Category: Environment

Monks Mound, Cahokia Illinois, the largest Native American earthwork prior to the arrival of Columbus (rbw)

Many Americans lack a sense of history regarding their surroundings. It is often assumed that American history began with the Jamestown colony, but this is largely due to a systematic attempt during the early 20th century to forget the past. In fact, some of the evidence to the contrary can be found in the burial and effigy mounds that dot the American landscape. Thousands of mounds can be found, especially in the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River systems. The Moundbuilders built these mounds for a large variety of purposes, but did so over a very long period of North American history. The largest mound, Monk’s Mound, was once near the center of a city, Cahokia, with a population of around 20,000 at its height around 1,000 C.E. It is located a few miles north of the intersection of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Modern society could be informed by learning more about its history: Changes to the local climate and environmental degradation (such as deforestation) created an upheaval to Native American cultures by the 13th century C.E. This led to the consequence that subsequent cultures lived in smaller, more widely scattered bands by the time Europeans arrived.

Wikipedia: Mound Builders

In addition to his usual amazingly funny physics-related humor, xkcd has published a very handy comparison chart that helps to visualize the relative doses for a variety of different types of radiation exposer. Click on the image to be brought to the full-size chart on xkcd’s site.

Radiation dose comparison sheet (xkcd)

Richard Nixon (The National Archives, via Wikipedia)

“But when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” That line from the Frost-Nixon interview famously showed the state of American democracy after Richard NIxon.

Elected the 37th President of the United States in 1969, he was re-elected to a second term. His presidency was not without accomplishment, as he signed the Clean Water Act and enhanced the Clean Air Act. He founded the EPA, negotiated a détente with the Soviet Union, ended the Vietnam War and connected with China. And he was a Republican!

Unfortunately, that was not the only lasting impact to Nixon’s presidential legacy. Machtpolitik played a primate role during his administration. Nixon’s soon to be Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was sent to the Paris negotiations to scuttle a peace treaty by suggesting to the South Vietnamese that they would get a better deal under the Republicans. The peace talks failed on the eve of the 1968 election. Kissinger also played a lead role in the CIA-assisted overthrow of democratically elected leader of Chile, plunging that nation into decades of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. (He was also involved in other similar activities during the Ford Administration.) Nixon authorized illegal military bombing campaigns and other incursions in Cambodia and Laos as well. His first Vice President, Spiro Agnew, resigned from office after it wsa clear that he had accepted bribes and evaded taxes while he was the governor of Maryland.

Despite all of that, what Richard Nixon is undoubtedly most famous for, however, is the Watergate Scandal, where his cronies bugged the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. The event lead to Nixon’s resignation and also lead to every subsequent presidential scandal, real or imagined, to end with the syllable “-gate”.

The role of the US president became imperial under Nixon and his neo-conservative acolytes, including Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Dick Cheney carried his torch through the Reagan and Bush administrations. For everyone who wishes the American government would focus on the livelihoods of its citizens, Richard Nixon began the rolling snowball of “Unitary Executive Power” that impinges on democracy today.

Wikipedia: Richard Nixon

The new slick is currently 100 miles long. I will post more on this soon.

Aerial view of the Red Forest, near Chernobyl, Ukraine, 2007 (Wikipedia)

Formerly called the Wormwood Forest, the region was devastated when Hydrogen gas from the Chernobyl nuclear power planet exploded, releasing radioactive material over a wide region. All of the conifers in the surrounding forest died rapidly and when their needles dried up, their reddish-brown color led to a new name: The Red Forest.

Wildlife returned to the area once humans deserted it, including endangered species. The wildlife has been effected by the radiation as well, leading to a number of mutations in plants especially.

Wikipedia: The Red Forest

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison (rbw)

Last night, while Wisconsin Republicans were being thanked for their services by billionaires in Washington, a couple of thousand people decided to keep them company so that they would feel at home, despite being a long way from home.

Several hundred protesters filled the atrium of the building where the BGR Group Fundraising dinner was held to pay off Wisconsin Republicans and more people spilled down the street – over a thousand people in total. The Nation quotes Russ Feingold:

“Today, Wednesday March 16th, Republican state senators from Wisconsin are in Washington, D.C. attending a big fundraiser at the headquarters of a corporate lobbying firm. That’s less than one week after Republicans rammed through an anti-worker bill that polls showed was heavily opposed by Wisconsinites — but was heavily favored by corporate lobbyists,” said Feingold. “If your senator is Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau, Glenn Grothman of West Bend, or Alberta Darling of River Hills, your senator is at the fundraiser. But no matter where you are in Wisconsin, your interests just got sold out to big corporate interests.”

Protests at BGR Lobbyist dinner for Wisconsin Republicans (Thom Hartmann, YouTube) gives a list of clients of BGR and this list shows a long line of companies and foreign governments that are interested in energy – especially petrochemical companies. Feel free to boycott each and every one of these companies.

The close ties between petrochemical lobbyists and the Republicans may be why Governor Walker is planning to sell state-owned power plants and why he is trying to ban wind power in Wisconsin. This is a bad move for the state and it will cost jobs as well.

Back in Wisconsin, Dane County District Attorney fIsmael Ozanne filed a complaint to a Dane County Judge to void the Governor’s anti-union measure because the Republicans violated the state Open Meetings law in the process of its approval. Hearings on the issue will continue Friday to discuss in Ozanne’s efforts for an injunction that would bar Secretary of State La Follette from publishing the bill, an act that allows it to become law.

On one last note – a Wisconsin farmer gave a terrific speech at the rallies last Saturday. It is because Wisconsin has a great education system (now under attack) that Wisconsin has eloquent farmers like Tony Schultz.

Farmer Tony Schultz speaking to the protesters in Madison on March 12 (Geof Hermann, YouTube)

Radiation symbol (Cary Bass, via Wikipedia)

Why this Article?

The terrible tragedy in Japan has sparked a huge discussion about nuclear power, radioactivity and nuclear meltdown. Unfortunately, major media in the United States continually report about “high doses” and “low doses” without quoting any actual measurements of radiation radiation levels. This is probably due to the fact that most reporters do not understand nuclear power and radiation themselves. It is a huge problem because it does not provide the public with the detailed information that it would need in order to fully understand the measurements and how it would affect their own health and livelihood.

One unfortunate result of this nebulous reporting, whether it is intentional or not, is that it is rather easy to scare people with the mere mention of the word “radiation” simply because it is very easy to scare people with things that they do not understand. On the other hand, people with a better understanding of radiation will recognize that the level of risk arising from radiation is dependent on the type, the length and the amount of exposure to it. They will be able to compare the measurements of reported radiation doses with background levels. Except in certain tragic circumstances, this generally means that people can be less fearful and more conscientious about their radiation risk.

In this article, I will describe where radiation comes from, a number of ways in which it is measured and what the likely risks are for various levels of exposure. This piece is not really a news article in and of itself, but it is intended to be a guide to help interpret news in those rare cases where the press actually reports the numbers that you need to know.

