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Archive for the ‘Science/Technology’ Category

New Oil Explosion, Fire, off Louisiana Coast

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

Long, Hot Summer

[ Update: Think Progress’s Ben Armbruster reports, “One day before its gulf oil rig exploded, Mariner Energy said ‘Obama is trying to break us’ with the deepwater drilling moratorium,” even though the platform that exploded today was not affected by the moratorium. Think Progress says the Associated Press is now reporting that, contrary to earlier statements (echoed below), the Vermilion Oil Rig 360 was in production at the time of the explosion. The New York Times now reports that “Mariner said that during the last week of August, the platform had produced about 9.2 million cubic feet of natural gas a day and 1,400 barrels of oil and condensate.” ]

[ Original post begins here: ] The Times-Picayune and New York Times report that at about 9:30 a.m. today an oil platform (not a rig) exploded off the coast of Louisiana, 80 to 90 miles south of Vermilion Bay, and 13 workers abandoned the rig and are in the water, wearing protective immersion suits to prevent hypothermia. The U.S. Coast Guard is responding with helicopters to rescue the workers. The workers will be taken to Terrebone General Medical Center in Houma.

Bob Warren of the Times-Picayune writes:

Coast Guard Petty Officer Casey Ranel said the rig is around 90 miles south of Vermilion Bay and that a helicopter earlier today reported that it was in fire “and that there was smoke and there were people in the water.”

The Vermilion Oil Platform 380 is owned by Mariner Energy in water about 340 feet deep (thus it is not affected by the Obama administration’s moratorium, which applies to projects more than 500 feet deep). Texas-based Mariner, one of the largest independent oil and gas firms in the Gulf of Mexico, currently has 195 active drilling leases. The platform is apparently in exploration mode and not producing oil and gas, according to the Department of Homeland Security. [This appears to be in question, as noted above.] The rig is on fire. One worker is injured, but all workers are accounted for. No leak is known of at this time (12:45 EST). The platform is about 200 miles west of BP’s Macondo site where the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers. (Three months after that explosion, in late July, a barge hit an abandoned well in Mud Lake, part of Barataria Bay about 10 miles by water from Golden Meadow, Louisiana, releasing a gushing of oil and natural gas that took days to seal.)

Click here for video of reports by MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer and Anne Thompson with brief comments from Coast Guard chief John Edwards and an update on an investigation of the blowout preventer on the BP Macondo well. At the same time, Hurricane Earl is churning up the Atlantic, projected to be about parallel with the North Carolina / Virginia border by 8:00 a.m. Friday.

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[ Click here for LNW’s coverage of the BP oil spill. ]

AP photo above; MSNBC map below. ]



Disarmament Experts Clarify Film’s Position on Nuclear Power

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Last week we reviewed the excellent new documentary Countdown to Zero, released in late July, just in time for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki anniversaries (Aug. 6 and 9). While we praised Countdown and hope everyone will see it, we had some questions about the film’s stand on the safety or acceptability of nuclear power (see below). We contacted the production company and some of the experts who appear in the film, and two experts, Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund and Dr. Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute and founder of Global Zero, replied in generous detail. We wanted to share their thoughts, and to express here our gratitude for their taking the time to clarify some important concerns about how nuclear power and nonproliferation can coexist.

Some of this gets a little technical—but it’s a technical matter, after all—so you can skim the excerpts if you like. The main point is that the experts took the questions seriously and took time to answer, and their replies show they’ve been thinking quite extensively about these issues.

We wrote last week:

Countdown to Zero is excellent but not perfect. We had questions about some important practical issues that were raised but not dealt with. The film advocates bringing all world nuclear stockpiles down to zero. (Agreed.) But the film also explains that nuclear power plants produce fissile material (as in the case of Iran). So, does the film also advocate elimination of nuclear power? How is the danger posed by production of fissile materials through ordinary operation of nuclear power plants to be managed? Unless we missed something, the film said nothing about what should be done about nuclear power plants. Presumably terrorists or their would-be suppliers could also get their hands on fissile material—or is that somehow not possible? There is still the question of what to do about Iran, or what threat may be posed by Iran or other possibly hostile or unstable nations possessing nuclear power plants, or the fissile material produced by them. Would France, for example, have to shut down its nuclear power plants, the source of most of its electricity?

