The core damage now unfolding in as many as four Japanese nuclear reactors after Friday's post-quake tsunami doused back-up cooling system generators is already becoming stock material for nuclear nihilists. Once again nuclear's perennial opponents are out in force hoping to use this episode to beat back nuclear power.
Greenpeace USA is asking its supporters to email the president and Congress with the suggested language "It's time to invest in clean, renewable energy. Not risky and dangerous nuclear power." This weekend Reuters reported on green parties in France, Italy, and Germany hurriedly parlaying Japan's reactors into a new ploy to push their respective governments away from nuclear. "We cannot master nature, nature rules us," Germany's Green Party parliamentary leader told the news agency.
After a partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979, the American nuclear industry stalled out, overcome by NIMBY-ism. The country built one more nuclear reactor after TMI. While TMI injured no one, the accident wrought lasting devastation on the country's prospects for energy independence with its perfect storm of an ill-timed disaster movie and a sea of media misinformation. The University of Texas at Austin co-hosted a lecture and panel discussion last week on energy's portrayal in the movies. Michael Webber, a mechanical engineering professor at the university and an expert in energy and environmental policy, summed it up thusly, according to the event's Twitter feed: "The China Syndrome did for nuclear what JAWS did for sharks."
Thanks to TMI, the United States has long lost much of the manufacturing infrastructure to efficiently build new full-scale gigawatt nuclear power plants. There are two plants under construction in Georgia, the first after this needless moratorium, and they are now so expensive that President Obama needed to approve a $8 billion loan guarantee (of an estimated $14 billion construction cost) so that Southern Company could obtain its financing for the huge project.
We shouldn't allow America's re-emerging nuclear industry to be swallowed up by a wave of misinformation following this devastating tsunami.
Nuclear is a key element of plans to minimize the impact of global warming. At 17 tons of carbon dioxide per gigawatt-hour, nuclear energy production actually emits less CO2 than wind (solar has nuclear beat by three tons per gigawatt hour). For reference, coal emits over 1,000 tons and natural gas over 600 tons for the same amount of energy. Facts like these have already swayed many environmentalists into the pro-nuke camp. Al Gore has carefully teetered on the edge of full-on nuclear support for some time now.
Holdouts refer to "safe energy" rather than "green energy" alternatives, aiming to exclude nuclear energy which towers over the green energy landscape as the most reliable source out there. Safe energy is a semantic trick along the lines of "pro-life," similarly implying a false dichotomy. That's because American-led nuclear design upgrades expected to power grids by 2020 change the terms of debate.
Meet the iNuke: small modular reactors chock full of elegant design innovations, built cheaply, operating efficiently, and buried underground for your protection. One of the most promising and practical designs is from Corvallis, Oregon-based NuScale. They've got the safest reactor design the industry has ever seen, one that's drawing a scrum of serious shoppers as the company prepares to file for Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval next year.
"We think we're approaching a breaking point where plants are getting so complex and so large that it's reflected in cost," Dr. Jose Reyes, NuScale's chief technology officer, told the audience at MIT's Energy Conference this month. Dr. Reyes drew intense interest from his rapt audience of MIT students and energy industry players at the conference's panel on small and medium nuclear reactors. He quickly got swarmed as his panel came to an end. I had to catch up with him later.
The Department of Energy funded Dr. Reyes and his Oregon State University team in 2000 as part of the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative. "We were commissioned to come up with a design that was small, compact and could be built easily," he told me, initially in the hope that it could be used in developing nations. The team built a functional model unit at their university lab as proof of concept, and NuScale used that lab while overhauling their plans into a commercially viable option. They ended up with a product that costs one-third of a traditional nuclear plant.
The NuScale mini reactor carries a risk of core damage of once in 100 million years. To put that expanse into some perspective, 100 million years ago, flowers had yet to evolve, and dinosaurs roamed the earth. It was the height of the Cretaceous period. Peer reviewed science will not back me up on my next assertion, but I think I have a fair shot of spontaneously turning into a porpoise about once in 100 million years.
We really shouldn't be awed by this kind of technological development, as unreal as it must seem to Green partiers everywhere. Japan's tsunami-drenched reactors are 40 years old. In the same time, space flight has evolved from impractical government-sponsored rockets and shuttles to the dawn of Virgin Galactic. Nuclear just slimmed down too.
