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Forever Overhead: Fukushima

Forever Overhead: Fukushima

It’s a bit late (7 weeks in, and this post has been in the hopper for several), but still relevant under the “Forever Overhead” rubric if not nuclear catastrophe.

This is more specifically about the “democratizing” aspect of what can be done with publicly-available (or private data leaked to an inquisitive public) aerial imagery when the agencies nominally responsible for keeping us informed are less than forthcoming.

First, we have a series of aerial photos of the Fukushima Daiichi complex, released by (as part of their extensive “Eyeballing” series–like “Forever Overhead” without the musing) and annotated by the Union of Concerned Scientists and available in two posts, here and here.

Then, we have a series of “thermographs” from the Self Defense Force, assessing the temperature of the reactors and spent fuel pools. They’ve performed overflights and released images with some regularity and the reports are available here.

Japan Self Defense Force

Via “The Big Dustup” we have some much higher-resolution thermal images (from NHK TV) and some analysis of the overall damage. I also recommend a number of his other damage assessment analyses.


YouTube user “Kurtsfilmevideo” has taken a series of aerial footage clips from Fukushima (and a variety of other clips from the tsunami) and software enhanced and “de-shaked” them, affording some pretty remarkable views.



“Forever Overhead” is a series about satellite imagery, drones, aerial sensing/imagery–any overhead technology where the seen subject may be unaware of the specific instances of that seeing (a sort of vertical Panopticon). And also, the sometimes power-balancing effect of public access to these data. The topic for me is an old one, and, incidentally, the title is the same ad my favorite David Foster Wallace story.

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On Fukushima, Nuclear “Waste” and “Spent” Fuel

On Fukushima, Nuclear “Waste” and “Spent” Fuel

A couple of useful resources, of continual relevance, relating to the Fukushima situation in Japan, that might serve as an inoculant against the deleterious effects of more convenient/digestible sources):

MIT’s Nuclear Science & Engineering department has a wonderful blog on Fukushima/Fukushima-related items.

Jeffrey Lewis at the wonderful and recommended Armscontrolwonk (he is the original/eponymous wonk, the Ur-wonk there) has been posting daily updates from Japan’s Federation of Electric Power Companies.

Areva has a quite decent PPT rundown of the chain of events (note: Areva is one of the world’s largest nuclear energy conglomerates–they work primarily in Europe but do also operate in the US), with plenty of images.

DigitalGlobe-AFP-Getty Images

Stewart Brand on Nuclear Energy
I’d been intending to link to to a FP interview with Stewart Brand on nuclear energy, and paused to think of some clever way to refer to his hoary nerd-hippie credentials, but just realized FP did this for me when they referenced the seminal “Whole Earth Catalog” he started as a “hippie omnium gatherum and Boomer cultural touchstone”. Relieved of that burden, I’ll simply include the link and refer back to an earlier post on an event hosted by Brand’s Long Now Foundation.

Since I seem to make a habit of shilling for The Long Now, one of my favorite sessions was a debate between Peter Schwartz and Ralph Kavanagh on nuclear power.

Nuclear “Waste” and “Spent” Fuel
From the parent of Union of Concerned Scientists FAQs on Japan Nuclear Crisis:

Spent fuel pools actually pose more of a risk in the United States because the pools here contain more fuel than do those in Japan. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences even reprimanded U.S. plants for ignoring the hazards of spent fuel, but the warnings continue to fall on deaf ears.

This could be a lesson on unintended consequences: one reason US plants have to hoard so much is that commercial reprocessing used to be illegal (made so by President Carter, following a Presidential Directive by Ford). While Reagan reversed the ban in 1981, the nascent reprocessing industry never recovered. Like the nuclear plants themselves, reprocessing is expensive (relative–apparently, so far–to the risks of storage and the cost of “fresh” uranium). Also, another “alternative” to spent fuel pools is long-term storage–Yucca Mountain in Nevada was the place where this would ostensibly happen, but that political albatross seemed to shut down more discussion than it provoked, often invoking false dilemmas broader than the core issues.

I bring this up because so much public and political discussion concerns the manner of storage, and methods such as dry cask storage versus the Yucca Mountain controversies, but there’s less discussion of reprocessing. So much uranium remains (90+ %) after fuel rods are retired that both the words, “spent” and “waste” are misnomers. While better and more reliable storage matters, it is also possible that we could be storing less and putting the remainder to use–reprocessing can not only reduce volume but can recover large amounts of “usable” uranium (which is, of course, a finite natural resource).

Now, the proliferation risk of reprocessing is considerable, as reprocessing uranium also separates out masses of “usable” plutonium. This is the main way North Korea, for instance, gets its plutonium (by the way, lest you think my defense of reprocessing excessive, Fukushima actually included one reactor fueled by plutonium created through reprocessing). Reprocessing itself can have both legitimate and nefarious objectives–this is why you might hear about monitoring for diversion of material. One might wonder whether the fact that bad actors do it for bad reasons mean it shouldn’t be done for any reason. There is, considering that point, the commitment of the nuclear-armed states under Article VI of the NPT to pursue disarmament in “good faith”–perhaps that’s a reason not to reprocess… I jest really–to continue pursuing that line leads to setting up phantom straw men just to tear them down.