First, let’s look at the different types of particles that make up the atom and the forces that make them stick together. The complicated part of quantum physics is in making calculations and in deriving physical laws to explain them. Understanding how they work is not so bad, give it a try. : )

Subatomic Particles

One aim of physics is to try to understand the Universe by looking at how its constituents interact. By the 1970s, physicists had put together a detailed model, called the Standard Model, (we physicists sometimes have problems with creativity when it comes to naming things) that describes all of the known fundamental particles and their interactions.

Fundamental particles are simply particles that we believe can not be divided into smaller parts. They are broken down into two major categories, depending on a property called spin: Fermions and Bosons. Spin is a measure of the intrinsic angular momentum of a particle. According quantum mechanics, subatomic particles can only have certain values of spin. Fermions are particles with spins of 1/2, 3/2, 5/2 and so on, while Bosons are particles with spins of 0, 1, 2, and so on, and particles from either of these two families have very different properties.

Fermions can broken into a couple of subgroups, called Leptons and Quarks. These groups are determined by the amount of electric charge that they carry. The Leptons include the electron and its cousins, the muon and the tauon (usually the tau). Each lepton is associated with another particle called a neutrino. Neutrinos are particles that rarely interact with matter. In fact to be sure that you would capture a neutrino about 60% of the time, you would need a lead wall roughly 8 light-years thick! That is 47 trillion miles.

The other subgroup, the Quarks, are a group of particles with electrical charges of either +2/3 or -1/3. They make up subatomic particles like protons and neutrons.

Fermions (Spin = 1/2, 3/2, 5/2, etc.)

Leptons (Spin = 1/2)
Flavor Symbol Mass (GeV/c2) Electric Charge
Electron e 0.000511 -1
Electron Neutrino νe <1×10-8 0
Muon μ 0.106 -1
Muon Neutrino νμ <0.0002 0
Tau τ 1.7771 -1
Tau Neutrino ντ <0.02 0
Quarks (Spin = 1/2)
Flavor Symbol Mass (GeV/c2) Electric Charge
Up u 0.003 +2/3
Down d 0.006 -1/3
Charm c 1.3 +2/3
Strange s 0.1 -1/3
Top t 175 +2/3
Bottom b 4.3 -1/3

All of the matter that you deal with every day, whether it is atoms inside you, the air you breathe, or even those in the Earth itself, are all made of Fermions. How all of those particles interact is determined by force-carrying particles, the Bosons. There are four fundamental forces that we know of right now. Two are likely fairly familiar from everyday experience and two are not so familiar: Gravity, Electromagnetism, the Weak Nuclear Force and the Strong Nuclear Force. Most people deal with gravity and electromagnetism every day, but few people worry about the weak and strong forces, but the weak and strong forces govern radioactive decay.

Each Boson carries a separate force. Here is a summary:

Bosons (Spin = 0, 1, 2, etc.)

Name Symbol Mass (GeV/c2) Electric Charge Spin Forces carried
Photon γ 0 0 1 Electromagnetic Force
W-minus W 80.4 -1 1 Weak Nuclear
W-plus W+ 80.4 +1 1 Weak Nuclear
Z-nought Z0 91.187 0 1 Weak Nuclear
Gluon g 0 0 1 Strong Nuclear
Graviton G 0 0 2 Gravity (not yet detected)

A particle such as an electron would not experience the electromagnetic force, for example, if it did not interact with photons. A person feels the pull of gravity from the Earth because we think that Earth is continuously emitting a very large number of gravitons that interact with the particles that make up a person. Without those graviton interactions, there would be no gravity. Physicists believe that the particles in the two tables above can fully explain all of the interactions between all of the objects in the Universe (possibly excluding Dark Energy and Dark Matter, but that is another story). It is only a matter of working out the details to try to understand how the Universe works, though there are complications because – well – it turns out that the interactions can be complicated. It is still good to have goals!

E = mc2

Einstein proposed his most famous equation during his annus mirabilis (miracle year) when he wrote four papers that set the groundwork for 20th century physics. Inertia is the resistance of an object to changes in motion. We measure this resistance with the quantity mass. E = mc2 says that any object with a mass, m, has a certain amount of energy, E, locked up in that mass. It is a lot of energy per unit mass, because c is the speed of light and light happens to be quite fast: c = 3.0×108 m/s = 186,000 mile/sec!

It happens one gram of sugar has 2.4 Calories (kcal) of chemical energy in it and when we eat sugar, that is roughly how much energy we gain from it. If we measure that in Joules (J, the SI unit for energy), we have 10,000 J of chemical energy in a gram of sugar. But one gram of any substance has (0.001kg)*(3.0×108 m/s)2 = 9×1013 J of energy locked up in its mass! That is roughly enough energy to supply the United States with power for three days!

The tables above give the masses of each particle in units of GeV/c2 (giga-electron volts). The prefix giga- means billion, so 1 GeV = 109eV. And one electron volt is defined as the amount of kinetic energy that a single electron gains from a voltage drop of 1 Volt. So you can see that this definition of mass came after E=mc2. It is possible to use these conversions:

1 eV = 1.6×10-19 J – a really small unit!
1 GeV/c2 = 1.783×10-27 kg – roughly the mass of a proton

These are reallly small units, but remember that a cubic centimeter has something like 1023 = 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms!

All of the above particles have an anti-matter equivalent that has the same mass but opposite electric charge. When a particle collides with an anti-particle, both particles annihilate, giving off photons with total energy E=mc2. Photons are their own anti-particles, too.

Nuclear power allows us to tap a little bit of that energy that is stored in mass, but first let us take a look at atoms to see how.


Now that we have covered the subatomic particles, let’s make atoms. Most people learn in middle school that atoms are composed of protons, neutrons and electrons. The Protons and neutrons reside in the nucleus at the center of the atom and the electrons move around in the electron cloud that surrounds it. Protons and neutrons are (very) roughly 2000 times heavier than an electron so they carry most of the mass of of the atom, considering that an electrically neutral atom has the same number of protons and electrons.

When we talk about nuclear power, we are primarily concerned about the nucleus of the atom. So we are going to ignore the electrons in the electron clouds for now, however we will occasionally encounter electrons that are created by nuclear reactions.

Protons and Neutrons are particles called Baryons. Baryons are composed of three quarks (Mesons are particles made with two quarks). Here is how it works: A proton is made from two up quarks and one down quark. Up quarks have charges of +2/3 and a down quark has a charge of -1/3, so if you add up the charges, you get: 2/3 + 2/3 – 1/3 = +1. Neutrons are made of two downs and one up, so they are electrically neutral.

But wait a second! If you have 2 ups and 1 down, that only adds up to (2*(0.003) + 0.006) GeV/c2 = 0.012 GeV/c2 of mass, but a proton has a mass of about 1 GeV/c2! It does not add up, and here is why. Experiments have confirmed that the quarks in a proton and a neutron are held together by the strong nuclear force, carried by gluons. It is a complex set of interactions, but simply put, the interactions keeping the quarks together are very high energy, so high in energy that they account for the rest of the mass!