In this case, about 70 percent of NuScale's reactor design is similar to the most recent iterations of water-cooled enriched uranium reactors that are common worldwide and share a lineage to those in Japan. But a lot of mutation can occur with a 30 percent DNA swap out, and in NuScale's case, all of it points to safer operating conditions.
For one thing, rather than the huge gigawatt reactor of the kind capped by a massive concrete dome, a NuScale plant has up to 12 individual reactors made up of self-contained modules, each immersed in water and encapsulated by steel. The 65-foot long by 14-foot wide modules will be manufactured under controlled conditions at a central factory and shipped to sites, dramatically cutting down costs. Four modules can power the city of Madison, Wisconsin. All twelve can light up the entire metropolitan area of Memphis, Tennessee.
Because a NuScale plant is broken up into self-contained mini reactors of 45-megawatts each, the failure scenarios only pose so much risk, says Dr. Mohammad Modarres, professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at the University of Maryland and an international leader in the science of probabilistic risk assessment.
Probabilistic Risk Assessments (PRAs) are the most rigorous step for any engineering design, and take months to produce after numerous computer models based data sources like materials analyses. Engineers begin by brainstorming hundreds of possible system failures, searching for any possible way that radiation could find its way into the environment, and then determine a frequency for every conceivable scenario, in the end determining the possible consequences for each outcome. Three Mile Island had just such a PRA, which was highly prescient and laid out a scenario of system and human error virtually identical to what happened there, but the plant's owners and federal regulators didn't heed its warnings at the time. PRAs earned new status in TMI's aftermath.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires PRAs for new designs and established plants alike, using methods standardized by the mechanical engineering profession. Much as the Food and Drug Administration mandates a series of clinical trials to assess the efficacy and safety of a prospective drug, the NRC's layers of regulators and outside consultants examine PRA data. Dr. Modarres performed NuScale's PRA just as he has done for large scale reactors and presented his findings at last year's International Probabilistic Safety Assessment & Management Conference.
Dr. Modarres says NuScale is the safest reactor he's ever come across, 10,000 times less risk of any level of core damage than currently operating standard reactors, and it's 10 times safer than the Westinghouse AP1000 plants China's building now (pending NRC approval, it's also the design that will go up in Georgia).
So what if a natural disaster cut of external power to NuScale's water pumps that cool the reactor core -- the exact scenario now playing out in Japan?
It can't happen. There are no pumps.
In the NuScale plant, "You don't need a pump -- the heat creates a current of water by natural physics. Everything works by natural phenomena." Instead, the plant's steam generator tube is its weakest link, contributing the largest fraction of its 1 in 100-million-year risk. Physical properties of the tube which carries hot steam to the electricity-generating turbine come into play in the analysis. The tube could rupture, sending radioactive steam into the turbine and depriving the reactor core of water. In NuScale's PRA, Dr. Modarres created technical models of possible wear and tear of the pipe and its safety valves that could occur over the years. "We calculate through the 'physics of failure' an estimated frequency for this event," he says. The model gets even more complex, as the reactor automatically replenishes its water (or human operators can do so) through chemical volume control systems. The PRA models have to take into account the likelihood of this system failing too.
NuScale takes advantage of its design simplicity during its pre-NRC submission phase to change out elements and see how that affects its PRA (that pipe may get further tweaking before the NRC sees it). Such revisions on the fly aren't even possible with most larger more complex plants.
The reactor's size is one of its most important safety features. At 1/26th the size of standard reactors, there's simply less radioactivity to let loose. Dr. Reyes told the MIT crowd, "We've not only reduced the frequency of possible accidents, we reduced the consequences of accidents. That's huge psychologically." People who are afraid of flying don't really care about the frequency of accidents he says, it's the huge consequences of a single accident. "We've eliminated that."
Dr. Modarres explains the worst-case disaster scenario this way: "Even if one of the reactors fails and releases its radiation into the containment vessel, and again if that containment vessel fails and releases its material, it would be releasing that material into water, which is one of the best scrubbers for radioactive material." Ultimately a small amount of radioactive gases could make their way into the atmosphere, but mind you the whole operation is in an underground silo.
