Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Yet Another Reason Why Nuclear Power is Good

Medical Isotope Shortage

Joan Stephenson, PhD
JAMA. 2009;302(7):732.

A worldwide "critical shortage" of medical isotopes is expected due to the shutdown until late 2009 of a nuclear reactor in Ontario, Canada, according to Canadian authorities. The reactor, which stopped operations because of a heavy water leak, produces as much as 40% of the global supply of molybdenum 99 (99Mo), which decays to form technetium 99m (99mTc). 99mTc is currently used in approximately 80% of nuclear medicine scans.

According to Natural Resources Canada, the world's current supply of 99Mo is produced by 5 aging reactors in Belgium, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and South Africa. The shortage was expected to be exacerbated by the temporary closing of the Netherlands reactor for a month-long maintenance inspection from July 18 to August 18. Because the isotopes have a relatively short half life, they cannot be stockpiled.

Canadian authorities said they were working with medical isotope distributors and others to maximize the use of existing isotope supplies and with other international producers to increase isotope production and to coordinate shutdowns and other operations.

That's right, we use nuclear power to make medically-important isotopes. Well, not "we," as in local US plants but we rely on foreign plants to irradiate our 'topes for us. I'm not sure why we don't have our own plants churning out isotopes ourselves, but that could be related to the fact that we haven't built a new nuclear plant in America in 30+ years. There's a brain drain of nuclear expertise from this country and we'd probably have to import some European-made design if we ever started being smart with nuclear and joined the proper energy source of the 21st century.

That's right, I think nuclear power is great. Think about it: nuclear power produces virtually no greenhouse gases and can make us virtually energy independent. Two big birds down with one stone. Oh, and if you want to create jobs - how about building new plants and building a smart nuclear engineer workforce in America? Nuclear energy has a proven safety record in America - and this is with using clunking designs from 50 years ago. How much better would we be with if we built new, more efficient and safer designs that we find in places like France? This is one area where France got it right: most of the electrical energy of France is supplied by French nuclear power plants.

Worried about nuclear waste? Read up about Yucca Mountain - a location long-studied in geology as an ideal place to store radioactive waste and practically ready for operation if the politicians would only let it. Worried about transportation of radioactive waste? The US has a track record of shipping waste thousands of times and there has never been an incident or accidental release of waste. Worried about terrorists? Seriously? You can't hold back our nation's progress based on the fear of a might-happen. All nuclear facilities in America are very well guarded.

That all said, I don't think nuclear fission will be the only power source of the future. I think solar energy is an excellent source as well. Solar energy bathes America with tons of free energy on a daily basis and if we could harness even a bit of that (particularly from our little populated, but very illuminated Southwest deserts) the Sun could easily supply more energy for us than this country uses many times over. Hydroelectric power has its niche uses but it's poor for general energy supply. Wind energy seems like a goofy idea to me and likely to always be marginal since it's such an eyesore. Other ideas like geothermal are unlikely to become much since their technical maturity would come at around the same time as nuclear fusion power and fusion could be the real powerhouse for the end of the 21st century.

Nuclear power is power of the future - whether it's made right here on Earth or has to travel 93 million miles from Sol.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Essential Orthoprax

Every now and again Jewish skeptics of various stripes respond with some surprise when I tell them that I am observant of Jewish rituals, traditions and the like. Sure, they can understand wearing a yarmulkah for social reasons, playing along while in public and eating Thursday night chulent, but observance in private for its own sake seems like a bewildering concept. So I'd like to go over here my reasons for observance in no particular order.

First off there's the basic essential of Jewish identity. Of course many Jews are not observant and especially not of all the minutiae of Halacha and yet still consider their self-identification as Jews to be very strong, but I find that if I'm not cognizant of the likes of Shabbos and our annual pageant of holidays then I'm missing a big part of the Jewish experience. I'm set apart from core Jewry if I don't know where the local synagogue is or what time candles are supposed to be lit. I'd feel out of sync and adrift if I'm not fasting on Tisha B'av or attending a seder for Pesach or even keeping kosher in inconvenient places. There's nothing immoral about eating meat during the nine days, but you're breaking with a shared Jewish experience if you do so. To be Jewish is to DO Jewish and identity absent these core activities may be fragile.

And this leads into the related reason of demographics. I care about the Jewish people and our fate as a group - but demographically we are suffering deeply from the likes of assimilation and intermarriage. And who are most likely to marry out or otherwise be lost from Jewry? These are the people who are least observant. Reform Jews have an astounding intermarriage rate and low retention over generations. If Reform Judaism was the only brand of Judaism available today I would have grave doubts about the survival of Jews as an identifiable group for even just a few generations down the line. Observance is correlated with significant knowledge of Jewish texts and general heritage and is correlated with intramarriage and strong Jewish identities over generations. Commitment to an observant life is a vote of confidence in the livelihood of the Jewish people.

