30 June 2011

What About Thorium?

The raw material, thorium, is much more abundant than uranium and emits only low-level alpha particles. It has one isotope and therefore, does not require an enrichment cycle to be used as fuel. It is many times more energy efficient than uranium.

A thorium reactor produces no plutonium that can be made into atomic weapons and less longer-lived radionuclides than a uranium-based reactor. Because there is no chain reaction, there is no chance of a meltdown. Nuclear waste from past operations that contain fissile uranium and plutonium can be used as start-up fuel. _ResourceInvestor
For humans to enjoy a clean and abundant energy future, they will need to move to energy from nuclear reactions -- which means nuclear fission, for now. Thorium is the main alternative to uranium as a large-scale nuclear fuel. Here are some basic facts about thorium:
Thorium is a naturally-occurring, slightly radioactive metal discovered in 1828 by a Swedish chemist, Jons Jakob Berzelius, who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. The silvery white metal is found in small amounts in most rocks and soils, where it is about three times more abundant than uranium. Typical garden variety soil commonly contains an average of around 6 parts per million (ppm) of thorium.

Thorium oxide, also called thoria, has one of the highest melting points of all oxides at 3300°C. When this oxide is heated in air, thorium metal turnings ignite and burn brilliantly with a white light. Because of these properties, thorium has found applications in welding electrodes, heat-resistant ceramics, light bulb elements, lantern mantles and arc-light lamps. Glass containing thorium oxide has a high refractive index and dispersion and is used in high quality lenses for cameras and scientific instruments.
Sources and geographical distribution
The most common source of thorium is the rare earth phosphate mineral, monazite, which may contain up to about 12 percent thorium phosphate; however, the average is closer to a 6-7 percent range. Monazite is found in igneous and other rocks but the richest concentrations are in placer deposits, concentrated by wave and current action with other heavy minerals. World monazite resources are estimated to be about 12 million tonnes, two-thirds of which are in heavy mineral sands deposits on the south and east coasts of India. Australia is estimated by the USGS to host approximately 24 percent of the world’s thorium reserves. A large vein deposit of thorium and rare earth metals have been discovered in the Lemhi Pass region of Idaho and Montana.
Going nuclear
Although not fissile itself, thorium has started to reemerge as a tempting prospect to employ as fuel in nuclear power reactors. Thorium 232 will absorb slow neutrons to produce uranium 233, which is fissile (and long-lived). The irradiated fuel can then be unloaded from the reactor, the uranium 233 separated from the thorium, and fed back into another reactor as part of a closed fuel cycle. Alternatively, uranium 233 can be bred from thorium in a blanket, the uranium 233 separated, and then fed into the core.
The use of thorium-based fuel cycles has been studied for about 40 years, but on a much smaller scale than uranium or uranium/plutonium cycles. Basic research and development has been conducted in Germany, India, Japan, Russia, the UK and the USA. China and India have been among primary catalysts in research efforts to use it. Test reactor irradiation of thorium fuel to high burn-ups has also been conducted and several test reactors have either been partially or completely loaded with thorium-based fuel.
Thorium can be used in Generation IV and other advanced nuclear fuel cycle systems.
China has been working on developing the technology for sodium cooled fast reactors which are a type of liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs). The advanced breeder concept features a molten salt as the coolant, usually a fluoride salt mixture. This is hot, but not under pressure, and does not boil below about 1400°C. Much research has focused on lithium and beryllium additions to the salt mixture. In mid-2009, AECL signed agreements with three Chinese entities to develop and demonstrate the use of thorium fuel in the Candu reactors at Qinshan in China. _UraniumInvesting
The best ongoing source for information on thorium energy is Kirk Sorensen's blog "Energy from Thorium".

Kirk is featured in the introductory video below. You can click on the YouTube icon on the video below to watch the vid at YouTube, and to find links to several related videos -- some of them well over an hour in length.

Another blog dedicated to the molten salt reactor is the Nuclear Green blog.

Here's more on thorium, from a piece in Popsci from last summer:
An abundant metal with vast energy potential could quickly wean the world off oil, if only Western political leaders would muster the will to do it, a UK newspaper says today. The Telegraph makes the case for thorium reactors as the key to a fossil-fuel-free world within five years, and puts the ball firmly in President Barack Obama's court.

Thorium, named for the Norse god of thunder, is much more abundant than uranium and has 200 times that metal's energy potential. Thorium is also a more efficient fuel source -- unlike natural uranium, which must be highly refined before it can be used in nuclear reactors, all thorium is potentially usable as fuel. _Popsci

Another basic overview on thorium

An overview of thorium by Wired magazine

Adapted from an earlier article on Al Fin Energy

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission under the Obama regime has been very unhelpful, in terms of new reactor development and licensing. It is likely that China will develop the first successful molten salt reactor (MSR) using thorium fuel. Mass production of small modular reactors based upon thorium MSRs would give China a significant head start on what is likely to become a huge energy industry.


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29 June 2011

Can Aneutronic Fusion Space Thrusters Open the Solar System?

IEEE Spectrum Getty Images

If humans are ever to travel beyond the inner solar system, they will need to devise space propulsion methods beyond conventional chemical rockets. Nuclear reactions are orders of magnitude more powerful than chemical reactions, and seem the natural approach for space propulsion to the asteroid belt and the outer solar system. But working out the best form of nuclear space propulsion is apt to take time and a lot of work. NASA physicist and engineer John Chapman thinks that fusion -- aneutronic fusion -- is the way to go.

Instead of using deuterium and tritium as the fuel stocks, the new motor extracts energy from boron fuel. Using boron, an "aneutronic" fuel, yields several advantages over conventional nuclear fusion. Aneutronic fusion, in which neutrons represent less than 1 percent of the energy-carrying particles that are the result of a reaction, is easier to manage.

"Neutrons are problematic, because for one thing they’re difficult to harness," says John J. Chapman, the concept’s inventor and a physicist and electronics engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, in Virginia. To make use of neutrons, "you need an absorbing wall that converts the kinetic energy of the particles to thermal energy," he says. "In effect, all you’ve got is a fancy heat engine, with all its resultant losses and limitations."

In Chapman’s aneutronic fusion reactor scheme, a commercially available benchtop laser starts the reaction. A beam with energy on the order of 2 x 1018 watts per square centimeter, pulse frequencies up to 75 megahertz, and wavelengths between 1 and 10 micrometers is aimed at a two-layer, 20-centimeter-diameter target.

The first layer is a 5- to 10-µm-thick sheet of conductive metal foil. It responds to the teravolt-per-meter electric field created by the laser pulse by "acting as a de facto proton accelerator," says Chapman. The electric field releases a shower of highly energetic electrons from the foil, leaving behind a tremendous net positive charge. The result is a massive self-repulsive force between the protons that causes the metal material to explode. The explosion accelerates protons in the direction of the target’s second layer, a film of boron-11.

...There, a complicated nuclear dance begins. The protons (which carry energy on the order of roughly 163 kiloelectron volts) strike boron nuclei to form excited carbon nuclei. The carbons immediately decay, each into a helium-4 nucleus (an alpha particle) and a beryllium nucleus. Almost instantaneously, the beryllium nuclei decay, with each one breaking into two more alpha particles. So for each proton-boron pair that reacts, you get three alpha particles, each with a kinetic energy of 2.9 megaelectron volts.

...Electromagnetic forces push the target and the alpha particles in the opposite directions, and the particles exit the spacecraft through a nozzle, providing the vehicle’s thrust. Each pulse of the laser should generate roughly 100 000 particles, making the method tremendously efficient, says Chapman. And according to his calculations, improvements in short-pulse laser systems could make this form of thruster more than 40 times as efficient as even the best of today’s ionic propulsion systems that push spacecraft around. Even at 50 percent efficiency, burning off 40 milligrams of the boron fuel would deliver a gigajoule of energy. The amount of power depends on the laser pulse rate. The motor could generate 1 megawatt per second if the pulses are frequent enough to start reactions that consume that amount of boron in 1000 seconds. (According to Chapman, using this aneutronic fusion technique with helium-3 isotopes would yield roughly 60 percent more energy per unit mass. But boron is a more attractive fuel source because it is abundant on Earth and helium-3 is scarce.)