Back to unintended consequences: I’m concerned that Three Mile Island (and “The China Syndrome”) casts such a long shadow, and that every other nuclear event–relevant or not–relevant or not–(most notoriously The Bomb before, or Chernobyl after) serves too well to buttress it, that the scale or scope of technologies/R&D that might have decreased cost, increased safety and efficiency, etc. that decades of neglect in the name of security might have been the result. A spectacular accident occurs, confirmation bias is invoked on both “sides” of the issue, the effects subside, we survive and forget.


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Blood for No Oil

Blood for No Oil

Actually, this post doesn’t have anything–directly–to do with the title, I just always wanted to use it. James Howard Kunstler used it as a joke referring to the oft-lofted anti-war poster, pointing at the time (probably 2003) to the immediate huge drop in Iraqi oil production at the beginning of the war, which I might add took years to come even close to where it had been. Those who know me know references to US policy in the Middle East being “all about oil” is nails->chalkboard for me (it’s not entirely unfounded, just a better beginning to a conversation than the ending it’s often treated as). So…

US Oil Production and Consumption
The US produces a lot of petroleum, actually (we’re the world’s 3rd-largest producer at 11%; we export about 2 million barrels/day), but we consume even more. About 51% (2009) of US consumption comes from foreign sources (18.8 million barrels/day in 2009). EIA projections have that coming down to 45% in 2035. By the way, some refining processes actually increase the volume of refined output (a not inconsiderable amount–1 Mbpd in 2007)–the increased volume is actually counted as domestic production regardless of where the crude came from!

Where US Oil Comes From (and Where it Doesn’t)
About 1/2 of our imported oil comes from the Western Hemisphere (i.e., not the Middle East–about 17% comes from the Persian Gulf). The top five sources for US oil (the middle three do switch positions from year to year):

  • Canada (21% gross)
  • Mexico (10% gross)
  • Venezuela (9% gross)
  • Saudi Arabia (9% gross)
  • Nigeria (7% gross)

What “Sweet, Light Crude” Means
“Lightness” refers to the American Petroleum Institute’s measure of the gravity of crude relative to that of water.  The scale goes from light to heavy; most grades fall between 10-70 “degrees”, though Canada’s oil sands output is very heavy, ~8 degrees.

“Sweetness” refers to the sulfur content of the crude; <5% sulfur is considered “sweet”, anything more is considered “sour”.

Where Oil Prices Come From
West Texas Intermediate is the main benchmark for oil coming into the US. It’s sourced in Texas and mainly consumed internally. Its price is usually about $1-2 lower than the price of Brent Crude.

When you hear reports about the price of a barrel of oil, it probably is referring to the price of Brent Crude. Brent is the main global benchmark; lower- and higher-quality crudes may be “pegged” to the price of Brent. It’s sourced mainly in the North Sea, and consumed largely by Europe. There a a few “flavors” of Brent:

  • Brent Sweet Light Crude
  • Oseburg
  • Ekofisk
  • Forties

Dubai Crude is another benchmark, particularly for the sale of oil going to Asia. This is sourced in Dubai (and Oman), and exported/refined externally.

There’s also the OPEC Reference Basket–this is a weighted average from ~11 sources. A more nuanced way of managing oil prices (beyond brute-force supply variation) is controlling the output from one source relative to the others.

Those are the main benchmark grades. You can get an idea of the variability of grades (which vary from field to field–sometimes widely) by looking at this chart of sources and grades.

Iran Heavy is pegged to Brent. Because of its lower quality, it usually sells about $6 less than Brent. I mention this because we talk a lot about Iran’s oil production (they are the world’s 5th-largest producer), and the geopolitical implications, especially in light of the UN sanctions.

Iran actually suffers a bit–even when oil prices rise–not just because of the sanctions, but because the crude is heavy and sour, and thus more expensive to refine (and can’t be processed in as many refineries). Refineries are expensive to build and maintain, and not as flexible in processing various grades as you might think. They export much of their crude, and even for internal consumption end up importing gasoline.

Iran had actually been “hoarding” crude in 10-28 Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) for several years. No one says exactly why, but it’s a lot of oil they’re storing–a big VLCC can hold about 2 Million barrels. They’re also very expensive to maintain, insure, and rent. I last speculated with a friend on why that was in 2008, wondering about efforts to constrain world supply and benefit financially, but they’re still there (though I don’t mean to overstate–there is some movement out of Iran, but they are always storing). And there are more of them.

Beijing Lu International Freight Forwarders Limited

Despite the sanctions, a lot goes to China, and one might assume that they benefit from tightening (but not ceased) supply from Libya. And Europe, too:

But since Iranian sanctions were tightened, the biggest trade for NITC’s tankers have involved shipments of Iranian crude for NIOC to Ain Sukhna. From there, crude is pumped to the Sidi Kerir terminal on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, where it is blended with other Middle East crudes. From Sidi Kerir, crude is sold to traders based in the Mediterranean, with the biggest volumes going to Italy, Spain and to Turkey.

And Iran recently reduced its domestic subsidies for gasoline, provoking some violence, a huge spike in gas prices (obviously), apparently showing signs of bite from the sanctions.

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