Atomic Nuclei and Radioactive Decay

β-decay (Wikipedia)

It also happens that a neutron is about 0.14% more massive than a proton. This corresponds to a mass of about 15 MeV/c2 (1000 MeV = 1 GeV), so if we could convert a neutron into a proton, we should get some energy out (1n -> 1p + 1e + 1νe). In fact, this happens with free neutrons because they are unstable because of interactions governed by the weak nuclear force. A free neutron will decay into a proton, an electron, and an anti-electron neutrino with a half-life of around 8 minutes. (The half-life is the time over which half a collection of one type of particles will convert into other types of particles.) This is the iconic reaction in one form of β-decay (beta-decay), known as β-decay. Another form of β-decay is β+-decay: Energy + 1p -> 1n + 1e + νe, where a proton absorbs energy that causes it to break into a neutron, an anti-election (also called a positron) and an electron neutrino. β+-decays can not occur in isolation. You will often see electrons referred to by the term “β-particles”.

The simplest atomic nucleus is that of Hydrogen, just a single proton. We do not usually see single neutrons around unless we are near a radioactive source because neutrons are unstable as we have mentioned. Protons are stable, however, so we do see Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the Universe.

Atomic nuclei are held together by the “residual strong nuclear force”, which is a manifestation of the strong nuclear force itself. Nuclei are held together by virtual mesons that carry gluons between protons and neutrons inside. There is a lot of activity taking place inside a nucleus all of the time!

It is possible to create an atom with the same chemical properties as single-proton Hydrogen if we add neutrons to the nucleus. These are isotopes, nuclei with the same total charge (which governs the chemistry) but differing numbers of neutrons. For example, Deuterium, another isotope of Hydrogen, has one proton and one neutron. It is nearly identical to Hydrogen chemically, but it is much more rare than plain, old Hydrogen because at some point, a free neutron would only have about 8 minutes to latch onto a proton to form it. Another isotope, Tritium, has one proton and two neutrons, and that is even more rare.

α-decay (Wikipedia)

Helium normally has a pair of protons and a pair of neutrons. It has other isotopes, but it happens that the normal Helium nucleus is very stable and when bigger atoms break apart, they often do so by giving off Helium nuclei, or α-particles (alpha-particles). That process is known as α-decay.

Heavy elements such as Uranium (U) have a very large number of protons (92) and often even more neutrons. 235U, for example has 143 neutrons! Nuclei with either too many or too few neutrons relative to the number of protons are unstable. In addition, large nuclei are often unstable simply because the strong nuclear force is a very short range interaction. If a nucleus is too large, the strong force can not hold it together effectively. This means that there is a “Band of Stability” for atomic nuclei, shown here by plotting the number of neutrons against the number of protons in known isotopes. The colors indicate whether each isotope is stable (black squares) or if not, their primary modes of decay.

The Band of Stability of Nuclear Isotopes, showing observed isotopes (Wikipedia)

Other atoms may split into components that are larger than α-particles. For example, 235U can break into a Krypton-92 (92Kr) nucleus, a Barium-141 (141Ba) nucleus. This is known as fission. The inverse process if known as fusion.

During most of these different types of radioactive decays, high-energy photons are released that are known as γ-radiation or γ-rays. Each one of these decay modes results in different energetics, so when we are concerned about how radioactive decay effects the human body, we need to worry about the specific consequences of human exposure to α-, β- and γ-radiation.

Effects of radiation on Humans

So suppose you are walking along a path in a forest far from any radiation source. You just happen to be carrying your trusty Geiger Counter and decide to turn it on just for fun. You will hear the Geiger Counter click sporadically and you may be shocked to find that the clicks increase when you move the Geiger Counter closer to your body. There are radioactive isotopes everywhere! Background levels of radiation are generally due to trace isotopes found in rocks, cosmic rays that reach earth from space, and any life form will have some 13C (Carbon-13). In fact the process of live itself bioaccumulates 13C. Well, a quick check of the Band of Stability graph shows that an isotope of Carbon-13 (with 6 protons and 7 neutrons), will β-decay to form stable 12C. The half-life of Carbon is about 5730 years. About 1.1% of all Carbon on Earth is in the form of Carbon-13 and by comparing the abundance of carbon in biological material with that of the world at large, it is possible to date the material through Carbon Dating. The electrons that are released in the β-decay can be picked up by the Geiger Counter.

The Geiger Counter will essentially count the number of decays it detects per unit time, measured with the SI unit of the Becquerel (Bq). 1 Bq = one decay per second. While this unit gives the number of radioactive decays taking place per unit time, it does not indicate anything about their effect. In order to do that, we need to take into account how much energy the decay products are carrying and how much of that energy is absorbed by the human body.

A typical human body produces about 4,000 Bq of activity, due to 40K (Potassium-40) beta decays alone.

The SI units for the dose of radiation that are absorbed by the human body are Grays (Gy). 1 Gy = 1 J/kg. It is strictly a measure of the total energy deposited in the body and does not quantify the net effect of the radiation. In order to understand the effects, we will need to look at the differences in how each type of radiation interacts with the body.

A high-energy photon (γ-radiation) that is absorbed by body tissues generally breaks apart the molecules it strikes. The radicals (essentially the electrically charged pieces of broken molecules) that are created when this happen can then react chemically with other molecules around them. The overall effect is limited relative to other forms of radiation, however, because a single ion gives rise to a small number of radicals so there is little overall damage from a single γ-ray relative to other forms of radiation. γ-rays can also scatter off molecules through the Compton Scattering, which frees lower energy recoil electrons that can interact with molecules in tissue.

Gamma radiation is usually not completely absorbed by the human body. That is how it is possible for medical X-rays to work, because only a fraction of the X-rays are absorbed by the body while the rest pass through. Some of those that do pass through expose a piece of film or a detector to create an image.

A β-ray (an electron) does similar damage to a photon, but for different reasons. They do not usually penetrate as deeply, though electrons carry some momentum, and they carry electric charge that can ionize some molecules as they pass near them. In other cases, the electron can be absorbed by a molecule or scatter other electrons to create radicals.

A high-energy neutron that is released by radioactive decay has a lot of momentum. When it smashes into tissue, a game of molecular bumper cars ensues. If the neutron has enough energy, then it is possible to break molecular bonds and to release reactive radicals into the body. Given the fact that neutrons can have a good deal of momentum, they generally produce more radicals than a single γ-ray. Neutrons can deposit their energy deep in tissue and are readily absorbed by some isotopes found in the body. This can cause further radioactive decays.

Protons do carry roughly the same momentum as a neutron, they also carry electric charge that results in ionization. They do more damage than electrons but do not penetrate as deeply as neutrons due to their electric charge.

α-particles and heavy nuclei cause the worst damage because they have the most momentum, but they penetrate the least. These particles carry a ton of momentum and they break up molecules and create radicals until they are stopped. They are highly likely to interact with the tissue rather than pass through it.

