Saturday, July 25, 2015

Arctic Sea Ice 2015

Subtitle: Not Shrinking Like Before

source: Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) Centre for Ocean and Ice
In the endless debate over Global Warming, or Climate Change, one of the key indicators is the polar ice.  Warmists insist that the polar ice is melting away and will lead to all manner of havoc, such as seashores inundated by rising seas.  The implications are grim, for those who live within a few feet of sea level.  Warmists also insist that the addition of tiny amounts of carbon dioxide, CO2, to the atmosphere will increase the globe's average temperature and accelerate rate at which the polar ice melts.   The figure at the right, from Danish Meteorological Institute, shows millions of square kilometers of Arctic ice over a year's period, with different colors for each of the past few years.  The shaded gray area and darker gray line are the mean (roughly the average) over the 22 year period 1979-2000.    The bold black line shows the data for 2015.  (see link  for updated data) 

A few things can be observed from this figure.  First, the ice extent reaches a maximum in mid-February, and a minimum in early September.  The average maximum extent for the '79-2000 period was approximately 16 million km2.  The recent few years are only 1 million less, at approximately 15 million km2.  That is a decrease of only 6.2 percent over 35 years. 

The minimum extent has a much greater variation, with the '79-2000 average of approximately 7.5 million km2.  Recent years showed a minimum of 4 million km2 in 2012, and 6 million km2 in 2013 and 2014.   The extent in 2012 led to much press over the ice is melting and claims that we are all going to die from sea level rise, by the warmists.   

The extent for 2015, though, is only a bit past the mid-way from maximum to minimum, March to September.  That black line has several things to convey.  First, the other recent years (2011 - 2014) all had approximately the same rate of melting - the slope of the line - as does 2015 from approximately April 15 through June 1.  But, something is different starting in about June 1.  The recent years all began melting more rapidly starting June 1 (the slope of their lines increased downward), but the line for 2015 continued on its early slope.    One can speculate about the causes of the steady melting, and not the accelerated melting of the past few years.  Melting occurs from four sources: heat absorbed by the ice from seawater from below, heat absorbed from warmer air from above, heat absorbed from radiant heat from sunlight, and wind that breaks up the ice then pushes the ice into warmer water where melting takes place.   Warmists will add a fifth source of heat bombarding the Arctic ice: radiant heat from CO2 and water molecules in the atmosphere above the ice.  

So, what is different this year, that is not accelerating the ice melt?  One cannot determine the cause from the simple figure above.   One thing we do know for certain, though, is that the tiny amount of CO2 added to the atmosphere during the past year could not be responsible for a sudden and large change in melt rate.  

This graph bears watching closely, especially as the upcoming IPCC meeting in November will attempt (once again, because they failed each previous time) to obtain an accord to retard fossil fuel use world-wide.   

Warmists, especially those in the alarmist camp, have a very difficult time refuting solid evidence of Arctic ice growing, year over year over year.  

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California
copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Hurricane Dolores in Los Angeles

A post from 2009 on SLB (see link)  titled Hurricanes in Los Angeles was critical of public officials in their warnings and evacuation plans ahead of that hurricane.  Of course, hurricanes almost never hit Los Angeles because the ocean surface temperature offshore Southern California is far too cold to sustain a hurricane. 

Today, however, the remnants of Hurricane Dolores 2015 sit offshore Los Angeles, and moisture from the storm's arms is turning into rain, creating flash flooding in the regions surrounding Los Angeles. 

From the National Weather Service, the following warning was issued:


Global warming alarmists will almost certainly use the Dolores 2015 event as proof of their theories that man-made carbon-dioxide is heating the atmosphere, and that creates stronger hurricanes, floods, and storms.    Of course, when such alarmists are asked to explain similar events that occurred pre-1970, they alarmists attribute those to natural causes.   It is notable that 28 floods occurred pre-1970 according to a document published by State of California Department of Water Resources (see link) titled "History of California Flooding (2013), Table C-1"  Of the 28 floods, 3 were from tsunamis, and 3 were from failed dams, leaving 22 from rain events.   Those 22 are not all of the floods pre-1970, only the major floods. 

Sometimes it seems that the warmists simply do not understand that history did not start in 1970.   Hurricanes, floods, droughts, severe winters, heat waves, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis all happened before 1970.  There were changes in local temperature, also.  

Sometimes, but rarely in my experience, a rational warmist will discuss such events.  Their response usually is along the lines of "we do not dispute the existence of severe weather events before 1970, only the severity and frequency.  Since 1970, man-made CO2 in the atmosphere has made the severity greater and increased the frequency of such events."  

Even that statement is full of problems, since some of the floods (8 of the pre-1970) were statewide in scope.  It is difficult to imagine greater severity.   The response to showing the warmists actual data is usually along the lines of "you are only considering a small part of the Earth's surface, California is far less than 1 percent of the globe.  We consider the entire globe, hence Global Warming."    When such statements are made by warmists, be sure to ask them to provide the data for your inspection.  Note whether the data is from authoritative sources, or from agenda-driven ideologues. Also note whether the data is truly global in scope, or skips over parts of the Earth where the data do not fit their agenda.  

Finally, it is always fun to ask warmists how the severe and prolonged cold weather events continue to occur, 45 years since 1970 and with CO2 levels now at 400 ppm.  Note that ice is more persistent on the US Great Lakes, Great Lakes' water temperature is colder than historic averages, ice and snow are more intense in many areas, and many glaciers are growing. 

Roger E. Sowell, Esq. 
Marina del Rey, California

copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell.  All rights reserved.

South Australia Invites Comments on Nuclear Power

Subtitle: Nuclear Power for South Australia Not Justifiable

The state of South Australia, Australia, established recently the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission to investigate uranium fuel, its mining, enrichment, power generation, and nuclear waste management and storage. (see link)  Australia is a producer and exporter of uranium.  

The NFCRC "will provide all interested persons with an opportunity to provide information and evidence that will help guide the Royal Commission in its decision making and formulation of the final report.