Another big advantage of fusion space propulsion, Chapman claims, is that some of the energy can be converted into electricity to power a spacecraft’s onboard control systems. "A traveling wave tube—basically an inverse klystron—captures most of the particles’ flux kinetic energy and efficiently converts it into electrical energy," says Chapman. The process, he says, is 60 to 70 percent efficient. _IEEESpectrum
The more powerful and efficient your propulsion, the more payload you can carry, the less fuel, and the greater your choices for timely flight path and orbital selection.

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Can Biofuels Save SubSaharan Africa?

800 million people live in Sub-Saharan Africa and a third of them don’t have enough food. By 2050, an estimated 1.95 billion people will be trying to live off the land in that region. Even if everyone in Sub-Saharan Africa were only to be fed as inadequately as they are today, the region would need to more than triple its food production over the next 40 years. For everyone on the continent to have enough to eat, food production would have to more than quadruple. _NYT

SubSaharan Africa is desperately in need of industries which will provide both work for the people, and crucial international trade for hard currency. Africa's oil and minerals industries tend to be run by outsiders, with most of the profits going overseas, and settling in the Swiss accounts of top government officials and cronies.

According to many scientists, Africa is custom-made for the coming biofuels revolution.
Dr. Lynd and Dr. Woods suggest that a growing bioenergy economy can be the key to driving this agricultural boom. Land is relatively plentiful in Africa, they write, and land for crops and land for fuel will not necessarily be in direct competition.

On marginal lands that cannot support agriculture in any case, they see great potential for biofuel crops, which require less water and nutrients. Africa’s vast land resources could also make the continent a competitive exporter of biofuels, which could bring in money for the basic infrastructure needed to transport and process food, they argued. It could also provide an economic incentive for rehabilitating degraded lands, the thinking goes.

...In an interview, Dr. Woods pointed out that it’s “always easier to think of problems than it is to think of solutions.

“It’s thanks to the demonization of bioenergy,” he said, “that companies are afraid to potentially tarnish their public image by exploring the potential that bioenergy offers Africa.” _NYT
Most people who demonise biofuels have not bothered to keep up with research and development in the rapidly changing field. They tend to look at ten-year-old data on corn ethanol production, and base their calculations and projections upon obsolete technological systems. Such approaches typify the mediocrity rampant in modern academia, thanks to a politically correct dumbing down of academic standards, and a destructive tendency to abort healthy debates prematurely -- declaring winners on the basis of ideological criteria.

The fertile land and abundant workforce of Africa are already in place. There is a need for modern agricultural, business, and land management expertise. But the greatest need now, if African biofuels are to prosper, is to find a way around the massive infrastructure-of-corruption which rules in virtually every SS African state.

One danger is that corrupt leaders -- for a price -- will allow foreign companies to set up huge plantations which will strip the land, with no provision for future fertility and long-term production. Another danger is that farmers with government or NGO grants -- but without guidance or skills -- will try to grow crops which are not appropriate for their soil and climate.

The biofuels potential for SS Africa is large, and promising well into the future. If managed properly, the land of SS Africa can feed even larger numbers than at present, and provide them with a decent income at the same time.

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28 June 2011

Japan and China Look Old Age in the Eye

Japan's relatively stable stagnation will continue for another 5-10 years before the combination of bad demographics and excessive debt causes the country to collapse into a crisis from which it may never recover. Its long history of domestic consensus and tranquility notwithstanding, Japan may well become a failed state. _Benzinga

The Land of the Setting Sun
Japan's fertility rate has been below replacement levels for over 30 years. Japan is aging very quickly. Once a population ages to the point that a relatively few fertile females remain, the point of no return for that population may have passed.
Fewer people means fewer customers to sell to. It means fewer innovators pushing at the boundaries of current technology. And in the modern welfare state, it means fewer people to pay for the pensions and health care needs of the elderly.

Regrettably, John Maynard Keynes was right. Without a continually growing population, the capitalist economic system starts to fall apart.

Of course, Japan's demographic woes are not just about shrinkage. It actually gets worse. Populations are not just a number; the composition of the population matters too. Japan's is changing, growing older at an alarming rate... _Benzinga

As you can see, sometime after 1975, Japan's total fertility rate dropped below replacement. Too many things would have to change in today's Japanese culture for that trend to reverse itself meaningfully. As Japan's population declines, Japanese industry will have to rely more and more upon export markets, which will put it in direct competition with a soon-to-be-aging China.
Japan’s population of 128 million now accounts for 2% of the world population, but with the global population on the rise the ratio is expected to reach 1% around the year 2050, according to another government survey. This has an array of implications, including forcing Japanese companies—from food makers to insurance companies—to go outside Japan to seek a bigger slice of the market share through mergers and acquisitions. _WSJ

With it's "one-child policy", China's fertility is similar to that of Japan. Although China's population is still growing as a result of sheer momentum, the nation's people are aging rapidly, with all the dire economic consequences that Japan is already beginning to experience.
China has reached a turning point. Demographic conditions are becoming unfavorable as the "baby bust" generation comes of age - entering and progressing through the working ages.

Currently, the "baby bust" is pushing down the number of people in their early 20s. In another 10 years, the number of people in the 20s and early 30s will be in decline. With each passing year, a larger share of the labor force, too, will be in decline.

The aging population is growing and will continue to grow very rapidly. The speed of aging will depend primarily on whether the fertility rate recovers from its currently low level or declines further as has been the case in South Korea and Japan. If China's total fertility rate begins to recover from its current level of about 1.5 to 1.6 births per woman, about 34 percent of its population will be 60 years or older in 2050. But if the total fertility rate declines to lower levels, about 39 percent of its population will be 60 years or older by then.

...The speed of aging will depend primarily on whether the fertility rate recovers from its currently low level or declines further as has been the case in South Korea and Japan. If China's total fertility rate begins to recover from its current level of about 1.5 to 1.6 births per woman, about 34 percent of its population will be 60 years or older in 2050. But if the total fertility rate declines to lower levels, about 39 percent of its population will be 60 years or older by then. _Xinhuanet

Japan was already rich when its people began growing old. Unfortunately, the bulk of China's vast population -- already beginning to age -- is still quite poor. Even worse, with China's one-child policy, individual Chinese tend to have no brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, or uncles. The potential for alienation without family is quite severe. And with a growing imbalance of males to females in the population, family life in China is apt to grow somewhat more rare. What will all these excess males -- no relation to each other -- do with all their spare time?
Across both the province and China as a whole, the disaffected are lashing out. “There is a growing sense of a country in danger of pulling itself apart at the seams,” as Hong Kong journalist Will Clem put it yesterday. Poor migrants in Guangdong have yet to start a full-scale insurrection and it’s too early to speak of “blood laptops” and “conflict handbags,” but these days they are in the mood to fight. _Forbes_Gordon_Chang

China's government is likely to turn to nationalistic saber-rattling and border wars, if for no other reason than to secure natural resources and to give the population a reason to rally around the flag. Excess young men, of course, can be given uniforms, and something to do.

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27 June 2011

Is 4.9% a Year Growth Rate a Rapid Growth for Africa?

Africa boasts an abundance of riches: 10 percent of the world’s reserves of oil, 40 percent of its gold, and 80 to 90 percent of the chromium and the platinum metal group. Those are just the known reserves; no doubt more lies undiscovered. _MQ
Global Map of Nations by per cent Living Under $1.25 per day

McKinsey Quarterly has published a fascinating look at recent economic growth in the continent of Africa (h/t Brian Wang). According to the report, real GDP growth over the continent averaged 4.9% per year between the years 2000 and 2008. This was twice Africa's growth rate over the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. The report goes on to discuss the many issues leading to such growth, and other factors that will be involved in future African growth. From McKinsey:
Africa’s collective GDP, at $1.6 trillion in 2008, is now roughly equal to Brazil’s or Russia’s, and the continent is among the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions. This acceleration is a sign of hard-earned progress and promise.

While Africa’s increased economic momentum is widely recognized, its sources and likely staying power are less understood. Soaring prices for oil, minerals, and other commodities have helped lift GDP since 2000. Forthcoming research from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) shows that resources accounted for only about a third of the newfound growth.1 The rest resulted from internal structural changes that have spurred the broader domestic economy. Wars, natural disasters, or poor government policies could halt or even reverse these gains in any individual country. But in the long term, internal and external trends indicate that Africa’s economic prospects are strong.

