Monday, April 13, 2015

Will A Growing Population Actually Save Man-kind?

The increase in the world’s population has often been a topic of heated debate and concern over the last fifty years or so, however the issue is perhaps even more of an urgent issue to address when considering other current hot topics such as climate change, immigration and the availability and distribution of the world’s resources.

A fortunate few live in HAPPY; it’s located in PERRY County Kentucky about 8
miles south of the local county seat, Hazard. The population was 534 in 2000 but by July of 2014 the population had sky-rocked to 850; considering that the “land area” of the community totals 3.3840 square miles, most folks here consider the latter number tolerable especially since it’s still a “Red Light Free” municipality. The anchor business establishments in Happy include the U S Post Office, an elementary school (RW Combs), an IGA grocery, and a NAPA Auto Parts Store.

Comparatively speaking, the 2014 population estimate for the Commonwealth of KY was 4,413,457 and the U S 2014 population was 318,857,056, living, breathing, eating folks; that’s 4.36% of the world’s population, which is believed to have exceeded 7 billion (7,000,000,000) in early 2015 and by 2050 the world’s population is expected to reach around 9 billion (9,000,000.000).   Before your heart seizes you ought to know there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon . . .  at least according to the latest United Nations projections, the world population will peak at just above 10 billion (10,000,000,000) persons in 2100.

In the mean-time you might have a look at the map depicted below:  
Now compare the top 10 most populist countries by population in 2015 (as opposed to 2014):
1.   China 1,400,205,222
2.   India 1,279,394,414
3.   United States 324,565,322
4.   Indonesia 255,126,788
5.   Brazil 203,342,836
6.   Pakistan 187,491,343
7.   Nigeria 182,422,544
8.   Bangladesh 160,019,436
9.   Russia 142,183,759
10. Japan 126,888,161

In this circumstance, less is probably better; trouble is; of the leading countries in this category, only Pakistan, Bangladesh,  Russia, and Japan managed to reduce their numbers during 2014.  Never-the-less, world population growth, world wide is now at a rate of around 1.14% per year.  Not that bad really, especially when you realize that the annual growth rate reached its peak in 1963, when it was at 2.19%.

At this time (2015) the annual growth rate is declining and is projected to continue to wane in the coming years. Currently, it is estimated that it will become less than 1% by 2020 and less than 0.5% by 2050.  Simply put, this means the world’s population will continue to grow in the 21st century, but at a slower pace compared to the past few years.

By 2030 India’s population is expected to top China’s, thus becoming the most populous country in the world.   Nigeria’s population is projected to surpass the U.S. population by 2045 to become the third-most populated country in the world and start to rival China by the end of the 21st century, with almost 1 billion people by 2100.

Sooo, why all the concern? . . . The simple fact is the resources of the earth are not boundless.  The earth is limited to what it can yield, and as yet we have no other place to go. We may marvel at our technology but we on occasion forget that the fundamentals on which we depend are the availability and distribution of fresh water (just ask anybody in California these days), fertility of the soil, access to sustainable energy supplies and resources, and let’s not forget a stable climate. Above all we depend on the stability of what we might consider the earth’s “natural” systems. For example the breathable atmosphere is less than 5 miles deep or you might ponder on the notion that a few reports have suggested that we have already lost 80% of the fish in the oceans.

The immediate issue is that the world’s increasing population is placing more strain on the Mother Earth’s resources than she can cope with. If everybody worldwide were to live even at the current living standard of the developed world, then we would be at a population beyond sustainability because there is an untold number of folks in the world today that simply do without many of the items you consider essential – you know little things like enough clean water to drink and an adequate food supply!

In the end, the natural order is likely to re-assert itself, as it has done on several occasions in the past with plagues and such. Some say Mother Earth will simply reduce the human population to a sustainable number when absolutely necessary. These folks say the only real question is will it be through conflict, starvation or disease.

There are many countries in the world which are trapped in a vicious cycle of deprivation. Here, the lack of affordable education and poor infrastructure leads to the absence of economic success; this in turn breeds the inability to afford needed education and the development of various infrastructures required to provide the “basics” for the masses. Then too, there is yet another factor to consider: Several societies still discourage or even prevent education for women; in fact, it is often a customary social policy.

It’s been proven over and over again that the initial population boom experienced by various developing or lesser technologically advanced nations such as those found in Asia, Africa, Oceania, and Latin America, often called Third World countries, do not continue on that path for more than one or two generations. This is primarily because as women are given access to birth control and education, the desired number of children dramatically declines. Men and women become more apt to delay having children until they complete their college education and begin a career. This action takes at least a decade off of their childbearing years.

Controlling the world’s population is always going to be challenging; because as birth rates drop the ageing population is constantly increasing, never-the-less it has to be tackled sometime, and it’s not going to get any easier.