A Royal Commission, acting on its own, cannot undertake an inquiry into complex social, economic and environmental matters concerning the nuclear fuel cycle without significant external assistance.

As such, we (the Royal Commission) will be seeking cooperation and input from a range of involved stakeholders – including academics, subject matter experts, interest groups, members from industry, non-government organisations, consumer groups and members of the community.

Former Governor of South Australia, Rear Admiral the Honourable Kevin Scarce AC CSC RAN (Rtd), was appointed to the role of Royal Commissioner for the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission on 9 February 2015. The Royal Commission is seeking to engage with all sectors of the community in order to bring the widest range of views possible into the research and decision making process.

At the conclusion of its investigation, the Commission will produce a report which will make findings based on evidence obtained by the Commission and will make recommendations.

The report (and its recommendations) are required to be provided to the Governor of South Australia, The Honourable Hieu Van Le AO, no later than 6 May 2016."

The Commission organized the uranium issue into four areas :

1. Uranium mining
2. Uranium enrichment into civilian power fuel
3. Civilian nuclear power plants, and
4. Nuclear waste management and storage.

I have been invited to prepare and submit responses to the questions and issues posed in Paper 3 for Civilian nuclear power plants.  There are 17 questions, shown below.   I plan to formally submit detailed answers to most, if not all, the questions.  

The short, summary answer to the over-arching question of Should South Australia build and operate nuclear power plants, is no.   The basis for that conclusion is the facts and particulars of South Australia's power grid both at present and the foreseeable future.  The grid is small, with 5,000 MWe total installed capacity.  The demand is low, with typical daily maximum 1,500 MWe although demand peaks on hot summer days at approximately 3,000 MWe.  More importantly, minimum demand at night is approximately 700 MWe.   Finally, South Australia has access to abundant coal and natural gas for fuel.  

Given the small grid loads, and small minimum night demand, a nuclear power plant that is operated at baseload to provide maximum efficiency and minimum power price, must be a small size at perhaps 300 MWe.   Small nuclear reactors suffer from reverse economy of scale and are very expensive for the amount of power produced.   Conversely, a larger plant would achieve some economy of scale, but the plant must have its output reduced at night to ensure grid stability.  A larger plant would be more costly to allow load changes, and the sales price for electricity produced must increase accordingly.  (see Truth About Nuclear Power, part 2 for details -- see link)   The usual safety concerns also apply: operating upsets and radiation releases, evacuation plans, spent fuel storage or reprocessing, and sabotage and terrorist attacks, to name a few.

Royal Commission's 17 Questions on Civilian Nuclear Power Plants

3.1  Are there suitable areas in South Australia for the establishment of a nuclear reactor for generating electricity? What is the basis for that assessment?

3.2  Are there commercial reactor technologies (or emerging technologies which may be commercially available in the next two decades) that can be installed and connected to the NEM (National Electricity Market)? If so, what are those technologies, and what are the characteristics that make them technically suitable? What are the characteristics of the NEM that determine the suitability of a reactor for connection? 

3.3  Are there commercial reactor technologies (or emerging technologies which may be commercially available in the next two decades) that can be installed and connected in an off-grid setting? If so, what are those technologies, and what are the characteristics that make them technically suitable? What are the characteristics of any particular off-grid setting that determine the suitability of a reactor for connection?

3.4  What factors affect the assessment of viability for installing any facility to generate electricity in the NEM? How might those factors be quantified and assessed? What are the factors in an off-grid setting exclusively? How might they be quantified and assessed? 

3.5  What are the conditions that would be necessary for new nuclear generation capacity to be viable in the NEM? Would there be a need, for example, for new infrastructure such as transmission lines to be constructed, or changes to how the generator is scheduled or paid? How do those conditions differ between the NEM and an off-grid setting, and why? 

3.6  What are the specific models and case studies that demonstrate the best practice for the establishment and operation of new facilities for the generation of electricity from nuclear fuels? What are the less successful examples? Where have they been implemented in practice? What relevant lessons can be drawn from them if such facilities were established in South Australia? 

3.7  What place is there in the generation market, if any, for electricity generated from nuclear fuels to play in the medium or long term? Why? What is the basis for that prediction including the relevant demand scenarios?

3.8 What issues should be considered in a comparative analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of the generation of electricity from nuclear fuels as opposed to other sources? What are the most important issues? Why? How should they be analysed?  

3.9 What are the lessons to be learned from accidents, such as that at Fukushima (Japan), in relation to the possible establishment of any proposed nuclear facility to generate electricity in South Australia? Have those demonstrated risks and other known safety risks associated with the operation of nuclear plants been addressed? How and by what means? What are the processes that would need to be undertaken to build confidence in the community generally, or specific communities, in the design, establishment and operation of such facilities?

3.10 If a facility to generate electricity from nuclear fuels was established in South Australia, what regulatory regime to address safety would need to be established? What are the best examples of those regimes? What can be drawn from them?

3.11 How might a comparison of the emission of greenhouse gases from generating electricity in South Australia from nuclear fuels as opposed to other sources be quantified, assessed or modelled? What information, including that drawn from relevant operational experience should be used in that comparative assessment? What general considerations are relevant in conducting those assessments or developing these models?

3.12 What are the wastes (other than greenhouse gases) produced in generating electricity from nuclear and other fuels and technologies? What is the evidence of the impacts of those wastes on the community and the environment? Is there any accepted means by which those impacts can be compared? Have such assessments making those comparisons been undertaken, and if so, what are the results? Can those results be adapted so as to be relevant to an analysis of the generation of electricity in South Australia?

3.13 What risks for health and safety would be created by establishing facilities for the generation of electricity from nuclear fuels? What needs to be done to ensure that risks do not exceed safe levels?

3.14 What safeguards issues are created by the establishment of a facility for the generation of electricity from nuclear fuels? Can those implications be addressed adequately? If so, by what means?

3.15 What impact might the establishment of a facility to generate electricity from nuclear fuels have on the electricity market and existing generation sources? What is the evidence from other existing markets internationally in which nuclear energy is generated? Would it complement other sources and in what circumstances? What sources might it be a substitute for, and in what circumstances?