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Nagasaki, Not Forgotten

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Today, Aug. 9, is the 65th anniversary of the atomic (plutonium) bombing of Nagasaki. (Hiroshima was bombed first, with a uranium bomb, on Aug. 6, 1945.) Some 60,000 to 80,000 civilians died, most of them instantly; others, like Sumiteru Taniguchi, pictured below, suffered lingering deaths from radiation burns. Among the casualties may have been American soldiers in a prisoner of war camp (possibly known by the military). Questions of why the U.S. used the atomic bombs when Japan was near defeat—or whether Japan was in fact the primary target; maybe the main audience was the USSR—have been analyzed by better informed and more rigorous intellects and are not likely to be settled here today.

Why did the U.S. have to use the bomb twice? Did we have to use it at all?

The legend, or conventional wisdom, is that if President Harry Truman (below) had not pulled the trigger, American forces would have had to launch a bloody, costly land invasion of Japan. This is possible, though no major U.S. military offensive was slated to begin before November 1, 1945, and the Soviets, our allies against Nazi Germany, had promised to help with a ground war. What was the hurry?

In hindsight, it is difficult to imagine the bomb not being used, after a $2 billion investment and six years’ work, even if Japan were not already seriously weakened and soon to collapse. When President Truman was first briefed about the existence of the atom project on April 24, 1945 (two weeks after FDR died), his first response was to sit down; he had received the generals standing up. He ordered a search for other options, with one committee composed of soldiers and civilians, and the other of scientists. Both panels met twice, on May 31 and June 1, and reached the same conclusion. A committee of scientists including J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi told Truman that they could devise “no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.” Meanwhile, Truman’s generals were pressing him to let them move forward with plans for a massive land invasion of the Japanese home islands.

One consideration was that the Soviet Union had promised at the Tehran conference in late 1943 and again at Yalta in February 1945 to join the fight against Japan within three months after the European war ended (May 8). Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall had pushed hard for Soviet help against Japan, knowing that the combined pressure of U.S. and Soviet forces would likely compel the Japanese to surrender. (Even among those who knew about the ultra-top-secret Manhattan Project, it was uncertain whether the new weapon would work until it was tested in mid July 1945.) Until the bomb was proven, the only way to crush the Japanese army was to fight it, and General Marshall preferred to let the Russians do a lot of the heavy lifting. There were reservations, however, about Soviet involvement: American officials did not want to have to share defeated Japan with the USSR the way the Allies were already sharing postwar Germany, divvied up into four military occupation zones: American, Soviet, British, and French.

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Hiroshima, 65 Years On: “Countdown to Zero”

Friday, August 6th, 2010

Today, August 6, is the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. Nagasaki was nuked on Aug. 9. The bombs killed some 90,000 to 160,000 in Hiroshima and some 60,000 to 80,000 in Nagasaki, with half the deaths occurring in the first day, even the first millisecond, of the blast. Over the following months and years, thousands died from burns and radiation sickness.

Read Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe’s compelling op-ed in today’s New York Times, “Hiroshima and the Art of Outrage.” A friend of Oe’s mother was an eyewitness to the blast; she only survived because she was protected behind a large brick wall:

Moments before the atomic bomb was dropped, my mother’s friend happened to seek shelter from the bright summer sunlight in the shadow of a sturdy brick wall, and she watched from there as two children who had been playing out in the open were vaporized in the blink of an eye.

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Last night we went to see Countdown to Zero, a powerful new documentary written and directed by Lucy Walker and produced by the folks who brought us An Inconvenient Truth. Despite the film’s serious subject, it’s not a downer: it’s actually positive, affirmative, and you walk out feeling more hopeful. (You may have read about Countdown to Zero a few weeks ago in our tribute to Greenpeace co-founder and anti–nuke-testing activist Jim Bohlen.) Click here for a photo gallery of the film.