...Natural resources, and the related government spending they financed, generated just 32 percent of Africa’s GDP growth from 2000 through 2008.2 The remaining two-thirds came from other sectors, including wholesale and retail, transportation, telecommunications, and manufacturing (Exhibit 1). Economic growth accelerated across the continent, in 27 of its 30 largest economies. Indeed, countries with and without significant resource exports had similar GDP growth rates.

...To start, several African countries halted their deadly hostilities, creating the political stability necessary to restart economic growth. Next, Africa’s economies grew healthier as governments reduced the average inflation rate from 22 percent in the 1990s to 8 percent after 2000. They trimmed their foreign debt by one-quarter and shrunk their budget deficits by two-thirds.

Finally, African governments increasingly adopted policies to energize markets. They privatized state-owned enterprises, increased the openness of trade, lowered corporate taxes, strengthened regulatory and legal systems, and provided critical physical and social infrastructure. Nigeria privatized more than 116 enterprises between 1999 and 2006, for example, and Morocco and Egypt struck free-trade agreements with major export partners.

...The continent’s four most advanced economies—Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, and Tunisia—are already broadly diversified. Manufacturing and services together total 83 percent of their combined GDP. Domestic services, such as construction, banking, telecom, and retailing, have accounted for more than 70 percent of their growth since 2000. They are among the continent’s richest economies and have the least volatile GDP growth. With all the necessary ingredients for further expansion, they stand to benefit greatly from increasing ties to the global economy.

Domestic consumption is the largest contributor to growth in these countries. Their cities added more than ten million people in the last decade, real consumer spending has grown by 3 to 5 percent annually since 2000, and 90 percent of all house-holds have some discretionary income. As a result, consumer-facing sectors such as retailing, banking, and telecom have grown rapidly. Urbanization has also prompted a construction boom that created 20 to 40 percent of all jobs over the past decade.

...If recent trends continue, Africa will play an increasingly important role in the global economy. By 2040, it will be home to one in five of the planet’s young people, and the size of its labor force will top China’s. Africa has almost 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land and a large share of the natural resources. Its consumer-facing sectors are growing two to three times faster than those in the OECD7 countries. And the rate of return on foreign investment is higher in Africa than in any other developing region. Global executives and investors cannot afford to ignore this. A strategy for Africa must be part of their long-term planning. _MQ
The report excerpted and linked above is quite optimistic toward the economic prospects for Africa over the next 3 decades, based upon this "4.9% a year growth rate." But Al Fin economic and social forecasters do not take quite the sanguine view as those of the McKinsey Institute.

As seen in the map at the top of this entry, Africa is quite diverse in terms of economic conditions. It is an act of false parsimony to consider the entire continent of Africa as one unit, economically. Instead, one should look at SubSaharan Africa separate from North Africa, economically and socially. Further, one should subdivide SubSaharan Africa into tropical and temperate regions, when considering investments and partnerships. McKinsey failed to stratify African nations other than by "economic diversification" and "exports per capita." Useful, but not sufficient. It is difficult to draw useful conclusions when data is so badly conflated.

The time period selected by the report for extrapolating Africa's future may not be representative of what to expect from a realistic future Africa. The ongoing instability in Egypt and Libya, for example, suggest that the chronic instability of most of tribal Africa may be spreading into nations where tribal and religious instability had been temporarily suppressed by strong political regimes of long duration.

Urbanisation may bolster GDP growth numbers temporarily, for example, due to the more quantified economic nature of more modern city living vs. quasi-ancient rural life styles. Yet there are limits to how large stable cities can grow under certain demographic conditions. Many of Africa's cities are already pressing those limits. Frequent instances and high rates of crime, disease, poverty, malnutrition, and crumbling infrastructure suggest that many of these cities may already be near the breaking point.

Modern high tech infrastructures -- such as those which allow more advanced nations to enjoy the fruits of modern trade and sci-tech development -- are dependent upon an infrastructure of human capital which is capable of maintaining and improving the underlying technological infrastructure. In the absence of capable maintenance, repair, and construction, societal infrastructure tends to collapse at the most inopportune times.

Here is the blunt truth, which Political Correctness tries to obscure: Modern affluent lifestyles require a high tech infrastructure which can only be maintained by populations with average IQs close to 90 or above. This is an inexorable result of the normal statistical distribution of occupational abilities centering around the mean (for both IQ and EF, both of which are highly heritable). The only way for a society to exceed the "IQ limit" is if the nation hosts a "market dominant minority" -- or smart fraction -- of higher IQ persons capable of maintaining markets and infrastructures -- market dominant minorities such as the Chinese in Malaysia or Indonesia, or the shrinking populations of high-IQ groups still in South Africa.

North Africa's populations have a different evolutionary history than the populations of SubSaharan Africa. For some countries of North Africa, the average population IQs are near 85. But for most SubSaharan African nations, average population IQs are well below 80 -- generally averaging in the 70s. The reasons for such low average IQs involve multiple factors, but the blunt facts of low average IQ (and EF) are clear and stand in the way of large scale indigenous economic development across many chronically underdeveloped parts of the world.
Global IQ Map by Nation

For Africa to grow sustainably, it will need to attract leadership and energy from the outside -- and keep it there rather than driving it out, as was done in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, etc. An expansion of what it means to be "African" is mandatory -- but it can only be made to last in an Africa of greatly expanded opportunity and radically reduced corruption and populist demagoguery.

Al Fin futurists suspect that perpetually ambitious and corrupt African tribal leaders and strongmen will only accept the changes that are needed under the sanction of a "superior being." In abstract terms, think quasi-theocracy. In real terms, that would mean either an outside (perhaps "extraterrestrial") group of vastly superior technological capacity, a genuine artificial intelligence of superior wisdom and cognition, or a sufficiently convincing imitation of one or the other.

Adapted from an earlier article at Al Fin, the Next Level

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25 June 2011

US Regulatory Bottlenecks Force Nuclear Development to Move Overseas

"Right now, the regulatory environment here in the U.S. means that it would take decades just to certify the design," he said at a U.S.-China energy summit last year. "By partnering with the Chinese, they can move ahead and commercialize the technology around the world when it is proven," Huntsman said. _NYT
The nuclear licensing process for new reactors in the United States has grown so cumbersome and expensive -- and the US NRC under Obama has become so obstructionist toward new nuclear power -- that some of the newest and most promising new, scalable reactor startups are looking overseas for development and manufacture.

Last year Hyperion Power announced plans to manufacture its small modular reactor (SMR) in the UK, and now Terrapower -- backed by Bill Gates -- is negotiating with potential partners in France, India, China, and Russia, to build its cutting edge breeder reactor technology.
"We've had conversations with the Chinese, the Russians, the Indians, the French," Reynolds said in an interview. "We have an aggressive schedule where we think it is important to get something built and accumulate data so that we can eventually build them in the U.S. Breaking ground in 2015, with a startup in 2020, is more aggressive than our current [U.S.] regulatory structure can support."

In addition to its unique fuel cycle, the TerraPower design employs a high-temperature, liquid metal core cooling technology suited to a breeder reactor with "fast" neutron activity, rather than today's predominant reactors whose water cooling systems slow neutrons. TerraPower wants to partner with countries that are actively pursuing fast, breeder reactor technology. "That isn't here right now," he said, referring to the United States. _NYT_via_NBF
A number of different approaches to scalable nuclear fission have been proposed by US companies, but under President Obama the regulatory climate toward all forms of reliable energy production is extremely bleak. Hence the interest in building the revolutionary, safe, new, scalable designs overseas in an energy-friendly climate.

More on SMRs:
No bigger than a double-wide trailer and built in a factory for a fraction of the cost of a large nuclear plant, the small modular reactor (SMR) is an environmentally friendly and cost-effective way to help meet growing demand for electricity.

SMRs have the potential to replace older coal plants and to provide a hedge against volatility in natural gas prices. And while solar and wind are attractive energy sources, both produce power only intermittently and require back-up power in the event the weather is not cooperating.

Established nuclear-energy companies engaged in the development of SMRs include Westinghouse, General Electric, General Atomics and Charlotte-based Babcock & Wilcox. But the field also includes some smaller start-ups such as NuScale Power in Oregon, Hyperion Power Generation in New Mexico and TerraPower, based on the outskirts of Seattle and established with support from Bill Gates.