3.16 How might a comparison of the unit costs in generating electricity in South Australia from nuclear fuels as opposed to other sources be quantified, assessed or modelled? What information, including that drawn from relevant operational experience, should be used in that comparative assessment? What general considerations should be borne in mind in conducting those assessments or models?

3.17 Would the establishment of such facilities give rise to impacts on other sectors of the economy? How should they be estimated and using what information? Have such impacts been demonstrated in other economies similar to Australia?


Roger E. Sowell, Esq. 
Marina del Rey, California
copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell.  All rights reserved. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

A Good Laugh over Thorium

Subtitle: Anonymous Says Thorium Is Too Good

Sometimes, I just have to laugh.  I don't post many comments on SLB, although I do receive a great many comments.    My blog only contains comments that pass my moderation standards.  Many comments get discarded, such as hateful statements, irrelevant statements, blatant sales pitches, and illegal statements.    Today, I post an anonymous comment that was sent in just the other day on one of SLB's thorium nuclear power articles.   This one is given its own article with my commentary - it is just too funny. 

I don't mind anonymous comments just because they are anonymous.  I understand there are some excellent reasons for some people to remain anonymous.  It's the content of the comment, not the commenter's internet name that gets the moderation. 

Note, this commenter gave zero support for any of his statements (or her, but I'll refer to him and his.)   That is pretty typical for an anonymous and negative tone such as this one. 

First, the comment in quoted italics, then my thoughts on what Anonymous wrote. 


Your "blog" is truly a masterful deception. The reason that alternatives to Thorium power plants have occurred had absolutely NOTHING to do with the failure of thorium power plant technology. Way back in the early 70's Westinghouse Corp. had 2 fully operational thorium test plants.

While there were minor problems, they did in fact completely obsolete virtually all nuclear and fossil fuel technologies of the time. Now I happen to know a little about this because my father was a senior management Consultant for a major consulting firm who was under contract with them at the time. The issue of Thorium was not that it was a failure; rather it was far to (sic) big a success. It literally would have rendered the entire fossil fuel industry of oil, gas and coal, not to mention conventional nuclear power obsolete . Its other big failing, and ultimately the excuse for burying the technology, was the fact that unlike conventional nuclear power, there was (sic) no by products (sic) suitable for material for nuclear weapons production. 

Ironically it was Jimmy Carter who officially signed the death warrant for Thorium, claiming national security issues. But in truth Thorium was a victim of its own success. It was to damn good, and to damned cheap." 

My comments:

He writes, "your "blog" is truly a masterful deception."  I suppose putting the word "blog" in quotations is his way of saying SLB is not a real blog.   Perhaps not, but more than 42,000 visitors from 145 countries have shown up to read SLB.    

He then says "in the early 70's Westinghouse Corp. had 2 fully operational thorium test plants."  No references or citations were given, but perhaps Anonymous refers to the short test at Shippingport, Pennsylvania where thorium fuel was tested in a nuclear power plant.   For those who want to read about this, Idaho National Lab published a document on it at this link.   The Shippingport reactor was a Light Water Breeder Reactor (LWBR) test plant of only 72 MWe maximum.  Key passage is shown below:

"During most of core life, the LWBR was operated as a base load station (Richardson et al. 1987, WAPD-TM-1606, p. 35). During the first two years of operation, the core was subjected to 204 planned swingload cycles to demonstrate the core transient capability and generating system load follow to simulate operation of a large commercial nuclear reactor (Richardson et al. 1987, WAPD-TM-1606, p. 35). A swing load cycle is defined as power reduction from about 90% to 35–60% for 4 to 8 hr, then back to 90% or higher power. Despite shutdowns and swing, the reactor achieved a high capacity factor
of 65% and high availability factor of 86% (Richardson et al. 1987, WAPD-TM-1606, p. 35).

For its initial 18,000 EFPH, the maximum allowable reactor power was established as 72 MW gross (electric) . . ." 

Anonymous then writes the truly funny statement: "It literally would have rendered the entire fossil fuel industry of oil, gas and coal, not to mention conventional nuclear power obsolete."   That is a bold conclusion, with zero facts provided to support the conclusion.  Here are the important points that Anonymous must prove to support such a conclusion: how would nuclear-produced electricity make obsolete the oil and gas industry, given that oil provides transportation fuels for cars, trucks, ships, aircraft, and trains, plus lubricants, asphalts, and petrochemical feedstocks, and natural gas provides critical feedstock for agricultural and petrochemical production?   That thorium nuclear-produced electricity must indeed be novel, even Nobel-Prize worthy stuff.   Also, coal has many non-electricity uses, but perhaps Anonymous is not aware of such things, or he has a plan for substituting his thorium nuclear-produced electricity for those services.   Here is a partial summary of non-electricity uses of coal: 

"Other important users of coal include steel producers, alumina refineries, paper manufacturers, and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Several chemical products can be produced from the by-products of coal. Refined coal tar is used in the manufacture of chemicals, such as creosote oil, naphthalene, phenol, and benzene. Ammonia gas recovered from coke ovens is used to manufacture ammonia salts, nitric acid and agricultural fertilisers. Thousands of different products have coal or coal by-products as components: soap, aspirins, solvents, dyes, plastics and fibres, such as rayon and nylon."  (source:   

So, we can see that Anonymous is truly a funny man.    But what about the statement that thorium would make "conventional nuclear power obsolete?"   As written on SLB (and a few other places), nuclear power that now produces only approximately 11 percent of the world's electricity after 50 years of intense effort, is outrageously expensive and so unsafe that only with effectively full government indemnity from radiation releases are any plants built anywhere.   Therefore, Anonymous' thorium nuclear plants must somehow overcome those two big hurdles: must be much less costly to build and operate and decommission, and must be so safe that they do not need government assistance.    

Put bluntly, that is not going to happen with thorium plants.  As written before on SLB, see link, when a nuclear plant is operated at anything but baseload, the price for its electricity must skyrocket.  As shown in the above quote from the Idaho National Lab (INL) paper, Shippingport was operated as a load-following power plant, even though it was tiny at only 72 MWe.  The output shown in the INL report shows max output of 50 to 65 MWe.  

