Wednesday, March 23, 2011

科学の音 or The Sounds of Science

1755 copper engraving depicting Lisbon in ruins and in flames after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which killed an estimated 60,000 people. A tsunami overwhelms the ships in the harbor. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
- J. Robert Oppenheimer (Physicist, Head of the Manhattan Project. 1904-1967)

            As most of you know, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan has had devastating effects all across it’s borders: 22,000 plus dead and missing, lives and livelihoods destroyed – and then there is that nuclear reactor, spewing radioactive steam across the northeast Japan.  My thoughts and prayers go out to the Japanese people.
            It is also a time for us to reflect upon nature.  Japan lies on a fault line between the North American and Pacific plates.  If any of you remember your geology, the earth is bound by a series of geological plates that are constantly shifting.  When the stress and pressure between the plates becomes too much, the plates buckle, causing earthquakes, tsunamis, and the like.
            Basic science.  Alfred Wegener[1] told how nature works, but we still can’t control what nature does.  This is ever more evident in the face of the Fukushima nuclear reactors.  But didn’t President Obama in his last State of the Union address behoove us to look at more sustainable energy sources?  Wind, solar and the dreaded “N” word - nuclear.
            Nuclear energy provides 19% of the United States electricity consumption. In the European Union, it provides 30% of Europe’s energy output. That is a lot of Mac’s, lights, stoves and ice cream. 
            But before your knee jerks the anti-nuclear button, let’s suss this one out. We in the US use 1,352,989,623,840 kWh a year. Rapidly developing countries such as Brazil, India and China use significantly less, but that is changing as those countries demand more electricity for their economies. China is the second largest consumer and producer of electricity after the US.  In total, the world uses 17,320 tera-watt hours or in non-scientific notation, 17,320 TRILLION watt-hours per year.[2]
            Where does this come from?  Primarily from coal burning plants. 68.7% of China’s electricity comes from coal.  90% of the US electrical consumption also comes from coal.  In total, it is about 6.75 billion tons worldwide. If you don’t believe in global warming, then this means nothing.[3] But let’s take a look at some other facts. MSNBC reports that coal-fired plants contribute to shortening the lives of 24,000 persons a year. Waste products from coal mining and coal-firing contribute to heavy metals into the environment, including your drinking water, air and soil. Coal-fired plants emit mercury, arsenic and selenium – all known carcinogens.[4] If you do believe in global warming, then just in case you didn’t know, coal is the largest producer of carbon dioxide – the main component of greenhouse gasses.[5]
            So in our straw man exercise, coal doesn’t look too good. And what happens when it runs out (and it will run out).  What about nuclear energy? The child of the Manhattan Project is now nearly 80 years old and we still debate its existence.  On one hand, it may be one of the most efficient and sustainable forms of energy production.  Although the initial start-up costs are high, the actual running costs are quite low, compared to traditional coal-fired plants.  Furthermore, nuclear reactors have very little carbon emissions. Unlike the poorly monitored and constructed reactors of the 70’s, new reactors have much stronger containment vessels that insure against radiation leakage. In the words of the French, “We have no coal, we have no gas, we have no choice.”[6] Some environmentalists have also supported nuclear energy as a means of reducing carbon emissions and meeting emission targets.  Considering the security risks of fossil fuel dependence, nuclear energy seems to be a no-brainer.
            But of course, it’s not.  As seen in countless nuclear accidents, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima, there seems to be very little security regarding the environmental and health issues surrounding nuclear power. Nuclear reactors are now far safer then they were in the 70’s and 80’s and in fact, some countries, after a period of anti-nuclear sentiment, have started building nuclear reactors again, most notably India, South Korea, China and France. But Fukushima is a stark reminder as to why nuclear energy will never be fully “safe” for the public.  Beyond the regular risks of radiation exposure from reactors and nuclear waste, there are other concerns, such as nuclear proliferation and terrorism fears.  And unlike GMO technologies, we do know the long-term effects of radiation exposure.  Just ask the children of Chernobyl: they are still plagued with thyroid cancer.
            So are there any energy alternatives for us?  Are we doomed to using nuclear because the world’s appetite for energy is a bottomless pit?  Third world and developing nations argue that they pay an economic price for the Western countries industrial output.  Are we building a new, energy colonialism by denying developing countries the same energy resources we have in the West?  Are we doomed to having “no choice”?
            As many environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists have been saying, there are other alternatives. Wind, solar, geothermal, wave energy and bio-fuels have all been around for quite some time. They are renewable and sustainable.  Europeans and the Chinese have invested greatly into wind technology.  But currently, only 8.2% of US energy consumption is renewable.  What’s stopping us from using them?
            Money.  Currently, renewable energy technologies are still too costly to use on a large-scale basis for both industrial and home consumption. Barack Obama pledged 70 billion dollars in direct spending and tax credits for clean energy and transportation projects.  Seventy billion dollars sounds like a lot of cash, until you look at how much it costs to retrofit fossil-fuel factories. Building infrastructure is expensive.  It is still cheaper now to use coal, natural gas or nuclear, than other forms of renewable energy.[7] 
            Penny-wise, but pound-foolish.  In the long run it is cheaper to use renewable energy, but we must make the initial commitment to investing in those technologies in the first place. Once the infrastructure is built, the renewable sources are free forever. Furthermore, the economies of scale by committing to renewable energy will insure that the cost will come down to less than conventional energy generation costs currently.[8]  And without all the greenhouse gasses.
            But this can only happen if we all make the commitment towards shifting towards renewable resources. Yes, it is expensive in the short term, but it costs 17 BILLION dollars for 1 nuclear reactor.  If we took that money and invested it into renewable energy, we will all reap the benefits. For the cost of nuclear reactors, we could build out an energy grid based upon renewable resources.  And unlike fossil fuels, we will never have to worry about running out of solar or wind power.
            And nature is definitely giving us signs that we don’t respect it.  It’s not just the earthquakes or tsunamis.  It’s also the melting of the polar caps, the reduction in biodiversity, and the increasing pollution in developing nations. Science tells us so.  But science cannot solve these problems. It never could. People made these problems and people must also choose how to solve them as well. I just hope it’s not too late.

