Monthly Archives: August 2013

Fukushima Reactor 4’s Fuel Pool Poses a Grave Threat

One of the reasons many experts from around the world are calling on Japan to seek more international assistance is that the problem is multifaceted and extremely serious. 

One aspect of the problem is the situation at reactor number 4. The building was severely damaged by the hydrogen explosions in the neighboring reactors. At the top of this not so stable structure sits the reactors fuel pool which contains 1331 spent fuel rods and 202 unused fuel rods. It is estimated that the amount of cesium 137 stored on the pool is the equivalent of 18,000 Hiroshima bombs. The pool also contains other radioactive material including plutonium. 
Tepco has said the building has been shored up and would not collapse even if another large earthquake struck the area. But then again Tepco also said there was no danger of a tsunami affecting the plant.
Tepco is planning to begin operations to remove the fuel rods this October, but the process is fraught with peril. If the spent fuel assemblies are damaged or if they get too close to each other, it could cause a chain reaction to begin. This would be disastrous since the fuel pool has no equipment to contain or stop such a reaction. Such an event would be far worse than anything Fukushima has experienced to date. 
The fuel needs to be removed that is clear. If another quake struck and the pool began leaking, all of that fuel would ignite causing an unprecedented amount of radiation to be released into the atmosphere. The question is whether the plan to remove the fuel is a sound one. It is an operation that has never been attempted before and some experts have expressed grave doubts. This is why Japan needs to be more open to international assistance. Before attempting such a dangerous procedure, I believe it is only prudent that the plan and procedures to be used are reviewed by international experts. It is possible the plan could be improved or safeguards created to lessen the possibility of a catastrophic event. Now is not the time for national pride. This is the time to bring the brightest minds together to create the safest procedure possible for what is perhaps the most dangerous engineering feat ever attempted. 

Lessons from Fukushima

Hindsight is always 20-20. And the past cannot be changed. What is tragic is not learning from past mistakes. And the Fukushima nuclear accident provides ample material to learn from.

The Fukushima plant was built to withstand a large earthquake, and Indeed it appears that the plant came thru the massive 3/11 quake relatively in tact. And its systems acted as they should. The plant began a shutdown of its reactors. The main power lines that provided electricity to the plant were badly damaged, but again the back up generators kicked in and provided the necessary electricity for the plant to continue the shutdown process.

That is when the tsunami hit. There was a 6 meter high sea wall built to protect the plant. The massive tsunami easily flowed over the seawall, flooded the plant and knocked out the back up generators. The plant had taken great precautions against possible earthquakes, but had woefully inadequate protection from tsunamis. In fact Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) had ignored all warnings about the dire consequences if a tsunami were to hit the plant.

Lesson one: Scenarios that appear highly unlikely do occur. Mother nature is a force of great power and unpredictability. Man builds an “unsinkable” boat, the Titanic and it sinks on its maiden voyage. Our lack of preparedness is often due to our lack of imagination.

With the back up generators knocked out, the cooling system critical for preventing a meltdown no longer worked. Workers at the plant in desperation used car batteries in order to try and get some of the plants’ systems back online. Tepco headquarters in Tokyo received requests for all kinds of supplies for Fukushima as the crisis began to unfold, but when batteries to supply power to the plant were delivered by the Japanese Self Defense Forces, they were 2 volt batteries, not the 12 volt batteries the plant required. Sadly as three of the reactors experienced meltdown, 1000 12 volt batteries sat in storage a mere 55 km away.

Lesson two: After you’ve prepared for the worse, and disaster strikes, what is your plan to deal with disaster. Tepco seems to have had no plan on what materials would be crucial in a crisis and how they could be quickly delivered in an emergency. Since Tepco couldn’t imagine a situation where both their main power and their back up system failed, there was no planning on what could be done to provide power to the plant in such an event. Again the lack of belief in worse case scenarios, led to lack of preparation when they occurred.

The reactors were equipped with safety relief valves to vent steam if the pressure in a reactor got too high. These valves were very difficult to open without electricity. The workers were finally driven to venting off some of the contents of the reactors in a desperate move to avoid a full meltdown. However, some of the piping used in the process may have been damaged in the quake, as the venting didn’t work properly. The reactor’s containment chambers were built to withstand a large earthquake, but the piping was built to a lower standard.