Since each module has its own separate metal containment vessel (unlike the traditional design of concrete domes that are getting repeatedly blasted in the hydrogen-fueled explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant), the probability of two reactors both leaking radiation is the probability of two independent extremely unlikely events. Even more reactors? Infinitesimal.
What about a major earthquake? "Being inside water, the forces that would be applied to the modules is much less. It's floating inside the water, so they wouldn't have as much force as if they were tied into the ground." Detailed seismic assessments are still being built into the model, and depend on location, but Dr. Modarres does not expect such events will increase major risk significantly.
Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) was sounding the alarm bells this weekend, yesterday sending a letter to President Obama requesting a moratorium on new nuclear power plants, reminiscent of European Greens. In light of the dire challenge posed by global warming, the growing destabilization in OPEC countries, and the ingenuity of America's nuclear engineers, the more appropriate federal response to the vulnerabilities in old nuclear plant designs that we share with Japan is to fully back nuclear energy 2.0 companies like NuScale.
Boosting your ego won’t make you feel better. Instead, try talking to yourself like you would your best friend.
In 1986, California state assemblyman John Vasconcellos came up with what he believed could be “a vaccine for major social ills” like teen pregnancy and drug abuse: a special task-force to promote self-esteem among Californians. The effort folded three years later, and was widely considered not to have accomplished much.
To Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, that’s not surprising. Though self-esteem continues to reverberate as a pop-psych cure-all, the quest for inflated egos, in her view, is misguided and largely pointless.
There’s nothing wrong with being confident, to answer Demi Lovato’s question. The trouble is how we try to achieve high self-regard. Often, it’s by undermining others or comparing our achievements to those around us. That’s not just unsustainable, Neff argues, it can also lead to narcissism or depressive bouts during hard times.
The candidate has exposed the tension between democracy and liberal values—just like the Arab Spring did.
When I was living in the Middle East, politics always felt existential, in a way that I suppose I could never fully understand. After all, I could always leave (as my relatives in Egypt were fond of reminding me). But it was easy enough to sense it. Here, in the era of Arab revolt, elections really had consequences. Politics wasn’t about policy; it was about a battle over the very meaning and purpose of the nation-state. These were the things that mattered more than anything else, in part because they were impossible to measure or quantify.
The primary divide in most Arab countries was between Islamists and non-Islamists. The latter, especially those of a more secular bent, feared that Islamist rule, however “democratic” it might be, would alter the nature of their countries beyond recognition. It wouldn’t just affect their governments or their laws, but how they lived, what they wore, and how they raised their sons and daughters.
The Good Wife, which ends its seven-season run on Sunday, made use of its costumes in a way few shows have—giving them things to say about feminism and class and the complex interplay between the two.
The Good Wife begins with a pair of suits. Two people, a man and a woman, walk down a long hallway, each clad in that classic costume of conformity. The woman’s suit is gray-and-black wool houndstooth, slightly boxy in cut, clasped with mother-of-pearl buttons; the man’s is black, with just a hint of white sleeve peeking out from under the arm. The faces in that first scene remain just out of frame; the suits’ fabrics swish and bunch, their folds and shadows exaggerated by the harsh lighting of a cavernous hall.
Quickly, we learn that the faceless couple is Alicia and Peter Florrick, and that they’re on their way to the press conference in which he will announce his resignation as Cook County’s State’s Attorney, confess his repeated infidelity to his wife, and otherwise engage in the time-honored yet quintessentially modern ritual of the performative political apology. Alicia will stand beside him while he does all that, stoic and sad and exhausted, the rigidity of her pencil skirt and woolen jacket seeming to help her stay upright as the callous cameras flash. And then, abruptly, in the next scene—six months after the first one, the show informs us—we see her again. She is no longer pale. She is wearing a pantsuit instead of a skirt, and a jacket that is, unlike the first, perfectly tailored to her form. She is wearing stilettos. Actually, she is running in them.
Who has jumped on the bandwagon? Who’s sticking with #NeverTrump? And who hasn’t made up their mind yet? A continually updated inventory
How do you solve a problem like The Donald? For Republicans and conservatives, the time for hoping Trump would simply burn himself out, collapse, and go away is over. With the exits of Ted Cruz and John Kasich, the entertainer is now the presumptive GOP nominee.