So, thanks for the laugh, Anonymous.  Your conclusion of "It was to (sic) damn good, and to (sic) damned cheap." is truly funny.   "Good" means what, exactly?  Was the plant able to compete with a coal-fired power plant on cost?  We note that the test was for only 5 years, and not full-time at that.  Would such a plant last for 40 years?  "Cheap" means what, exactly?  Note that conventional nuclear fuel from uranium is touted by the nuclear proponents as costing "only" one or perhaps two cents per kWh generated.  Even if thorium fuel was free, how much would that reduce a customer's monthly bill? 

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California
copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Knowing versus Not Knowing

Subtitle: Ignorance is no substitute for knowledge

The search for Truth - with a capital T - has a long history.  How do we define something as True?  In part, the answer lies in what that something is.  Easily verifiable statements are true, if the verification is positive.  For example, it is true to state that the Pacific Ocean lies to the west of North America.  At the other extreme, truth is elusive for highly subjective statements such as "my dog is cute."  The dog may be cute to some observers, but very ugly to other observers.   Another consideration is the iceberg principle: what may appear to be true (no danger to a ship from the small top of the iceberg) is not true when all the facts are known (the underwater, hidden, and huge part of the iceberg is a danger to a ship).  In a court of law, judicial notice is taken when neither party wishes to dispute the truth of a fact that has some bearing on the case.  The fact is taken as absolutely true, with no doubt associated with that fact.  An example of a true fact, one that would have judicial notice in a court proceeding, is that June 27, 2015, is a Saturday. 

Note, there are some who quibble and object that islands are part of North America and are surrounded by the Pacific Ocean.  An example is Santa Catalina Island, offshore southern California.  

Background - about me and why I write this article
For those who may be new to Sowell's Law Blog, SLB, I am both an attorney-at-law and have long experience in chemical engineering in a great number of process plants around the world.  In addition to my law practice, I write on a number of topics, and make speeches to various groups from college students to professional engineering societies.    SLB topics typically include climate change, nuclear power, renewable energy, fossil fuel energy, government regulatory issues, fresh water, NASA's missions, engineering and scientific professional liability, Free Speech and the First Amendment, especially defamation, and others.   My stance generates some responses, of which quite a few are positive and some downright nasty and negative.   A few commenters, who sometimes send email, resort to vicious personal attacks, character assassination, and libel.   

For some perspective, SLB has existed since March, 2008, and has received almost 120,000 pageviews from more than 40,000 unique visitors in 140 countries.  At this time, there are 280 posts, and the blog receives approximately 3,000 views per month.  (Those statistics are not especially notable in the internet world, yet they are what this blog has produced over its 7 year life.  This represents far more views, and far more visitors, and certainly far more countries than I ever envisioned.  Alexa's global rank for SLB is 21.4 million, out of more than 1 billion websites globally).  

What sometimes puzzles me is how so many people, typically those with nasty and negative comments, can hold the positions they hold.  This article explores some of the reasons people hold an opinion. 

Knowledge Matrix

A knowledge matrix is a binary matrix with two parameters, with each parameter taking one of two values.  The two parameters are 1) knowledge a person can have, and 2) the realization the person has of having the knowledge.   The two values for each parameter are yes, and no, as shown below.  

  A) Don't know but don't realize it
  B) Don't know but do realize it
  C) Do know but don't realize it
  D) Do know and do realize it

For A) a person doesn't know the knowledge but also does not realize he doesn't know.  This person is (probably) blissfully ignorant of that particular bit of knowledge.  Experience has shown that many people, perhaps most people, have this A) condition for a great many subjects.  As examples, an unpublished bit of scientific knowledge may have only a few people who know about it, while the rest of the world population don't know and don't realize the knowledge exists.  Also, social groups that are isolated have no knowledge of events outside their local area and may not realize the outside areas exist.  

For B) a person doesn't know the knowledge but realizes he doesn't know. This person is one who recognizes that such knowledge exists, but realizes that he himself does not know the knowledge.  For example, most of us (excluding medical doctors) are in this category with respect to deep medical knowledge.  We know that a vast medical knowledge exists, and we may actually know some of it, but we realize we don't know all that a trained medical doctor knows.   This also describes a person with a shallow knowledge of any subject, who realizes that a complex and deep body of knowledge on that subject also exists.  

For C) a person does know the knowledge but doesn't realize he knows it.  This may seem a bit unrealistic, since most of us are aware of what we know.  Yet, examples exist all around.  A shy person may have never made a speech in public, but once he tries public speaking and has success, he enjoys public speaking.  He had the knowledge of how to speak in public but did not realize it. 

Finally, for D) a person does know the knowledge and realizes he knows it.  This describes people who have studied a subject, or practiced activities until they are proficient.  

This becomes important, the A B C D categories, when matters of some public concern are discussed.  Especially with the internet and its literally millions of websites, it can be seen that writers (and speakers) from all categories are publishing their views.  But, pre-internet, similar situations existed with traditional print and broadcast media.  People who wildly speculate might be in A), they don't know and don't realize they don't know, but they write very wrong things.  People in B) may write, but acknowledge they don't know and therefore seek opinions from authorities and quote those authorities.  That in itself has problems, discussed later.  People in C) may write, although in my experience those are rare.  They know, but don't realize they know, so they don't write.   People in D) may write, those who know and realize they know, and have valid points.  

However, the A B C and D categories are not sufficient; what about those Ds who know, and realize it, but deliberately omit key facts or distort the facts, or outright lie, to further their agenda?  This has great application in several key areas discussed below. 

Furthermore, what about those who don't know and don't realize it, (A), but actually believe they do know and realize it?  They may trust authorities, and repeat the talking points.   These may be good, honest people, but they simply have never heard the opposing viewpoint.  (e.g. people who don't know that the climate scientists adjusted historical data, omitted variables in their models, ignore important correlations, include data that should be excluded as invalid) (e.g. in nuclear power, those who never have heard the safety, costs, or subsidy facts such as shown by TANP series) (e.g. renewable energy costs are rapidly declining, with increased production and grid penetration with no ill effects, storage is solved with MIT underwater storage) (e.g. fresh water is abundant but in the wrong places and the wrong times in floods, need transfer systems such as NEWTAP, or dams and reservoirs).