...In contrast to a conventional nuclear plant, SMRs could be added one at a time in a cluster of modules, as the need for electricity rises. The cluster's costs would be paid for over time, softening the financial impact. The modules could be factory assembled and be delivered by rail to an existing nuclear plant site. In such a configuration, one SMR could be taken out of service for maintenance or repair without affecting operation of the other units.

Most SMRs would be situated beneath the ground to provide better security. Typically they would operate for many years - possibly decades - without refueling and produce far less waste than conventional reactors.

Significantly, almost all of the SMR development is being done with private financing. Companies are using their own resources to develop the small reactors, without government support from mandates or subsidies of the sort that renewable energy sources now require. An SMR designed by Babcock & Wilcox would generate 125 megawatts, using conventional light-water reactor technology. The Tennessee Valley Authority is considering deploying six of the Babcock & Wilcox modules at its Clinch River site near the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Another SMR on the drawing board would be an advanced, sodium-cooled "fast" reactor producing just 25 megawatts - enough electricity to power a rural community or a military installation. Hyperion Power Generation has formed a partnership with the Savannah River National Laboratory to build a sodium-cooled reactor as part of a clean energy park near Aiken, S.C. _Newsobserver

Eventually the energy starvationists who have entrenched themselves in Washington DC will be forced out, and their current premises fumigated and disinfected with fresh, rational, and optimistic thinking regarding an abundant energy future.

Previously published at Al Fin Energy

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24 June 2011

A Brief Insight Into Human Nature from Minot, ND

Suffering and loss are widespread in the town of Minot, North Dakota, as flood waters continue to rise. How are the people of Minot dealing with this ongoing tragedy?
First of all, if you can’t tell from the pictures, this a tragedy of almost unthinkable proportions. The Souris River carves a winding path through an otherwise flat terrain. The river valley is relatively shallow, about 150′ lower than the prairie on either side, and maybe 2 to 3 miles wide. The river is also crooked, and makes a horseshoe shape. The town of Minot straddles the river, with roughly 1/4 of the town on the north hill, 1/4 of the town on the south hill, and 1/2 the town in some part of the valley.

...12,000 people have been displaced, and hundreds more are in a state of voluntary evacuation. Hundreds, if not thousands, of houses will be destroyed...People have made their best efforts to move their belongings and prized possessions to higher ground, but everyday seems to bring worse news. 3 days in a row the predicted crest level has been higher than the previous day. Friends that two days ago thought they were safe found out yesterday that they were not. By the time this thing is over, perhaps a third of the town’s homes and businesses will be destroyed, along with the vital infrastructure that links the north hill and south hill neighborhoods.

...I am not from this part of the country (I hail from the East Coast) and nowhere that I have lived has ever faced this kind of adversity. But I would be proud to call this town my home. I have not seen one person whine or complain. I have not heard one hopeless person ask when the government or FEMA would rescue them. The town mobilized itself days ahead of the impending disaster and began planning for the worst; secondary levees and sandbag walls went up with breathtaking speed, and thousands of homes were evacuated without incident. Think of it as the anti-Katrina. Once the townspeople saw that their worst fears were about to be realized, and their homes and livelihoods destroyed, instead of giving up, they have only redoubled their efforts to save what can be saved. Their stoic determination in the face of absolute catastrophe amazes me. _Instapundit

"Stoic determination in the face of absolute catasrophe...." A society made up of competent individuals determined to work their way through to the other side of catastrophe largely on their own sweat, will, and competence -- that is a somewhat resilient society or community. It can make the hard decisions and sacrifices it needs to make in order to survive as a unit group.

Politicians and other public servants often call on citizens to display such fortitude and sacrifice -- at the same time as they, the politicians and bureaucrats, fly around the world playing golf, drinking cocktails with peers, attending fundraisers, twittering their photographs, and dispensing public resources to private supporters and hangers-on so as to maintain their hold on power. Societies which depend on politicians and public servants for their survival, will fall.

Inner grit -- the type of resilience and determination displayed by the people of Minot -- cannot be conjured out of thin air by some political messiah, wordsmith, or witch doctor. Such determined and competent perseverance combines both lifelong immersion in a certain mindset along with constant training and responsibility in mundane day to day needs of living. And although it is far from politically correct to say this, breeding also comes into play in human resiliency or the lack of it.

Floods and other natural disasters are inevitable, as is a growing societal dissonance due to debt and demographic decline. And yet most modern governments persist in forcing citizens to grow more dependent upon government, and less resilient or competent in meeting their own needs and exigencies.

The lesson, for those who want to see it through, is to build networks of competence in your neighborhood, community, and region. Instill competence and resilience in your children and yourselves. Problems and catastrophes are inevitable. They do not have to turn into large scale doom unless you allow it.

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23 June 2011

A Fresh Approach to Foreign Language Learning

Learning languages is fun and easy -- if you are a small child. If, on the other hand, you have allowed your critical window of language development to close without having learned multiple languages, you have a serious challenge to face in trying to add languages to your verbal repertoire. But a new team of learning gurus are in town, and they aim to make language learning fun and easy again, even for you old codgers who are long past your peaks!
A world memory champion and a neuroscientist have joined forces to create a language-learning website called Memrise, which combines mnemonic tricks with a game to help users learn quickly and efficiently. Its carefully paced learning structure and competitive points system, the app's developers believe, make their site more effective than other language-learning tools.

Memrise makes learning a game with virtual gardens that users must tend. As they do, they also earn points and thereby fight their way up a community-wide leaderboard.

Mandarin Chinese and English are the only languages that have been rolled out yet, but others including French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Arabic can be used in beta form.

...The premise is that each word or phrase is a seed for users to plant in their gardens. A new word is planted when a user is exposed to it. Once planted, the seed sprouts in a few hours and must be harvested—that is, the user is tested, typically by having to type out words or choose characters, depending on the language. With each success, a plant is moved to a greenhouse, where it will thrive or wilt depending on how well the user tends it by practicing with the word.

"Learning should always be emotional; you should always be delighted and proud of what you've learned,

" says Memrise cofounder and memory champion Ed Cooke. That's where many language-learning aids lose users, he says—the presentation fails to engage users and make them want to learn.

The Memrise learning method is based on three principles. The first, Cooke says, is one of the most important aspects of memory training: vivid encoding. In order to recall otherwise arbitrary words, the user's brain benefits from connecting them to an image. The more associations to a word the user makes, the quicker and clearer the recall. Memrise provides some associations for users—the Chinese character for "man," for example, transforms into a cartoon drawing of a man. But it also encourages users to submit their own verbal mnemonics. For instance, in one French session, the phrase "une boucle" (which means "a loop" in English) is paired with a user-submitted mnemonic about a roller coaster: "I hope they boucle us in securely. This roller coaster has so many loops."

The second principle of Memrise's approach is to remind users systematically. Using an algorithm developed by neuroscientist and cofounder Greg Detre, the app is designed so "plants," or words, wilt when not tended to. The user interface tells users which plants are wilting, a problem they can remedy by "watering," or repeated testing. Reminders pop up when a user is most likely to forget new words, rather than at random intervals.

The final Memrise principle is adaptive testing, which means that questions vary in difficulty according to the user's performance. "Other language sites get this wrong," says Cooke. "It's really important that you test these memories at the right time and in the right way." _TechnologyReview
In an age where machine language translation devices are growing on trees, one might wonder why humans would take the trouble to fill their minds with foreign sounding words and phrases when machines could do the work for them. And yet there is that "use it or lose it" dynamic at work, where entire parts of the brain are taken over by other -- perhaps more mundane -- tasks if certain skills and abilities are not exercised or learned.

Humans have not yet begun to learn how to use their brains. Research into memory and learning is helping to slowly unwrap the marvelous present so carefully packed and perched on a stalk above our shoulders. But most people will not want to take the trouble, when there are so many mind-numbing ways of killing time out there.

The choice between the next level and the Idiocracy is made on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.


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22 June 2011

Spotlight on Helion Energy's Colliding Plasma Fusion

Using Sandia National Laboratories data, Helion calculates 50 fusion engines could incinerate the entire U.S. stockpile of nuclear waste in 20 years.