That poses a dilemma for the Republican official or conservative opinionmaker who doesn’t like Trump, disagrees with his policies, and/or thinks he will harm GOP and the conservative movement. Swallow hard and back Trump? Try to coalesce around a third-party candidate? Sit out the election and risk allowing Hillary Clinton to win the presidency, or even back her rather than risk letting Trump win?
As the chaotic and failed attempts to stop Trump over the 10 months have shown, there’s no obviously right choice. But which choice are people making? Here’s a list of some major figures and where they stand on Trump—right now. We’ll keep it updated as other important people take stances, or as these ones change their views about Trump.
The Nebraska senator wrote a widely discussed open letter condemning Clinton and Trump. The spirit is right, but the substance is thin.
Kudos to Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse for reaffirming in a widely discussed “open letter” that he won’t support Donald Trump. I just wish the letter weren’t so self-righteously dumb.
Sasse, often mentioned as a potential third-party candidate, addresses his missive to the “majority of America” that believes that “both leading presidential candidates are dishonest.” He goes onto declare that neither Trump nor Hillary are “honorable people” nor “healthy leader[s],” whatever that means.
That’s an ironic way to begin a letter that later denounces “character attacks.” It’s true that many voters doubt Clinton’s trustworthiness. But Sasse offers no evidence that Clinton has been particularly dishonest in this campaign and the nonpartisan institutions that evaluate politicians’ veracity suggest the opposite. The fact-checking website Politifact rates 49 percent of Clinton’s statements “true” and 29 percent “false.” That’s substantially better than Marco Rubio (36 percent true, 42 percent false) and Ted Cruz (25 percent true, 64 percent false), neither of whom Sasse would call dishonest, let alone dishonorable or unhealthy. And it’s in a different solar system from Donald Trump, whose ratio as judged by Politifact is a mind-boggling 9 percent true to 76 percent false.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
The president was responding to a question on the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
President Obama sharpened his criticism of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, saying GOP voters have to decide whether the New York mogul “speaks for them and represents their values.”
“We are in serious times; this is a really serious job,” Obama said at a news conference Friday. “This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show.”
His remarks come as Trump won the Republican presidential primary in Indiana on Tuesday, prompting Ted Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas who was his main rival in the race, to suspend his campaign. A day later, John Kasich, the Ohio governor, also dropped out, leaving the field clear for Trump—and prompting a major debate within the GOP on their presumptive standard-bearer.
New data plumbs more than 4,000 stories for insights into life’s random surprises.
What I learned writing a feature about coincidences is that a coincidence is in the eye of the beholder. Or rather, the mind of the beholder.
Not just any random unlikely event will do; it has to be something that you notice, and that carries a whiff of meaning beyond the surface level—something that will activate the pattern-noticing mechanism in your brain and set off the “something’s going on here” siren. Once you notice a coincidence, you may write it off as just chance, or you may have a lingering suspicion that it happened for a deeper reason, that it was “meant to be.”
There’s not a lot of great data out there on what kinds of coincidences happen to people, mostly because the stories are often so singular as to be hard to quantify. But David Spiegelhalter, the Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, collects coincidence stories, and after I interviewed him for my story, the text analytics firm Quid started working with him to do some analysis of those stories, and has now shared the initial results with me.
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
The presumptive GOP nominee has declined to condemn vicious attacks on journalists.
You might’ve thought after the media firestorm that engulfed Donald Trump in February when he failed to vocally denounce the endorsement of white supremacists like David Duke to CNN’s Jake Tapper, Trump would’ve learned a lesson. That lesson being, of course, that presidential candidates should unequivocally denounce bigotry and hate, even when spewed by supporters.
But on Wednesday night, it happened again. This time instead of white supremacists, it was anti-Semites, and instead of Jake Tapper, it was Wolf Blitzer. Blitzer asked Trump if he had a “message” for his “fans” who had spewed a tidal wave of anti-Semitic comments at Julia Ioffe, a journalist who had written an article about Trump’s wife Melania that appeared in GQ last week.