When determining the net effect on the body, one also has to consider that the different types of tissue in the body each react differently to radiation at different energies. Studies have been done in an attempt to average the effects over the body and these have led to a standards regarding the Relative Biological Effectiveness (RBE) of the various types of radiation. These are used to determine the equivalent absorbed does, given in Sieverts (Sv). 1 Sv = 1 J/kg just like Grays, only now the dose in Grays is multiplied by a weighting factor, WR, to account for the relative impact of various sorts of radiation on the body. (Sieverts can be related to the outdated unit, the rem with 1 mSv = 0.1 rem.) These weights are determined by experimentation under ideal circumstances compared to the relatively complex circumstances found inside a nuclear reactor, but they do offer insight to the impact on people nonetheless.

Typical background doses vary from place to place, depending on which specific isotopes can be found in the local environment, but Wikipedia gives some general levels that can be used as guidelines if you read dosage numbers in the press. These can be found in the table here, where doses are given in mSv/yr unless otherwise noted for one-time total doses.

Wikipedia has an excellent table that describes the types of symptoms, timescales and fatality rates of radiation sickness. Radiation doses above ~1000 mSv can cause radiation sickness. The higher the dose, the worse the symptoms. Doses up to about 2000 mSv can cause nausea, dizziness, fatigue and a reduced white blood cell count. 5% of people die within a month of receiving 2000 mSv of radiation. Doses between 2000 and 6000 mSv can cause cognitive impairment, purpura, hemorrhage and skin loss and above 5000 mSv, fatality becomes nearly certain, though the period of suffering can last up to a month. Higher doses lead to increasingly severe symptoms. Doses above ~30,000 mSv can cause seizures and death within 48 hours.

The geometry of a nuclear power plant such as the Fukushima-I plant can lend to dramatic variations in radiation levels on site. This is due to the fact that concrete, metal and water shield their surroundings from radiation to different degrees. Given the complicated geometry of a nuclear power plant, there could be low-radiation regions very near high-radiation areas. It is very difficult to calculate the dosage that any worker would have received because one would need to know the radiation level at every single point along that worker’s path through the course of the day. Radiation detecting badges are helpful, but the relative dose that an individual receives can vary from one side of his or her body to the other.

The situation in Fukushima-I is especially complicated because there has been a good deal of damage to the plant. Several large Hydrogen gas explosions have spread trace radioactive material far from the plant, but it typically becomes less concentrated if it is spread over a large area – unless an explosion launches a chunk of radioactive material skyward.

The situation further from the plant is generally a bit easier to estimate because the distribution should typically be a bit smoother than the conditions inside the plant. I must include the caveat that I said estimate, not predict. If a measurement is made far away from the plant, material will be dispersed relatively uniformly around a field, for example, so radiation measurements will be more indicative of nearby surrounding areas. There can still be large-scale variations in dispersal patters. Wind currents could blow radioactive material in either one general direction, or it could be widely dispersed, carried aloft at high altitudes as it was in the case of Chernobyl.

Dispersal of Radioactive Material after Chernobyl. The human body has a natural radioactivity of ~4kBq. (UNEP)

The primary variable in long-range dispersal is how high the radioactive material is sent by explosions at the plant. Chernobyl experienced a large explosion that sent radioactive material high aloft, where it could be dispersed over a wide area for a long period of time. The explosions in Japan have not been nearly as large, though some radioactivity has been detected within ~100km or so from the site that has led to some precautionary measures. Clearly, the fewer explosions that take place in the reactors, the better off everyone will be because there will be less dispersal of radioactive material.

Protecting yourself

Unless otherwise necessary, it is generally best to avoid radioactive material and to avoid areas that have high levels of radiation. In an emergency, however, it is generally best to find a way to shield yourself from the radiation and this means placing material in between you and the radiation source. All material absorbs some radiation, but it is best to use dense materials because they tend to be more effective. How much radiation is absorbed by a material is measured by its “Halving Thickness”, or the thickness of that material to reduce gamma radiation by a factor of 2. If a material can stop a gamma ray, it can generally stop everything else. An effective fallout shelter using 1 m of dirt accounts for ten halving thicknesses, decreasing the effective radiation fluence by a factor of ~1000.

I hope that this is useful to people who are interested in learning a bit more about radiation and radioactivity. I believe that if people know its effects and how one can treat it properly and protect one’s self, that it tends to alleviate unnecessary fear. The world will not end if the Japanese plants were to go into meltdown. A meltdown would imply significant environmental impacts, and it may also mean that there would be a portion of Japan that will be unlivable. People living outside of Japan are not likely to be significantly affected, except in the absolute worst case scenario. Good luck to everyone working to prevent a meltdown, and please be safe.

The Earthquake and Tsunami

The magnitude 8.9-9.0 Sendai earthquake was one of a handful of such powerful megathrust earthquakes to occur in recorded history. Its epicenter was 130 km (81mi) off the east coast of Miyagi Prefecture and it took place at a depth of 24.4 km (15.2 mi). The huge earthquake shook buildings on land while sending a 6.9-10 m (23-33 ft) tsunami toward the northeastern coast of Japan. It swept inland as far as 10 km (6 mi), causing immense destruction to the area, which can be see through satellite photos from the New York Times.

British Channel 4 Footage from the tsunami in Japan (Channel 4 News, via Real News)

The waves excavated homes and factories and have dealt a second blow as two nuclear power plants were so heavily damaged by the earthquake that they may be in partial meltdown. More than 10,000 people are dead, hundreds of thousands are homeless, 4.4 million have been left without electricity and 1.4 million do not have water. If you would like to help, click here for a list of organizations that are assisting with the recovery efforts.

Nuclear Power

Fission of Uranium 235 (theblogprof)

All current nuclear power plants are fission plants, involving the splitting of atomic nuclei. In most powerplants, this occurs when a neutron collides with a Uranium-235 (235U) nucleus and is absorbed by it. The 235U was relatively stable, but 236U is unstable and it will break into five pieces, a Krypton-92 (92Kr) nucleus, a Barium-141 (141Ba) nucleus, and three free neutrons. In a bar of Uranium, these free neutrons can collide with other Uranium atoms, which in turn give off more neutrons, and so on. This is what we call a chain reaction.

In addition to the neutrons, heat is given off as well side-reaction chains that generate a few electrons and some radiation. The heat is used to create steam, which drives a turbine that creates electricity. Electrons that escape the reactor core into a surrounding water tank can create a bluish glow, called Cherenkov Radiation, as they pass through water.

Cherenkov radiation creates the blue glow in a water-cooled nuclear fission reactor (WP Clip Art)

Despite the fact that an Uranium is a very heavy element, its nucleus is still rather small compared to the size of the atom itself (including the electron shells). That means that even a heavy rod of Uranium contains mostly empty space at the atomic level. As a result, the free neutrons do not necessarily hit the Uranium nuclei sitting right next door. They can rather travel a good distance through the material before the are absorbed by another nucleus. If the bar of Uranium is too small, then too many neutrons will escape before they can collide with other atoms and in that case, there will be very few nuclear reactions.

This can be remedied by putting a enough of fissile Uranium together to ensure that neutrons will be absorbed by the 235U, but one must be rather careful about it. If too much Uranium is placed together in a small, confined place, there could be a runaway reaction that releases a good deal of all of the energy that is stored in the atomic nuclei in a very short time (read: boom). This video gives a good demonstration of the chain reaction process.