Japanese Soba Noodles with Tofu

Tofu gets a bad rap.  But it is fantastically easy to prepare and soaks up flavors like a sponge.  If you add a delicious dressing, it will sing like a bird.  But that means you have to have a delicious dressing. Luckily for you, I have it all worked out for you. And the best part – this recipe take less than 15 minutes to prepare. Really. You can use the spare time to make a donation for the Japanese people.  Your tummy and your conscience will be sated.

8 oz. of soba noodles (see note)
4 tbs. soy sauce (see note)
1 tbs. sugar
1 tbs. rice vinegar
1 garlic clove, crushed or finely minced
1/2 in. chunk of peeled ginger, finely minced
1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
6 oz. package of soft tofu (see note)
1 bunch of scallions/green onions, finely chopped into rings
Aji Nori Furikake (Japanese seaweed and sesame condiment)

1.     Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil.  Add noodles and cook for 5-6 minutes, until tender (similar to al dented consistency for pasta).  Drain, rinse with cold water, and drain again.
2.     In a large mixing bowl, combine, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, garlic, ginger and sesame oil, until sugar is dissolved. Toss noodles with the dressing and let it sit for 20 minutes at room temperature.
3.     In the meanwhile, cube the tofu into small 1/2 inch cubes. When the noodles are ready, pour the noodles onto a serving dish.  Place tofu on top of noodles and add any leftover dressing on top the whole.  Garnish with green onions and furikake.

Note: All the ingredients, especially the soba noodles, soft tofu, and furikake, can be found at most Asian grocery stores. Try to buy organic tofu or Japanese tofu, as it is not made with GMO soybeans.


[1] Alfred Wegener is the man who developed the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift. Pangaea?  That was Wegener. 
[2] The US Energy Information Administration (“USEIA”) estimates an even more depressing number.  By 2030, the amount of energy used will double to 33,264 tera-watt hours.
[3] Unless you have been living in a hole for a while, there climate-skeptics are vocal and more frighteningly, have the ear of the Republican Party. Several GOP members have announced their objections to the science of global warming, calling it basically a liberal conspiracy at best, or completely denying or ignoring scientific consensus at worst. Those same representatives and senators come from coal mining and oil producing states.  Coincidence? I think not. See http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/07/waxman-angrily-assails-g-o-p-science-deniers/
[4] This is not including the number of coalmine related accidents that happen every year due to poor infrastructure, poor safety regulation and corporate greed. 
[6]"Nuclear renaissance faces realities". Platts. (Subscription required). http://www.platts.com/Nuclear/Resources/News%20Features/nukeinsight
[7] US Department of Energy and US Energy Information Administration have done a cost estimate analysis of various energy generation forms.  Conventional coal and gas remain the cheapest, compared to that of other renewable sources.  See http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/electricity_generation.html
[8] Whatever you might think of him, Al Gore has convincingly advocated for the economic and technological efficiency of renewable energy.  Even if you don’t believe in his political goals, fossil fuels WILL get more expensive.  We have limited reserves and a simple supply-demand curve speaks the truth.