On the other-hand . . . some folks claim population growth will force scientific advancement to help sustain the population level.  It is conceivable that, with enough incentive, we could learn to make abodes in other localities such as Earth’s outer limits of space, or its closest neighbors: The moon, maybe even Mars.

To put it short and “to the point”, as long as we’re on this planet without colonies established elsewhere, man-kind will continue to live on borrowed time. Without a doubt, the odds are in favor of some sort of natural disaster that will cause an extinction event which will be the end of every species on Earth. However if we’ve been pressed into moving “off-world”, man-kind just might survive.



Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Thorium May Be Humanities Best Chance For Survival!

One ton of Thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, or, now get this, as much energy as 3,500,000 tons of coal!   Little wonder Thorium was named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder.  

It was discovered way back in 1829 by a Swedish chemist, and guess what; it’s
relatively abundant in the earth's crust. Actually Thorium minerals occur on all of the continents of Earth; the truth is Thorium is not a rare element, having an abundance level comparable to that of lead, twice that of arsenic, and threefold that of tin. Thorium’s abundance means that there is probably more energy available from Thorium than from both Uranium or Fossil Fuels such as oil or coal.

Thorium reactors are designed to be meltdown proof. Simply put, a plug is placed at the bottom of the reactor which melts in the event of a power failure or if temperatures exceed a set limit; in this way (when needed) the fuel is drained into an underground tank for safe storing.

And too, in a Thorium reactor there is much less nuclear waste—up to 20 times less, thus eliminating the need for large-scale or long-term storage.  Plus the radioactivity of the resulting waste drops down to safe levels after just a few hundred years, compared to tens of thousands of years needed for current nuclear waste to cool off.

When Thorium is irradiated, or exposed to radiation to prepare it for use as a fuel in nuclear reactions, the process forms small amounts of uranium-232 (a highly radioactive isotope which makes handling of the fuel outside of a large reactor or reprocessing facility incredibly dangerous) as opposed to Uranium-233, this being of considerable importance because only eight (8) kilograms (17.637 pounds) of Uranium-233 are required to create a nuclear weapon.

Sounds great huh? But if you believe Stephen Ashley of the University of Cambridge it may not be so great: He insists that if an element known as Protactinium-233 is extracted from Thorium early in the irradiation process, no Uranium-232 will form. Instead, the separated Protactinium-233 will decay into high purity Uranium-233 and remember only eight (8) kilograms of Uranium-233 are required to create a nuclear bomb.    He points out though that creating weapons-grade Uranium in this way would necessitate someone having access to a nuclear reactor during the irradiation of thorium fuel, so the good news here is that it's not likely that a terrorist group would be sophisticated enough to carry out the conversion process but an aggression minded county just might be able to do it.

In contrast, Laurence O'Hagan who is the CEO of the Weinberg Foundation which is a non-profit organization promoting the development of Thorium fuel responded to Ashley's claims. O'Hagan says such proliferation concerns are simply overstated. “There are proliferation issues with anything nuclear,” he says. “But if you are out to make a bomb, you go after Plutonium rather than Thorium and Uranium-233.”

Historically, Thorium’s primary use was for the Welsbach Mantles used in portable gaslights. Along with other ingredients, the Thorium in these mantles produced a dazzling light when heated with a gas flame.   Today (2015), Thorium metal is used on a very limited basis as a source for nuclear power.

On the other hand, Uranium is the preferred fuel used in most nuclear power plants today.  It was discovered in the 18th century, it is an element found everywhere on Earth, but primarily in trace quantities. It wasn’t until 1938 that a couple of German physicists revealed that uranium could be split into parts to yield energy, lots of energy!  So if you have already deduced that Uranium is the principal fuel for nuclear reactors and the main raw material for nuclear weapons, you’re right!

So, yep, these days the main use of Uranium in the civilian sector is to fuel commercial nuclear power plants; here Uranium is typically enriched to a U-235 isotope which makes up about 0.72% of natural Uranium; when bombarded with slow neutrons this Uranium element (U-235) undergoes rapid splitting into smaller atoms with the release of neutrons and energy that is used in nuclear reactors and yes, atomic bombs. You might take note that if used for nuclear weapons production, Uranium is enriched dramatically, usually over 90% (believe it or not, the exact value is still classified).  

Of late (April 2015) there has been a lot of heated debate about the framework for a nuclear deal with Iranian that has been reached by the US and four U.N.
Security Council members Britain, China, France and Russia; plus Germany (dubbed the P5+1). They are pressing for restrictions that will extend the amount of time it will take Iran to build a nuclear bomb — the existing so-called “breakout time” — from 2 to 3 months.  They’re trying to up “breakout time” to at least 12 months.   To do that, the P5+1 members are pushing to reduce the number of centrifuge devices Iran can use to enrich Uranium into fuel for a nuclear weapon, as well as cut its current stockpiles of enriched Uranium.  A tall order indeed, plus the U.S. and its partners are insisting that monitors / observers be allowed to continuously inspect Iran’s nuclear program on all facets.

