Book review: “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs” by Lisa Randall

On the one hand, we have the elusive dark matter particles, dispersed throughout the universe across billions of light-years; on the other, we have the sorely missed dinosaurs, who lived in our own proverbial backyard but were driven extinct by a mysterious impactor 66 million years ago. What if these fascinating yet disparate phenomena, separated by so much space and time, were somehow related?


That, in essence, is the premise of Lisa Randall’s book, “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.” Maybe the “vanilla” cold dark matter model we have isn’t the only possible explanation of observations of the expanding universe and the cosmic web of millions of surveyed galaxies, she argues. It’s more fun to consider other more exotic models, even if they turn out to be wrong.

Dark matter particles don’t interact with each other the way our familiar atoms do. In fact, they hardly interact at all. They mostly just move apart with the growing universe and then clump together as they feel the effects of gravity over time. As a result, we end up with nearly spherical dark matter clumps throughout the universe, and we and the rest of the Milky Way are living inside one of those clumps. But if some dark matter interacts like normal matter, it could form a dense and thin disk—even thinner than the disk of our own galaxy. (Picture a compact disk hidden inside a bagel. Here’s a good composite image of our galaxy, on edge, which would be the bagel.)

If that’s the case, then as our solar system moves up and down through the disk, we’ll experience an extra little gravitational nudge each time we go through. This could periodically dislodge comets traveling in tenuous orbits in the Oort cloud in the distant realms of our solar system, flinging one comet away forever and sending another in an unfortunate Earthbound direction, where the consequences of its destructive impact in the Yucatan kills off the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago, thus finally linking dinosaurs to dark matter.

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Inside Science reviews: “The Big Picture” (Sean Carroll’s book) and “The Man Who Knew Infinity”

Here are excerpts from a new book review and movie review I’ve written recently for Inside Science News Service. I have a few additional thoughts about Sean Carroll’s book, below this excerpt.


Sean Carroll’s ‘Big Picture’ Tours Physics And Philosophy

In a new book, Sean Carroll brings together physics and philosophy while advocating for “poetic naturalism.”

Quantum physics, cosmology, existentialist philosophy and morality may seem like disparate subjects. But Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, ties them all together into a cohesive and comprehensive worldview he calls “poetic naturalism.” He lays out his views while trying to find meaning in a vast and chaotic universe in his newly published book, “The Big Picture” (Dutton, Penguin Random House Inc.).

Having written two previous popular physics books as well as being active on Twitter and his blog, Carroll takes an interest in communicating complex scientific discoveries. In his new book, he describes some of the fundamental ideas in modern physics with a philosophical lens, while exploring life’s biggest mysteries: the origin of the universe and the meaning of life itself. At the same time, with references to Wile E. Coyote, Captain Kirk and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” he avoids an overly serious tone.

In recent years, prominent scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Stephen Hawking have downplayed the importance of philosophy or even denigrated it. Carroll is not among this crowd.

“There are a lot of scientists and science promoters who have said not entirely complimentary things about philosophy, but that misses the point about what it’s for,” Carroll said in an interview. “The purpose of philosophy is not to be the handmaiden of science.”

(Credit: Dutton, Penguin Random House, Inc.)

(Credit: Dutton, Penguin Random House, Inc.)

Though his Ph.D. is in physics, Carroll has a strong interest in philosophy as well, and minored in it in college. He sees philosophy as a method for interpreting science and for a deeper understanding of physical phenomena. He uses philosophical concepts such as causality, determinism and mind-body dualism to explore everything from the tiniest subatomic particles to the accelerating expansion of the universe — as well as the role humans play somewhere in between.

For Carroll, naturalism means that there’s one world, the natural world, it obeys the laws of nature, and you can discover it using science. To this he adds that “there are many ways of talking about the world,” stories that people can tell to make sense and meaning of the world and their place in it. He even address issues of free will, consciousness, ethics, and life after death…

…The situation becomes murkier when Carroll discusses quantum mechanics, the interpretation of which has continually generated debates among physicists and philosophers since Max Planck and Albert Einstein discovered light “quanta” in the early 20th century. Physicists interpret quantum systems with probabilities: for example, for a hydrogen atom, the electron doesn’t have a particular position or momentum, but if someone measures them, it has probabilities of being observed in particular states.

