The Cygnus Solution.

I think Ontario Power Generation is trying to sell us on the idea of feeding nuclear waste to swans.  At least, that seem to be the subtext of this ad I just got focus-tested on (click to embiggen)…

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Probit seemed curious as to my reaction…

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Then they asked some questions to assess my Tree-Hugger Quotient:

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probit09probit10probit11I especially liked the won’t-someone-think-of-the-children question and that last Rabble-rouser metric.

Probit finished off by telling me a little bit about themselves:

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Which actually added a nice bit of symmetry, since the ads they use to sell themselves are every bit as substantive and convincing as those their clients use to sell the Cygnus Solution.  I especially like the compulsive way they bolded up the word experts three times in a single sentence. I was going to be all skeptical, but if it’s in a bold font it must be true.

Maybe I’m not being fair. I could be misreading the ad entirely. After all, that picture is presumably meant to represent the neighborhood “thousands of years from now”. Maybe, after all those millennia of nuclear contamination,  those aren’t even supposed to be baby swans stuck to mommy’s back.

Maybe they’re sapient tumors.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Friday July 19 2013at 12:07 pm , filed under In praise of biocide, ink on art, Uncategorized . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

32 Responses to “The Cygnus Solution.”

  1. That’s a hell of a foie gras you got there, Peter.

  2. Fussy, I know, but you’d think they’d do better proofreading (micro-to-marco?).

  3. There’s a creepy documentary pondering about the construction of a similar site in Finland.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Into_Eternity_%28film%29

    Maybe the ad-guys are more right than they think. Nature’s able to deal well with radioactivity – the cats of Chernobyl live well http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVv1vsZxV00

  4. Sapient swan tumors is exactly the kind of thing I visit this blog for.

  5. The treatment of spent fuel as “waste” really pisses me off.
    As does the continued use of dumb fuel cycles invented to coincidentally produce material for warheads.

  6. Peter, you seem to have run into the same blind alley off of society’s main streets as I have done a time or two.

    There’s actually a sort of club out there, I forget the name(s), but the whole idea is to descend en-mass and bollix up the works at survey websites. The more commercial and potentially controversial, the better.

    Occasionally I get phone calls. They usually come near elections time, and they appear to be generally feeling out public sentiment on various issues that will probably need to be sold to the voters. In the same way that you saw a questions screen asking you to reveal if you are either someone who knows whereof they speak, or a person who speaks a lot whether or not you know anything (public meeting noodge or gadfly), or something combining degrees of both, I get these calls with a sort of question list feeling me out to see if I am working for a political campaign, or am employed by the competition, competition of either the client or the firm asking the questions.

    Once I started revealing to these people that I was in fact a failed political candidate at the state and county level, I got a lot more of these calls. A bit worrisome, when I started seeing campaign ads promoting this-or-that which included wording going around anything I might have said not in support of such projects or policies. Thus, consider that any snarky remarks you might make on such survey sites might serve mostly to generate opposition talking points forestalling the legitimate and thoughtful objections of similarly educated or professional persons like yourself.

    BTW the lunatics haven’t just taken over the asylum, thus, they’ve broken into the pharmacy and a having one hellacious party. ;)

  7. Comedy gold!

  8. Obviously, only cockroaches and swans survived the nuclear holocaust.

  9. With respect to Spirulina-based biofuels, professor David MacKay calculated that even near-total conversion of farmland to biofuel production wouldn’t yield enough energy to make a dent in our current consumption; at least at North European (and Canadian) latitudes. Biological photosynthesis is nowhere near as efficient as current PV panels, and fiddling around with genetic manipulation to achieve traits currently not exhibited by any organism on earth doesn’t seem like the easy route.

    I apologize for being pedantic about this; I hope that the sources I linked to will be interesting enough to compensate for this somewhat.