Lesson three: The containment chamber is usually given the most attention in regards to safety, but the systems that are used to regulate its pressure and maintain its integrity must also be built to high standards.

The tragedy of Fukushima is that it was avoidable. It was the lack of imagination and preparation for what are extremely low probability events that led to the disaster. The higher the cost of failure, the more necessary it is to prepare for low probability events. Reactors are in use for decades, and over longer periods of time, improbable events can and do occur.

Many of the reactors online throughout the world are decades old. How prepared are they for these kinds of worst case scenarios? Or will we find out their unpreparedness only after the next disaster?

Fukushima Update

It appears the Japanese government is going to take a more leading role in dealing with the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power complex.“We’ve allowed Tokyo Electric to deal with the contaminated water situation on its own and they’ve essentially turned it into a game of ‘Whack-a-Mole’.From now on, the government will move to the forefront.”  Trade Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters Monday night in Fukushima. 
The decision to take a more active role in managing the crisis came after  300 tons of highly radioactive water leaked from a storage tank at the No.1 nuclear reactor. Each day 400 tons of radioactive water is added to storage tanks at the plant.  There are roughly 350 tanks of similiar design to the tank that leaked on site. The Japanese government is asking Tepco to regularly inspect the tanks and to replace any that appear susceptible to leakage. 
In addition to the problem of storing this massive amount of contaminated water, as I said in an earlier post, 300 tons of radioactive water is flowing into the Pacific Ocean every day. The government is now planning to dig deep into the earth and place pipes that will be used to freeze the soil, creating an “ice wall” between the plant and the ocean. 
The above raises several important questions:
1) What does the Japanese government or Tepco plan to do with these thousands of tons of contaminated water currently being stored at the plant? How sturdy are these structures? Can these tanks handle another large earthquake?
2) If the ice wall is successful in preventing the contaminated water from leaking into the ocean, where is the water going to go? If 300 tons of radioactive water is leaking daily from the plant, stopping it from going into the ocean is no real solution. Something has to be done to stop the leakage. Flooding the Fukushima countryside with radioactive water doesn’t seem to solve anything. 
Japan needs the expertise of the entire international community to find real solutions to this whole mess. This needs to become a global priority. No one knows when another aftershock could hit the area, escalating the crisis and further damaging the environment. Massive resources need to be directed to finding viable solutions before it is too late.


September to be busy for Apple Computer

It appears that September is going to be a busy month for Apple computer. I posted an article below by Mark Gurman of 9 to 5 Mac detailing the rollout of a new IPhone trade in program by Apple. iPhone users will be able to go to their local Apple Store and trade their old iPhones for credit towards the purchase of a new iPhone.
This seems like a great marketing move by Apple. With competition in the smartphone arena heating up, the program will help ensure that current iPhone users continue as Apple customers. It should also boost sales of new iPhones as people decide to upgrade who maybe wouldn’t without the program.
The real question is, is this a good deal for the users. The credit towards a new iphone Apple is offering is certainly going to be less than what you get if you sold your old phone yourself by listing it on ebay. It all comes down to convenience. Trading in at an Apple Store is fast and saves the hassle of listing your old phone, perhaps negotiating with a buyer and shipping the phone. My advice would be doing some research before trading in your old phone. Search for your model (3,4,4S,5) on ebay and get an idea of the current market price and compare it with what Apple is offering you. If the difference is $100 or more, you might want to go the ebay route. $100 can buy quite a few apps and songs on itunes.
Apple is also expected to be introducing 2 new iPhone models in September, the 5S and the 5C. The 5C is rumored to be a lower end model of the iPhone in a plastic case.
I am currently using an iPhone 4S. (In fact this entire post was written along with many others on that very iPhone. ) I am anxious to see what the new 5S has to offer and whether the new trade in program will be offered in Japan.
Tell me what is on your wish list for the new 5S. Leave a comment below.

Apple’s iPhone ‘Reuse and Recycle’ trade-in program detailed, begins rolling out August 30th

What is Kiva?

Yesterday I talked about how rich we all are. I also pointed out how many in this world are mired in poverty. Today I would like to talk about one way, we can help.

Since December I have been making regular microloans thru an organization called Kiva. Kiva serves as a conduit between individual lenders and entrepreneurs in the developing world. For example, a farmer in Kenya needs a loan of $500 to buy a tractor and fertilizer. Kiva puts his story up and individuals can choose to lend. The loan is divided into $25 slices. Once $500 is gathered the loan is funded. Individuals lend at 0%. The money goes to a local micro finance institutes which makes and services the loan. When the loan is repaid, you can either relend the money or withdraw it.