Helion Colliding Plasmas

Many billions of dollars have been spent on large scale fusion efforts such as the National Ignition Facility in Livermore or ITER in France. But if the best use of fusion in the intermediate term is to burn up non-recyclable nuclear waste from fission reactors, perhaps the smaller-scale, cheaper approaches might be better? Small efforts such as Bussard IEC fusion, Focus Fusion, General Fusion, Tri Alpha etc. are the sentimental favourites, because they are the work of relatively small groups with low budgets. Their reactors would be small enough to mass produce in factories. And maybe they could even provide the heart of a deep space fusion rocket propulsion system one day.

Regardless, the teams of scientists and engineers are out there giving it their best. Here is a quick look at Helion Energy's fusion project, based in Redmond, Washington:
Helion is among a handful of fusion startups, such as Tri Alpha Energy in Foothill Ranch, Calif., and General Fusion in Vancouver, British Columbia, all striving for the same grand goal as their outsize government counterparts: remaking the global energy landscape by proving that fusion power is feasible. A few forward-looking venture-capital firms have provided funding to get them off the ground; Tri Alpha, for instance, has attracted more than $50 million from a variety of prominent firms, including Goldman Sachs and Vulcan Capital.

Helion's technology was developed for about $5 million by MSNW, a company owned by University of Washington research associate professor John Slough. To see a full-scale component of the reactor, which Slough calls a fusion engine, I meet him at an industrial building a few minutes' drive from Helion's headquarters and walk past a conference table to a room filled with giant metal parts.

Inside the 26-foot-long prototype, two plasmas—clouds of hot ionized gas containing hydrogen isotopes—hurtle toward each other. The clouds collide inside a burn chamber, merging into a single entity. An electromagnet surrounding the chamber squeezes the plasma tighter and tighter, creating the high temperature and pressure conditions needed for fusion—a milestone MSNW first passed in 2008. "The idea," says Slough, who has the white hair and slightly disheveled appearance of a modern-day Einstein, "is to have the energy that comes out of the plasma exceed the energy that goes into it for a brief period of time."

...With its pulsed magnetic field design, the Helion team claims it has found the elusive sweet spot in the fusion landscape: a reliable, cheap reactor that doesn't require fine-tuned optics or complicated plasma confinement. In Helion's reactor, electric currents flowing inside the plasma reverse the direction of a magnetic field that's applied from the outside; the new, closed field that results effectively confines the plasma. "Compared to the tokamak and NIF, Helion's reactor is relatively compact and low-cost," says Richard Milroy, a physicist at the University of Washington who isn't affiliated with Helion. "Utilities don't need to invest billions for the first test reactor to see if things will work out." Plus, he says, the plasma-formation area is separate from the burn chamber in Helion's reactor, so its expensive components may last longer.

...While Helion's reactor is much simpler than those of ITER or NIF, it's also not yet powerful enough to be useful to a utility. Slough says his team will need to increase the size of the reactor's magnetic confinement field and boost the acceleration rate so that the plasmas will be traveling about twice as fast by the time they crash into each other. Those refinements will require at least $15 million to $20 million in development costs, money Helion does not currently have. Even if the funds materialize, there's no guarantee the reactor will work as projected when scaled up, or function consistently over long periods of time.

...fusion might be most useful—at least in the near term—as a means of destroying waste from nuclear fission. University of Texas physicist Swadesh Mahajan and his colleagues are developing a hybrid fusion–fission reactor that shunts neutrons produced during fusion to a fission blanket that burns nuclear waste as fuel. "Producing energy by fusion is at best a very long-term project," Mahajan says, "but through this intermediary, we can become useful to the energy sector."

NIF's projected LIFE power plant will be designed to burn waste, too, and Helion is considering adapting its reactor to do the same in order to provide revenue from utilities sooner. It's easier from a technical standpoint than using fusion to produce energy, because achieving break-even is not necessary—and it could potentially help solve a long-standing problem. Using Sandia National Laboratories data, Helion calculates 50 fusion engines could incinerate the entire U.S. stockpile of nuclear waste in 20 years. _PM

The R&D work and expense would be worth it, just to be able to safely dispose of non-recyclable nuclear waste (and any other toxic waste). If in addition to that, any of the small-scale fusion projects actually succeeds in producing large scale electric power safely and sustainably from fusion, the world will have changed overnight.

Cross-posted from Al Fin Energy


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Witch Doctors of England Place Curse Upon World's Oceans

Warning: This article is plagiaristic satire. The links are real, but the excerpted material has been altered for this article.
Wikipedia Witch Doctors of England

Update: Here is an example of a successful witch doctor environmental curse, literally sending almost an entire family in Argentina to its death (h/t M. Simon).

An organisation of British witch doctors -- the IPSO (International Programme on the Supernatural of the Occult) -- has placed a curse upon the oceans of the world as punishment for man's lack of faith in the authority of global witch doctors.
A new curse by the IPSO is affecting the ocean as a whole.

The bottom line? We're on course for a mass extinction that would include coral reefs and the menagerie of species that rely on them, as well as multiple species of fish consumed by people, and it will be worse than the "big five" extinctions of Earth's distant past due to an extra spin placed upon the curse by chief witch doctor Alex Rogers.

"We're bringing on a combination of symptoms that have been associated with large, past extinctions," says Alex Rogers, the head of IPSO. _NewScientist
Witch doctor skeptic Anthony Watts, proprietor of the skeptic blog Watts Up With That?!?!? assumed a naturally skeptical posture, when told of the IPSO curse.
Oh for goodness sake (parallels to IPCC 80% greenpeace renewables story)

The International Panel on the Supernatural of the Occult !!! IPSO – modest bunch – see mission statement (front page website)

The International Programme on the Supernatural of the Occult (IPSO) was established by witch doctors with the aim of cursing the Earth and all life on it.

Another Press release – Gets a shocking headline – the wait for the report (so that it can be checked) so that it is forgotten about and at the end – it is too early to say, but the trends are, etc,etc,etc

Maybe the Oceans are in a shocking state, I’m just getting too cynical to care…

BBC: World’s oceans in ‘shocking’ decline – Richard Black – 20th June 2011

“The oceans are in a worse state than previously suspected, according to an expert panel of witch doctors.”

“In a new report, they warn that ocean life will be cursed so as to“enter a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history. This is the least we can do to punish humans for their lack of faith and financial support”. _WUWT

Unflappable optimist Matt Ridley believes that the witch doctors are simply too pessimistic as a result of unhappy childhoods.
Today, infected by Malthusian ecology, the witch doctors relentlessly preaches millennial doom and technological risk: the climate is heading for catastrophe; resources are running out; population is growing too fast; farming cannot keep up; habitat is being destroyed; poverty, hunger, pollution, disease and greed are only going to get worse. A dramatic change in human stewardship of the planet is needed.

The evidence suggests that these predictions are likely to be wrong. _GWPF
Even mainstream scientists are braving the wrath of the witch doctors, and conducting actual scientific experiments on the ocean in order to determine its actual conditions:
The team showed that coccolithophores dispose of unwanted H+ by allowing them to exit cells through specialised protein pores, or ion channels, that are selectively permeable to H+. This process keeps the pH inside the cells at acceptable levels and allows coccolithophores to produce their calcium carbonate scales.

The team identified the gene that encodes for the H+ channel protein. "These H+ channels belong to a unique group of transport proteins that were discovered quite recently in certain types of animal cells that experience metabolic acidosis" explains Glen Wheeler, co-author of the study. "It turns out that H+ channel genes are also present in other groups of phytoplankton… [which] belong to groups that are not closely related to either plants or animals. Our discovery shows that H+ channels are more widespread than previously thought and that they serve a critical function in regulating cellular pH during a range of cellular processes in evolutionarily distant organisms" says Wheeler. _Physorg
So according to the study at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, the organisms of the ocean are finding ways to fight the witch doctors' curses of doom. And none too soon, as these witch doctors of the IPSO and affiliated organisation such as the IPCC are getting out of control, and scaring the children and science news media absolutely witless!

Witch doctors of doom and dieoff.orgiasts have been frequently idolised by gullible hack writers such as Rousseau and his more modern ilk. But there is nothing noble about extinction curses -- particularly when they are largely meant to frighten populations into giving more money to the IPSO, IPCC, and other witch doctor groups.

The oceans have dealt with far worse threats over the past billions of years than anything the witch doctors of England can throw at them. But the sycophancy and obeisance to witch doctors by media outlets such as New Scientist, the BBC, etc. may set back public faith in the media for decades or longer.

More: Oceans more resilient than we know

Beware the plastic apocalypse!

World's oceans and coral reefs feel better . . .

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China's Ticking Time Bomb to Widespread Unrest

China has many serious problems threatening its future prosperity and strength. Among them are a virtual absence of social benefits for migrant workers, and dangerous exposure to toxic materials of all kinds for both workers and ordinary citizens. The article excerpted below discusses two of these many problems:
The root of the problem is China's hukou system of household registration. Migrant workers aren't considered residents of the cities where they live, which means they aren't entitled to health care, pensions, housing subsidies or education for their children. To educate their children, migrant workers either have to find the money to pay for schooling in the cities where they work or send their children back to the rural areas where they officially still live. With migrant workers earning so little -- the average is about $250 a month -- sending children back home is often the only option.

The hukou system is nothing new, so why the increase in protests now? Three reasons, I think. First, the contrast between the country's newly wealthy and this vast migrant underclass has fed anger at the unfairness of the system. Second, because China's growth has produced labor shortages in many parts of eastern, export-oriented China and because Beijing has pushed growth into lagging western provinces, migrant workers have more bargaining power. They can find work closer to home if they don't like the way they're treated in the traditional fast-growth provinces. Third, China's increasing inflation rate has come down particularly hard on the country's poorest residents. The annual overall inflation rate was 5.5% in May, but food inflation is running at well over 10% annually. If you make just $250 a month -- and remember that's the average, so some migrant workers make even less -- and spend 35% of your family budget on food, then 10% food inflation is pinning you to the wall....

...China is the world's largest consumer of lead. National data are sketchy, but a 2006 review of the existing data suggests that one-third of Chinese children suffer from elevated blood-lead levels. Part of the problem is enforcement -- officials are reluctant to clamp down on businesses that provide jobs. But national environmental standards are also woefully inadequate. Based on U.S. regulations, lead levels of 40 micrograms per deciliter of blood are poisonous for adults. Chinese rules call 400 micrograms per deciliter, a common reading for lead workers, "moderately elevated."

Tightening and enforcing national standards would require closing marginal factories, mandating expensive environmental upgrades for every company that works with lead -- including the country's increasingly large battery industry -- and providing compensation and treatment to affected workers. All that would disrupt local economies and be incredibly expensive. It's easier to treat each outbreak of the national problem as a local event and address it with force and limited payments. _money.msn
Chronic lead toxicity among workers, children, and ordinary citizens is destructive enough. But even worse poisons and poisonings afflict various parts of the Chinese population. And authorities appear extremely hesitant to do anything about them, for fear of upsetting the current run of prosperity in high places.

China's leaders are deluding themselves if they think they can keep China within a bubble of their own making and under their complete control. People and ideas cross freely over the Chinese border on a daily basis, and each person and idea represents a potential threat to the autocratic system of the CCP. But stopping the relative free flow of ideas and people would mean going back to the dismal age of Mao and the cultural revolution of death and fanatical ideology out of control.

The situation is intrinsically unstable. Sooner or later, something has to give.

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21 June 2011

Maybe Instead of Killing Them All, We Should Send Them to China?

US law schools are pumping out new graduates like a torrent of toxic waste. Elie Mystal thinks that Obama should create an "Americorps" for law graduates. But Al Fin legal scholars think the fallout from the US lawyer glut has become so bad for the US economy and US society, that extreme measures are called for.

No, Al Fin law scholars don't favour the Shakespearean solution of "first kill all the lawyers!" Instead, these legal gurus recommend sending all US law school graduates to China to act as bank examiners, construction inspectors, labour union organisers, environmental overseers, and political activists. It is time to restore international equilibrium! The program should run for roughly 30 years, after which we can send US law graduates to China to help sweep up -- clean up the mess their predecessors have made. By then, the US should have recovered from its own lawyer-instigated collapse, and be ready to provide foreign aid to a much-diminished China.
Law School Bubble
From: The Best Colleges

Excess attorneys are toxic to any society, but particularly to societies which have no means by which to dispose of the excess. Automatic deportation of US law graduates to China upon graduation would solve a whole host of problems, according to the legal sages of Al Fin.

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20 June 2011

China's Wind Infrastructure to Nowhere

China is trying to increase its use of alternative sources of energy. To that end, the country has installed billions of dollars worth of wind turbines. In fact, in 2010, China surpassed the United States as the country with the most wind turbines installed.

But despite China's recent upsurge in wind farms, Ma says, there's an infrastructure problem that hasn't been widely reported. Many of China's wind turbines can't connect to the country's larger electric grid. There aren't enough cables, wires, and related technology to bring wind-generated electricity from rural Mongolia. That's where most of China's wind turbines are located--far from the densely populated hubs of China's northeast and south, where electricity is most needed _FastCompany
In the midst of China's mad rush to build infrastructure, the weakness of its command economy is exposed. Despite its impressive GDP numbers, China is a poor nation filling itself with ghost cities, ghost highways and railways, ghost infrastructure of every kind -- much of which is destined to crumble and fall prematurely due to rushed, shoddy construction.

Even worse than low quality overbuild, is China's bloated financial and economic infrastructure, corrupt to the core.

The ghost numbers of China's ghost economy impress only those who are incapable of looking to the heart of China's economic problem -- the lack of meaningful market level decision making and housecleaning. China's human masses are its greatest value, yet due to China's corrupt government the incredible creative power of China's people is being constrained and oppressed, wasted, like the massive ghost infrastructure to nowhere that begins crumbling even before it is completed.

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17 June 2011

Incorrigible Doomseekers Profit from Your Fears

In the late 1990s author James Howard Kunstler argued that Y2K would bring civilization to its knees. That didn’t happen, but that didn’t lead Kunstler to rethink his views on the end, just the means....Stanford biology professor Paul Ehrlich and his wife Anne, who in their 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted massive global starvation due to overpopulation in the 1970s and ’80s. Was there starvation in those decades? Yes [There always is _ed.]. Was it massive and global? No. Were the Ehrlichs chastened? Not so much. While they concede their scariest doomsday scenarios were “way off,” on the larger question of looming disaster they say they were “too optimistic.” _Cecil Adams @ CityPaper
Incorrigible doomers glom onto doom-causes du jour such as carbon hysteria, Y2K, overpopulation, peak oil, etc. The cause is not important, it is the hovering doom that counts.
A couple decades ago climatology consultant Iben Browning predicted a huge earthquake centered on New Madrid, Mo., a well-known earthquake zone where seismologists have long predicted a future cataclysm. However, they’ve never given an exact date, because to do so is beyond the grasp of current science. Public reaction to these open-ended prognostications: yawn. Browning’s innovation was to assert flat out that the earthquake would happen on Dec. 3, 1990, backing up his claim with a convincing pseudoscientific spiel. Result: a media frenzy, but no quake.

...How do doomsayers cope when their predictions go south? There’s a common thread regardless of how delusional they are. In When Prophecy Fails, a landmark 1956 study of cultists awaiting a world-ending flood, psychologist Leon Festinger proposed his theory of cognitive dissonance, which describes how people rationalize their continued adherence to disproven claims.

The shrewder doomsayers do this too, but their rationalizing is often something like: all in the service of the greater good. You can’t blame them, really. They’re just making practical use of the paradox known to every politician who ever walked the earth: people will listen when you lie to them, and ignore you when you tell the truth. _Cecil Adams
The hucksters of doom have learned how to profit from your fears and your gullibility. They always have a book, a seminar, a newsletter, or other means by which to transfer your wealth into their pockets.

But don't be too complacent. When your government is run by fools who disregard the well-known hazards of excessive debt and demographic decline, hard times are waiting right around the corner.

The pseudo-intellectual fools who currently run governments, academia, the media -- the parasitic classes -- have over the decades bred and trained a large following of drones unable to think or act for themselves. When the true catastrophes eventually come around, there will be fewer competent persons to deal with them than there should have been. Thanks to trumped up worries over fantasies, combined with the studious obfuscation of potential problems that have been steadily building in seriousness within populations of the advanced world, there is a real danger.

But you will have to face it alone, or with small groups of like-minded persons who took the trouble to prepare. Most important of all, you will need to learn to conceal your preparations from the parasitic classes while at the same time recruiting as many persons from among your friends and family as you can.

The pseudo-panics caused by grifting doomseekers are just part of the rampant parasitism that thrives under corrupt governments and decayed cultures. We must take them in stride along with the rest, while stocking up appropriately for what may truly come.

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15 June 2011

Solar Cycle Shutting Down: New Ice Age Next?

"The sunspot cycle may be going into hibernation," says Frank Hill of the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico. He and other researchers are presenting their findings this week at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Solar Physics Division in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

...The sun's solar cycle was interrupted once before during the so-called Maunder minimum from 1645 to 1715, when almost no sunspots appeared.

Some scientists have suggested this 70-year lull may have triggered or contributed to the pronounced cooling observed in northern Europe during this period... _NS

Solar scientists do not understand what is up with the sun these days. Just as physicists are discovering that the sun may be driving the climate, solar scientists are frantically trying to understand what is driving the sun. Because if the sun does decide to shut down for a while, things on Earth may grow very cold of a sudden.
Three different lines of evidence suggest that the sun, which is expected to reach its maximum sunspot and magnetic activity in the current cycle in 2013, might even be entering a prolonged quiet period similar to the so-called Maunder Minimum, a 70-year period from 1645 to 1715 in which virtually no sunspots were observed. _SMH
It has been clear for some time that global climate closely tracks solar activity, mediated largely via clouds and ocean oscillations. But scientists are still in a fog as far as understanding the controlling forces of solar cycles.
A missing jet stream, fading spots, and slower activity near the poles say that our Sun is heading for a rest period even as it is acting up for the first time in years, according to scientists at the National Solar Observatory (NSO) and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL)....All three of these lines of research to point to the familiar sunspot cycle shutting down for a while.

“If we are right,” Hill concluded, “this could be the last solar maximum we’ll see for a few decades. That would affect everything from space exploration to Earth’s climate.” _WUWT

Scientists are forced to monitor second and third order phenomena, and to guess at the primary -- likely chaotic -- forces at the heart of the sun, which control the observable phenomena. As for the climate of tiny planet Earth, it is at the mercy of cosmic forces.

When unscrupulous politicians and grant-hungry climatologists scream for greater funding and more control over government budgets and economic activity -- that is clearly self-interest talking. But when voters, citizens, and the public at large take these climate grifters seriously -- that is the Idiocracy.

CERN CLOUD experiment hopes to shed light on Sol :: Cosmic Ray :: Global Climate connection

David Archibald's PDF on Solar Cycle 24 and possible climate repercussions

Article: PDF on Cosmic Ray Theory by originator Henrik Svensmark

Mini Ice Age within a decade? Register via GWPF

10 Reasons to be cheerful about the coming ice age... Delingpole

National Geographic: Sun Headed into Hibernation

Remember, global cooling is far more devastating than global warming. Global cooling leads to widespread crop failures and a dramatic drop in agricultural yield. Another "little ice age," such as occurred the last time the sun went to sleep, could lead to hundreds of millions of human deaths from starvation and associated disease and warfare. Or worse. Because without current huge agricultural yields from temperate climate crops, the world's human population would be too large to sustain, as per Malthus.

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13 June 2011

Consciousness and Frontiers in Brain Imaging:

The machine itself is a portable, light-weight monitor, which can fit on a small trolley. It has 32 electrodes that are fitted around the patient's head. A small, high-frequency electric current (too small to be felt or have any effect) is passed between two of the electrodes, and the voltages between other pairs of electrodes are measured in a process that takes less than one thousandth of a second.

An "electronic scan" is thus carried out and the machine does this whole procedure 100 times a second. By measuring the resistance to current flow (electrical impedance), a cross sectional image of the changing electrical conductivity within the brain is constructed. This is thought to reflect the amount of electrical activity in different parts of the brain. The speed of the response of fEITER is such that the evoked response of the brain to external stimuli, such as an anaesthetic drug, can be captured in rapid succession as different parts of the brain respond, thus tracking the brain's processing activity. _SD
EIT Images in Six Subjects

Researchers at the University of Manchester have created 3-D images of the brain in the act of losing consciousness. They were using a relatively new brain imaging technique called functional Electrical Impedance Tomography (fEIT). fEIT can measure brain electrical activity directly with a rapid time resolution in milliseconds.

More on the study from U. of Manchester:
Brian Pollard, Professor of Anaesthesia at The University of Manchester (UK), will tell the European Anaesthesiology Congress in Amsterdam that the real-time 3-D images seemed to show that losing consciousness involves a change in electrical activity deep within the brain, changing the activity of certain groups of nerve cells (neurons) and hindering communication between different parts of the brain.

He said the findings appear to support a hypothesis put forward by Professor Susan Greenfield, of the University of Oxford, about the nature of consciousness itself. Prof Greenfield suggests consciousness is formed by different groups of brain cells (neural assemblies), which work efficiently together, or not, depending on the available sensory stimulations, and that consciousness is not an all-or-none state but more like a dimmer switch, changing according to growth, mood or drugs. When someone is anaesthetised it appears that small neural assemblies either work less well together or inhibit communication with other neural assemblies.
"Our findings suggest that unconsciousness may be the increase of inhibitory assemblies across the brain's cortex. These findings lend support to Greenfield's hypothesis of neural assemblies forming consciousness," said Prof Pollard.

..."We have been able to see a real time loss of consciousness in anatomically distinct regions of the brain for the first time. We are currently working on trying to interpret the changes that we have observed. We still do not know exactly what happens within the brain as unconsciousness occurs, but this is another step in the direction of understanding the brain and its functions."

The team at Manchester is one of many worldwide teams investigating electrical impedance tomography (EIT), but this is its first application to anaesthesia. Prof Pollard said that a huge amount of research still needed to be done to fully understand the role EIT could play in medicine.

"If its power can be harnessed, then it has the potential to make a huge impact on many areas of imaging in medicine. It should help us to better understand anaesthesia, sedation and unconsciousness, although its place in medicine is more likely to be in diagnosing changes to the brain that occur as a result of, for example, head injury, stroke and dementia _SD

This new functional brain imaging technology has the potential for scaling to rather small, portable machines, suitable for use in a wide range of locations and situations. While temporal resolution is excellent, spatial resolution will require a lot of improvement if the tool is to be used as a diagnostic or screening device, beyond the current role in research.

From Wellcome.ac.uk: "Functional brain imaging is now an essential tool, and is well established in medicine.

The need for brain imaging is increasing with growing concern over neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's; hence there are larger numbers of patients to be routinely scanned than ever before. Current scanners are not available in every hospital due to their high cost. Where they are available they are large, noisy, fixed installations that are not portable. Professor Hugh McCann and Dr Chris Pomfrett from the University of Manchester have been awarded translational funding to develop a newly discovered technique called 'functional electrical impedance tomography of evoked responses' (fEITER), which is directly sensitive to the brains electrical operation. This tool will enable screening of large populations, and prompt action to be taken in emergencies. The scans could be performed wherever the patient is, even at home. _Wellcome.ac.uk"

With the rapid aging of populations in the more developed world and in emerging nations, the need for such a portable screening tool for dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases should be obvious. In the lab, it is very likely that exciting new research tools of this type will make large numbers of startling discoveries about what makes our brains tick. In the ICU and Emergency Department, rapid screening for acute catastrophic brain events will prove life-saving. Once perfected, even ambulance crews may carry future generations of such devices.

As for the main story above: the brain being caught in the act of losing consciousness by fEIT? To make the most of such research, better spatial resolution will be needed.


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Carnival of Nuclear Energy #56 at NEI Nuclear Notes

The 56th edition of the Carnival of Nuclear Energy is being hosted at NEI Nuclear Notes. (h/t Brian Wang) Here are some excerpts:
To start, Rod Adams at Atomic Insights has a piece describing what’s happening between the NRC, the AP1000 and Friends of the Earth. According to Rod, the NRC appears to be wavering in its commitment to its own established process because some believe that receiving 14,000 emails on the AP1000 design certification indicates a high level of general public opposition. Rod notes that the emails are mainly from a single group, the FOE, who have professionally opposed nuclear energy for 40 years. The group claims credit for orchestrating nearly every one of those emails as part of a campaign against nuclear energy in general, not against the AP1000 in particular. The FOE sources who have identified the cited "technical issues" have questionable professional backgrounds, long histories of antinuclear activity, and little credibility.
Dan Yurman at Idaho Samizdat discusses the NRC Inspector General’s report on the NRC Chairman’s use of budget guidance on the review of the Yucca Mountain license. According to media summaries of the leaked IG’s review in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, the Chairman issued controversial budget guidance to his staff to stop the work and brushed off complaints from other commissioners about it.
Rick Maltese at Deregulate the Atom pointed out that the NRC should not get all the credit for nuclear energy's decades of safety.
The Institute for Nuclear Power Operations in the US and the World Association of Nuclear Operators deserve a lot of the credit for improvements in safety and other design improvements. They are the Nuclear Industry’s self regulating bodies. And most of the accomplishments were made within the 10 or so years after the Three Mile Island accident. I point this out to set the record straight about who and how the excellent record of safety that has come about in the nuclear industry is not at all understood.
Alan Rominger and Steve Skutnik at Neutron Economy have two posts to mention. Alan explains the connection between the recent idea for "charter cities" where small modular reactors located at the bottom of the ocean can provide sustainable, independent power for such efforts. And Steve explains why he ultimately went from being a physicist to a nuclear engineer. Steve encourages other nuclear professionals and advocates to tell their stories of how they came to be involved in nuclear energy as well (I’m reminded of this example).
Charles Barton at Nuclear Green asks: Why Is Renewable Energy So Expensive, While Molten Salt Reactors will be So Cheap? He finds that an examination of input materials for wind generation systems and solar PV generation is greater than the input materials for an Advanced High Temperature Reactor. The study he cites reveals that the AHTR, a near relative of the Molten Salt Reactor, has big advantages by the little amount of resources needed. MSRs can potentially offer the same material input advantages over renewables, and thus may generate electricity at very competitive costs.
Brian Wang at Next Big Future reports that Lawrenceville Plasma Physics’s (LPP) research team has sorted out several issues on their dense plasma focus fusion project which should enable them to substantially increase power.
_NEI Nuclear Notes
Despite the Obama administration's overarching policy of energy starvation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's blatant obstructionism, small modular reactors are being developed rapidly -- the B&W reactor being a prime example.
The concept behind mPower, and small modular reactors designed by B&W competitors, is to let electric utilities add nuclear generation in small blocks. While most reactors on the market today generate more than 1,000 megawatts of power, an mPower module would provide 125 megawatts. A utility could order just enough modules to meet its needs, Halfinger said.

“There are places in the world where they need 1,000 megawatts, (but) one size does not fit all,” he said. “A lot of places need 200 megawatts.”

The nuclear industry has been abuzz about small modular reactors. Westinghouse, NuScale Power and Holtec International also are working on modular designs.

Cross-posted to Al Fin Energy

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12 June 2011

An Energy Revolution Goes Sub-Critical


Somewhere in Cheshire an energy revolution is brewing. Modern nuclear researchers are developing new approaches to safe subcritical reactors, using fertile thorium as fuel. The new reactor designs will be incredibly safe, proliferation resistant, and will produce only miniscule and easily stored amounts of long-lived nuclear waste.
Imagine a safe, clean nuclear reactor that used a fuel that was hugely abundant, produced only minute quantities of radioactive waste and was almost impossible to adapt to make weapons. It sounds too good to be true, but this isn’t science fiction. This is what lies in store if we harness the power of a silvery metal found in river sands, soil and granite rock the world over: thorium.

One ton of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, or 3.5 million tons of coal, and the thorium deposits that have already been identified would meet the entire world’s energy needs for at least 10,000 years. Unlike uranium, it’s easy and cheap to refine, and it’s far less toxic...

Better still, a thorium reactor would be incapable of having a meltdown, and would generate only 0.6 per cent of the radioactive waste of a conventional nuclear plant. It could even be adapted to ‘burn’ existing, stockpiled uranium waste in its core, thus enormously reducing its radioactive half-life and toxicity.

...The good news is that, thanks to funding from the Research Councils UK Basic Technology Programme, we’ve taken the first, critical step to making this dream a reality – constructing an incredibly hi-tech, cutting-edge machine with a surprisingly ordinary name: Emma.

Daresbury, the science park where Emma lives in a big, bare building with solid concrete walls more than two feet thick, isn’t especially scenic – it’s overlooked by a power station and stands on the boggy Cheshire flatland between Runcorn and Warrington, at the head of the Mersey estuary.

...Emma is a particle accelerator, the first of an entirely new type. Since the first such machines were built nearly 80 years ago, accelerators – devices that propel beams of electrons, protons or other particles to high speeds – have played a vital role in experimental physics, opening up fresh insights into the origins of the universe and the nature of matter. But most are big and expensive. The best known and biggest of all is the Large Hadron Collider operated by CERN in Switzerland, an underground ring 17 miles in circumference, which cost billions to construct.

Emma is different. She is the world’s first ‘non- scaling, fixed-field, alternating-gradient’ (NS-FFAG) accelerator. In layman’s terms, says Bliss, this means she is a ‘pocket-sized’ machine, the prototype of a new generation that will be significantly smaller and cheaper than its predecessors.

And this is Emma’s special significance. Making particle accelerators affordable means they could be built and used in practical, everyday settings – such as thorium power stations. The key to thorium energy is likely to be the further development of ‘pocket-sized’ machines – precisely the kind of accelerator that looks and behaves like Emma.

... Thorium atoms only start to undergo fissile nuclear reactions and thus to release their energy when they’re bombarded with neutrons, and these would have to be supplied by an external source – [for example] an accelerator.

‘This means the margin of safety is far greater than with a conventional plant,’ says Cywinski. ‘If the accelerator fails, all that will happen is that the reaction will subside. To stop the reactor, all you would have to do is switch off the accelerator.’ And if hit by an earthquake, he adds, even one as powerful as the one that wrecked Fukushima, a thorium plant would be ‘intrinsically safer’.

‘There’d be some residual radioactivity heating the core, but sustained nuclear fission would simply stop. Everything would cool much faster. You’d be left not with potential catastrophe, but just a heap of molten metal and metal oxides.’

This type of plant – dubbed the Energy Amplifier by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carlo Rubbia in 1993, when he patented the basic design – wouldn’t be simple. Because neutrons carry no electrical charge, the magnets in a particle accelerator have no effect on them.

Hence, the way to generate the neutrons necessary to trigger nuclear reactions in thorium would be to build a ‘spallation source’ in the middle of the reactor core. This is a substance – molten lead, for example – which produces neutrons when you fire a beam of protons at it. That beam, in turn, would come from a particle accelerator.

...Last year, ThorEA published a report, Towards An Alternative Nuclear Future, which concluded it should be possible to build the first 600MW power plant fuelled by thorium with three attached ‘pocket-sized’ NS-FFAG accelerators within 15 years, at a cost of about £2 billion – making it highly competitive in relation to fossil-fuel or conventional nuclear alternatives. _GWPF_from_MailOnline
Using "pocket-sized" accelerators to generate spallation neutrons to breed fissile U233 from fertile Th232 might allow for highly scalable and versatile reactor designs, which would certainly be safer than any nuclear reactors currently generating power. And nuclear is by far the safest form of power generation currently in existence.

Below, you can see researcher Rachael Buckley standing inside the EMMA device.
Thorium itself is plentiful, and will be quite cheap once the infrastructure is developed. The cost for subcritical reactor designs depends mainly on the cost of the accelerators and reactor vessels, and containment. The fuel itself is a negligible expense. And by reducing the quantity of waste to be stored and lowering the proliferation potential of the reactor dramatically, those costs would also plummet.

This technology will also be useful in the perpetual fight against cancer:
‘I’m optimistic we can build a machine that overcomes the technical challenges and would be applicable for cancer therapy straight away,’ he says. ‘I think Pamela can be built for an overall cost of £10-15 million, and would take about five years. And that would be a crucial stepping stone towards a thorium power station. It wouldn’t be cheap. But it would be highly competitive.’

It will take time to put the pieces together, but the writing is on the wall, if modern humans will only take the time to read it and take action.

Adapted from a posting on Al Fin Energy

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