Archive for the ‘public safety’ Tag

Again About Guns – Maybe A Starting Point For Discussion?

Like any sane and reasonable person, I was sickened and saddened to hear of the massacre at the cinema in Aurora, Colorado. And I felt somewhat compelled to put out something of an op ed piece on it.

First off, I am a gun owner. I used to own more than I do now, not that it matters, but I own firearms, like millions of Canadians do. I don’t begrudge people for owning firearms, whether they own them to hunt, or to control predators on a farm, or to shoot recreationally at a club. I shoot trap, skeet, and pistol and enjoy doing so. These are sports that require responsibility to practice, and that responsibility should be significant and backed up with good, sound laws.

I cannot for the life of me understand the hold that the NRA has on US gun politics. I don’t understand when it became reasonable to try to argue that any sort of legal controls on the ownership of firearms is somehow reprehensible or unacceptable. They of course point to the Constitution, selectively quoting the Second Amendment. Thing is, I’m often reminded of The Princess Bride – you say these words, but I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

The Second Amendment says: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” I cannot help but opine that while they saw the important of maintaining firearms for myriad reasons in those days, and felt that the population ultimately should be entrusted with the responsibility of owning firearms if they chose, that they did not anticipate the way it would be interpreted. Of course, that’s my opinion and there’s a wide array of scholarship on the subject that I’m not going to wade into here.

The fact is, when people say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, they’re semi-correct. In Canada for example there are some 8 million firearms in circulation in public hands, if memory serves. The overwhelming majority will never be misused by their owners, they’ll be handled with due care and caution, because those owners have accepted the responsibility that comes with them. The fact is, however, that the presence of firearms in our society brings about the risk of misuse, and we’ve seen that with terrible consequences. A firearm can turn an argument into a homicide very quickly. It can turn anger into atrocity. So it simply isn’t acceptable to allow them to circulate freely.

The trick, then, is to try to balance the concept of allowing responsible citizens to do what they want (which is more or less the crux of a free society) with protecting the public from those deviants. This is why when “the left” starts to scream about banning firearms (or other stupid ideas like Toronto City Counsellor Adam Vaughn’s “brilliant” banning the sale of ammunition in the city!) I just dismiss them. It won’t work. Guns came out of a sort of Pandora’s Box. Banning them will not work. They aren’t going away. In Canada, most of the guns used in crime weren’t legal in the first place, and those who have them aren’t going to care about a ban. Vaughan’s banning ammo sales is ludicrous because people who don’t have firearms licenses can’t buy ammunition legally anyhow, and besides, if it was banned in the city, they’d just go elsewhere. But all the same, they can’t. No card, no signature on the ledger, no ammunition. I don’t see whoever was responsible for the Danzig Avenue shooting tragedy having popped into Lebarons, flashed a PAL, and bought his rounds. I could be wrong, sure, but I doubt it. In the States, well, that’s an even more complex situation, since so many are in circulation.

It’s not just the anti-gun side of the house that I find have issues. Some on the right are certifiably nuts, and some simply have an unrealistic view of what they would have done had they been there. Talk is cheap.

I’m galled by people saying, “Well, I have a concealed carry permit, if I had been there, I’d have intervened!”

Bullshit. Utter bullshit.

Even most well trained shooters, people whose jobs put them at far greater risk of dealing with a gunfight, find it extremely difficult to avoid going into “Condition Black” during such an event. The brain activates the “fight or flight” response, and without a great deal of training and practice it is extremely difficult to overcome the physiological changes that are happening to be able to think clearly enough to draw a weapon, acquire a target, and successfully engage it. Add to that, in the case of Aurora, that the environment was a large, dark room filled with smoke or some sort of tear gas, and I find it incredibly unlikely that most people could actually have done anything. There’s no info as to whether anyone was carrying the other night – and I find myself skeptical that anyone would admit they were having done nothing.

The other thing that is grinding my gears is the right saying, “leave it to the left to politicize a tragedy.” This is total nonsense. A tragedy that can only be solved by political means must necessarily be politicized. I hate the phrase “never waste a crisis”, but it is apt. Massacres are horrific but they are what prompts people to think more critically than usual, to break down some of their preconceptions, and to really actually shift their views. I would lay money on the most pro-gun, NRA talking point bleater changing their tune about gun laws if it was one of their loved ones who was killed at Aurora. Or Danzig Avenue. Or Virginia Tech. Or wherever. These events shift those people’s perceptions because they force them to think. They have to be politicized, and I doubt too many victims’ families would be offended by that. If they were, I’d have some questions to ask.

So my suggestion to liberal types is to work on presenting reasonable ideas that achieve the noble aim of reducing gun violence is to actually get informed about firearms (because frankly, a lot of you lose arguments before they start because you don’t know what you are talking about), and work toward a compromise proposal. Fact is, a lot of people who own firearms are not NRA type nuts, they believe that reasonable laws are possible without restricting them too much. Compromise has become a bad word in politics both in US and Canada, but that’s the only way to get anything done here.

Maybe, just maybe, some good can come out of this most recent horror if we start thinking about how to approach it all better.

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On Nuclear Power

With the recent developments at the Fukushima I & II plants and apparently I just read another plant, lots of discussion unsurprisingly about nuclear energy. I’ve found the subject fascinating since I was a kid and first saw the National Geographic article about the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster of April 26, 1986.

