The dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II ushered in a new age and my generation is a child of that age. We have seen the horrific effects of the bomb, lived under the cloud of “mutually assured destruction” and witnessed the massive accident at Chernobyl and, more recently, the tsunami demolition of a nuclear power station in Japan. We are aware of the hazards of nuclear waste and how it will continue to accumulate with the current nuclear technology. It is not an understatement to say that we have a paranoid fear of anything nuclear and that includes “peaceful” development of nuclear energy. We are filled with “nuclear fear” and as a result research and development of nuclear power has been stalled for years. I believe the last nuclear power station to be built in North America was in the 1970’s and that was based on technology developed in the 40’s and 50’s. By today’s criteria that is very, very old technology.

The development of nuclear power stations was totally predicated on the need for weapons grade radioactive materials. As a result a whole industry has been developed to fill those demands. Research into alternative nuclear power flies in the face of military needs and the current Uranium based nuclear establishment has a strangle hold on the political process.

Alvin Martin Weinberg (April 20, 1915 – October 18, 2006) was an American nuclear physicist and administrator at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory during and after the Manhattan Project. He came to Oak ridge in 1945 and remained there until his death in 2006. He is virtually the God father of what is the accepted design of Light Water Reactors (LWR) for nuclear power generation. But that was not his final word on nuclear power station design. In response to a request by the American air force to match the American navy’s nuclear power capabilities he was asked to design a suitable nuclear power source for aircraft. A foolish request perhaps, and one that was ultimately cancelled, but it is one that led to the design of the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR). After 18 years as the director, Weinberg was fired by the Nixon administration in 1973. He was fired because he continued to advocate for increased nuclear safety and the adoption of MSR reactor designs to replace what he thought were design flaws in the LWR concepts. Weinberg’s firing effectively halted development of the MSR. Under various administrations some research and development continued sporadically over the years and the concept has been proven in a pilot plant that was built.

In discussions about Nuclear power what is forgotten is the fact that current power stations are based on designs that are over 50 years old. Is there any technology of that era that has survived without major redesign and, in most instances, actual replacement with bigger, brighter, more efficient designs? As we all know technology is currently rolled over at an ever increasing rate. So why not nuclear power designs? Current reactors are based on the use of Uranium 235 as the fuel source. This is a relatively rare, limited resource that is only utilized at about half of 1% efficiency. It produces significant amounts of radioactive waste materials that, as a disposal problem, have yet to be solved. And there is the spectra of nuclear proliferation always hanging the air (witness the paranoia associated with the Iranian efforts to develop peaceful nuclear power).

Thorium could be used as a nuclear power source. “What is Thorium? Thorium is a naturally occurring radioactive chemical element with the symbol Th and atomic number 90. It was discovered in 1828 by the Norwegian mineralogist Morten Thrane Esmark and identified by the Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius, who named it after Thor, the Norse God of thunder. Thorium produces a radioactive gas, radon-220, as one of its decay products. Thorium is estimated to be about three to four times more abundant than uranium in the Earth’s crust, and is chiefly refined from monazite sands as a by-product of extracting rare earth metals” – Wikipedia. (That last mentioned fact, extraction from rare metal earths, is a subject with profound economic implications for North America. Most of the rare earth extraction, development and subsequent expansion of high tech industries are occurring in China.) Thorium can be used as a fuel in Nuclear power plants. It is so abundant that it could power the world for thousands of years. It also offers a unique and innovative way of disposing of existing stocks of radioactive waste and spent fuels.  Plutonium can be safely disposed of by being mixed with thorium, used as a nuclear fuel and “burnt up” in conventional Light Water Reactors.  The Norwegian company Thor Energy is running a 5-year test program on mixed thorium-plutonium fuel at the OECD Halden Test reactor in Norway.  Thor Energy is working to commercialize the fuel by 2020. The thorium fuel cycle has been successfully demonstrated in over 20 reactors worldwide, including the UK’s ‘Dragon’ High Temperature Gas Reactor which operated from 1966 to 1973.

China and India are investing heavily in Thorium reactors and will have prototype power stations on line in the next few years. In the meantime North America appears to be doing nothing. That is kind of ironic. The plans for the prototypes comes from old research efforts at the Oak Ridge Laboratory. No, they were not stolen in some clandestine spy operations. The Chinese asked for the designs and they were given free access to gigabytes of PDF files that they took back to China. In 2011 the Chinese government launched a $350 million program to develop thorium-fuelled molten salt reactors, with a goal of reaching commercial readiness by 2035. India is also pursuing a comprehensive thorium fuel plan with a first commercial thorium-fuelled reactor scheduled for 2025. It has large reserves of thorium which it plans to utilize in Prototype Fast Breeder Reactors, two of which are under construction.

Prosperity is based on access to cheap electrical energy (“every woman on the planet deserves a washing machine” – before you dismiss that as a frivolous comment just think about the implications click on the TED link). At the moment prosperity is based on cheap coal, natural gas and oil technology with the attending prospect of runaway pollution and global warming. Although the idea of alternative sources such and wind, tidal and solar are attractive the truth of the matter is that with the projected growth in energy demands these sources, while useful and advisable, will never fill the demand, and despite their attractiveness, they also come with environmental costs. How much of the earth can you “put under glass” (solar panels) and how many wind and tidal power stations can you spread across the landscape? Not enough to supply our needs. Having said that the options have to be explored and developed. You can’t have too many eggs and too many baskets.

If we want a sustainable energy source then Thorium would appear to be the answer. Despite the significant technical challenges that would have to be overcome the substantial safety and environmental advantages would make the effort worth while. As always, nuclear power requires “humungous” amounts of capital but given the political will it can be done. Just look at the capital that is being expended on the Alberta Tar Sands, Liquid Natural Gas developments and the proposed pipelines that can only take us in the wrong direction. Couldn’t that be better spent on a hydrocarbon free future? As always with a new nuclear option there will be cost over runs, political scandals, and long lead times. But do we really have any choice? The Thorium Nuclear Energy option may be too good to be true but the whole scenario looks more hopeful than the alternatives. So perhaps we should go for it at an accelerated pace. The Chinese, Indians and Norwegians seem to think so.

I have freely plagiarized numerous sources and for that I apologize. There is so much information out there and I encourage you to check the YouTube videos and the Wikipedia entries to become fully informed. There is an absolute landslide of information out there – click on the following links:

Thorium and the Rare Earth issue  – this examines the Rare Earth Metals issue and the potential surplus of Thorium for nuclear energy production.

Thorium Molten Salt Reactors  – Why hasn’t development gone ahead – 36 minutes of tech talk.

Nuclear Energy and Climate Change

Kirk Sorensen’s presentation – This is rather long but as a complete overview it is well worth the time.

I would also encourage you to check the related link that Dave Prinn put out there recently on Solar panels


Buckman Coe at the Byng

BUCKMAN COE at the Byng Roadhouse, Thursday February 14, 2013, 8pm. Opening with an environmental video and Heather Gemmell and the Peaks.

Well, Thursday night was a night of surprises. First of all, live music on a Thursday night in Cranbrook is enough to make one sit up and notice that the local music scene is in a state of transition. That the Byng Roadhouse would host a environmental awareness / surf movie in conjunction with live music is also little different. Heather Gemmell’s  new edition of her Band ‘The Peaks” marks further growth in Heather’s musical development and the return of a well known guitar to the local fold certainly caught the original owner by surprise. Last but not least, the grove based ukelele of Buckman Coe demonstrated the pop/rock potential of an instrument usually associated with Hawaii and hula dancers. Whew! what a night.

There was time, not long past, that Santa Cruz and the San Francisco area were considered the northern outposts of the California surf scene. Not anymore. Given enough neoprene, determination and a willingness to only expose one’s eye lashes to the cold then anything is possible. If waves break on even the most cold and inhospitable shore there will be some hardy souls braving icebergs, bad tempered seals, sharks and killer wales while looking for the elusive perfect wave. Add the land risk of becoming lunch for a hungry grizzly bear then Northern BC surfing could be a hazardous past time. The video, Groundswell ( by international surfer Chris Malloy and Raincoast Conservation) was about surfing the northern coast of BC and made the additional point that this area is threatened by the proposed Enbridge pipeline.

This was the first time out of the gate for Heather’s new version of her band THE PEAKS. The new line up included Brian Noer on bass and Podier Atto on electronic drum kit. I like the electronic kit because it had that one essential ingredient missing from most rock Heather Gemmell and the Peaksdrummers arsenal – the ability to turn down the volume. Hard rockers like the “in your face” volume and attitude of the traditional acoustic drum kit and tend to forget that the drummer is supposed to be driving the band from underneath rather than riding over the top. Heather was playing a slim bodied Ibanez electric guitar that has some local history. Dave Prinn was astonished to see a guitar that he had sold on consignment to a player in Calgary return to Cranbrook in the hands of a fellow musician. It turns out the Calgary musician ended up  Podier Attoselling it on eBay where it was picked up by Brian Noer who in turn handed it over to Heather to put it through its paces. So the guitar has done the rounds only to end up back in its old home town where it belongs. Heather and the band stepped through original material that included Bluesville and The Heat  and added some variety with the Eagles Hotel California and the Beatles Come Together. The meaning of the lyrics in Come Together completely eludes me but all is forgiven when Brian Noer launches into the classic bass line of the song. Who cares what the song is about when that singing bass line carries the whole tune.

Ukeleles and Dreadlocks? It’s either a conspiracy or a trend. For the second time in a week Ty Westboth have been a significant presence on the local musical scene. Last Sunday at the Stemwinder in Kimberley Shane Philip prominently  Heidifeatured a Ukelele in his one man band ensemble and supporting him in an off-the-cuff musical jam was the Dreadlocked Ty West. In the dance audience “Heidi” sported a massive amount of hair in dreadlocks. Now here on Thursday in the Byng we have more Ukeleles in the hands of the dreadlocked Buckman Coe and, not to be left out, Heather’s new drummer Podier Atto was also sporting a variation on the dreadlock theme. So, is it a trend or a conspiracy? Buckman has  Buckman Coethe same manager as Bocephus King,  who also recently played at the Byng, so it is no surprise that they share some musical similarities. Both musicians give more than a nod to Bob Marley and it is amazing to see how audiences react to that reggae beat. Within seconds the dance floor is crowded with patrons. Because of the Ukelele thing Buckman’s music has some other world beat and Polynesian characteristics. This was most evident in the tune Malama Ka Ana.  With a name like that could it be anything other than Polynesian? Also in the set list of mostly originals were Apocalypse, Stubborn Man, Devils’ in You, Rest, Paranoia and Love is Eternal, and as a matter of course, a Bob Marley inspired original Rise Up Jah People. Buckman was supported by fellow band mates Tim Parent on a massive five string electric bass and Adam Parent on drums. Adam was struggling with a ‘flu’ bug and had to take to his bed before the evening was over. Tim gave up his bass and stepped onto the drummer’s throne to keep the groove going.  Here are some images from a great evening of original entertainment (click on the images to get a larger view).

Heather Gemmell        Buckman Coe        Heather Gemmell Buckman Coe        Podier Atto       Tim Parent  Heather Gemmell        Brian Noer       Heather Gemmell Buckman Coe        Adam Parent        Buckman Coe   Podier Atto        Tim Parent        Adam Parent   Heather Gemmell         Buckman Coe        Heather Gemmell   Podier Atto         Tim Parent        Brian Noer   Buckman Coe        Heather Gemmell        Buckman Coe  Heather Gemmell        Girls night out - Laurie        Podier Atto Buckman Coe        Girls night out - Marcel and friend       Buckman Coe   Tim Parent         Heather Gemmell       Buckman Coe Girls night out -  Lorraine and friend friend                  Janice "snapped" with Ferdy

I would like to thank Ferdy and Margie for the greatly improved stage back drop and lighting. The quality of the above images would not have been possible without their help.

February 21, 2013. This just in – an article by Buckman in the Huffington Post. Click on the link  Huffington Post Article


Quote of the Week

“Ten billion beetles can’t be wrong – buy BC pine”


Considering the havoc the beetle infestation is having on forestry communities this quote is probably in poor taste. It comes from a book by Calgary writer Andrew Nikiforuk called “Empire of the Beetle – How human folly and a tiny bug are killing North America’s great forests”. This book is a comprehensive look at the  historical records of beetle infestations all over the world. Although we tend to think of the current situation as a recent manifestation precipitated by climate change that is only part of the story. While climate change is a factor it is not the only one. The author also implicates logging practices and over zealous fire control. One of the hypothesis of the book is that the beetles are only doing what beetles are meant to do – manage the forest to ensure regeneration and healthy diversity. The beetles do this by attacking old an unhealthy trees to make way for new growth. The beetle is not the bad guy in the current scenario. Forestry practices, fire control and, now, climate change have interfered with the essential environmental niche that belongs to the beetle. Things are now out of balance to the point where the beetles are attacking younger and healthier trees. And, based on the historical record, there is not much we can do about it.  Clear cutting, poisoning, hormone therapy, electric shock and even music therapy (yes Martha, there is such a thing) have little effect on outcomes. In fact most measures do more harm than good. Clear cutting destroys watersheds and fish habitats and does very little to foster diversity in the forest. The piles of slash left behind harbour beetles that have nothing better to do than continue to chow down, cohabitate and multiply on the free meals left by the logging companies.  Attempts to poison the bugs end up taking a huge toll  on the beetle’s natural predators (woodpeckers and the like). The application of hormone therapy has met with some limited and diminishing success and electric shock is too impractical to consider on a large scale. Music therapy, using the beetle’s own arsenal of sounds, still sounds a little hair brained and is some what experimental. In the past the most successful interventions have been masterminded by mother nature herself. In the past a few good forty below winters have stopped  infestations cold (pun intended). In this era of climate change cold winters of the required intensity may be a thing of the past. All told the prognosis is pretty grim. There is nothing we can do but watch the destruction of the forests and decline of communities and industries as timber resources rapidly disappear. There is even a fear that now the beetles have crossed over to the east side of the Rocky Mountains the infestation could  invade the Boreal forest and, if that happens, why not go all the way to Labrador?

Need this have happened on such a scale? The urban myth is that “ground zero” was Tweedsmuir Park and an aggressive clear cut of the diseased trees in the park would have stopped the spread of the infestation. Or, at least that’s how the myth goes. It was the politicos who were unwilling to butt heads with the tree huggers and environmentalists and chose to do nothing and the result was the spread of the infestation. Well, as I said, that’s how the myth goes and, as usual with most urban myths, the truth is a little more complicated. The complete logging of Tweedsmuir Park would have done little to control the spread of the beetle. For years the beetles were  already out there across the province doing what beetles normally do.

There is a bit of déjà vu about the situation. It reminds one of the collapse of the cod fishery twenty years ago. In the immediate aftermath  of the collapse there was tremendous pressure on the politicians to open some limited fishing to ensure some livelihood for the unemployed fishermen and plant workers. It required tremendous fortitude to resist this kind of pressure. One of the heroes of the day was John Crosbie, the then Minister of Fisheries, who called “a spade a spade” and held his ground for a rational scientific approach. With the destruction of the Burns Lake Mill and one in Prince George there are calls to open the logging of marginal forest lands to try and increase inventory to enable the rebuilding of destroyed mills. The mantra once again is jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Despite the heart break and hardship that needs to be dealt with it is a call that should be resisted. As I said déjà vu. Like the cod fish the supposedly unlimited source and supply of timber has gone, or at least going, and the unimaginable is on our door step – a decline of forestry as a mainstay of the BC economy. If the cod fishery is any indication then there is a bleak prospect for many years to come. Twenty years have gone by and there is no indication that the cod fish are returning. How long does it take a tree to reach maturity? I am pretty sure it is way more than twenty years.

Two books well worth reading are:

Andrew Nikiforuk’s “Empire of the Beetle – How human folly and a tiny bug are killing North America’s great forests”.

Michael Harris’ “Lament for an Ocean – The Collapse of the Cod Fishery: a True Crime Story”.

Both of these titles are in the Cranbrook Public Library.