Friday, October 29, 2010

The War from Within

   "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind."
   Those words, spoken by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, have a straight-forward appeal that strikes a cord with all of us. But how exactly does one put an end to war?
   Planets collide. Volcanoes erupt. Stars burn out and explode. The entire panorama of existence and the organisms that grace our planet--plant, animal, human or microscopic--fight in a war for survival, humans against nature and nature against itself. Do they not? It is not always vicious or brutal. Neither is it always obvious or consistent. Is it war if an aggressor chooses to destroy its foe slowly and subtly, by deception or trickery, rather than where all eyes can see? I think so.
   We war against cancer, against manipulation from those who would abuse and exploit us, against diseases like Alzheimer’s and ultimately against death itself.
   Kennedy was, of course, talking about nation against nation at a time when nuclear weapons were proliferating like none other, and when capitalist fears of a communist takes over had stoked many a mind to the pinnacle of paranoia.
   Jerome D. Frank’s major work, Sanity and Survival: Psychological Aspects of War and Peace, (New York, Vintage Books/Random House, 1967) begins with this introductory paragraph:
   “After about half a million years of ceaseless effort man has finally created the ultimate weapon. The amount of destructive power at every nation’s disposal is now limited only by the amount of resources it is willing to invest in nuclear warheads and delivery systems. At least two countries have stockpiled enough fissionable material to wipe out mankind, and as nuclear weapons become steadily cheaper to produce, more nations can achieve this capacity.”
   That reality, unfortunately, still exists. So do the bunkers, the hideouts, and the fears, justified or not.
   But talk about it we loathe, because the answers are difficult and illusive. Because the obvious is too much to accept and because we are all but parts within a whole, at war from within and at war from without.
   Pandora’s box has been opened.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Small modular reactors: The shape of things to come?

   The World Nuclear Association and other groups involved in energy policy are reporting a spike in interest in what are termed small modular reactors (SMR). There are a number of reasons, a recent report from the WNA explains, including economics, the practicality in providing power to remote locations, and the overall need to reduce the world's dependence on larger grid systems.
   In a report at http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf33.html  (See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Nuclear_Association), updated in October, 2010, the association cites the following:
  • Modern small reactors are simpler in design than older ones and are easier to mass produce.
  • Inherent safety features are incorporated into many SMRs in the event of a malfunction.
  • Four 62 MWt (thermal) units at the Bilbino plant in remote Siberia have been in operation since 1976 and generate electricity more efficiently than would fossil fuels.
  • Construction of the world's first floating nuclear power plant (Akademik Lomonosov) in Vilyuchinsk, Russia, began in 2007 and is expected to be completed next year.
   "As nuclear power generation has become established since the 1950s, the size of reactor units has grown from 60 MWe to more than 1600 MWe, with corresponding economies of scale in operation," notes the report at http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf33.html. "At the same time there have been many hundreds of smaller power reactors built both for naval use (up to 190 MW thermal) and as neutron sources, yielding enormous expertise in the engineering of small units."
   The IAEA defines small as "under 300 MWe, though 500 MWe is a considered a limit elsewhere.
   A nuclear-powered battery system under development in Japan, described as "4S" -- for super safe, small and simple, would have built-in safety features and power a steam cycle from an underground location for as long as 30 years. Some versions of the system produce an outlet coolant temperature of 550 degrees Celsius, the report says, "suitable for power generation with high temperature electrolytic hydrogen production."
   Traveling wave reactor (TWR) technology being developed by TerraPower and with funding from Bill Gates is another promising future nuclear power source in which a slow-burning reactor actually makes its own fuel in the process of burning.
   As noted in the WNA report:
   "The reactor uses natural or depleted uranium packed inside hundreds of hexagonal pillars. In a 'wave' that moves through the core at only one centimeter per year, the U-238 is bred progressively into Pu-239, which is the actual fuel that undergoes fission. The reaction requires a small amount of enriched uranium to get started and could run for decades without refueling."
   As the world's population grows larger and its energy needs accordingly, expect to hear a lot more about these and other alternative sources. We're also certain to here plenty of debate. Among the critics is the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, which states in a recent fact sheet.
   “Efficiency and most renewable technologies are already cheaper than new large reactors.  The long time — a decade or more — that it will take to certify SMRs will do little or nothing to help with the global warming problem and will actually complicate current efforts underway."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Remember Resveratrol?

   This 60 Minutes excerpt from last year brought a great deal of attention to the compound resveratrol (3,5,4'-trihydroxy-trans-stilbene), a substance found in the skin of red grapes and in red wine. Does it hold the key to longevity? The verdict seems to be still out, but more recent studies suggest resveratrol may also be of benefit to heart patients, in fighting cancer, and in reducing inflammation. The wiki entry located HERE provides some good background.

Click here to watch the video on YouTube:  Resveratrol: 60 Minutes