Carroll supports the controversial “many-worlds interpretation” in which every quantum possibility is literally a separate world (or universe). We happen to live in one of them, and we have no way of seeing or even confirming the existence of the many unobservable parallel universes. This interpretation seems to conflict with his claim of endorsing a “sparse ontology,” which would mean accepting only a few fundamental concepts for describing the natural world.

“What I took Carroll to be promoting was a kind of ‘verificationism’: what is true is what can be measured,” said Elise Crull, philosopher of science at the City College of New York. “But what counts as ‘measurable,’ and how we distinguish theoretical from observational statements, are complex issues.” This is why, she argues, philosophers considered the view problematic and abandoned it long ago…

[For more, check out the entire story in Inside Science, published on 19 May 2016. Thanks to Chris Gorski and Emily DeMarco for editing assistance.]

Additional thoughts:
I think Carroll’s book does a great job of tying together so many disparate concepts, and I commend his efforts to communicate philosophical ideas. It’s important to encourage people to think and talk about “what it all means.” However, I think Carroll comes across as a little overconfident sometimes, as if he has all the answers. (But he’s more modest at other times.) Furthermore, he’s clearly more of an expert on the physics than the philosophy. His philosophical views don’t seem very nuanced or even self-consistent, and his book lacked a discussion of some important questions. (Exactly what are “laws” of nature and what do they tell us about how things actually behave? How do we assess the simplicity or predictive or explanatory power of a scientific theory?) He also missed some influential philosophers and physicists who have studied “scientific realism” in the context of cosmology and quantum physics for decades.

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Book Review: “Leaving Orbit” by Margaret Lazarus Dean

First came the Apollo era. Following Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first satellite and human in space, the United States leaped into the space race. Within 11 years of NASA’s formation, and with incredible public support, they managed to launch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon. The moon!


Then came the space shuttle era, also a time of lofty and grand missions. NASA astronauts flew the shuttles on 135 missions, to deploy space probes like the Hubble Space Telescope and to assemble the International Space Station. But all good things must come to an end, as they say. Margaret Lazarus Dean, in her new book, Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, witnesses and chronicles the final flights of the Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis shuttles in 2011. For each of those three shuttles, she describes the visceral experience of watching the launches and landings, including the responses of diverse fellow onlookers at Cape Canaveral on the coast of Florida.

Dean reflects on the space shuttle program’s many impressive achievements, as well as its shortcomings and failures, in the case of the tragic explosion of Challenger in 1986 and the breakup of Columbia in 2003. (She previously wrote a novel about the Challenger disaster.) Throughout the book, she provides a record of a wide range of people grappling with the end of the era and wondering about what might come next.

Space shuttle Columbia lifts off from Launch Pad 39A on 12 April 1981. (Credit: NASA)

Space shuttle Columbia lifts off from Launch Pad 39A on 12 April 1981. (Credit: NASA)

She encounters both aspiring and accomplished astronauts—she’s starstruck as she meets Aldrin (and I don’t blame her). Dean also talks to space workers, as well as other writers and journalists, who are all somehow trying to figure how to put these momentous events into words. She makes many references to iconic writers, during what she considers the pinnacle of American spaceflight. Especially Norman Mailer (author of Of a Fire on the Moon), Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff) and Oriana Fallaci (If the Sun Dies) clearly influenced her.

Dean sprinkles many telling and intriguing anecdotes throughout the book. At one point she quotes a conversation she overheard, in which a NASA public affairs person corrects a Reuters journalist, saying that it’s not the end of American spaceflight, but “the end of American spaceflight as we know it,” which seems to be a subtle distinction. She also points out that in spite of NASA currently accounting for a small fraction of the national budget, her university students overwhelmingly overestimated how much funding the agency actually receives. It gets about 0.4% of the national budget, but most of her students guessed it was more than one fifth! Maybe that demonstrates NASA’s ability to have a big impact and inspire the public imagination with relatively few resources.

NASA's logo, often affectionately referred to as the "meatball." (People refer to its less popular logo in the '80s as the "worm.")

NASA’s logo, often affectionately referred to as the “meatball.” (People refer to its less popular logo in the ’80s as the “worm.”)