  10. There is something very wrong with the phrase “we are a modern solution”. Can’t put my finger on it…

  11. There giving swans nuclear suppositories!?! What has the world come to?

  12. @michiel: Great link on photovoltaic, thanks for that. Yet it reminds me that I seldom see anyone addressing the fact that with the 15% conversion efficiency, almost all of the rest is absorbed into the PV crystal as heat. This might not seem to be a horrible thing to most people, but there will be knock-on effects.

    Near to where I live, there’s an old-fashioned fossil-fueled electrical generation facility. It’s generally trouble free unless you think about all of the exhaust emissions. Yet it is a place dear to the heart of winter fishermen. The cooling system sucks in a lot of water from the river Potomac, and when it comes out, it warms the water in the outflow channel pretty significantly. By the time it joins the main body of the river, it’s almost been cooled to the ambient temperatures. In winter, though, there’s a large body of water where you can catch summer fish all winter long. One presumes that the winter fish go hang out in the main river channels.

    Yet we’ve already got problems in a lot of our major cities, the heat footprint, which extends far downwind from these “heat islands”. This is mostly due to asphalt and roofing absorbing solar energy very efficiently, but most of that isn’t anywhere as efficient at converting solar energy to heat as are PV panels. I think we need to take that into account as we think about rolling out a whole lot more PV.

    Cheers,

  13. @michiel
    There’s a novel process thought up by some Danes.

    Take any organic/plastic material that contains a lot of carbon and hydrogen.
    Put it into a reactor where it’s 300 MPa and 400°C.
    Apparently if it spends 15 minutes in there it changes into something like crude oil.
    See here:
    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-02/au-hl020613.php

    Efficiency 90% .
    Could be perhaps good for eventually turning all sorts of waste into oil. Shit into black gold. True alchemy.


    With respect to Spirulina-based biofuels, professor David MacKay calculated that even near-total conversion of farmland to biofuel production wouldn’t yield enough energy to make a dent in our current consumption;

    I’m not sure if I remember it correctly, but I remember reading that Czech academy of sciences studied substituting wood for oil and came to the conclusion that if 70% of land area of Czech Republic was devoted to growing wood for automotive use, it would work sort of. I for one think that’d be fine, as I like woods.

    That’d mean foresting maybe a third or more of agricultural land though.

    There’s this simple technology where you imperfectly burn wood which gets you carbon monoxide (yum) and nitrogen which is then burned in the IC engine. Works pretty well although engines typically only produce 60 % of their power on gasoline…

    Also a waste-byproduct is biochar, which could be supposedly used to make the highly desirable ‘terra preta’.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_preta

  14. At the risk of voicing unpopular opinion, I do not particularly care about ultra-long-term storage of nuclear waste.
    Any term above several hundreds years is “eternity” as far as I am concerned (I happen to live in IT-time mode ;) )… Also, I don’t happen to think that intelligent inhabitants of Earth several hundreds of years into the future will share much with modern humans in terms of biology and needs.
    For all I know, our distant grandchildren will uncork Onkalo waste repository to high-grade on “vintage fissionables”.

    I do, however, share Patterson’s sentiment that there are better cycles for reactors, and we can probably think of better uses for “spent” rods than entomb them for “all eternity”.

  15. @Y: Excellent link on the Danish HTL process. However, when they are stating their efficiencies, those apparently apply only to the process itself. But I guess it’s necessary to have exceptionally low waste rates when processing material that is created in a process (photosynthesis) that can at best be a bit under 2% efficient at converting solar energy.

    @01: I know a lot of people reasonably believe that we’re all headed for the Singularity and Post-Humanism at breakneck speed and that we’ll arrive there Real Soon Now. It may even turn out to be the case. Yet there’s a need, in my humble opinion, to always be prepared to fall back to a generally pre-industrial lifestyle. In that case, very long-term storage solutions for very long-lived dangerous materials is likely to be necessary. We should always plan a fail-safe into anything we do.

  16. I think it’s a fractal swan (mandelswan?)

  17. Google naturally occurring nuclear reactors. The one in Africa is one of many. 3 in CONUS one still active in a major U.S. park. 2 known about in Canadia. All in North America classified by govt. Can’t have the plebs having fits. Generally any site that has a certain isotope of barium (hot spring) or any site that out gases multiple isotopes of xenon.

  18. @Can’t Remember

    Although you lost me with the references to secret gummint coverups and plebs, the reference to naturally occurring reactors is super interesting! Thanks for the mention of that.

    On a related note to fun with surveys, I enjoy answering “Sexually Explicit” to any questions by ad websites about why I hid an ad. If nothing else, it makes me giggle since I get to think about how automatic car starters and the like could be construed as erotic.

    And of course the always excellent Calvin and Hobbes comic about similar topics:

    http://www.smartkpis.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/Calvin_Hobbes_Data_Quality.gif

  19. Mr Non-Entity: I know a lot of people reasonably believe that we’re all headed for the Singularity and Post-Humanism at breakneck speed and that we’ll arrive there Real Soon Now. It may even turn out to be the case. Yet there’s a need, in my humble opinion, to always be prepared to fall back to a generally pre-industrial lifestyle. In that case, very long-term storage solutions for very long-lived dangerous materials is likely to be necessary.

    Well, I’m hardly part of the “Singularity” crowd, but I am not particularly concerned with pre-industrial survival. I am an urban dweller through and through, and pre-industrial lifestyle is something that is both too alien to survive in, and too unpleasant to be worth surviving in. Guess that colors my perception somewhat.

    My point, however, was slightly simpler.

    The reason for not being worried too much about super-long-term containment of nuclear waste (aka what will happen to this finely crafted bunker in 50 000 years?!) is the same as the reason for not being worried too much about bizarre, inhuman super-intelligences and their possible interactions with humans.

    There’s simply no way to predict the cultural, social, environmental and political circumstances that will be present at the moment of our hypothetical interest (be that “50 000 years down the line” or “indeterminate time at which the first “real deal” AI is created).

    We can’t really predict what hypothetical future culture will be like (and thus how would they respond to our less-than-friendly legacy), so trying to safeguard them, is, IMHO, just silly.

    P.S.:
    It is, of course prudent to design our nuclear “haunts” with a good deal of engineering forethought and redundancy (so that they don’t get torn to smithereens by something along the lines of a freak earthquake mere decades or centuries from their construction, which is a perfectly legitimate concern).

  20. Actually, their not “secret” just “classified” anyone who studies nuclear engineering probably knows about these sites and understands the justification of trying to keep these sites (especially the two still running) out of general knowledge. All we need are some yahoos with picks, shovels, and dynamite going out to mine hot nuclear waste. Also, the general public tends to get really panicky when they here the word nuclear. It’s why the medical community calls their nuclear resonance image machines MRI’s. The one that most fascinates me is the one that seems to be a natural breeder reactor.

  21. @Can’t Remember

    Ah! Alrighty that makes more sense. I read your original one as being a lot more tinfoil-hat based than that. Do you know about where the sites are? It would be interesting to find out whereabouts they are located and see if I can dig up any more reading material.

  22. Can’t Remember: Also, the general public tends to get really panicky when they here the word nuclear. It’s why the medical community calls their nuclear resonance image machines MRI’s. The one that most fascinates me is the one that seems to be a natural breeder reactor.

    Wait…

    Can’t Remember: The one that most fascinates me is the one that seems to be a natural breeder reactor.

    this…

    Can’t Remember: a natural breeder reactor

    For the love of machine deity, this is…

    #deep breath in

    kinda scary. To say the least.

  23. @01:

    How could it be scary? It’s natural! Doesn’t that automatically mean it’s perfectly fine? :P

  24. Hang on. There were natural breeder reactors a couple of billion years ago because the density of U-235 in bioconcentrated uranium ore was high enough to sustain a chain reaction (moderated by surrounding water, until the reaction heat boiled the water off, rinse, repeat for several million years). But there is nowhere near enough U-235 around any more: the only way you could boost it would be to have a bacterium preferentially concentrate U-235 in uranium ore, which is *very* difficult to believe: it’s not like deuterium versus hydrogen, U-235 is almost exactly the same weight as U-238.