A simulated nuclear reaction using mousetraps and pingpong balls (paulnord, YouTube)

Editor’s note: I once put together a similar demonstration with 1,000 mousetraps. At one point, we reached 500 only to have a ping pong ball go off. Not good. I also remember being a bit gun shy around snapping sounds after that. My fingers were very sore at the end of the setup.

To avoid a runaway reaction, most nuclear power plants use a combination of Uranium and Carbon rods to moderate the reactions rate. The Carbon rods essentially absorb the neutrons before they can reach a Uranium atom. With fewer neutrons reaching the Uranium, the reaction rate slows. If higher rates are required, the power plant simply removes some of the carbon rods to increase the number of neutrons that generate new reactions.

The Fukushima-I (Daiichi) plant runs on a variant of this process, which incorporates Uranium and Plutonium Oxide fuels. The same general principles apply, though the specific isotopes involved in the reactions are somewhat different.

In any case, the heat generated by the reactor core is used to boil water. Each of the plants have variations on this theme, but the general idea is depicted here. Water can be heated to very high temperatures if it is kept under pressure, these plants carry superheated water into a seperate chamber to create steam. As the steam is generated, the formerly superheated water cools, and is recirculated to the reactor core. This has the effect of carrying heat away from the reactor core and regulating the reaction rate (which increases as it heats up, causing more heating). If the temperatures of the reactor were to rise to high, the Uranium rods could melt and create a molten puddle of Uranium at the bottom of the chamber. This is a meltdown and carbon rods would no longer be able to regulate the reactions if a meltdown were to take place. In a sense, there is no “off switch” for a nuclear reactor, especially one that has melted down.

Status of the Power Plants

The events in Japan are taking place quite rapidly, and from what I can see, no one is completely certain regarding whether the plants have melted down.

    Fukushima-I (Daiichi):

Three of six reactors (1,2 and 3) at Daiichi were operating and went into automatic shutdown prior to the tsunami. However, the emergency generators used to cool the plant stopped in unit 1 after the tsunami. Units 2 and 3 were still alright by this point. Temperatures began to rise and steam was vented to release pressure on the containment structure. A hydrogen explosion, caused by a buildup of the gas, occurred and damaged the exterior of the building, though the reactor core containment structure seems alright. Seawater was pumped in to cool the cores.

Fukushima-I before and after the Hydrogen explosion (NHK, via Wikipedia)

By March 13, reactor 3 began having trouble and venting was necessary. The core was not completely covered by water, and there may have been some damage to the core. Nearly 200,000 people were evacuated from the area, and 22 residents have shown signs of radiation sickness. On March 14, the Unit 3 building was destroyed by a hydrogen explosion.

    Fukushima-II (Daini):

All four units of this plant were shut down automatically, but Units 1,2 and 4 were damaged by the tsunami and an evacuation was ordered due to possible radioactive contamination. By March 12, the temperature of the reactors had reached 100oC. No pressure release has yet occurred, however. Residence have been evacuated to a distance of 20 km from the plant.


A fire began in the turbine section of the plant after the earthquake. On March 13, radiation levels reached 21μSv/hour, causing a state of emergency to be declared – the International Atomic Energy Agency’s lowest emergency level. After a few minutes, the radiation levels dropped by half and have now returned to background levels.

Japanese authorities believe that the elevated radiation levels at Onagawa were due to the Fukushima I (some 60 km away) accident rather than from Onagawa itself. The radiation levels at Onagawa were not incredibly high, but their increase was cause for alarm. It is not known, however, how high a dose of radiation that the 22 people near Fukushima I had received. Only time will tell. 1,500 others are being tested for radiation exposure as a precaution.

So far, radiation levels are not expected to rise very much in Alaska and Hawaii.

Officials are saying that there is a 70% chance of a magnitude 7 aftershock by Monday. The situation is already a long way from being finished. A large earthquake could make things worse. At the moment, there are still reactors threatening to require venting. Venting is fairly safe, provided that the fuel rods are intact, however it seems there has been at least one partial meltdown. That means that vented gas may become more radioactive as time goes on. In addition, the sea water that is being used in desperation to keep the reactors cool will eventually corrode the metal containment chamber. The stakes are incredibly high – whether a significant fraction of the northern part of the densely populated country will be inhabitable.

Hopefully the earthquake will not arrive. The last thing anyone needs is another challenge at the moment. Good luck to everyone involved in bringing the reactors under control. Stay safe.

Here is that link again if you would like to help out.

Michele Bachmann (

As the winter clouds slowly give way to springtime sun, the United States is waking up to a nightmarish political climate. The Republicans have taken over more state legislatures than at any time since the Great Depression, and well… It looks like that is where we are heading there again. Why? Because the GOP, rebranded by the Kochs’ Tea Party after the intense failures of the Bush Administration plummeted the country to new depths, has retaken control in a November 2010 election in which liberals stayed home.

Uh... wah?!

The Tea Partiers have never been much for civil discussion – here are Tea Baggers waiting to get in at a Health Care Town Hall event in Missouri. Of course, these people were encouraged to behave abysmally by the Tea Party itself – and some were even paid to do it! (Learn how!)

Buoyed by a self-declared national mandate, the Tea Party is now beginning hard work on important new legislation across the country – all guaranteed to either send the U.S. backward to a preliterate tribal society or a post-industrial, pre-Rapture apocalyptic nightmare state. Let’s take a quick look at some of the bills making their way through some state legislatures around the country.


We have already reported on some of the interesting bills under consideration in Montana. These include important issues such as legalizing hunting with spears and guns with silencers. Tea Partiers like guns… a bit too much… so they have decided that the state government should allow guns in schools, in the state Capitol, and as if that was not enough safety, there is also a proposal to create armed militias in every town.

Tea Partiers do not like regulations very much because the Tea Party benefactors, the Koch Brothers, pollute a lot. So it should not be much of a surprise that there is an attempt to nullify federal laws, including federal environmental regulations. The state is also planning to eradicate incentives to promote the development of wind power and it would also like the government to demonstrate that it has obtained National Park land legally, lest glaciers be allowed a chance to be conserved.

South Dakota

Tea Baggers do not like women very much either. Women in South Dakota may soon be forced to listen to a Christian sermon about abortions prior to obtaining one – of course – it was not as if the decision was tragic enough in and of itself.

Another bill, an interesting and creative combination of Tea Party misogyny and love for guns would have legalized killing abortion doctors as well as defund Planned Parenthood. This law has been tabled… for now…


And then there is Texas. They do stupid in Texas BIG! Its Board of Education is a joke and it is difficult to understand how students that go through their schools will have the knowledge that they will need to thrive in competitive, technical fields such as biomedical engineering, much less pass a college entrance exam with the state’s reinforcement of creationism in the schools and rewriting of American history in the state educational standards. Oh, and despite the fact that Thomas Jefferson had written the Declaration of Independence and that as president, he doubled the size of the United States in the Louisiana purchase (including some territory in Texas itself) he is no longer recognized as a founding father because he also happened to be suspiciously liberal and agnostic.