Tests for Veracity and Acceptance - Daubert Standard 

How, then, can one determine the truth of what people write?  The example of a court trial is given.  In US Federal Courts, and some state courts, an expert witness' testimony is tested to determine if the expert's reasoning and methodology is scientifically valid and can be properly applied to the facts at issue in the case.  The Daubert Standard has five parts:

(1) whether the theory or technique in question can be and has been tested; 
(2) whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication; 
(3) its known or potential error rate; 
(4) the existence and maintenance of standards controlling its operation; and 
(5) whether it has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community.

Of course, almost none of what is written on the internet ends up in a Daubert analysis for validity.   Courts require the attorneys to prepare and submit arguments based on existing cases and a few other legal authorities.   Internet websites and blogs can function to influence public opinion, and individual opinions.  It is likely not necessary to run through the entire Daubert five steps, but an opinion that can pass all five steps certainly should carry some weight.    

What is interesting is how some people refuse to modify their opinions, even when faced with overwhelming proof that their opinion does not match the facts.   In some of my speeches, especially those to college engineering students, the audience members have not heard or been exposed to certain aspects of science and engineering.  It is an indictment of the primary and secondary school system that tries to indoctrinate the students with half-truths or outright false statements.   

For example, a student asked me years ago to read the environmental science textbook for a class he was taking, and comment on it.  I found it to be full of false statements, and very misleading where it had an element of truth.  The writer clearly had an agenda, and that agenda did not include the most good for the least cost.  One of the greatest false statements in environmental propaganda is that the Earth cannot heal itself.  One huge example is oil spills in the oceans.  The fact is that oil is a natural substance and has leaked into the oceans in very many locations around the world, and has done so for thousands if not millions of years.  Oil becomes part of the food chain in the oceans.  (one need only look up underwater volcanoes)  

Other tests for validity exist for an argument, with the several well-known false arguments from logic.  These include the appeals to authority, to heaven, to pity, and to tradition, arguments from consequences, ignorance, inertia, and from motives, the argument by force, by silence, the bandwagon argument, circular reasoning, the Big Lie, blind loyalty, the Ad Hominem (attacking the person), favoritism, bribery, complex question, the half-truth, lying with statistics, the non-sequitur or Red Herring, straw man, slippery slope, with more than 50 such fallacies listed here.   Many of these false arguments occur routinely in legal proceedings, in testimony, in depositions, in expert witness opinions, in attorney's summations, and at times, in judicial opinions.  It is important to identify the false arguments and refute them where possible. 

In matters concerning science and engineering, the data itself is subject to review, criticism, and many times, rejection.   A brief excursion follows, to describe what many people (apparently) do not know, or if they know, refuse to admit when discussing important topics. 

How Valid Is The Data

It is sometimes stated that all data has measurement errors, the only question is how big are the errors.  That is almost always true, but not quite.  Where one can have absolute accuracy is in certain data involving integers, or discrete objects.  One can, for example, count the number of chairs in a room, provided there is sufficient time to do the counting, the room is not overly large, and the number of chairs does not change during the counting.   For an ordinary room such as a banquet room in a hotel, one can quickly and accurately count the chairs.   One can also count the number of coins in a cash register.  (counting coins can be made much faster and more accurate by placing the coins in piles of ten, then counting the number of piles and multiplying by ten).   However, where a discrete number of things is not the object, measurements actually do have some error.   

Errors exist in most data, but where the errors are sufficiently small, the end-user does not care.  Sometimes, measurement errors are random and tend to cancel out over enough time.   At times, statistical methods are used to determine if the measurement is within the usual (historical) range of error, perhaps one or two standard deviations.   If the measurement is outside that range, notice is taken and the measuring device may be examined for recalibration or repair. 

Topical Examples

Having now examined some aspects of what people know, if they realize what they know, writers with agendas, validity of arguments, fallacious arguments, and accuracy of data, specific topics are examined.   These include, in no particular order, nuclear power plants, climate change and its prevention, mitigation, or adaptation, renewable energy systems, and abundant fresh water.   Each of these has appeared in articles on SLB, and each has attracted comments both positive and negative.  

Nuclear Power Plants

The subject of nuclear power plants, that provide electricity, is immense with almost limitless individual topics.  The fuel itself has many aspects, whether uranium, thorium, or fusion.  The reactor design has many systems from which to choose, from boiling water, pressurized water, advanced boiling water, molten fluoride salts, radioactive spheres, small, medium, or very large capacity.  The power generation scheme has different aspects, from steam, to circulating helium, and supercritical carbon dioxide.   However, even within the arena of existing licensed technologies, the boiling water reactor using steam to drive a turbine-generator, great controversy exists.   

Many industry proponents write articles and offer comments on blogs that show they are blind to the many and serious negative aspects of nuclear power.  As my articles on Truth About Nuclear Power, TANP, show, economics, safety, and subsidies all are very negative.  Yet, when confronted with the truth, many proponents resort to name-calling.   Others resort to what I refer to as the "Yeah, but..." argument.   Some proponents actually insist that the current nuclear regulatory regime is too restrictive, and must be relaxed to allow the plants to compete economically.   One argument they make is to greatly increase the allowable nuclear radiation that can be routinely or episodically absorbed by humans.  In essence, they don't mind frying the populace from time to time in order to build more nuclear plants.  

What is very interesting is that TANP has very little original data, from me.  Instead, the articles are a compilation of known facts and valid statistics from a wide variety of sources.  As an example, the fact is that nuclear power produces only about 11 or 12 percent of the entire world's electricity, as published in several reputable sources.  The logical conclusion drawn and published in TANP is that nuclear power is not the safest and most economic power source, for after more than 50 years of mightily striving in the electrical generation marketplace, it remains only a minor player.   (Coal, natural gas, and hydroelectric all produce more kWh per year than does nuclear power).   This fact causes howls of indignation from the proponents, with their protests including over-regulation, lawsuits from attorneys, public scare-mongering about safe radiation levels, and more.  

Another plain and simple fact of nuclear power is that no nuclear plant would ever be built, anywhere, if not for massive government subsidies and almost total indemnification from harm due to nuclear radiation releases.  TANP discusses this at length, based on irrefutable facts such as the Price-Anderson Act.   Nuclear proponents twist the facts around, by stating that the cost of insurance for a nuclear power plant is a tiny fraction of the power sales price.  That is actually true, but only because the Price-Anderson Act covers the liability and forces each nuclear plant to have a tiny amount of insurance.  

What, then, can be the motivation of the nuclear proponents to howl in such indignation, to resort to vicious name-calling when the facts are published?   As I have stated or questioned before, do they really want to permanently poison the planet with plutonium?   Or, do they have a naive faith in the ingenuity of future engineers to magically solve the huge technical problems that exist in nuclear power plants?   My answer to that one is, some of the best minds in history have applied their best efforts to making nuclear plants safe, reliable, and affordable, for more than 50 years.  The results speak for themselves - five massive reactor meltdowns in less than 40 years, near-misses every 3 weeks (in the US) even after decades of operating experience, huge construction costs that require government subsidies, very long construction times that typically last a decade or more, massive amounts of reserve power to take over when (not if) the nuclear plants trip off-line, and very expensive decommissioning.  With all that effort, nuclear plants produce only 11 to 12 percent of the world's electricity.   

It certainly appears that nuclear proponents, whether writing or making speeches, are a combination of the knowledge matrix types: some write even though they don't know themselves and parrot authorities, some write with an agenda to build the plants no matter what.   One of the best ways to argue and prevail is to omit the negative points and hope the opposition fails to mention them.  Nuclear proponents are masters of that line of argument.  Some proponents, apparently, have great faith in nuclear plant advances, but zero faith in other energy technologies.  (renewable energy is discussed below). 

Climate Change and Prevention, mitigation, adaptation

Renewable Energy systems

Fresh water in abundance

(NB, more to be published on the remaining topics.)

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California
copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell

Friday, June 19, 2015

The View from a Process Engineer

Subtitle: Seven Steps to Good Evaluation

This article delves into the world of one of the most practical of all engineering disciplines: the chemical process engineer.   I hope to explain how we process engineers do at least some of the things we do, and why.  The examples shown here may have applicability to those who read and write on subjects such as climate change, nuclear power, renewable energy, water shortages, and many others.   All of the just-mentioned subjects are found on SLB.  

First, what is a chemical process engineer?  As I am one (as well as being an attorney at law), I can say that it is a person with a degree in chemical engineering who practices his or her engineering skills in process plants.   Process plants encompass quite a variety of industrial plants, such as petroleum refineries, natural gas plants, petrochemical plants, basic chemical plants, air separation plants, synthetic fiber plants, agricultural chemical plants, agricultural or crops processing plants (i.e. corn refineries that produce ethanol), synthetic fertilizer plants, soaps and detergents plants, adhesives plants, and many more.  My own career to date has given me first-hand experience in many of those categories, including petroleum refineries (of four types), natural gas plants, petrochemical plants (of many types), basic chemical plants, and air separation plants. 

The process engineer (leaving off the word 'chemical') typically addresses a problem or considers a new idea via a seven-step process.  These are, in order, 
1) is it physically possible, 
2) can it be made safe, 
3) can it operate reliably over time, 
4) can environmental impacts be mitigated, including post-operating life cleanup, 
5) can it make a profit, 
6) can it compete for scarce capital resources, and 
7) is it the best among the available alternatives.

Each of these steps is discussed below.   It is important, to a process engineer, to take the steps in order and not skip any steps.  

Physically Possible

This step may appear unnecessary, even ridiculous, but it is amazing (to me) how many people (typically non-engineers) who believe in and then advocate for processes or an article (meaning a thing) that violates one or more of the laws of physics.  Consistency with the laws of physics is the meaning in this context of "physically possible."   One sometimes hears, for example, that "everything is possible."  That is just not true.    There are many, many laws of physics, chemistry, and thermodynamics, that are immutable.  As I mention in my speeches, no one has ever found a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  I encourage the students and practicing engineers at my lectures to notify me at once if and when they encounter a Second Law violation, because I want to congratulate them, and be the one that notifies the Nobel Prize committee on their behalf.    Once a potential idea, or problem solution, is examined and found not to violate any physical laws, and only then, does the process engineer move on to the next step. 

Can It Be Made Safe

Safety in a process plant is not only required by law, it is critical to success.  Success may be defined in many ways, but in this context it is sufficient to have success mean long-term profitability.   This ties in somewhat to the next step, reliable operation.  An unsafe plant typically has unexpected production disruptions, perhaps explosions and fires, process areas that will not function, injured or killed employees, and a host of other undesirable outcomes.   

The process engineer examines the potential idea and evaluates the safety aspects.  There may be, for example, high temperatures, high pressures, corrosive or abrasive materials, toxic gases or vapors, and unstable chemicals that could violently expand, explode, or spontaneously ignite.  Other dangers could include very low temperatures, a tendency to solidify and block the flow, or emissions of dangerous radiation.  This is only a partial listing of the many and varied dangers that exist in a process plant.  There may be design or operating decisions that can eliminate the safety concerns, or mitigate them sufficiently to move on to the next step.   If the safety concerns cannot be overcome, the process engineer stops the evaluation. 

Reliable Operation Over Time

A process plant must operate reliably over time to be useful and profitable.  The question is how to define "reliable."   Process engineers usually define reliability by a percentage of time that a plant operates.  Operating ninety percent of the time is a typically acceptable reliability.  A process plant typically must be shut down at intervals to allow equipment to be repaired, cleaned, or have other services performed.   Plants that operate with frequent but unplanned shutdowns have a low reliability and will suffer a reduced profitability.  Profits are decreased as production decreases, from increased cost of repairs, and sometimes from re-processing unsuitable production.   A process can have multiple negative impacts where unreliable operations combine with unsafe conditions, as above.  Only where an idea can be designed and operated with sufficient reliability does the process engineer move to the next step. 