    To be blunt, I don’t believe it for a minute. Self-sustaining nuclear reactors (at least, using U-235 or anything else with a non-multi-billion-year half-life) are long extinct. The Earth is too old for those sorts of youthful hi-jinks.

  25. Nix, CP-1 …..

    Also, there are many different breeder cycles….

    I did not say it was a breeder cycle, but for the many years that it has been running and the depth it seems to be at, it has been running with characteristic gamma emissions that suggest a prompt cycle, that rises and falls in a way that sorta screams natural fast breeder to my poorly educated self.

    As to where they are located I must be purposely vague.

    1857-1862 snow melted off of mountain top during winter and did not blanket till 1865.

    1961- 1987 ? ( last time I had access) North American Gamma Anomaly.

    good luck,

    H

  26. @ Can’t Remember

    Are you trying to get us killed, or are you trying to get us killed ?

    (j/k, I like nuclear stuff. )

    P.S.:
    On a completely unrelated note, Peter, what happened to that cancer-or-whatever anthology you and me (and presumably 01) exchanged emails about ?


  27. kinda scary. To say the least.

    No, it isn’t. Unless you are some sort of green ignorant.

    Nuclear power, whether natural or not has killed far less people than fossil fuels. Danger from natural nuclear reactors is pretty much negligible. Coal mining kills thousands of people per year ..
    Over time, I’d bet it has killed more people than atomic weapons.

    Radiation, in case you don’t know, isn’t actually that dangerous because the linear-no-threshold model is shit. People live with no ill effects in areas where they get each year ten times the maximum allowed dose for radiation workers..

  28. Entirely tangential to the topic, almost

    At 22:55 in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDWAcP2zH4w&feature=youtu.be you can hear climate scientist Gavin Schmidt echoing what Peter Watts wrote a while back about how science works despite our human frailties. Nice to hear it.

  29. Andrea_A: Maybe the ad-guys are more right than they think. Nature’s able to deal well with radioactivity – the cats of Chernobyl live well http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVv1vsZxV00

    Awwwww.

    michiel: Biological photosynthesis is nowhere near as efficient as current PV panels,

    Unless I missed something in my (admittedly cursory) read-through of that link, MacKay’s assuming 100% photosynthesis as his power source. But we’re not tyalking about direct competition with PV for electricity generation; they’re tweaking Spirulina for the production of biogasoline, which isn’t bottlenecked by photosynthesis. Like any other green plant, these guys just switch to respiration when the sun goes down. I don’t know how much that changes the numbers, but there’s a shitload of folks out there who know way more than I do about it, and they seem pretty optimistic

    Allister01: And of course the always excellent Calvin and Hobbes comic about similar topics:

    I miss Calvin and Hobbes. Hobbes and Bacon just doesn’t do it for me.

    03: On a completely unrelated note, Peter, what happened to that cancer-or-whatever anthology you and me (and presumably 01) exchanged emails about ?

    Cystic fibrosis, actually. And as far as I know, it’s still on tract, although I haven’t seen any kind of contract or anything. Pretty lurid cover, though.

  30. Y.: No, it isn’t. Unless you are some sort of green ignorant.

    Dude, play nice. You know how your particular set of social skills have got you in trouble in the past…

  31. I would be careful about assuming the marketing department is at all representative of the scientific or engineering soundness of the plan. Those people’s job is to manipulate public opinion despite the fact that they don’t know the difference between a neutron and a rasin.

  32. Am told that locals at Peter’s favorite border have approved an underground nuclear storage facility, though that was merely a hand wave over a multinational decision. It’s wonderful when two great nations work together to spread flipper babies for all. Hm.

    Flipper Babies Without Borders.