Iran is high on the idea of removing a long list of International sanctions which started in November of 1979, by then U S President Jimmy Carter, to ease pressure on its struggling economy and gain access to the international market. To complicate the situation, Iran insists that it has the right to develop nuclear capabilities for energy and medical purposes and is therefore unwilling to discard its nuclear resources in total.

So the April 2015 Framework Agreement includes the following:
  • Iran has agreed to cut by two-thirds its supply of centrifuges, these machines are at the core of the Uranium-enrichment process, from around 19,000 to about 6,000, and retain only its earliest generation centrifuge machines.
  • According to the Framework Agreement, Iran will be permitted to continue Uranium-enrichment but far below the levels required for a nuclear weapon.
  • Iran has agreed to reduce its stockpile of enriched Uranium by 97%.
  • Iran has pledged to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency access to all of its nuclear facilities and to its nuclear supply chain.
  • The U.S., the United Nations and the European Union will lift nuclear-related sanctions once Monitors / Observers have determined that Iran has complied with its side of the bargain.
  • American sanctions related to human rights abuses, terrorism, and non-nuclear weapons will remain in place.

So, why the big fuss by members of the U S Congress, Israeli leaders, and several Arab states in the Middle East Region?  The short version goes like this:
  • Opponents say that a single-year “breakout time” is not long enough.
  •  Such opponents say the U.S. and its allies would have too little time to react if Iran does choose to build a nuclear weapon.
  •  The biggie though is that no one seems to trust the Iranian Government. They raise concerns that no matter how much “inspection” access Iran gives inspectors, they could still attempt to build a nuclear weapon without observers or U.S. intelligence finding out.

Why might these concerns be relevant?
Simply put, Iran is currently without question enriching Uranium 238 to produce U-235 which is an element which can be to split and be used to breed Plutonium 239 which is the primary fissile isotope used for the production of nuclear weapons.    It is commonly believed by the majority of the civilized world that Iran is striving to enrich Uranium to the 90+% level which is needed to make a viable atomic bomb whereas only a maximum of 5% enrichment is necessary for nuclear power stations,  and as you may recall, Iran has always claimed domestic energy and medical purposes to be their only mission for  enriching Uranium.   

So why might this deception pose a problem?   Since 1979 the Iranian Government has demonstrated its willingness to engage in actions generally perceived by the majority of the civilized world to be hostile.  In short, no-body seems to trust them!  Most folks believe a nuclear armed Iran would, in the best of circumstances, hold the entire Middle East region hostage to the threat of total nuclear destruction.

You see, according to a recent (August 28, 2014) report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), nine nations — the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — possess approximately 16,300 nuclear weapons; that’s far too many by anyone’s standards!    The last time a nuclear weapon was used during war or offensively was at Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan near the end of WWII. There has not been a thermonuclear weapon used during war since and if humanity plans to survive, it must stay that way.

The solution just might be, Thorium based nuclear facilities for Iran! The international community should agree to assist Iran in producing as many Thorium based nuclear power plants as it sees fit.  Furthermore it could be argued that the international community should agree to fund a large percentage of Iran’s transition from Uranium (and dismantling its small Plutonium breeder reactor no one wants to talk about) to Thorium based fuel and form a consortium to control the Thorium along with the “scientific know how” required to get the job done.

As we all know, the U S, and most likely the rest of the world, is apt to baulk at taking on another very expensive venture in hopes of saving mankind but the alternative might just be nuclear war!

Regardless, before you decide this proposal is just another bad idea among many, relating to the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, think about this:

There are 196 nations on Earth.  Would you believe that in 2014 Israel ranked 50th in economic power, among all those nations?  Yet this tiny infant Middle East country, not even a hundred years old, is the most outspoken opponent for a “deal” with Iran.

With this in mind take note that in 2007, the Bush Administration and the
Israeli government agreed to a 10-year, $30 Billion military aid package for the period from 2009 to 2018.

Then in 2014 the 113th Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act which provided, among other things, President Obama’s full $3.1 billion request for Israel.  

For 2015, the Administration has requested $3.1 billion in military funding for Israel and another $10 million in Migration and Refugee Assistance. The Missile Defense Agency’s 2015 request for joint U.S. - Israeli programs is $96.8 million. The Obama Administration is also requesting $175.9 million for the Israeli Iron Dome defense program.

Here’s what all of this amounts to: The U.S. provides Israel with $8.5 million in military aid alone every damn day!  So it comes as little
surprise to learn that Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel's Army Chief of Staff from 2007 to 2011, once pointed out “that in the past few years US taxpayers have contributed more to the Israeli defense budget than Israeli taxpayers themselves”.

All this information poses the question . . . Would the money mentioned above not be better spent by insuring a Thorium based nuclear program in Iran?