I grew up on the other side of Toronto from Pickering, which is home of the eight-reactor nuclear power station. Just east of Pickering sits the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station which houses another four reactors. So I was even more fascinated. Being the geek that I often am I studied a fair but on how nuclear power works, the risks and so on. I even considered a fee years ago going back to school to learn to be a nuclear operator at one of those plants. I’ve worked with a couple of them through the military and learned even more specifics about how it works.

So here’s my opinion on the matter. Nuclear power obviously has risks – when accidents happen they are spectacular. But they are also extremely rare. The Level 4 accident at Fukushima for example is only the third major accident in something like 40+ years of civil nuclear power production, the others being of course Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. TMI was really fairly minor, because even though the core was destroyed during the incident, relatively little radiation escaped into the environment, and the long term effects were fairly minor.

Chernobyl is the usual point of reference for nuclear accidents employed by anti-nuclear folks, but the reality is that it is a rather far-fetched comparison. When I had someone really explain to me what caused the catastrophe at Chernobyl, and why it’s basically impossible to have something like that happen at any modern Western-designed plan (or any of the new Russian designs either), I come to realize that I still see no problem with nuclear. Well, that’s not true. There are problems, but the risks are manageable.

Most opponents of nuclear energy demand clean, renewable energy as an alternative. The problem is that there currently exists no such technology, except hydroelectricity which still has its share of environmental impacts. Wind and solar energy are simply not able to meet base load requirements so it is more useful to compare nuclear energy to those sources. In particular coal is what I would happily see replaced by new nuclear plants. I suspect that burning massive amounts of coal causes much more damage to human health than nuclear even accounting for accidents. Coal-fired plants spew a myriad of pollutants into the air, including mercury, other heavy metals, and of course greenhouse gases. The industry’s defense of “clean coal technology” is just a classic greenwashing case.

So let’s consider the main problems of nuclear energy, though I’m not going to be able to go into much linked detail because I’m punching this out from my iPhone, I just want to prompt some thought and maybe a little bit of discussion.

The main problem that gets highlighted, of course, is the possibility of catastrophic accidents. Modern containment designs abate the risk of the kind of disaster that happened in Chernobyl. In Japan, even though the outer structure has been destroyed, the actual vessel containing the fuel is intact, though some fission products have escaped. It of course remains to be seen what the final outcome is. The fact is that disasters of this magnitude are very rare and health concerns need to be weighed against what fossil fuels do, not against theoretical clean alternatives which do not yet exist.  The reality is that both Three Mile Island and what’s been happening in Japan so far seems to show that good containment structures work.  The reason Chernobyl was such a disaster had to do both with some major design flaws in the reactor itself, and a complete lack of any sort of containment.  When Chernobyl’s operators, who were conducting an unauthorized test of the reactor’s behaviour at very low power, set the conditions for a dramatic excursion, there was nothing at all to have any chance of containing the massive steam explosion they created.  One could argue that even if there was, it may have been blown apart anyhow, but then we still have to default to the point that what they were doing, which caused the disaster to begin with, was not normal operation.  Wikipedia has a very thorough article about what happened at Chernobyl which explains it well.  My friend Jeff, a nuclear operator at Pickering NGS, explained it well to me though, and I’ll try to summarize it.  Basically, what they wanted to do was see how the cooling system would react to the reactor running at very low power.  To do so, they added a large amount of “reactivity poison”, essentially a substance that absorbs neutrons, the “bullets” which actually split uranium atoms in the reactor.  They then got a call to power up Reactor 4 from the grid control station, and to do so they had to pull every single one of the control rods (which are sort of like the brakes on the reactor) completely out of the core in order to get it going.  Normally this never happens – but because there was so much poison in the core they had to literally pull out all the stops.  Problem is, as the neutron absorber does its job eventually it become saturated, which is precisely what happened – the reaction sped up at an alarming late, and when the operators dropped in all the control rods in a panicked effort to shut down the reactor, a design flaw in the rods actually sped it up, making the reactor jump far beyond its capacity, vaporizing all the coolant and creating a massive amount of steam under pressure that heavily damaged the fuel channels and then caused a second, massive explosion that blew the top off the reactor somewhat like a champagne cork.  It spiraled through the air and crashed back down, smashing the core, which was starting to melt down already.  Then all the graphite moderator started to burn. And so did the roof of the reactor building, as it was made with bitumen.

Much was learned regarding the design flaws, and the reactor design was massively improved with retrofits.  Some RBMK-type reactors still operate in Russia, but only with some major improvements from lessons learned after Chernobyl.

See why something like that isn’t likely to happen again?

The second common concern is about waste. Yes. Nuclear reactors produce ware in the form of spent fuel and also various other forms of low level waste. But the volume of spent fuel is a lot less than many people think. The plant I used to work very close to, Pickering, has been around for something like 35 years. All of the spent fuel it has consumed in its entire life is stored on site.  First it’s cooled for a few years in a massive pool, then it’s put into “dry cask storage containers” which can be stored in outdoor compounds indefinitely.  As for LLW, most of it can be simply landfilled in specially designed facilities.

There is of course a need to have a long term repository for waste storage, but things like salt caves and other deep repositories will work reasonably well especially given how well we can pack the stuff – with technologies like vitrification.

Fission reactors using uranium aren’t the be-all and end-all of the technology. There are other fuels – particularly thorium – and designs, and eventually there might be commercially viable fusion reactor design. Canada was involved in research into a project called Iter, but pulled out which is too bad. That has a lot of potential.

So in summary, nuclear isn’t so bad in comparison to realistic alternatives but you need to do a bit of homework to understand it first.