Only weeks after the Gabriel Giffords shooting and with shootings on college campuses in the news annually, Texas has decided to allow concealed guns on college campuses within the state.

While we’re discussing guns, there are also bills that will enable guns on party boats and bills that nullify (there is that word again!) federal laws that apply to guns and ammo made in Texas. That should make it easier for the Branch Davidians to regroup in Waco without any pesky ATF interference.

But how can one be satisfied with guns and treating women like trash alone? There are plenty of other groups to discriminate against! That’s why Texas may make it illegal to be gay in the National Guard (Virginia is trying this one too). Sorry gays, no playtime with guns for you in this middle finger to that Kenyan guy. A bill by Leo Berman would make it illegal to run for president in Texas unless it was possible to see your original, legal birth certificate. But the question is would they believe it is real if the candidate has dark skin?

And there are Tea Partiers in Texas who believe that the immigration situation should be remedied. Why? Because the Arizona bill does not go far enough because it does not have the death penalty for illegal immigration.


In neighboring Oklahoma, where the public passed an amendment to the state constitution banning the adoption of shariah law, because that was apparently a problem with muslims comprising 0.16% of the state.

Of course, there are new gun proposals, too. Because people may soon be able to carry guns everywhere: College classes, grocery stores (watch out! that pineapple looks OVERRIPE!), and even bars! They deserve bonus points for combining guns and booze.

Don’t worry – illegal immigration proposals were scuttled when the Chamber of Commerce intervened! And women have already been forced to listen to ultrasounds and hear a discussion of a fetus before having an abortion – even if you were a rape or incest victim.

New Hampshire

In New Hampshire, there is a new bill to make it very difficult for students to vote! A new law would allow students to vote in New Hampshire if their parents happened to have a previously established residence in the town where the student lived. Since students generally move away from home and live in the town where they go to school, that means they may be barred from voting at all if they go to school in New Hampshire. And if that were not enough, Election Day registration would also be banned for students that did not understand that their voting rights have been infringed. According to the Republican House Speaker, William O’Brien, well here is a clip from the Washington Post:

New Hampshire’s new Republican state House speaker is pretty clear about what he thinks of college kids and how they vote. They’re “foolish,” Speaker William O’Brien said in a recent speech to a tea party group.

“Voting as a liberal. That’s what kids do,” he added, his comments taped by a state Democratic Party staffer and posted on YouTube. Students lack “life experience,” and “they just vote their feelings.”


In Ohio, Republicans have turned on police and firefighters. This is all about union busting. (They have already gone for state employees including teachers).


In Tennessee, Tea Partiers are all about pooh-poohing slavery. Speaking of slavery, the Tea Party there is also gunning for teachers’ collective bargaining rights.


In Missouri, a new proposal would eliminate child labor laws for children under 14. Children looking to earn a buck could work up to 80 hours a week! Just think of all of the wonderful free-market capitalism that they could enjoy during their formative years without an education! The bill also specifically allows children under the age of 16 to work in the hotel industry, after hours. Yes, it specifically goes out of its way to mention that. Oh, and the law would bar the Missouri Division of Labor Standards from making sure that employers of children provide safe working conditions.

Missouri is also considering a compact with Arizona and Tennessee that would oppose the adoption of federal Health Care Reform, in another nullification move.


The same month in which a U.S. Congressional Representative was shot in the head just to the south, the state of Utah voted on a state firearm. They picked a Browning M1911 semiautomatic pistol. How tasteful!

And with guns comes hating women. Did you know that miscarriages are like natural abortions? That is why it is now possible that a woman who has a miscarriage will face murder charges.


Oh, and Utah was a lightweight – women who have a miscarriage in Georgia could get the death penalty.

The Georgia Tea Party would also like to enact a few other provisions, including: The “Energy Freedom of Choice Legislation”, which would prohibit cap-and-trade limits to greenhouse emissions; an Arizona-style anti-immigration law (papieren bitte!); tax cuts everywhere, including property taxes!


Arizona is the home of crazy. They have already sold several state buildings, including the state Capitol, to private firms so that the state can rent from them at higher cost in perpetuity!

It is possible to carry concealed weapons to bars now. But don’t think of buying beer, cigarettes of any “niceties of life” if you are welfare – you will lose your funding. Oh, and a children’s health insurance program has been repealed for 38,000 kids. This means that billions of dollars in Medicare money may be withheld by the federal government. In other words, Arizona is keeping the government out of Arizonan Medicare – we’ll see how that goes amongst the geriatric population there.

There is now also a law that requires abortion doctors to report the names of women who undergo abortions.

And there is the anti-immigration law that allows anyone caught while brown to be arrested if they are not carrying their documentation at all times.


In Minnesota, the new Tea Party legislature is not happy with the Democratic Governor’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthy.

Michele Bachmann and other Republican Congressional delegation members are planning to defund the EPA

In attacks on women, Republicans have decided to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, regardless of wether the child will survive more than a few minutes anyway. The bill will be vetoed by the governor, but you can’t blame them for making a statement, can you?

Another Republican, Senator John Carlson of Bemidji, decided that he would introduce a bill that would repeal pay equity for women. Why is it that the Tea Party hates women so much? Here is what he said, from the Minnesota Independent:

“That bill’s been pulled and it won’t see the light of day,” Carlson said Saturday at an Education Minnesota event, the Bemidji Pioneer reports. “I would admit I didn’t do my homework very well.”

“So I author the bill, put it in the hopper, and the next thing I know, all hell breaks loose,” he said. “And I deserve it for being naïve. Quite honestly, I deserve that. I did it with good intentions.”

“Obviously, I’ve been married for 32 years, I have a daughter out in the workforce, and I have a granddaughter — I can’t believe anyone would think I would harm that relationship,” Carlson said.

I wonder just what those good intentions were that would have lowered wages for half of the human race for the simple fact they were not male.

Not to be outdone with misogyny, the Tea Baggers want to get the gays too! They plan to introduce an anti-gay marriage amendment.

Federal Government

With the 2012 elections coming up and the Republicans hoping that Obama will fail, they are planning a budget that is a poison pill for the current economic recovery.

Republicans also plan to send us back a century or two, by cutting scientific researh – especially climate change science and monitoring. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Planned Parenthood also take political hits from the government. Meanwhile, nearly a million jobs are on the line with draconian cuts aimed at breaking unions, eliminating programs for the poor. If that were not enough, the GOP plans dire cuts to education and infrastructure development.

The Republicans would also like to defund the EPA for their Koch brother masters. They have even replaced recyclable food containers in the Congressional dining room with non-recyclable styrofoam, provided by an affiliate of Koch Industries. Since they are also planning to slash funding to toxicology clinics, one blogger suggests that the GOP is simply trying to poison America. Considering their impact on the nation so far, it seems that it is safe to say “Mission Accomplished”.

George W. Bush - Mission Accomplished (Wikipedia)

Wisconsin Protests

Protests in Madison continued through the weekend. 30-50,000 people showed up Saturday to protest against Governor Walker’s attacks on working families. Mail carriers had their day on Sunday. But the Tea Party had a pro-Walker rally on Sunday as well at Alliant Energy Center. Despite having access to the Kochs’ billions, they could only muster 600 people to support Scott Walker. A new poll came out, albeit with a very small sample (603 respondents, corresponding to errors greater than +/- 4%), showing very negative reactions to Governor Walker, a strong majority against stripping unions of collective bargaining rights, and 72% of Wisconsinites want to solve the Walker-created budgetary problems by raising taxes on people earning more than $150,000 per year. HUGE protests are expected across the nation next Saturday, with more events also planned throughout the week. And the bottom may be dropping out on Governor Walker as thousands of dairy farmers plan to drive their tractors to the Capitol to show support for unions next Saturday. In Wisconsin, when dairy farmers protest Republicans, it generally means the end of the careers of those Republicans. Some are predicting that the protests in Madison are just the beginning, as the debate to cut Social Security begins in Washington.

Other Tea Party Fun

In Ohio, the Tea Party legislature is passing tougher anti-union legislation than the bill in Madison. It makes it a criminal offense for workers to go on strike. Some shenanigans were required in order to get the bill through committee, however. When a committee was deadlocked on the proposal with even some Republicans dissenting, the Republican Senate Majority Leader fired two Republican Senators from their committee assignments so that the bill could reach the floor. Still, even some Republicans are calling the bill unconstitutional and it likely violates existing labor laws. Unfortunately Ohio Dems can not prevent a quorum in the Republican-filled Ohio legislature. This week has seen the largest protests to date in Columbus.

Indiana Democratic House Members are still in Illinois, preventing a vote on anti-union legislation there. As protests in Indiana continue, Indiana’s newly elected Republican Secretary of State Charlie White is probably going to jail. He has ben indicted on three counts of felony voter fraud for registering to vote in places where he did not live. One would think that a State Secretary of State, who is in charge of elections within the state, would understand the rules here – that is unless that was the reason for his choice to run. Keep in mind that White has supported the voter ID requirement in Indiana, ostensibly to prevent people from voting illegally as he has done. There are a lot more interesting details in this article
from the Brad Blog.

The State Legislature of Arizona has passed an unconstitutional bill to nullify federal laws. Laws of this sort were the same type that precipitated the Civil War, when southern states attempted to nullify federal regulation of slavery. This comes on the heels of a vote by the Arizona Legislature to allow people to carry guns to public events, because, you know, guns at public events are a fantastic idea and it is not as if one of their own members of Congress was shot in the head by a lunatic carrying a gun or anything just two months ago. Oh, as it happens, Jared Loughner has just been hit with 49 additional criminal counts for his firing spree on a crowd at a Giffords event in January.

The Tea Party-led Montana State Legislature is still at it. Even Republicans are now claiming that the Tea Party is leading to the the Republicans to become such a national laughingstock that they are driving away young GOP voters. In addition to working to allow guns in schools, they are trying to, as MT Cowgirl puts it, “legislate the laws of nature” to deny climate change, eliminate stem cell research, to claim the earth is between 4,000 and 6,000 years old, and to criminalize homosexuality.

Florida Tea Party Governor Rick Scott may be subject to a criminal investigation over his firing of the state nursing home long-term care obmudsman. It is not generally considered a smart move to anger the nursing homes in the state with the nation’s most geriatric population.


Julian Assange is appealing the expected British court ruling that he should be extradited to Sweden. His organization WikiLeaks has already uncovered a huge amount of corruption from countries accross the world. It was revelations of the excesses of the family of the Tunisian dictator that have led to pro-democracy rallies across Africa and Asia. Meanwhile, Bradley Manning, who the military claims gave WikiLeaks documents that it later published, is in detention under cruel and unusual conditions – including being kept in his cell naked, being refused sleep, etc. Does this sound familiar?

Corruption on the Supreme Court

Calls are coming out for the removal of Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia for illegally participating in political fundraising, tax evasion and refusing to make public conflicts of interest.

A Taurus XL Rocket on its last successful launch in 2004 (Wikipedia)

Failures on Climate Change

NASA lost another payload that was to be launched to orbit on an Orbital Sciences Taurus XL rocket on Friday because the nose cone failed to separate en route to orbit. The rocket was carrying the Glory satellite, a member of a cluster of satellites to study climate change, in this case by observing aerosol abundances in the atmosphere. Aerosols reflect light from the Sun before the light can be absorbed by the ground. Three out of the last four launches on the Taurus XL have failed for the same reason, and two of them were carrying a satellite that was intended to study Climate Change and the third was to study ozone in the atmosphere. This has led to some people to discuss conspiracy theories. Regardless, there is now a good deal of concern that important measurements needed to better forecast climate change will not occur in a timely fashion due to these launch failures and due to the $600 million cuts to NASA climate observational programs by Congressional Republicans (who do not believe in Climate Change, but do believe in Biblical Unicorns). NASA is trying to defend itself from claims of incompetence, which frankly happens a lot when budget cuts lead to cutting corners. Says Rick Obenschain, Deputy Director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center:

“To make any connection between our investigation of the 2009 … mishap and Friday’s failure of the Glory launch at this time would be purely speculative and wholly inappropriate.”

Of course. It would be wholly inappropriate to consider that a mishap due to one failure of a nose cone separation with another on the same launch system carrying the same type of satellite. That is the statement of a bureaucrat trying to defend his bureau.

During the presentation of the results of the inquiry, physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman embarrassed the NASA community with a simple and elegant description of the problem that destroyed the Space Shuttle Challenger – stiffness in seals on the rocket boosters at low temperatures. Watch here:

His work on the committee led to another perspective, encapsulated in bullet points from the Challenger Disaster investigation

Shrinking and unpredictable budgets became problematic. NASA was consistently asked to do more with less (the eternal hope of budget administrators everywhere).

The Reagan administration put more and more pressure on NASA to keep a regular schedule of launches. President Reagan’s dream of space weapons was dependent on keeping to the schedule. Launch delays became more problematic for NASA administrators.

The “can-do attitude” of the 1960s became a “make-do attitude.” Cost-saving mechanisms became the norm. Engineer salaries did not keep pace with inflation, and out-sourcing became commonplace.

Budget cuts made redundant safety systems less desirable. If the engineers found a mechanical problem, the classification of the problem became not just an issue of safety, but also of budget. So if a mechanical problem occurred, but didn’t immediately endanger life, it could be classified as a “concern” rather than a “problem.” In other words, if it didn’t work like we expected, but nothing bad happened, then we’ll just ignore it.

The o-rings had been a concern before. Cracks had been found in the o-rings after previous flights. However, since no disasters had happened, the cracks were seen as “normal,” rather than a “problem.”

–Courtesy of

In essence (and I’m paraphrasing Feynman here): Continued budget cuts eliminate redundant checks and balances in systems that were there to ensure safety. Cutting back too much on the budget for an exploratory program like NASA guarantees there will be problems.

We should understand that the Challenger Disaster occurred during the lifetimes of all of the Members of Congress. It is known that scaling back programs leads to technical trouble. Therefore, scaling back Climate funding is a useful fait accompli for a Climate Change denying Congressman who calls for deep cuts to science budgets. The subsequent claim that either the net result was unexpected or that they have confidence that an organization can do more with less only serves to led plausible deniability to the Congressman. Yet most Climate Change denying Congressmen receive a good deal of campaign funding from oil companies that would be adversely impacted should there be a viable renewable alternative to oil – and these same companies lobby Congress intensely on the issue of Climate Change.

In short – whether by direct or indirect interference is no matter but the oil companies who hold the GOP purse strings are setting back Climate Change research upon which rely in order to better understand human impact on its own surroundings.

This video, from RSA Animate, discusses the cognitive science behind empathy. There are some surprises in the video, including the fact that there are similarities between humans and animals in their empathic response.

Sure, the word ’empathy’ got a bad rap from the “greed is good” crowd, but never underestimate the power of politics for self-promotion to turn a noble virtue into something scorned. Hopefully this video will help restore it to the prominence it deserves:
RSA Animate: The Empathic Civilisation

Code Pink Protest the Koch Brothers (Crystal Chatham, AP)

In two previous articles, Meet the Kochs, the billionaires who fund the Tea Party and Who are the Koch Brothers?, we have highlighted the corporate interests and the political actions of the Koch brothers. Well, there is more to the story. Back in the 1980s, David and Charles Koch were vying with their brother, Bill Koch, for control of Koch Industries. The fact that Bill was forced out of the country left a bit of a rift between the brothers, even if he is incredibly wealthy as well. A CBS News 60 Minutes episode dealt with the feud. Bill Koch accused Koch Industries of earning a minimum of $230 million bilking the government out of oil by falsifying the amount and quality of the oil it was purchasing from federal lands. A note for Libertarians: This is only possible when companies are allowed to police themselves.

Koch Industries was convicted not only of stealing oil, but also for cutting back on safety for the sake of cost. In 2000, Koch Industries was hit with the largest fine ever under the Clean Water Act for spilling 3 million gallons of crude oil in six states.

In another incident:

“They don’t care for any loss of human life. Like I said, it was the buck that counted for them,” says Danny Smalley. He had the extreme misfortune of living near a Koch Industries underground pipeline that ran through Texas. In August, 1996, Smalley was home with his daughter Danielle and her friend Jason Stone. Danielle was packing to leave for school the next day – the first person in her family to go to college.

She and Jason started smelling gas. It was butane, pouring from a corroded Koch Industries high pressure pipeline, 200 yards from their home. Jason and Danielle set out in a pickup truck to find help. But their truck set off the butane, and caused an explosion.

Danny Smalley filed suit against Koch Industries. His attorney, Ted Lyon, says the investigation exposed a pattern of negligence and coverup involving the pipeline known as Sterling One. Lyon describes the pipeline as like “Swiss Cheese.”

In April, 2001, the Koch Petroleum Group was fined for releasing benzene at a chemical plant in Texas. But that is not the only time that has happened. Greenpeace lists Koch Industries’ long and inglorious environmental record.

The Kochs are actively working to construct a major oil pipeline from the Tar Sands of Alberta to their refineries in Texas. The pipeline would pass through the heart of the Ogallala
aquifer that provides water to much of the central United States and they plan to put the pipeline under the aquifer… but the area is prone to earthquakes. If you are worried, do not worry: Koch Industries is seeking redactions of environmental regulations and they are buying political campaigns to have the project approved.

The long history of Koch Industries acting in an environmentally negligent and politically active way seems to be a perfect combination for corruption. Given the immense amounts of money that the Koch brothers funnel to their political operations, we should be wary of their influence on public elections. This is especially true when we consider the effects of their proposals to essentially void the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

It is time for a public investigation into the Koch brothers financial support for the Tea Party as well as for a close inspection of safety at their plants across the country. The U.S. Government should get involved in there investigation because the public should not be forced to rely on groups like Anonymous, who are monitoring the Koch’s computer networks now, when the Government is supposed to work in the best interests of the people.

Glenn Beck talks apocalypse porn (Rachel Maddow Show, via YouTube)

In new developments regarding Wisconsin, the Koch brothers, showing no small amount of irony or chutzpah, passed on this message to the public through the National Review:

“With the Left trying to intimidate the Koch brothers to back off of their support for freedom and signaling to others that this is what happens if you oppose the administration and its allies, we have no choice but to continue to fight,” says Richard Fink, the executive vice president of Koch Industries. “We will not step back at all. We firmly believe that economic freedom has benefited the overwhelming majority of society, including workers, who earn higher wages when you have open and free markets. When government grows as it has with the Bush and Obama administrations, that is what destroys prosperity.”

That is right, freedom is slavery. And not having the ability to bargain for wages apparently increases them…somehow. It is plainly apparent what is taking place here. Don’t you see? The billionaire Koch brothers are the real victims here. Just because they have simply paid a puppet to eliminate the jobs of those fat cat teachers and nurse’s aides, redact environmental regulations and curtail public health care so that they can pay a lower marginal tax rate, they are made out to be the bad guys. Oh, and buying state power plants so that they can sell power back to the state at a higher cost and hefty personal profit would be nice, too. Can you believe the insensitivity of those liberals out there? What does a billionaire have to do these days to make a living? Work?

True to form, their fight apparently continues: Governor Walker is now attacking state health programs, including programs for the disabled. Disabled rights activists protested inside the state GOP headquarters in Madison Friday. As we reported yesterday, Walker also has his sights on the state’s currently healthy employee insurance fund. And the attack on collective bargaining continues, even if the state is about to lose $46 million in federal money specifically because it is ending collective bargaining rights for workers! Now THAT is a way to balance a budget!

What we are seeing is a natural end of unbalanced conservatism. The United States is in a race to the 19th century, when the 20th was its greatest time and while other nations are aiming for the 22nd. The conservative movement has become so rapt with its regressive economic dogma that it hires people like Glenn Beck to spew his apocalyptic violence porn because teachers and nurses are marching to retain their rights to collectively bargain for their salaries – “IT IS THE APOCALYPSE I TELL YOU!” We now live in an age where a teacher who claims that he or she has the right to earn a living wage represents the ‘mark of the beast’. That is just how unbalanced the right is and that is why it must be stopped. If enough people march, protest, right representatives and demand investigations, they can be stopped.

David Koch (New Yorker)

In the aftermath of Wisconsin Governor’s phone call with a David Koch impersonator, we now know that Scott Walker is a puppet. The Koch’s have purchased his election, with a combination of both direct funding and indirect funding through the Kochs’ vast network of right-wing organizations. We can only speculate on the Kochs’ true motivations, but if the talking points listed on their think tank websites give any indication, it involves a dismantling and part and parcel sale of government assets to private interests as well as an assault on environmental regulations. The New Yorker published an excellent article about the Koch Brothers last August. This exposé is quite illuminating in that it brings up a number of issues, including the roots of their interest in the Libertarian movement, how they gained political influence, and how they have now been able to buy elections across the country.

New Yorker: Covert Operations, The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama