The essence of fake news: Truth and Obfuscation

Some of my readers know that my business is now Sustainable Mobility. As it is natural, I have shifted my reading interest towards that subject.

Yesterday I spotted this article on Bloomberg (not some scrawny blog) whose gist is:

When you account for the pollution created in generating electricity, an electric car pollutes just as much as a gasoline one

This is great example of “fake news” applied to a field other than politics.

The technique is subtle: you take an element of TRUTH (“generating electricity pollutes”) and extrapolate it into the desired conclusion (“electric cars pollute just like gasoline cars”) simply by OBFUSCATING (=not providing) the factual elements that would allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions. The factual elements in question are:

  1. how much CO2 is actually emitted when generating electricity?
  2. how much electricity does an electric car consume?
  3. how much CO2 does the average car emit?

Luckily, we live in an age of open data: most information is available with a little searching, which I have done for of Italy, my home country. Let’s review these in the same order:

  1. The EEA (European Environmental Agency) actually tracks the so-called “carbon intensity” of electricity across the EU28: the data is only available up to 2014 when the EU28 average was 276 gCO2/kWh. Italy was a little better, at 229. As you can see from the chart, the figure is going down by about 20 grams per year, so Italy is probably now closer to 180 gCO2/kWh.
  2. Manufacturers are notoriously not reliable when it comes to actual consumption data, issuing figures which bear no great relationship with actual use. Luckily car consumption data have been crowdsourced long time ago by spritmonitor.de (also available in english) for all kinds of cars and engines. It turns out that most electric cars will drive about 6 kilometers per kWh (excluding Teslas which only go 4.6 km/kWh)
  3. The CO2 emission is the easiest to find for new cars, as this information is now mandatorily published: a modern medium-sized  gasoline car will emit 100 gCO2/km (manufacturer data: if wrong, you can safely assume it’s wrong on the optimistic side). The average carbon footprint of the existing cars is slightly more difficult to find, but it turns out that ISPRA, the Italian Agency for Environmental Protection and Research has an open-data database called SINAnet with data for all kinds of pollutants. For CO2, the average emission is 231 gCO2/km.

Running the numbers yields:

  • current ICE: 12,000 km * 231 gCO2 = 2.8 tCO2 / year
  • new ICE: 12,000 km * 100 gCO2 = 1.2 tCO2 / year
  • EV: 12,000 km / 6 * 229 gCO2 = 0,45 tCO2 / year

We can therefore conclude that an EV will emit almost 70% less CO2 than a modern ICE (instead of “about the same”); additionally, an ICE car also emits PM2.5, PM10, CO, NOx and benzene and a lot of electric car owners also have a photovoltaic system which therefore generates some of their electricity without any pollution at all.

Truth + Obfuscation: we must learn to deal with them.

Do cars have a future?

Not a day goes by without a new prediction on the upcoming disruption (ha!) looming over the automotive industry. First Tesla was going to eat their lunch. Then Google, then Apple, then Faraday…

Now it turns out the first mass-market EVs will come from very traditional brands like Renault (with the 41KWh new Zoe) and General Motors (with the 60KWh Opel Ampera-e) both beating Tesla’s Model 3 by months or years.

The switch to electricity is inevitable, the only question mark being when the charging infrastructure will be able to support a re-fueling cadence which will move from “twice a month” to “daily”.

At the same time, the runaway success of micro-rental (I refuse to call them “sharing”) services in urban areas meant owning a car went from “Status symbol” to “Pain in the neck” in the space of a generation.

My question however is slightly different and, maybe, more fundamental:

Why now?

Re-phrased: why are these trends (none really new) driving serious change in the industry today? To answer let’s try to follow the money.

There are two industries who border Automotive shaping the economics of two key aspects of the car lifecycle: Ownership (=>Finance) and Use (=>Energy).

OWNING A CAR

Cars provide an endless source of high-yielding, (relatively) low risk investments over which the Financial Services industry can earn handsome fees, to the point that for many vendors the financial services arm generates the majority of profits.

This investment is relatively low risk because the asset does not get used much meaning its residual value can be accurately predicted: the average car drives 12,000 km per year at a speed of 30 Km/h, which means it sits idle for 95.5% of the time.

Consumers pay for an asset they don’t use.

In consultancy business, this is what it’s called a retainer: a fee that compensates for the convenience of a car that’s waiting for me, completely on demand.

USING A CAR

Cars provided the quintessential “money for nothing” energy proposition, as an ICE  wastes as heat as much as 70% of the energy contained in its fuel, so in a way

Consumers pay for energy they don’t use

The waste is so prominent EVs would need to clock 3-4x longer mileages to consume the same amount of energy as their ICE counterparts.

I think what is shaking up the car industry is the elimination of these two giant wastes to the benefit of consumers. Is this reduction large enough to have an impact on the sector?

  • a medium-sized car costs about EUR 300 / month; ignore the night and say real usage is 5%, at stake is €2,500 per year on ownership;
  • the same car uses about 1,200 litres of petrol; if 70% is wasted, at stake is another €1,000 per year on fuel.

Multiply these numbers by the 250M car stock in the EU28 and we’re talking of a phenomenon which could shrink the monetary value of the Automotive industry in Europe by as much as €875B annually.

When you consider that in the EU28 2015 turnovers were:

  • Sales of new cars = €325B
  • Ancillary ownership services (*) = €120B
  • Sales of gasoline = €375B

(*) insurance, maintenance, tires – my estimate.

you have the answer to the original question. Given the size of this income transfer there are a few fairly obvious considerations:

  • it won’t happen overnight
  • it’s unstoppable because once understood, the incentive is just too large to ignore
  • it won’t happen in one fell swoop, but in leaps and bounds as the three giant industries which are involved will jockey to position themselves in such a way as to intercept at least some of that value
  • it has NOTHING to do with the environment, which will benefit but only as an afterthought

Case studies from History (2)

After the teaser of a few weeks ago, please find below the full text of my remarks at the 3rd Arab PR Conference held in Cairo on December 19 and 20.

Conferences in the Arab world are not the pinnacle of presentation skills: thanks to their difficult relationship with images, most presentations are a dull sequence of text in Arabic (which I don’t speak or read). So mine was exactly the opposite, and contained nothing but images, some of which are interspersed in this text.


 

MESSAGES (Italy, 1970s – the Years of Lead)

f12-marcus-porcius-catoIn the 70’s the Italian economy was ravaged by rampant inflation, slow growth, corruption – the usual set of deadweights that unfortunately bogged down my country since the end of Second World War. Actually, when you read essays on Ancient Rome, you realize that Marcus Porcius Cato was complaining exactly about these same evils in 200BC so it’s a tradition that goes back a long way…

MANIFESTAZIONE DI LAVORATORI OPERAI DELLA PIRELLI ANNO 1969As usual, the poorer segment of the population was bearing the brunt of this situation and social strife was everywhere: hardly a day went by without a protest march or a strike and the mildly conservative governments that rapidly came and went were unable to cope with diverging extremes both on the left and on the right.

f14-cds-piazza-fontanaIn 1969 a bomb exploded in a bank in Piazza Fontana in central Milano, killing 17: it was the start of an escalation of violence that lasted about ten years, collectively known as “Years of Lead”. Terrorist groups formed in both extremes, the best known perhaps being right wing Ordine Nuovo (“New Order”) and the leftist Brigate Rosse (“Red Brigades”).

While the neo-fascists always operated under guidance or inspiration from Secret Services (both Italian and American), the Red Brigades prospered like piranhas in the fish tank of a dispossessed working class.

Exactly like piranhas in a feeding frenzy, inebriated by their newly found enormous visibility, they escalated their military actions from symbolic non-lethal woundings of key figures of the establishment (journalists, industrialists, politicians) to deadly attacks which culminated in 1978 in the cold-blooded murder of Aldo Moro, then President of the Christian Democratic Party, together with the five men of his security detail.

Despite the violence, the rhetoric of what was then the largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union, and especially that of the hardline Union of Metalworkers CGIL, was to characterize the Red Brigades as “comrades who went too far”.

f24-1979-guido-rossaIn 1978, however, Guido Rossa, a CGIL Union Representative working at the largest Italian steel mill, Italsider, reported to the Police one of his co-workers for distributing Red Brigades leaflets at his workplace. It was an act of isolated bravery: two other Union Reps, despite having witnessed the same event, refused to testify for fear of reprisals.

These fears proved not without foundation, as a few months later Guido Rossa was murdered by the Red Brigades, the first homicide against a member of the working class.

The Red Brigades attempted to portray Rossa as a spy, but both the Communist party and CGIL subtly altered their stance, starting to call the Red Brigades “Enemies of the People”.

The phenomenon had peaked and without popular support the Red Brigades frayed in a myriad of bickering small units, militants started to defect and soon all terrorists were apprehended and sentenced long prison terms.

f26-curcio-in-prigione

The fish tank had been emptied killing the fearsome piranhas.

Forty years later, we know a great deal of what happened during that dark decade but back then? Propaganda fed us all kinds of credible stories, mixing bits of truth with loads of lies and confusing everybody.

The switch that made possible that a divided and confused country would come out from a season of blood and hate was the shift in Communications which did away with the subtle differences, justification and historical rationales and painted the world in much simpler colors, pigeonholing terrorists in their right box: enemies of the people.

f30-isis-flagIf I bring up this image, what do you think? Most of you will think Islamic State, right?

Well, I think we are making a significant semantic and communications mistake every time we call “Islamic” something that has no relation to Islam, and “State” f31-ku-klux-klansomething that is definitely not a State. The use of the adjective shoud be sanctioned in the same way we ridicule the Ku-Klux-Klan’ abuse of Christian symbols.

The use of the noun should also be sanctioned, because a “State” is such only if other States recognize it.

It is quite clear that the real target (and the worst enemy) of terrorists are the many peaceful, integrated, hard-working people that happen to be of Muslim religion. They are the living demonstration that people CAN and WILL live peacefully together, improving unjust western societies and making them a better, more tolerant place with every generation. But they are also the living chain of transmission that will eventually import what is good from western societies to the betterment of their home countries.

It is high time that this majority, their leadership and their clergy empty the fish tank by denouncing terrorists for what they are, i.e. enemies of Islam and of the Muslim people, addressing them with the only word that is appropriate.

f35-kafer

But as I said, there are two components to every great Communications projects, because alongside a clear message strategy, we need a reputable spokesperson.

REPUTATION (Europe, 1377: the Great Schism)

Christianity lived through a profound schism (called the Great Western Schism) for most of the XIV century: initiated with the transfer of the Pope from Rome to Avignon in 1307,

the Schism itself appeared with the return of the Papal Siege to Rome decided by Pope Gregory XI in 1377: upon his death, the french faction and the roman faction both elected a Pope, and Europe found itself divided in “french obedience” (France, Spain, southern Italy, Scotland) and “roman obedience” (Eastern and Northern Europe, northern Italy, England, Ireland) with the German Empire and Portugal flip-flopping between the two depending on political convenience.

f39-grande_scisma_1378

Such divisions on matters of faith masked – as it’s often the case – unresolved political issues existing between the various Empires and Kingdoms, starting with the Church, itself a secular potentate at the time. Therefore a seemingly innocuous religious dispute became the “reason” for much bloodshed.

In 1409, an attempt to resolve the problem made it worse by adding a third Pope to the existing two.

If41-concilio-di-costanzat took until 1417, when the Ecumenical Council of Konstanz, having sorted out in three years of discussion the doctrinal differences, deposed all three Popes and elected a new one, Martin V.

The Ecumenical Council was not a “new” instrument: in the history of the Church it had been called sixteen other times (but only five since) to address doctrinal issues such as heresies. The 1414 one was the first time it was used to decide which Pope was the legit one, a thorny issue which called into discussion the supremacy of the Pope which was sanctioned in 1870 when it was upheld formally stating that the Pope was indeed infallible when speaking “ex cathedra on matters of faith”.

Conclusion

This brief history lesson teaches us two things therefore:

  • it’s a matter of words, which we call

f43-messages

Changing the way you call someone that has gone the wrong way will have an impact on the perception of the masses. If Italian Unions had not started to call the Red Brigades “Enemies of the People” probably the Years of Lead would have stretched much further in time.

  • it’s a matter of authority which we call 

f44-reputation

The Western Schism could not have been composed without stretching the mandate of the Ecumenical Council, something that was only possible because all parties recognized the explosive potential of the Schism to precipitate Europe into another endless war.

f45-quranThis is probably what is needed by Islam today: an extraordinary measure to sanction that the perversion of the words of the Quran to justify terrorism is an unacceptable heresy, and preachers of such hate doctrine should be publicly thrown out of Islam,

…into a furnace of fire:

there shall be wailing

and gnashing of teeth

(Matthew, 13:42)

Impressions: Pugz wireless

My Pugz wireless, charge-as-you-go headphones are here.
The first of three outstanding Kickstarter projects I backed has delivered and while iPhone users are pissed because CAYG was not delivered on their phone due to some 11th hour changes by Apple, it works fine on my Android.
Not entirely sure I get the point, as anything that cuts short the battery life of a phone seems dumb enough but you could connect them to a battery pack if you’re having a REALLY long (>4 hrs) confcall.
Not as dumb as totally wireless headphones so that you can carry them around your neck when not in use and still have some hope to find them when you need them.
Noise isolation is very good – perhaps TOO good as you end up in a quite unpleasant muffled world; but you either isolate or you don’t and the isolation works very well when on the phone.
The magnetic charging connector works better than a USB connector and looks very well built as the product as a whole, although I bet the weak link will be the connecting cord which however will not undergo the same strain as tethered headphones which invariably get yanked when you drop the phone.
The wireless functionality also means you can use them on a Skype call on your computer, something I do quite often, shedding the dork look brought by the over-the-ear headphones….. I am getting next week.

More nuclear questions

I am right in the middle of a blogging hiatus, immersed as I am in the herculean task of getting a start-up off the ground. For reasons of personal survival, I hope to be able to report soon.

In this situation, my blogging is purely reactive, as in the case of the questions received by my friend Marco, the author of a cool divulgative page “La Fisica che non ti aspetti” (=Unexpected Physics).

For those willing to understand completely the answers, it may be a good idea to first read this other post which is not specific to the BWR (boiling water) reactor technology used at Fukushima Dai-ichi

Q1. News reports said the cores of one or more reactors melted and contaminated the underlying aquifer. Why wasn’t it contained by the concrete vessel encasing the reactor vessel?

All three reactors at Fukushima experienced core meltdown (while 4, 5 and 6 were on scheduled maintenance), and all three for the same reason: the 13 meter tsunami wave overcame the 10-meter seawall and struck the generators, cutting power; when the batteries ran out of energy, the coolant ceased to circulate and temperature rose.

The resulting corium breached the reactor vessel but not the Primary Containment (concrete) Vessel. It’s all still there, as is the Secondary Vessel encasing the Primary.

That is not to say that all the radioactivity was contained as neutrons have the bad habit of traveling around. Additionally, several controlled and uncontrolled events lead to the dispersion of mainly Ce-137 in ocean waters: given the very strong currents in the area, this is believed to have dispersed in a very large area, causing little or no damage.

Q2. What contaminated people if there was no radioactive cloud?

Fuel rods are encased in a Zirconium allow which is inert at the normal functioning temperature of the core (300 °C); when overheated to 1200 °C however, they react with the surrounding water and create gaseous hydrogen; when the percentage of hydrogen in the air reaches the explosive saturation, chemical explosions occur, as it was the case in all three reactors, dispersing radioactive material.

Case studies from History (1)

I am looking forward to a very intense fall traveling schedule which will take me to Mumbai, Istanbul and Cairo in the space of a few weeks.

I will start with the last one, because I will be covering a whole new topic which I never discussed before in a public occasion, and that is

Propaganda vs. True Public Engagement

How is Propaganda different from True Public Engagement?

Is one leading to the other, or are the two opposed? And, has this changed with the advent of Digital, which removed all barriers to access making each individual a potential, if temporary, news channel?

More importantly, perhaps, did the transition to Digital usher an era of more authentic Communications, where people talk to people directly and information is free to travel across the world?

My impression is that after a very short period of under-evaluation, Propaganda has learned its digital ropes quite well, if nothing else because Propaganda has money and it can afford the best consultants.

One of the largest contracts I led was the Digital campaign for the 2009 European Elections: the Party that was our client won, even though with age I stopped claiming merit for that victory. Barack Obama is widely credited to have won especially the 2008 election thanks to masterful use of Social Media; across Europe, new euro-skeptic parties thrive on digital-only communications.

The Goebbels of our time have demonstrated they are as good at manipulating public opinion as they were in the ‘40s because Digital and Social Media are a channel like any other: they are not un-stoppable, they can be (and are) monitored. If anything, for this purpose they are better suited than most channels, because all that goes through them is already in machine-digestible form: as a matter of fact, some of the most advanced Artificial Intelligence applications are classified and used in military grade surveillance.

Moreover, both sides of any dispute have become so good at storytelling that very often it is quite difficult to figure out who are the Good Guys. I presume we can all think of contemporary geo-political scenarios that fit this description.

When I look at the world we all live in, alongside glorious examples of citizen journalism I see evidence of digital tools being very effectively used to recruit and indoctrinate distraught youngsters to become terrorist chrysalises, ready to blossom into the next Breivik or Abdeslam.

So I started looking at the past, where I found two stories that I believe are of relevance, as they show how in the past crises not dissimilar from the ones facing us right now have been addressed using two of the fundamentals of Communications: Messages and Reputation.

You can call these Case Studies from History.

[more to follow…]

My birthday

Doing my best to get back to everyone who wished me a Happy Birthday; thinking what could I give back, and being this Social Media, a personal story is the best.

12 years ago I stopped celebrating my birthday, because on the very day I was having a great time with my friends, Luca, the 20yo son of one of these friends was killed in a road accident. We were very close to his family, he was in school with my older son, we went on holiday together; for years his father and I would interchangeably whoop ass to either of them when they misbehaved too much, as if they were brothers – in short we were (almost) as devastated as they were.

September 14th had become a day of mourning, especially so because together with the kid, we sort of lost our friends, too: the unfairness of seeing our son still alive while theirs was there no more was too much to bear on a daily basis, and we slowly drifted apart. Nothing rational or even conscious, but we had become a living reminder of their loss.

It’s hard to describe the immense sorrow of losing a kid, but the challenge is nothing compared to having to live with it.

Then two years ago Diego, another kid of the gang got married on that very day, which he chose explicitly to mend the wound: he could have picked any other day to fill with the joy he and his wife were dispensing on all of us, but he wanted to help the healing. In his words: “Luca would have liked that”.

So here we are, September 14th is again a day of (moderate) joy; of course, Luca is not forgotten, but happy memories and sad memories sort of blend together in a mix that’s easier to drink.

This year I will not be able to run the charity BBQ as last year: due to their poor health, my in-laws are moving in with us, and everybody is super-busy with the actual packing and un-packing, but still, this very small group of families will get together for an evening, because now Diego and Luca have an appointment we can’t miss.

Is the gift of Facebook ads “wrong”?

Having been involved in several flames on the subject I feel compelled to articulate why I don’t like the fact that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated $500k in FB ad credits to the Red Cross to help out victims of the earthquake who shook Central Italy on aug. 24th.

  1. is this a policy? there are about 1,500 earthquakes of magnitudo 5 and above per year. Are we to expect a similar donation to the Red Cross for each one? Flattened houses and dispossessed people count the same whether they are European, American, Asian, Australian or African, right? I expect therefore that the Red Cross (or Red Crescent, as the case may be)  gets $750M per year in ad credits turning them overnight into one of the world’s largest FB ads brokers, a role for which I am sure they have experience and skills…
  2. “in kind” donations are not immediately helpful. True, they have SOME value for the recipient, but exactly how much is not clear (see #4); plus they place on the recipient the onus of transforming whatever goods the donor gives into the thing that an organization like the Red Cross really needs (i.e. money) and introduces a time delay in the availability of the additional resources. What would you think of Philip Morris giving a truckload of cigarettes, Coca-Cola a tanker of Coke or a University 100 MBA scholarships?
  3. the public announcement stygma. Should donations be advertised? An old discussion which was settled (for me, not by me) long ago, when I was the Country Manager for Lotus Development, a company which gave a percentage of its net profit in every operation to local charities each year. Not only this gift was prohibited from getting ANY sort of publicity, but the committee deciding who would get the yearly gift was formed by employees (not managers). I never knew who received it in the seven year I ran the Italian operation.
  4. transparency. That’s the flip side of #3: shouldn’t donations be public? Don’t shareholders have a right to know? In my opinion they do, as they are the ones ultimately donating, but disclosure should be made at policy level (i.e. how much the company intends to donate and with which criteria the beneficiaries will be chosen) NEVER at the recipient level. Transparency is an additional reason “in kind” donations are bad: I suspect once you factor in all the transformation costs and fees, the real value to the receiving organization is much diminished, so shareholders don’t even know exactly how much they are agreeing to give.
  5. decision process. In other words, who decides? In this case it appears it was mr. Zuckerberg’ own decision, and while he’s the Founder, the CEO as well as one of Facebook’s largest shareholders, Facebook is NOT his property alone: others should be involved in this decision, representing other shareholders and proposing worthy destinations for corporate generosity.

csrSo all in all (while it is obvious that ANY help is welcome) what this boils down to, at least for me, is the fact that mr. Zuckerberg is a person of vast wealth: if his good feelings prompt him to give to help people in distress, praise to him, but he should use some of his own money (= cash)  and not mess with the Corporate Social Responsibility of Facebook.

Maybe he ought to take a lesson or two from Bill or Warren….

Book review: “A Universe from Nothing” (Lawrence Krauss)

A Universe from Nothing.jpegI recently re-read this interesting essay by a one of the most controversial physicists of our time. I do not remember why I did not post my impressions when I first read it, but I’ll fix this now.

I share with prof. Krauss an almost unlimited admiration for Richard Feynman (something some of my readers will certainly know) and a keen interest for quantum physics; Krauss is also a gifted divulgator, perhaps even superior to our common hero.

Despite dealing with some of the most arcane phenomena in modern physics, this book is eminently readable even to the non initiated and offers some plain language explanation of what is perhaps the most advanced thinking about the origin of the Universe.

The first half of the book is totally captivating, to the point of being thrilling: he does not need complex math to explain why there was a beginning to our Universe, what is the evidence of such a beginning and when it took place; the beauty (and power) of the theory is that it precisely accords to the observed values. As Feynman said, such precision is tantamount to predicting the distance between New York and Los Angeles to the thickness of a human hair.

So the Universe began 13.72 billion years ago and it’s made almost entirely (99%) of stuff we cannot observe (dark matter and dark energy) with a precisely flat geometry (one that’s not open nor close): this dark energy does not belong to matter or radiation but, incredibly, is associated with empty space itself. One of the interesting consequences is that the total energy of our Universe is exactly zero.

This seems to be an element of recursive design in Nature: in the infinitely small, empty space is not empty at all, but it teems with a bubbling of particle-antiparticle couples which pop into existence to annihilate on each other in times and distances so small they fall below the limit of the Uncertainty Principle, justifying the macroscopic perception of emptiness, except when this happens next to another wonder of Nature, a black hole, i.e. a region where gravity is so strong nothing – not even light – can escape: when a pair pops in existence next to the horizon event of a black hole, it may happen than one element of the couple falls into said black hole, making annihilation impossible and freeing the other element: to the external viewer, this will look like the black hole has emitted some of its mass as a particle, perhaps ultimately leading to its evaporation.

Back to our Universe, looking farther and farther away we also look back in time: may we one day arrive at seeing the Big Bang itself?

Not so, explains Krauss, because before matter coalesced into protons and neutrons (about 300.000 years after the Big Bang) there was only a plasma that’s opaque to light: what lies before is the so called “inflationary state” where the space expanded at superluminal speed (whose limits concerns only objects or radiation traveling THROUGH space, not space itself) freezing whatever irregularities there might be on the otherwise uniform surface to create all we see today.

If that was all there is to this book, I would wholeheartedly recommend it as a five-star gem; unfortunately Krauss has an agenda which is to show that the concept of Divinity is not necessary: the second half of the book is therefore devoted to demonstrating that since the Universe exists as an oscillation of the otherwise unstable non-existence, the flat universe is a necessary consequence of a “small patch of asymmetry between matter and antimatter rapidly spreading” until it encompasses the unfathomable vastity of our Universe with its 400 billion galaxies.

It requires no ultimate cause, because it simply is as it is.

Since the Universe is expanding at ever increasing speed, galaxies will ultimately recede from each other at superluminal speed, essentially disappearing and making observation of telltale signs of the Big Bang like the redshift of galaxies or the measurement of the Microwave Background Radiation impossible, from which Krauss derives a very unlikely anthropic consequence, i.e. that future cosmologists will have no knowledge that the Big Bang ever occurred nor have any reason to investigate it. When one considers the fact we went from Cro-Magnons to doctor Krauss in less than 50,000 years I daresay the 2 trillion years that will be needed for the space expansion velocity to exceed the speed of light should be more than enough to figure out a solution.

This second “book in the book” is IMHO far less understandable than the first and does not accomplish in the least the purpose the Author announces for it, inasmuch I did not need Krauss to know that it is the individual’ choice to consider the ultimate description of reality divine or not.

Fast vs. Slow Nuclear Power Plants

A friend asked me what is the difference between a “Slow” and a “Fast” Nuclear Power Plant, a curiosity probably stirred by the recent announcement of the Beloyarsk 4 NPP going online.

First of all, 789 MWe Beloyarsk 4 is not such a big deal, capacity-wise. It is part of the Beloyarsk complex, designed to deliver around 2.3 GW of power when fully operational, which is big but not in the league of the true giants like the 8 GW Kashiwazaki plant in Japan or the 6.2 GW Bruce plant in Canada. Russia itself has several 3.8 GW plants like the one powering St.Petersburg (still called the Leningrad Plant).

Beloyarsk 4 is however the world’s largest FAST reactor, about 1.5 times larger than the second-largest, its sibling Beloyarsk 3.

Fast reactors use an “inefficient” moderator like liquid sodium: neutrons are not slowed up as much and when they hit U238 nuclei (the non-fissile vast majority of natural uranium), transform them into Pu239 which then decays into U239 which is even more fissile than traditionally used U235. In short, fast reactors produce some of the fuel they consume and, in certain conditions, all of it and even more. This last kind is called “breeder” and it was popular in the late Seventies as it also bred Plutonium, used in you-know-what.

Excluding this last species, for which nobody has much use nowadays (and instead is faced with the decommissioning headache) fast reactors are more fuel-efficient than traditional light-water reactors: Beloyarsk 4 should achieve 80 GW/ton/day (compared with about 50-60 for a light water reactor) and an upcoming follow-up unit is expected to achieve 120 GW/t/d.

Of course, the engineering of a liquid sodium moderator is a little more complex (for one thing, it is prone to exploding), but the design has been around for decades and is therefore rather stable and well-understood.

The question for me is why, given Russia’s richness in uranium (4th largest reserves in the world after Australia, Kazakhstan and Canada) they are investing in more fuel-efficient plants; for more discussion of NPPs see also these other posts.