Another important reason is that doing frank religious acts is a way of bringing the sacred into everyday life. Modern man is overly concerned about what he can get out of an activity. Shaking a bush and a lemon seems like a silly (and costly) thing to do without any benefit to anyone - and materially that's true. But what it does, through our history of investing in the act a sense of the divine, it brings the divine into what is otherwise a very secular existence. Now, as is well known by most who read my blog (I think), my conceptions of God are rather different from the popular views and even from what much of tradition suggests, but nevertheless, raising our minds to the transcendent of existence by using Jewish rituals as vehicles is something I consider a worthwhile effort.

This is also related to another criticism I've heard from a friend of mind who stated that he didn't particularly believe in God because once it was understood that God wasn't a doorway for on high reward or punishment and that intercessionary prayer is ineffective then he didn't really care about the metaphysics of the matter as it doesn't really effect him either way. The philosophical abstractions I tend to conceive of don't interest him, even while he may recognize them as plausible. This is a fair criticism if you are seeking religiosity as a means to an end in the way modern man approaches virtually everything - What's in it for me? But if the goal is simply truth-seeking then it is simply that life choices follow convictions. The point is not to choose convictions for the mere sake of making your life easier. So it is from my conviction of basic philosophical positions that observant life follows.

Now, here's a bunch of potluck ideas that are not full justifications on their own but do string through my mind: There's the sense of continuity and history with thousands year old practices. Pride in being a Jew and in being a Jew and a man in the street and at home. A sense of irony that Jews should give up their cultural and religious vocation at a unique time in history when Jews can choose whether to be Jewish or not. A sense of duty to past generations that have suffered and sacrificed on behalf of being Jewish and doing Jewish. Ethical improvement that can be accomplished through correctly applying various traditional experiences and measures. And of course for various acts there is the simple fact that I enjoy performing them.

So is it still so surprising why I remain Orthoprax?

Monday, August 03, 2009

In Usufruct to the Living

The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water...and that no such obligation can be so transmitted I think very capable of proof.--I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self evident, "that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living": that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. - Thomas Jefferson, 1789 [From here]

This is an interesting quote which means that one generation cannot obligate a later generation in any way. This is relevant in terms of great public debts where, by right, the time to pay it off ought to be within the same generation's lifetime which benefited from the loan. The Earth belongs to each generation fully in each's turn and a past generation cannot rightly rule over those presently living.

As Jefferson goes on (my bolding):

To keep our ideas clear when applying them to a multitude, let us suppose a whole generation of men to be born on the same day, to attain mature age on the same day, and to die on the same day, leaving a succeeding generation in the moment of attaining their mature age all together. Let the ripe age be supposed of 21. years, and their period of life 34. years more, that being the average term given by the bills of mortality to persons who have already attained 21. years of age. Each successive generation would, in this way, come on, and go off the stage at a fixed moment, as individuals do now. Then I say the earth belongs to each of these generations, during it's course, fully, and in their own right. The 2d. generation receives it clear of the debts and incumberances of the 1st. the 3d of the 2d. and so on. For if the 1st. could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not the living generation. Then no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of it's own existence.

Jefferson went even further and calculated with the given life expectancy of his time and actuarial numbers that at 21 years of age, half of the people of that generation would be dead in 18 or 19 years and therefore, "19 years is the term beyond which neither the representatives of a nation, nor even the whole nation itself assembled, can validly extend a debt." As a half-life, extending a repayment of a debt any longer than that would impinge on a following generation which never agreed to accept the debt in the first place.

In an egregious example: "Suppose Louis XV. and his contemporary generation had said to the money-lenders of Genoa, give us money that we may eat, drink, and be merry in our day; and on condition you will demand no interest till the end of 19. years you shall then for ever after receive an annual interest of 125/8 per cent. The money is lent on these conditions, is divided among the living, eaten, drank, and squandered. Would the present generation be obliged to apply the produce of the earth and of their labour to replace their dissipations? Not at all."

I suppose that the recieved opinion, that the public debts of one generation devolve on the next, has been suggested by our seeing habitually in private life that he who succeeds to lands is required to pay the debts of his ancestor or testator: without considering that this requisition is municipal only, not moral; flowing from the will of the society...but that between society and society, or generation and generation, there is no municipal obligation, no umpire but the law of nature. We seem not to have percieved that, by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independant nation to another.

Consider this idea as our nation's federal government's uncontrolled spending of recent years has left us with a huge $11 trillion deficit with annual interest payments that amount to nearly 10% of our whole federal budget. Is it our generation alone who will be paying this debt?

Are we doing right by our children?