks about finding bones [in French: os] in his fish dish, French observers are greatly amused. They imagine, say, a humble trout with a huge thigh bone. The correct French word for the bony things you find in a fish skeleton is arête.

Another stumbling block was the word scale. In a measurement context—for example, in maps—the French equivalent is échelle, which is also the word for ladder. But in music, when referring, say, to the scale of C major, a quite different word appears in French: gamme. Apparently, this new word has something to do with the Greek letter gamma. So, back at the time I was taking guitar lessons in Brussels, not only did I have to replace C, D, E by do, , mi, etc, but I had to force myself to refrain from speaking, say, of the échelle de do majeur.

The subject I wanted to evoke today (after taking quite some time to get around to it) is danger scales for potentially catastrophic events. To start the fireball rolling, let's say that everybody has heard of the famous Richter scale for earthquakes. As strange as it might appear, this logarithmic scale has no upper limit. Consequently, we could never refer to an earthquake of "the greatest possible magnitude", because there would be always be room at the top of the scale for an even more disastrous earthquake. That's nice scientific rigor, but I wouldn't feel like buying a used car from an earthquake scientist who told me that the vehicle required no more than a couple of minor repairs.

I wonder how many people are aware of a similar scale for accidents in the domain of peaceful nuclear energy, known as the INES. Now Ines, pronounced een-ess, happens to be an elegant French female Christian name of Greek etymology, meaning "pure and virginal", which I've encountered once or twice. But the INES that concerns me today is an acronym for the International Nuclear Event Scale, whose eight degrees extend upwards from zero to seven, from green to red.

As I pointed out in my articles of 17 June 2007 entitled Nice TV spot [display] and 27 December 2007 entitled Nuclear energy [display], France is covered with a relatively dense system of nuclear reactors run by a state-owned corporation named Areva, whose president is Anne Lauvergeon. Well, over the last fortnight, several minor accidents have occurred. The first was at the Tricastan site on the Rhône.

Many years ago, Christine and I spent some time there, when it was still thought of as the Pierrelatte center for refining the stuff with which you make atomic bombs. I was participating as a computing instructor in a job skills recycling program aimed at transforming nuclear energy technicians into computerists. I remember, above all, that we were housed in a VIP lodge in the woods, and that the notorious Mistral wind, blowing through the Rhône Valley, drove me mad during my entire stay at Pierrelatte. Indeed, these days, whenever my friends Natacha and Alain extoll the splendors of Provence, I still think to myself: Provence, yes... but Mistral, no!

Over the last fortnight, there have been no less than four accidents in nuclear installations operated by the French electricity authority, EDF. One occurred in the nearby city of Romans, and another in my home département, Isère. We're informed that they were all trivial events on the INES scale... which is nice to know. The latest accident, resulting in the irradiation of a hundred Tricastin employees, was of level zero on the INES scale. A French journalist, not accustomed to the habit (derived from computing) of starting to count with zero, asked rhetorically whether the nuclear authorities might end up trying to convince us that we're faced with negative dangers from their reactors!

There is, in fact, a competent French government agency, called ASN [Nuclear Safety Authority], in charge of safety and security in the nuclear energy domain. [Click their logo to access English-language documentation.]

Funnily enough, we're faced with a similar situation to the doping affairs in cycling, as sketched in my article of 18 July 2008 entitled Half empty or half full? [display]. If we seem to be hit suddenly by an avalanche of nuclear incidents, this doesn't necessarily mean that the whole engineering infrastructure is deteriorating. On the contrary, these danger alerts stem no doubt from the fact the security and detection processes are becoming more and more refined and intense. So, let's be optimistic.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Nuclear energy

In my recent article entitled Australia's submarines [display], I suggested that there is insufficient political consciousness and statesmanlike imagination in Australia to envisage a big project such as the construction of a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines. In The Australian today, there are a few negative remarks on this question. For example, Opposition Senator Nick Minchin states: "Australia has no capability or expertise to build or maintain nuclear submarines and the Collins-class boats have proved that conventional submarines can do the job. Rather than have a distracting debate, Labor should just rule out the nuclear option now." Peter Briggs, president of the Submarine Institute of Australia, stated that the main problem is lack of knowledge: "I think they should rule out the nuclear option because frankly we do not have time for such a major debate if we are to deliver new submarines by 2025. Australia has no nuclear industry and no nuclear facilities at our universities, and so we don't have the personnel or the knowledge required."

I'm dismayed by this defeatist thinking, which reflects Australia's stubborn head-in-the-sand attitude towards nuclear energy. And, with Kevin Rudd now elected, it's almost certain that the nuclear-energy situation in Australia will be bleaker than ever.

Here in France, of course, nuclear energy has become an everyday affair. Technological progress and advanced expertise should normally decrease the risks of catastrophes, and relatively few people—apart from Greenpeace and a handful of environmental groups—would contend today that developments in this domain should be halted. On the contrary, the commune of Cadarache in the south of France (near Marseille) will soon be hosting a huge futuristic research program called ITER [International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor] funded by the European Union, India, Japan, the People's Republic of China, Russia, South Korea and the USA.