Environmental Impacts Mitigated    

A modern process plant must meet certain environmental requirements as defined in a multitude of laws.  An idea for a new process must be evaluated for environmental impacts.  There are at least three ways to eliminate or mitigate environmental impacts, including capturing and properly disposing the pollutants, dispersing the pollutants so that any toxicity is reduced or eliminated, and designing the process so that the pollutants are not produced at all.  This last means is sometimes known as "green chemistry."  

The process engineer examines the various regulated pollutants and evaluates the available means to meet the emissions requirements.   The concept of Best Available Control Technology, or BACT, is common in the environmental world.   As examples of "capture and dispose", toxic dusts may be captured in a filtering system, gaseous pollutants may be physically absorbed or chemically converted to benign chemicals, and liquids that have objectionable acidity or alkalinity (low or high pH) can be neutralized.  

Dispersing pollutants is generally a last resort, but such systems are occasionally allowed.  Examples include saline brine from desalination plants where the saline brine is introduced gradually and at multiple points into the ocean, treated water from a waste-treatment plant is also introduced slowly and over a wide area into a body of water (the Pacific Ocean receives treated water from a large waste treatment plant on the coast near Los Angeles, California), and tall smokestacks are required to allow the wind to disperse emissions. 

Environmental impacts must include mitigating any impacts when a process plant is shutdown after its viable life expires.  The US history is replete with hundreds of petroleum refineries and various chemical plants that have shut down permanently.  Many of those sites required extensive and costly mitigation to clean the soil.  Other process plants may have toxic areas that require special remediation.  

Only where the process engineer can determine acceptable ways to design and operate a plant that meets all the environmental requirements does the next step occur.     

Operate Profitably

The goal of (almost) every process plant is to make a profit, and a process engineer evaluates each idea with that in mind.  Where the idea is physically possible, can be made adequately safe and reliable, and meets environmental requirements, the process engineer examines the potential profitability.  This almost always includes an evaluation of capital costs, operating costs, and expected revenues.    Importantly, an idea that requires a lengthy construction period will also incur substantial financing costs.  

Many economic aspects of a new idea will be evaluated, including considering various sizes to take advantage of economy of scale, possibly modularized construction, competing technologies (if any exist), fees or royalties, plant location with respect to feedstocks and markets, plus many more.  It may be possible to improve profit for plants that have high electrical power requirements when they can be located near sources of low-cost electricity, such as hydroelectric dams.   

A key aspect is the cost to achieve improved reliability, especially long-term reliability due to corrosion.  Process engineers understand that corrosion is a function of the material chosen for the various pipes and equipment (note, there are also many other aspects that impact corrosion).  It may be possible to build a plant that does not corrode, if one had unlimited money and constructed the plant with titanium.  At the other extreme, one could build a plant of carbon steel and replace the various equipment and pipes just before the corrosion renders them unsafe and unreliable. 

The process engineer evaluates all the above, and many others, to determine the likely profitability of the new idea.   Several measures of profitability are usually calculated, with one of the most commonly used being the simple payout time.  A process engineer simply divides the capital cost by the annual net income (revenues minus operating costs) to obtain the number of years that would be required to pay off the capital cost.  For example, a new idea that would cost $10 million to install, and has $2 million per year net income would have a 5 year payout.   

Only where the simple payout time is sufficiently small, perhaps 2 or 3 years, does the process engineer move on to more sophisticated calculations of profitability. 

Compete for Scarce Capital Resources

Next, a new idea is evaluated against other potential ideas or projects.  It is common that only a finite capital budget exists, but the combined cost of the numerous ideas greatly exceeds the capital available.  The process engineer then must evaluate the various new ideas and select those for implementation.   The selection criteria and process may be complicated and require careful evaluation from many people in the organization.  

One criterion that a process engineer uses is the simple payout time from above.   Projects with shorter payout times almost always win over those with longer payout times.   

Best Among the Available Alternatives

The final step taken by the process engineer may appear to be identical, or similar, to the Compete for Scarce Capital Resources step just above.   However, in this context, the process engineer considers the overall wisdom of proceeding with the new idea.  Even if the new idea could be built according to all the above criteria (physically possible, safe, reliable, environmentally adequate, profitable, and more profitable than competing ideas), the process engineer considers whether the new idea should be built.   

There may be compelling reasons one might not want to build the new idea.  Perhaps the new idea consumes resources that could be used in a different way or for a different purpose.  Natural gas, for example, has been decried as a heating fuel and as a power generation fuel because it has great value as a building block for pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals, and synthetic fertilizer.   Coal as a resource is also limited to approximately 50 years at this time, with its primary use as power generation fuel.   It might be wise to reduce coal use as a power plant fuel and use it instead as a petrochemical precursor.  

Another aspect is anticipated government regulation that would cut short the operating life of a new process plant or idea, such as occurred with mercury-based chlorine plants, plants that produced certain refrigerants, plants that produce lead-containing products, and plants that produce asbestos-containing products.   

Application to Other Areas

The above discussion shows seven steps employed by process engineers.   These steps are proven over many decades.  But, are they applicable to non-process plants?  The list at the beginning included climate change, nuclear power, renewable energy, and water shortages.   Each is discussed below.  

  -- Climate Change

In climate change, the science is so shaky, so uncertain that it scarcely deserves consideration.  (see link and this link).   When one considers how the climate data was and still is tortured, how definitive statements of man-made climate change are made - and then revised - and then revised again and again, how modern instruments with global reach show zero warming for almost two decades, how the best "climate models" disagree with modern temperatures, it is a wonder that climate change is considered a problem in the first place.   Yet, solutions to any actual global warming, and more importantly, global cooling, can be addressed via the above seven steps.  One must, first, reliably identify whatever is a substantial factor in causing global warming - or cooling.   To date, global warming advocates believe that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing unstoppable global warming.  There is no evidence to support that belief, however.   

If, and this is a big IF, it becomes necessary to reduce carbon dioxide inputs into the atmosphere, or remove some from the atmosphere, chemical engineers already know that it is physically possible to do so.  Safety is a major concern, especially for the processes that capture carbon dioxide and store it in liquid form deep in the earth.  A leak of liquid carbon dioxide into the atmosphere could and likely would suffocate thousands, if not millions of people.   Process plants that remove carbon dioxide from furnace exhaust stacks have existed for many years, and a modern plant is now running near San Antonio, Texas.   Reliability is not a major issue for these plants.  Environmental compliance is also not an issue, other than the massive leak from storage described above.  However, the cost to build and operate is a problem at this time.   The major issue, though, is whether the great cost to build enough plants to make a difference is justified, considering the questionable science surrounding the entire climate change and human contribution to any historical warming.  

   -- Nuclear Power 

Nuclear power is a frequent topic on SLB, and creates great disagreement and acrimony between proponents and opponents.   As readers of SLB already know, my position is a nuclear opponent.  The 30-article series on the Truth About Nuclear Power shows many excellent reasons why nuclear power plants should never be built.  (see link)

Yet, nuclear proponents continue with their beliefs that nuclear power is safe, affordable, and desirable.   Nuclear power can be considered as two categories: proven and unproven technologies.  As proven technologies, there are boiling water reactors and pressurized water reactors (BWR and PWR, respectively).  Unproven technologies include thorium, fusion, high temperature gas reactors, and small modular reactors.   

The arguments made by proponents for expansion of PWRs is that newer models are less costly and safer.  Some even argue for relaxed regulations, and abolition of lawsuits during construction.  Applying the seven steps, it is seen that the reactors are physically possible, but clearly not safe and not very reliable - especially as the plants age.  Environmental risks and damage are very great, with highly toxic nuclear waste emitting dangerous radioactivity for hundreds and thousands of years.  Costs to build have not been reduced but instead keep increasing, even though huge plants are built to achieve economy of scale.   Finally, competing technologies for producing electrical power make nuclear plants not the best choice, including natural gas and renewable energy.   

Unproven technologies barely pass the physically possible test, with fusion as yet only a theoretical but not demonstrated concept.  Thorium plants also are physically possible but have major safety, reliability, cost and environmental concerns.  The same is true for high temperature gas reactors and small modular reactors.   A major concern for thorium-based nuclear plants is the corrosion and cracking in the metallurgy that contacts the molten salt.  Every heat exchanger with tubes will eventually leak, with material at higher pressure leaking into the material with lower pressure.  The consequences of such leaks must be understood.   It is astonishing to me that a great number of nuclear proponents simply ignore this basic fact of process engineering.  

The final verdict on nuclear power is that proven technologies are vastly uneconomic, require massive government subsidies, and leave behind highly toxic wastes that endure for generations.  Unproven technologies are even worse.  

   --  Renewable Energy 

The renewable energy subject includes many technologies, solar in its various forms (photo-voltaic, concentrated solar, and solar ponds), wind both on-land and off-shore, ocean including waves, tides, sea-surface vs deep ocean temperature difference, and currents, river flow systems, pressure retarded osmosis at river mouths, and bio-mass systems including land-fill methane capture, municipal solid waste burning, and water distribution pressure recapture.  Many of the above technologies require some form of energy storage and release to provide increased value to the untimely or intermittent nature of the energy source.  

Physical possibility exists for all of the above renewable technologies.  Safety is adequate or can be made acceptable.  Reliability can also be made acceptable with sufficient design and investment.  Costs are rapidly declining in most technologies as experience is gained and economies of scale are captured.  Economy of scale exists for both larger individual units, and for mass production, and for single-events such as building transmission lines.    The lack of environmental impact, or very low impact, makes renewables especially attractive.  The eternal nature of the motive force, the sun, the wind, ocean waves, tides, and currents, and the essentially eternal production of municipal solid waste also make renewables especially attractive.  As installed costs continue to fall but costs of other forms of electric power increase, renewable energy plants become ever-more attractive.  

    -- Water Shortages

Fresh water in adequate amounts is a greater and greater concern, even though some areas experience heavy rains and floods.  Providing adequate fresh water essentially reduces to three technologies: building dams and storage reservoirs to hold and retain water during abundant years; desalinating ocean waters; and collecting then transferring excess water from areas of abundance to areas of scarcity.  Those in the water industry also promote conservation, however that has a very limited benefit.   Pumping groundwater from aquifers to the surface is also common in many areas, however the aquifers are generally not replenished as rapidly as the water is pumped out.   Yet another (unpopular) technology is simply recycling treated water from waste treatment plants.   This last has the great risk of transmitting disease via unclean water.  

Technologies exist and are therefore physically possible for each of the three technologies (dams, desalination, and water transfer).  (for water transfer, see link) The technologies are safe and reliable when properly designed, built, and operated.  Certain dams have failed with harmful or even catastrophic results, but those can be minimized or eliminated with proper attention.  Environmental impacts are hotly debated, with some claiming great harm results from building dams and desalination plants.  

The major issue with fresh water is cost, and in some cases, ownership of the plants.  Water is such a vital part of life that many consider it too precious to be privatized except in very limited and controlled ways.  However, some technologies are simply very costly at this time, especially desalination via reverse osmosis, RO, the most attractive process.  A few thermal desalination technologies also exist, but are generally less economic than electrically-powered RO.  


The seven steps of process engineers, physically possible, safety, reliability, environmental impact, profitability, most economic choice, and wisest choice, are used to evaluate a new idea or process plant.  These steps should be used to evaluate other areas to provide a systematic and grounded conclusion.  Having a blind and irrational faith in future innovations is not a good basis for allocating resources of time, talent, and money.  Yet, a blind and irrational faith is what many people exhibit in their writings on many topics (especially climate change, and nuclear power).  

At the same time, many people have far too little understanding of the technical and economic advances in renewable energy systems, and the associated energy storage and release systems.  

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California

copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell