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Archive for March, 2011

China could overtake the US in scientific output in two years.  Why should you care?

It’s easier to raise public money for guns (R) and butter (D) than for science and education.  Science and education investments take a long time to show returns.  But when the returns come in, they change everything.

When the USSR launched its October surprise Sputnik, there was the blessing of right wing fear of being overtaken militarily and educated fear of being overtaken intellectually.  Presidents and policy makers were able to rally sustained support for public spending to reverse the trend, and a generation of kids grew up valuing knowledge, learning science, and dreaming the inventions you are looking at right now.

The Chinese dragon is far more devious.  Not an apparant military threat right now, China’s race to the top does not excite the passions of the short-sighted-right.  But it should.

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CNN’s Fareed Zakaria‘s got it right:

It’s difficult not to get spooked by terms like “meltdown,” “radiation clouds,” and “radioactive leakage.” But let’s remember that nuclear reactors have operated peacefully, quietly, and safely for decades in countries from Japan to France to the United States.

Over the last five decades, there has been just one nuclear accident that caused any deaths at all. At Chernobyl, and that was a poorly designed reactor, unlike any of the ones in the United States or Japan. It had almost no safety codes or procedures.

The accident at 3 Mile Island in the United States did not actually kill anyone. There was no significant radiation leakage because in the US – as in Japan – all reactors have steel or concrete containers to prevent such leakage. That’s why there were no illness resulting from radiation after the 3 Mile island accident.

And the new plants that have been built in the last decade are safer – the OECD says 1,600 times safer than the old ones. And the 3rd generation reactors being planned now, which will be built later, are safer even than those.

Now, all energy sources have their risks when being extracted.

Oil and coal have far worse safety records than even decades-old nuclear plants. The BP oil spill, for example, was triggered by an explosion that instantly killed 11 workers and then poured 4 millions barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

In a thoughtful article in Slate, Will Saletan does the math and finds that if you add up all the deaths caused by oil explosions and the like, the rate of death per unit of energy extracted is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear energy. With hundreds of people dying in mining accidents, coal is also much more likely to kill people working on it or around it than nuclear. And none of this counts the millions of people who get diseases and die a premature death thanks to pollution.

I know there is something about nuclear power that worries us. But it’s important not to make huge public policy decisions based on perception rather than reality.

When a plane crashes and hundreds of people die, we immediately panic and worry about flying. But we tend to forget that almost 50,000 Americans die every year in accidents on highways, making the act of getting into your car by far the most dangerous thing that an American will do every day.

We need all the sources of energy we can find. No one source is going to satisfy the world’s energy needs. Every one has some costs and some benefits. Nuclear energy can be scaled and it is clean.

We need to design the safest possible plants with the maximum number of back-up procedures. So far, that is the lesson we should draw from this tragedy in Japan.

Well said.

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At this writing, foreign military operations in Libya have just begun.  Few imagined that U.N. diplomacy could cope with exigent circumstances, but quick action was taken, in the face of the apparent necessity to protect the civilian population of Benghazi against columns sent to implement Gaddafi’s threat issued only hours earlier: “We will come zenga, zenga. House by house, room by room” … “We are coming tonight… We will have no mercy and no pity with them.”

There hasn’t been time to contemplate where it all leads.  An Egypt-like peaceful popular revolution is not in the cards.  Nor is a return to business as usual.

It is difficult to see any other outcome than a prologed international defense of Benghazi, ending in a de facto “two Libyas” outcome.  You heard it here first.  East Libya, anyone?

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