There has been considerable criticism of Kiva. One reason is the micro finance institutions or field partners tend to lend at high interest rates. Personally, this doesn’t concern me. I would prefer to make 0% loans, but that would make it impossible for the microlenders to survive. The important thing to me is that Kiva makes it possible for people to get loans that will improve their lives. Without Kiva many of these would be entrepreneurs would have no access to credit. As long as borrowers are better off when the loan is repaid, I believe Kiva is providing a benefit to the borrowers. The loan repayment rate is 99% so I don’t believe the borrowers are not benefitting. With the loans, they are able to start or expand small businesses or buy farming materials. Things they might not be able to do without Kiva.

If you would like to learn more, you can visit Kiva’s web site

You are so rich and you don’t even know it!

You are far richer than you think. Most of us tend to think of rich people as the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of this world. We never stop to consider just how fortunate we are. 

Imagine a typical summer afternoon. It’s a sweltering 90 degrees outside, but you’re sitting in your air conditioned home, watching a baseball game on your flat screen tv. You get up, go to the fridge and get out a nice cold frosty beer and grab a snack from the kitchen. Your wife has taken her car (not yours) to the mall to buy fall clothes for the kids before the new school year starts. She calls you on her cell phone and says she doesn’t feel like cooking and wonders if the family could go out to eat tonight….
I could go on, but just think of all the modern conveniences we take for granted. We have computers, air conditioning, tvs, stereos, cell phones, dishwashers, garbage disposals, refrigerators, automobiles, washing machines, dryers, hot water heaters, microwaves, and on and on. The richest man in the world a hundred years ago could not enjoy most of the things that today we take for granted. We live lives of ease, comfort and luxury, but are not satisfied because we don’t think of ourselves as rich. Solomon in all his glory never enjoyed such luxury. 
Ok you say, so you are just comparing the past with the present. Well since you are reading this, you must have internet access, that’s something 70% of the world lives without.  What about something more basic? 40% of the world’s population lacks indoor plumbing. More basic still: 1 in 8 or 852 million people in the world live in a state of chronic malnutrition. 
Many of us think of ourselves as struggling, because the money is a little tight or we cannot afford that new car we want or we didn’t get a raise this year. What if we had tens of millions more than we have now? We would probably have a bigger home. Maybe instead of 2 cars, we’d have 4 nicer ones and a yacht. Instead of the nice clothes we wear, we’d wear all designer labels tailo made, with a bit more jewelry. We’d trade our Timex for a Rolex. Instead of flying on airlines, we’d have our own private jet. We would eat at more expensive restaurants. In other words, we would add just a couple more luxuries and upgrade the many luxuries we already have. 
There is nothing wrong with ambition and wanting the finer things in life, but many of us have no idea how fortunate we are and how truly rich we are. Instead of dreaming of what life would be like “if we were rich”, we should be thankful for all that we enjoy. Your present life was unimagineable a mere 100 years ago and sadly for a great portion of the world’s population still is. You are rich!


The Pros and Cons of Bitcoin

Yesterday I gave a very basic description of what bitcoins are and how they can be sent from one person to another. The obvious question is, “I have a credit card or paypal account, why would I need or want to use bitcoin?”

Bitcoin supporters argue it has several advantages over fiat currencies:

1) Since there is no intermediary between 2 parties, a transaction done in bitcoins has almost 0 in transaction fees. This is a big advantage for merchants, since credit cards generally charge fees of up to 2-3%.

2) There is no central bank or government controlling the supply of bitcoins. In the current economic environment with many central banks greatly increasing the supply of their currencies, some worry that eventually the purchasing power of their currrncy will be eroded by future inflation. Bitcoin creation is slow and gradual and the supply is ultimately fixed. No one can devalue bitcoin by vastly increasing the supply.

3) Bitcoins can be sent to anyone over the internet anywhere in the world virtually instantly.

4) Bitcoin transactions are virtually anonymous. What shows up on the ledger is simply the wallet ids of the parties and any one person can have multiple wallets.

What about the disadvantages of bitcoin? Detractors point to the following?

1) Because of the anonymity of transactions, bitcoins can easily be used for various nefarious activities such as money laundering, or drug dealing.

2) The value of bitcoins versus fiat currencies can fluctuate dramaticly over short periods of time. As a merchant, do you want to accept something as payment when its value is subject to high volatility? When I wrote yesterday’s article, 1 bitcoin was trading for $106-107. A little over 24 hours later 1 bitcoin fetches $111.

3) Since bitcoins exist in the digital world, they can be lost just like any data. Bitcoins are stored in digital wallets. If you have yours on your home computer and your hard disk crashes, without a backup, the coins are loss. If your spouse has a significant amount of the family’s saving in bitcoins and has never shown you the location of the wallet(s) and or passwords, the coins are lost. Of course, a bit of precaution and planning can eliminate these hazards.

After thinking about the above, if you decide to take the plunge, how can you obtain some bitcoins? Other than mining them, which at this point is quite difficult without specialized moning gear, they can be bought on an online exchange, the largest of which is Mt Gox.

You will also need a wallet to store your coins. Here you have 3 choices, an online wallet, a wallet that resides on your computer or a wallet on your android based smartphone (Sorry Iphone users, apple has decided not to allow any wallet app). A good guide to obtaining a wallet can be found here.

What does the future hold for bitcoin? At 4 years old, bitcoin is going strong. The current size of the bitcoin economy is estimated at over 1 billion USD and growing. However as the currency has grown in size and acceptance, so has government scrutiny, especially in the US. From the SEC, the IRS, the FBI to Homeland Security, many government agencies are looking for more regulation of bitcoin. I believe the coming year will see greater regulation of bitcoin. It will be interesting to see how the bitcoin community reacts and evolves under greater government regulation.

What is Bitcoin

Bitcoin is an electronic cryptocurrency. The origin of bitcoin dates back to 2008, when a paper written by Satoshi Nakamura laid out the design for the new currency.

How does bitcoin work? Bitcoin is a digital peer to peer electronic currency. In other words, people can receive and send bitcoins to and from anyone on the network. There is no central authority or intermediary involved. Whenever a transaction takes place, it is broadcast to the entire network, and added to an electronic ledger known as the blockchain.

As the blockchain grows and transactions are verified, new bitcoins are generated. When the bitcoin network was first launched, new bitcoins were generated at the rate of 50 coins per block. This rate is halved every 4 years until it finally reaches 0 in the year 2140. At that point there will be 21 million bitcoins in existence.

The process of creating new bitcoins is known as bitcoin mining and involves solving extremely difficult mathematical problems. This difficulty increases over time. Some enthusiastic miners have created mining rigs that are devoted solely to mining coins. There are even companies now which sell nothing but bitcoin mining gear, such as Butterfly Labs. With bitcoins currently trading at $106 per coin, you can understand the attraction bitcoin mining has.

Tomorrow I will discuss the pros and cons of bitcoins, how they can be obtained and what the future may hold for bitcoin.

Eric Snowden, Patriot or Traitor?

Benjamin Franklin put it this way: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. “

Since 911, The United States and other countries facing the threat of terrorism have had to grapple with balancing freedom and security.  I believe Eric Snowden has done us a great service by trying to bring this issue to the forefront. 
We live in an age where technology makes it easier for authorities to monitor us. As technology continues to advance, the protection of our privacy becomes crucial. Not only does the internet and social media such as Facebook make it easy to gather information, but we now have the ability to store that information cheaply. Think of all the voluntary disclosures you make say on Facebook. You give your name, hometown, where you work, even your relationship status.  If you then add electronic eavesdropping and wire tapping what is left of our privacy?
I understand the need to protect the innocent from terrorism, but where do we draw the line? Who draws it and by what authority? Air travel would certainly be safer if all passengers were given a full body cavity search, but is that the type of society we wish to live in? What happens if you have a friend who has terrorist connections you knew nothing about? Couldn’t you now become subject to scrutiny even though you’re totally innocent? 
These are issues that need to be fully debated. I believe that was what Eric Snowden was attempting to do. He wanted to draw our attention to what is already being done so that these important issues can be publicly discussed and debated. The real question is are we Americans more preoccupied with how our 401k s are doing and our favorite sports team, that the whole thing soon passes with little real concern on our part. I often wonder how far the government could go in taking away our rights before we would act to stop them. Are we willing to sacrifice liberty for safety and comfort? That is the question we as a society need to ask ourselves. 
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