Dean’s book is more a memoir than anything else. It’s often fascinating to read, but it feels too wordy and verbose at times. She includes far too many mundane or irrelevant details, including the drive to and from Florida, the motels she stays at (one reference to Mailer is enough there), and numerous texts and social media posts. Omar Izquierdo, a NASA technician, host and new friend, makes for an interesting character, but every single interaction with him doesn’t need to be included. It’s as if she documented in detail every step she took and every thought that popped in her head and shoehorned them in. She also writes many times about her husband and child, who made sacrifices so that she could make these trips; she raises important concerns, but they would belong more in a book more directly touching on work-life balance and gender equality. She and her editors could have cut 100 pages from this book, in my opinion, strengthening its impact without losing any substance.

A few times—maybe a few too many—Dean writes self-referentially about her own book. (Such a device can be effective in a comedy like The Muppet Movie, but I’m not sure how well it works here.) The point, it seems, is to pose a question to herself as much as to others involved in the shuttle program and commercial spaceflight: “I’m asking what it means that we went to space for fifty years and have decided not to go anymore,” she writes.

Dean’s book seems slightly late: it was probably written in 2011 and includes few developments since then. She briefly mentions NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion—scheduled to be launched in an uncrewed mission in 2018—and she describes SpaceX and other spaceflight companies, but this feels tacked on at the end.

I understand her skepticism about commercial spaceflight, and I share many of her concerns. She has three main criticisms: First, the big and daring spaceflight projects that she and many others support are, by definition, not good investments. “They are exploratory, scientific, ennobling, and expensive, with no clear end point and certainly no chance of making a profit.” Second, as long as spaceflight is run by a government agency, she says, any child can reasonably dream of flying in space one day. Third, it’s been part of NASA’s mandate to make its projects available to the public, but private companies have no such obligation.

I don’t think Dean means to diss NASA, but it does seem that way toward the end, as she seems to think ending the shuttle program was a huge mistake. But what’s done is done, and without the shuttle, NASA continues to accomplish a lot. In the past year alone, it deployed a satellite to study Ceres, the only dwarf planet in the asteroid belt; it flung a probe past Pluto, giving us the most detailed images ever of our diminutive cousin; it sent a spacecraft to observe Saturn’s moon Enceladus; and it recently completed a yearlong study of the astronaut twins, Mark and Scott Kelly.

Later in the book, she argues cynically (and to some extent, correctly, in my view) that support for the space program started as an accident, because of Sputnik, a new president, the Cold War, and German rocket designers like Wernher von Braun who fled to the U.S. instead of the Soviet Union.

In the end, however, her reflection turns into an almost obsessive nostalgia for a glorious past. This stifles our ability to take stock of where we are right now and how we got here, and then focus our efforts to plan and prepare for what comes next, which might include returning to the moon, journeying to Mars, and exploring beyond our solar system. Dean’s patriotism limits her too: space exploration requires international collaboration; it isn’t just by or for blue-blooded Americans. It’s for all people who want to join the party, including Russians, Chinese, Europeans, and everyone else.

Mourn the shuttle era in your own way, but then let’s move on with our lives and make the most of our current national and international space programs. We have lots of brilliant, clever and talented people and powerful tools to work with, and if we set our minds to it, our days of exploring space, including launching more people into the skies, will be far from over.

Book Review: “Trace” by Lauret Savoy

As I work on improving my essay writing skills, I’ve attempted to expand my horizons and read a wide variety of authors, including those with whom I’m not familiar. I recently came across Lauret Savoy, who in her new book, Trace, offers us a different perspective of nature, the environment, geography and American history, including its evolving race relations. She focuses on how people and communities interact with nature, which shouldn’t be viewed as some pristine thing that white people enjoy every once in a while.


Her writings dovetail with environmental justice, which is something I’ve been thinking about over the past few years. It refers to the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income” (as the EPA defines it) with respect to environmental regulations and policies. In my opinion, people whose work or activism involves race, class, gender and other power relations often ignore environmental issues, while environmentalists are often white and operate in a vacuum as if those other divisions aren’t important.

But environmental justice brings these issues together. It grew out of the civil rights movement when people of color realized they were often suffering silently while disproportionately affected by toxic waste sites, power plants, landfills, and other environmental hazards. In one of my first guest blog posts (outside of this blog), for the Union of Concerned Scientists a couple years ago, I argued that climate change is an environmental justice issue, as the people most harmed by rising sea levels, floods, extreme droughts and heatwaves are those who did the least to contribute to the problem. Savoy considers these kinds of issues as she weaves in environmental justice in her new book, referring to “people of color and the economically poor [who] live, and die, next to degraded environments.” She argues that the concept of “ecological footprint” should account for dispossessed people and people’s labor.

In Trace, a slim yet powerful volume, Savoy invites us to accompany her as she traces through her travels, her past, and her family history, following the paths she and her predecessors have taken. She explores varied and uneven terrain through ever changing and troubled relations between race and the American landscape. The book is sort of a collection of interconnected essays, which fit together into a cohesive story. Each chapter searches a particular place, asks questions about its origins and names, and considers her and others’ experiences there. “The American landscape was in some ways the template, but also the trigger, to each of the searches,” she said in an interview about the book.

Savoy is a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She identifies as a woman of African American, Euro-American, and Native American heritage. During her childhood, she lived in California and journeyed to Arizona, through Mexican borderlands, and across the continental divide, and she takes us through each of these places. Early in the book, she tells a story about how as a 7-year-old girl at a gift shop at the north rim of the Grand Canyon, she tried to purchase some postcards displaying photos of places she liked. But the woman behind the counter wouldn’t sell them to her, and she runs off into the woods. It’s one of her first experiences of racism.

In another chapter, she analyzes a book she clearly loves, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Leopold enlarged the boundaries of “community” to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land,” but she fears that the “we” in his book excludes her. She then recalls a novel her father wrote as a young man, called Alien Land, and this leads her to consider the chasms evident in an “alien land ethic.”

Savoy’s extensive background in the earth sciences comes through in beautifully written passages such as this one about stones lying on an island beach: “…each cobble a relic of a remote past and a piece of and in this present. These fragments of placed-memory could trace, to the geologist’s eye, a continent’s coming of age as it shifted and rifted in a tectonic-plated world. They also pointed north toward ghosts of ice sheets grinding across the shield.”

While exploring Trace and Savoy’s other writings, I encountered an excellently written essay by Catherine Buni in the LA Review of Books, where she champions a wider view of nature writing. In a few sentences, she sums up Savoy’s book: “In blazing, beautiful prose, unblinkingly researched and reported, Savoy explores how the country’s still unfolding history, along with ideas of ‘race,’ have marked her and the land. She also traces, in a mosaic of journeys across a continent and time, her mixed-blood ancestry, carefully taking apart the frame at dovetail joints, curiously inspecting and turning over the smallest points of connection, omission, dislocation, and break.”

Throughout her work, Savoy advocates for a more diverse and nuanced view of nature and the environment, and she encourages us to remember that each place we visit has a complex history. I welcome and respect her voice. I found Trace to be fascinating and inspiring to read, and I think anyone who enjoys Leopold, Walt Whitman, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams would love this book too. Next time you go an a walk through your neighborhood park or on a road trip in the Southwest, bring it with you.

Book Review: Five Billion Years of Solitude

As long as humans have roamed the Earth, they have looked up to the skies, speculating and pondering about the celestial wonders populating the distant cosmos. From the early astronomers and natural philosophers until today’s (including me), people have observed and studied the billions of twinkling dots, all the while wondering whether there are other worlds out there and whether they might host lifeforms like us.


In his first book, “Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars,” Lee Billings explores these and related questions. He chronicles the story of space exploration, planet-hunting and the growing field of astrobiology, while meeting fascinating characters and discussing their research, telescopes, discoveries and challenges. He offers clear and compelling explanations, such as of planetary physics and habitability, and he takes important asides into debates on space exploration budgets and the fate of our own planet, including the ongoing climate change crisis.

Billings is a talented science journalist. Like his work for Scientific American and other publications, the book is excellently written and researched. It won the 2014 American Institute of Physics science communication award in the book category, announced at the American Astronomical Society meeting in January.

Over the course of the book, Billings tracks down and speaks with important figures in planetary astronomy. He begins with Frank Drake, who along with nine other scientists in 1961 attempt to quantify the abundance of life-supporting planets in the galaxy in a calculation now known as the Drake Equation. He also meets with other astrophysicists, including University of California, Santa Cruz professor Greg Laughlin, Space Telescope Science Institute director Matt Mountain and MIT professor Sara Seager.

Since the time-scale or life-time of civilizations plays a role in the Drake Equation, his investigations lead to an examination of our own history and the longevity of humanity on Earth. Billings discusses the planet’s changing climate and other looming threats, for which our society appears unprepared. His reporting takes him to southern California too, where he quotes from my former colleague, UC San Diego physicist Tom Murphy, who considered the question of growing global energy consumption.

Other important questions come up as well. How far away are planets beyond our solar system and how long would it take to get there? What kind of atmospheric, geological and climatic conditions must a habitable planet have? How do astronomers detect planets, when they are so small, so faint and so close to their brightly glowing suns? What are our prospects for finding more Earth-like planets?

And what will happen to the Earth and humankind—if we’re still around—over the next few billion years, as our sun brightens, expands and transforms into a red giant star? As Billings starkly puts it in his interview for The Atlantic, “We may have—we may be—the only chance available for life on Earth to somehow escape a final, ultimate planetary and stellar death.”

Artist's conception of NASA's Kepler spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

Artist’s conception of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

With the Kepler telescope, we have the good fortune to be living at a time when actually Earth-like worlds, not just super-Earths and gas dwarfs, can be identified. Astronomers have already used the telescope to find a few potential Earth cousins, which have the right size and the right “Goldilocks” distance from their stars, and many many more candidates are on the horizon. Under certain conditions, follow-up observations can measure the planets’ atmospheres and climates to further assess their habitability.

It’s an exciting time! With even more advanced planet-finding telescopes coming up, such as the Hubble successors, the James Webb Space Telescope and High-Definition Space Telescope, we can look forward to more detailed images and observations of exoplanets in the near future. Maybe Earth has twins and maybe we are not alone.

I have a few criticisms of Five Billion Years, but they’re very minor ones. I liked the analysis of federal budget debates at multiple points in the book, but Billings could have written a little more about why as a society we should prioritize space exploration and astronomical research. If, say, a member of the House Science Committee (or more likely, their staffer) were to read this, it would be helpful to spell that out. Early in the book, he provides an engaging historical survey of astronomy, but he neglected Eastern contributions, such as from Persians, Arabs and Chinese. A few chapters meandered quite a bit too, but I enjoyed his writing style.

In any case, this is a beautifully written and thoroughly researched book, and I recommend it. Billings puts the search for extraterrestrial life in a broader context and pushes us to think about our place in the vast universe. The story continues.

[P.S. I’m extremely busy these days with the UC Santa Cruz science communication program and writing internships, so I may write posts here less often. But I will link to pieces I’ve written elsewhere, which have the benefit of rigorous editing, so if you like my blog, you’ll like them even more.]

Book Review: “Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster”

First the ground shook violently, and then a succession of towering waves smashed the island of Honshu. As people sought shelter and braced themselves during a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami—the worst and deadliest experienced by Japan in a century—they had no idea what was yet in store for them. The rest of the world was transfixed as well by the unfolding events when on 11th March 2011, four years ago this week, multiple reactor cores at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had meltdowns and threatened millions with radiation exposure. Today, scientists continue to assess the effects on public health and ecological damage, while the nuclear industry still reels from the worst disaster since Chernobyl.


Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster, published last year by Dave Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analyzes these events and their implications and consequences in detail. Japanese are still recovering from the disaster, and the rest of us are still coming to terms with it as well, making necessary a thorough accounting of it, Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) handling of it, and the nuclear industry’s response. This investigative and well-researched book manages to accomplish that. [Disclosure: I am a member of the UCS Science Network.]

Credit: International Nuclear Safety Center

Credit: International Nuclear Safety Center

Lochbaum and Lyman are both senior scientists and nuclear energy analysts for UCS, while Stranahan was the lead reporter of the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. They appear to have written the book for a US audience, as they include investigations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the vulnerabilities of nuclear reactors in the US similar to Fukushima’s.

The authors describe the tumultuous week of 11th March 2011, as TEPCO workers with little information about what is happening inside Units 1-4 of the plant, scramble to contain the meltdown and prevent additional radiation spreading to a larger zone and getting into the air, water and land. (Residents who weren’t evacuated were told to stay indoors but remained in danger.) First flooding occurred throughout the plant, backup power generators available turned out to be inefficient, there was insufficient water to keep the reactors cool, workers couldn’t enter buildings as they had already exceeded their allowable radiation exposure, an explosion delayed recovery efforts and scattered more radioactive material, and spent fuel pools turned out to be as dangerous as the meltdowns themselves.

As they note in the first chapter and elaborate upon later in the book,

If a natural disaster could trigger a crisis like the one unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi, then, one might wonder, why aren’t even more safety features required to prevent such a catastrophic event from occurring? The short answer is that developers of nuclear power historically have regarded such severe events [“beyond design-basis” accidents] as so unlikely that they needn’t be factored into a nuclear plant’s design.

Lochbaum, Lyman, and Stranahan give a blow-by-blow of the worsening disaster, at times perhaps going into too much detail or giving more background than all but the most interested reader would want to follow. The writing style sometimes was a bit dry as well, though there were plenty of dramatic moments as well. For example, a particularly moving scene occurred when Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minamisoma, a devastated coastal community just outside the twelve-mile (twenty-kilometer) evacuation zone, took a video pleading for assistance from anyone. “With the scarce information we can gather from the government or TEPCO, we are left isolated,” Sakurai said. “I beg you to help us…Helping each other is what makes us human being[s].” He posted the recording on YouTube, which was viewed by more than two hundred thousand people, and then relief finally poured in.

The authors also describe debates and disagreements between TEPCO and NRC officials, such as about which of the four most damaged reactors and spent fuel pools were at risk of releasing more radiation and which presented the most pressing danger, as they could not focus on all four units at once. They also disagreed about an appropriate evacuation zone, as the NRC eventually recommended a larger zone, and about what officials should tell the public and US citizens in the area.

Following the disaster, antinuclear protesters resisted re-opening plants or continuing construction on new ones. As nearly three fourths of the Japanese public supported an energy policy that would eliminate nuclear power, on 6th May, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced, “Japan should aim for a society that does not depend on nuclear energy.” The Japan Times stated in an editorial, nuclear power “worked for a while, until, of course, it no longer worked. Now is the time to begin the arduous process of moving towards safer, renewable and efficient energy resources.”

The NRC outlines four or five levels of nuclear power reactor “defense-in-depth,” where first an event occurs, then it could be followed by core damage, radiation release, and exposure to the public. Safety measures at each level are intended to prevent the accident from worsening to the next level, but each level has more and more uncertainty. More importantly, beyond design-basis accidents could exceed all levels of safety measures at once.

Credit: International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG)

Credit: International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG)

It turns out that in the US, there are numerous Mark I boiling water reactors similar to the ones in Japan. They have similar safety measures as well, as the international nuclear industry generally has the same regulations in both countries. Following Fukushima, some analysts argue that many nuclear reactors throughout the US could be vulnerable to floods, fires, and earthquakes, and people are not sufficiently prepared for such events. For example, 34 reactors at 20 sites around the US are located downstream from large dams, and “the threat posed by the failure of those dams was not taken into account when the plants were licensed.” The authors highlight a particular example: the three-unit Oconee Nuclear Station in South Carolina is especially at risk. The Prairie Island nuclear plant southeast of Minneapolis is another. People think that “it can’t happen here” in the US, but apparently it can, so that leads to the critical question, “how safe is safe enough?” This is a complicated question, and it remains unanswered.

The Japanese continue to recover from the real and figurative fallout at Fukushima. Four years after the disaster, while scientists assess the damage and recovery, sailors sue TEPCO after radiation exposure, the NRC can’t decide how to proceed, and scientists study possible contamination to food supplies and the ecological toll. The thorough analysis in Fukushima remains extremely relevant today, and those interested in the risks and challenges of the nuclear industry will do well to read it.

My Views

In my opinion, the authors could have included a little more discussion about nuclear energy in the context of energy policy and implications for it as we move to a carbon-limited economy. But this was beyond the scope of the analysis in their book. In the US, in spite of Three Mile Island, Browns Ferry, and other accidents or near-accidents, nuclear energy remains a primary energy source. Many countries oppose nuclear energy, while others such as France, Russia, China, and South Korea, have many plants and have more in construction.

Source: NRC, DOE/EIA

Source: NRC, DOE/EIA

At this point, it might not be possible to transition to a low-carbon economy in the US without including nuclear energy as part of the transition. In the long term, I believe that solar and wind power have the most potential with the least risk, and countries such as Germany have shown that it is possible to ramp up investment in wind and solar in a short period of time. Who knows–maybe fusion energy may be a possibility in the very long-term future, but as I’ve noted before, the ITER experiment is behind schedule, over budget, and has management problems. Finally, we must focus on energy demand, not just supply. We should work on making our cities, industries, transportation, and communities less energy intensive, and it will be worth the effort.