Enlivened by the commentary of such experts and officials as Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert McNamara, Valerie Plame Wilson, Joseph Cirincione, and others, including a U.S. army officer who literally worked down in a nuclear silo with his finger on the button, the film gives a concise overview of the history of the atomic bomb and the reasons why it’s outlived its usefulness and should be eliminated from all arsenals.

The narrative shows how the bomb was developed in ultra top secret Manhattan Project in the early 1940s (even Vice President Harry Truman didn’t know about it until he became president upon the death of FDR in April 1945), and following the detonations over Japan, the bomb prompted misgivings and remorse, evoked most eloquently by nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who recalled the Trinity test in New Mexico (pictured above) in July 1945, just weeks before Hiroshima:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

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Jim Bohlen, a Greenpeace Founder, Dies

Friday, July 9th, 2010

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Navy Veteran, Peace Activist, Born on 4th of July

A quick note of appreciation for the life of James Calvin Bohlen (at left in photo above), a cofounder of the environmental and peace action group Greenpeace, who died Monday in British Columbia. He was 84. We did not know Mr. Bohlen—we confess we weren’t aware of him at all until we read the New York Times obituary—but we wish to take a moment to honor his life and work, his commitment to Stopping the Bomb, to peace, and to courageous action to keep the planet a livable place for all. Now that we know about him, we wish we’d been there with him.

Bohlen was a member of a splinter group of Canadian Sierra Club members called the Don’t Make a Wave Committee who opposed American testing of nuclear weapons at Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Islands (where he had served in the Navy in World War II as a radio operator). The U.S. had been testing in the Aleutians, at a point midway between Alaska and the USSR, since 1965. (For hair-raising accounts of the tests’ seismic and physical consequences, see here and here.) Among the opponents’ concerns was that the nuclear shock waves, so soon after the horrific Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, would not only terrorize the already traumatized populace and release radioactive poisons but possibly also trigger new earthquakes (the test site was near a fault line) and tsunamis. In 1969, ten thousand protesters blocked a major U.S.–Canada border crossing, holding signs that read “Don’t Make a Wave. It’s Your Fault if Our Fault Goes.”

Bohlen had complained to his wife, Marie, that the committee was taking too long to make up its mind about how to stop the tests; she said offhandedly why not sail a boat to the test site? When a reporter from the Vancouver Sun happened to phone to check on the committee’s deliberations, Bohlen (perhaps to his own surprise) announced, “We hope to sail a boat to Amchitka to confront the bomb.” When the remark appeared in the paper the following day, the die was cast.

The Don’t Make a Wave Committee rented a halibut fishing boat, named it “Greenpeace,” and in September 1971 sailed toward the Aleutians, but was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. The public outcry had an effect, however—boosted by a fund-raising concert in 1970 starring James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Phil Ochs—and the U.S. stopped testing in 1971.

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“The Oysters Never Had It So Good.”

Friday, June 18th, 2010

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For anyone who might be concerned about the effects of BP oil on Louisiana seafood and needs reassurance that “oil will be well,” you just need to sit back, relax, and watch this 1960 newsreel of “progress at work” titled Lifeline to an Oyster, “presented as a public information service by the American Petroleum Institute.” (Note that “the trouble” is said to have started when the oystermen “claimed” that the oysters were being killed off by oil production. No complaints = no trouble?)

“The trouble started down in Louisiana on the Gulf of Mexico when the Louisiana oyster fishermen claimed that oil production was killing off the local oyster population. The oil companies didn’t agree, but they agreed to look into the matter. . . .

“In the research laboratory, every type of condition is created for the ‘oyster patients.’ A blanket of crude oil is poured directly on the water. Water is jetted through oil for six months. Oil-drilling mud was emptied into the water. . . .

“Every possibility was explored. After years of study and progress, the results were in: The test oysters showed no ill effects from oil, even under conditions which far exceeded those ever present in oil production. As a matter of fact, the test oysters were so happy they brought forth new generations to share their luck. They never had it so good.”

Well then, if this wasn’t killing the oysters, what was?

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Notes for Tonight’s Oval Office Script

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Very briefly, what we’re hoping to hear in the president’s address is a strong commitment to progressive energy legislation—the best of the Kerry-Lieberman and Waxman-Markey bills currently in Congress. (Here are some good, sensible specifics proposed by the Center for American Progress: “Obama’s Oil Reform Opportunity.”) We want to see the president’s hand firm and resolute in compelling BP’s compliance in stopping the volcano of oil and forcing much stronger efforts by BP in stopping the oil from spreading into the Louisiana wetlands. The half-assed band-aid booms they’ve laid out are not enough and are too sparsely monitored—and we also don’t want these “toxic tampons” dumped in Louisiana landfills as BP has been doing at Port Fourchon—at least 250 tons’ worth. We also want greater transparency by BP with information and an end to blocking reporters and photographers from doing their work.

But we don’t just want to hear about BP and its Deepwater Horizon gusher, because the current crisis could have happened to other oil companies, too, or at other BP rigs now drilling elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico (such as BP’s ominously named Atlantis rig, a well 7,000 below the surface and 150 miles from the coast of Louisiana—too close). We also want the president to tell us what he is going to do about cracking heads at the troubled Minerals Management Service division of the Interior Department that has allowed Big Oil to regulate itself—with evident results. Tim Dickinson’s stunning report in the June 24 issue of Rolling Stone (“The Spill, the Scandal and the President”) shows that MMS is hopelessly corrupt and incompetent and needs to be flushed out like the Augean stables. It may well be that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar should be banished to the same distant pasture where we’d like to see Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner grazing in exile.

We’ll be back with more soon after the president’s address. Note, though, that Obama will be addressing the nation from the Oval Office for the first time in his presidency, a sign of the gravity of the situation. This is the office from which John F. Kennedy apprised the nation of a buildup of Soviet missiles in Cuba in October 1962, and other presidents have set the stage for declarations of war.

Will we hear President Obama declare the equivalent of a manned mission to the moon, as even Joe Scarborough has said he needs to do? (“This president can say . . . by the end of a decade, America will break its dependence on foreign oil.”) Good idea, though we’re not holding our breath. But we are going to be pressing Obama and Congress for full-blown energy reform. As we said about ten days ago (“Welcome Back, Mr. President”), “Mr. President, a major, massive, fully committed national shift toward alternative energy must begin now. . . . Push for Energy Reform on the scale of the Manhattan Project, the Interstate Highway System, the TVA, or the Apollo mission—or all of these combined.”



Unmanned Drones in U.S. Airspace? What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Monday, June 14th, 2010

File under “OMG! WTF?”

We took our eyes off the BP oil cam just long enough to see this headline : “Feds Under Pressure to Open U.S. Skies to Drones.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has been asked to issue flying rights for a range of pilotless planes to carry out civilian and law—enforcement functions but has been hesitant to act. Officials are worried that they might plow into airliners, cargo planes and corporate jets that zoom around at high altitudes, or helicopters and hot air balloons that fly as low as a few hundred feet off the ground.

Really? Something might go wrong?

. . . these pilotless aircraft come in a variety of sizes. Some are as big as a small airliner, others the size of a backpack. The tiniest are small enough to fly through a house window.

Cool. Maybe BP could use drones to shoo away those pesky reporters and photographers cluttering up BP’s beaches and wetlands along the Gulf Coast.

One major concern is the prospect of lost communication between unmanned aircraft and the operators who remotely control them. Another is a lack of firm separation of aircraft at lower altitudes, away from major cities and airports. Planes entering these areas are not required to have collision warning systems or even transponders. Simply being able to see another plane and take action is the chief means of preventing accidents. . . .

The National Transportation Safety Board held a forum in 2008 on safety concerns associated with pilotless aircraft after a Predator crashed in Arizona. The board concluded the ground operator remotely controlling the plane had inadvertently cut off the plane’s fuel. . . .

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