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Science Talk September 13, 2006 -- Nuclear Energy's Future, the Mouse-Cheese Relationship
Welcome to Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting September 13th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, the nuclear option--nuclear energy that is. We will talk about that with M.I.T. physicist Ernest Moniz, who also co-directs M.I.T.'s Laboratory for Energy and the Environment. David Holmes of Manchester Metropolitan University in England joins us. He blows the doors off the commonly held belief that mice like cheese. That's a little later. And we will test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, Ernest Moniz. He is the co-author of an article on the future of nuclear energy that appears in the September single-topic issue of Scientific American. The theme of the entire issue is "Energy's Future Beyond Carbon". I caught up with Moniz while he was trying to do some fly-fishing in Colorado.
Steve: Professor Moniz, thanks very much for talking to us today.
Moniz: Pleasure to be here.
Steve: In 2003, you and your co-author co-chaired this big M.I.T. study on the future of nuclear energy, in which you analyzed what you would have to do to make nuclear energy attractive. I don't know if you can do this in short order, but what was the bottom line there?
Moniz: Again, the question we ask is what are the steps that one would take both in a technology sense and in a policy sense to enable nuclear power to be a significant contributor to mitigating CO2 emissions? Clearly, we outlined what are the major challenges. First, economics do need to be worked on. Roughly speaking it's about 2,000 dollars a kilowatt for nuclear plant; and you might say the competition--[a]natural gas plant--is more [in] the
than 500 or 600 dollar range for capital costs. But of course nuclear power is very cheap to operate in contrast to a gas plant. Secondly, nuclear waste obviously must be addressed. We offer some suggestions there including the incorporation of consolidated interim storage as part of the plan. Safety clearly is an issue and there we note really that the new designs of nuclear power plants look to have about an order of magnitude lower probability of significant core damage. Next, we look at proliferation and we suggest an approach to managing growth of the fuel cycle internationally based upon a few [new] leasing concept in which small programs could on very good terms be provided fresh fuel and have the spent fuel removed.
Steve: And by proliferation we are talking about the fear of any of the nuclear plants being used to create the kind of materials you need for nuclear weapons.
Moniz: Correct. So the point being, in this fuel leasing concept,
is that these countries would have the reactors, which gives them what they presumably want, which is electricity and would not have the responsibility or the cost of building plants to enrich uranium or to handle the spent fuel.
Steve: Right, that's assuming that what they really want is the electricity.
Moniz: That's right. This will not solve every problem, but it will help to put a spotlight on those who have other design.
Steve: Right and you had a fifth point you wanted to make.
Moniz: The fifth point was that we also spell out what we believe is an important and aggressive research and development plan for the government to pursue over the next several decades and that includes as high points the need to advance smaller modular reactors. It includes the need to do the research on what are called advanced fuel cycles, fuel cycles that potentially could dramatically minimize the problems we are dealing with--spent fuel and
Steve: How ironic is it that it is actually environmental concerns that are driving this fresh look at nuclear energy. I mean, it's the greenhouse gases that are making nuclear look more attractive to a lot of people again, right?
Moniz: Well, to many. Of course, some are looking at it for other reasons including at least arguments they use about security, about having stable and understood operating cost.
Steve: Who are you talking about when you say some, who is that?
Moniz: Well, I think many utilities that are looking at nuclear power are looking at it for a combination of reasons. One of them certainly is, I think many feel [an] imminent U.S. move to begin to control carbon emissions. But in addition there are issues of the volatility, for example, of natural gas prices has reached some degree of havoc with utilities, because there you are subject to the fuel cost being a major part of your operating cost; whereas in a nuclear plant you have a very large capital expenditure upfront, but once you built it, you pretty much know that you are going to have a very low and stable operating cost because the fuel costs are a very, very tiny part of the overall cost.
Steve: In the article, it talks about the fact that in your scenario worldwide nuclear power production can triple to a million megawatts by the year 2050 and that would save between 0.8 and 1.8 billion tons of carbon from being emitted into the atmosphere every year. So, what does all that mean? What [do]
are those numbers actually mean to me if I am concerned about greenhouse gases and global warming?
Moniz: Well, two scales I think are important here. One is as is outlined in the lead article in the Scientific American issue is that in very rough terms we need to avoid about 7 billion tons per year of carbon emission, let's say by mid-century if we are to come anywhere close to what many think as a prudent level of CO2 concentrations. So roughly speaking if a technology is not contribut
ed[ing] at least say, [at] the billion ton level, it's not really going to be a major contributor to the solution. On the other side of equation, if you like 1,000 megawatts of coal plant, which is a very large; but you know coal plants that we do have, that plant alone would emit about 1.7 to 1.8 million tons of carbon per year. So, as you can see, a 1,000 megawatt plant of nuclear, which is carbon-free, would avoid 1.8 billion tons if it were displacing [a] coal plant, but of course it would be displacing a mixture of plants and that's why we would say that this [is a] million megawatts of nuclear power deployed. I would say you take credits for the order of one billion tons of avoidance.
Steve: Okay, when was the last nuclear power plant completed and put online in the U.S.?
Moniz: The last time [a] United States [plant] was brought online [was] in the mid '90s, but of course [it] was ordered in the early '70s.
Steve: When you were undersecretary of energy in the Clinton administration and you were also associate director for science in the office of science and technology policy, what was the overriding attitude about nuclear then and has it changed?
Moniz: Well, I think there has been a significant change in the last 10 years, really with the realization that the climate problem is a very, very serious one first of all; many--I think most people are coming to the view that certainly prudence requires some strong actions, particularly actions that are synergistic with other goals like energy security and other environmental questions. But having realized I think quite broadly that this is a very serious problem that needs serious attention, I think it has also lead to realization that it's a very, very difficult challenge; and so in that context I think many who would rather not be seeing nuclear power plants are at a minimum, you know, understanding that we can't afford to be dismissing carbon-free options lightly because this will be a major challenge to reach prudent goals.
Steve: Professor Moniz, the article [is] "The Nuclear Option" by John Deutch and Ernest J. Moniz; that's in the September issue of Scientific American, [our single-theme issue on] "Energy's Future Beyond Carbon." Thank you very much. I appreciate your time.
Moniz: You are welcome.
Steve: One of the big issues in nuclear energy is waste management and the article goes into detail about proposals in that area. You can find the article in the current Scientific American and in its entirety for free at our Web site, www.sciam.com
Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: Robotic death Frisbees being developed for urban warfare.
Story number 2: Since Pluto is no longer a planet; it has a new name: asteroid 134340.
Story number 3: Female sheep, deer and reindeer can all recognize the calls of their own offspring.
Story number 4: Lifting weights can temporarily increase the pressure within your eyes.
We'll be back with the answer, but first, mice love
d cheese--or do they? David Holmes at Manchester Metropolitan University set out to probe alone whether that was indeed the case. He was good enough to chatter away with me from his office in England.
Steve: Dr. Holmes, thanks for talking to us today.
A[I']m thanking you.
Steve: Tell me about cheese and mice. What were the results of your research here?
Holmes: It’s kind of a very, very, very strange and long story [in]
and that somewhere, somehow in history, it's in Shakespeare and it's all along the paintings that it predates all that; it certainly predates Tom and Jerry, and all, really, kind of cartoon mice; that somehow the people have got really [the] strange idea that mice actually do like cheese; and they will try and feed it to their pets, which can be rather damaging. In fact, mice as we probably know for many, many years that most pet shop owners know very, very well, actually like grain and dried fruits and to some degree they will go for kind of foods, man-made foods that are high in sugar such as chocolate and they will try and raid your pant[r]y for things like dried foods such as even pasta, but they like that high carbohydrate and they don't like cheese.
Steve: We don't have any idea how this idea became entrenched in the human psyche.
Holmes: I have thrashed away at this, and it is very difficult. All we can imagine is that original early pantries contained only a few dried elements such as grain, bread, and possibly cheese, and maybe these got thrashed by mice and rats in early days and people made this assumption. But as far as I can tell,
that it has become extremely popular because of this modern myth and into the minds of children and adults because all cartoonists Cartoonists like to draw little segments of cheese with holes in them and little mice's faces poking out of them. They will admit this and they would say quite simply it's a really good image, it's a kind of image we can use and it's the kind, maybe we will continue to use even though we know that mice don't like cheese.
Steve: So, it was possibly some artist 500 years ago who just liked the image.
Holmes: I would have said possibly that this would--I would imagine there must be some mythical story of some form of folklore that has actually produced association between mice and cheese and the cartoonist[s] and the very early painters had picked up on this and they have used this very strong image, which people recognize very quickly. In the corner of our own painting, you would see kind of small segments of cheese and the mouse next to it and you make the assumptions straight away that the mouse is after the cheese. And it would appear that this has permeated; you know, it's almost a bigger myth as the kind of, you know, the moon-is-made-of-green-cheese-type myth misnomer that people accept. This one is kind of that, but of course the serious side is that people do try and feed their pet mice with cheese thinking that they are doing a good thing.
Steve: And that can actually be harmful to the pet.
Holmes: That can be harmful to the pet. It's not really what they want, and they usually definitely turn their nose up at pungent cheeses such as Stilton--rich cheeses. These things are made for the gourmet taste of human beings and they are not made for mice, and in all of the mouse's evolution, it did not come across cheese.
Steve: Now, in the interest of full disclosure, you mentioned Stilton and this research was funded in part or in full, I am not sure ...
Holmes: It was very minimally funded by Stilton. Their interest was kind of like a little bit obscure. I would like to say they had a healthy interest in scorching the rumors that cheese was not for mice, but cheese was actually for humans, which would make some sense; but the idea that cheese is not a good thing for mice, I don't see that being the best marketing campaign. So, I carried this out honestly and mostly with the idea that perhaps it might save a few mice from having cheese run down their throats inadvertently by very young pet owners, and you know sort of basically examining the idea of why we have these myths, where they come from, and why they get perpetuated--that was my interest, and I don't remember [if] that actually matched the interest of the sponsors themselves.
Steve: Which was the Stilton Cheese Makers Association.
Holmes: It was definitely the Stilton Cheese Makers Association.
Steve: When you say minimally funded, you mean that there wasn't a lot of funding in general went into this study.
Holmes: Well, I would ass[e]
ort in American research terms, this funding was so close to zero that it wouldn't make any difference.
Steve: What was the actual, what was it, 50 pounds, is that what they...
Holmes: (Laughs) Hey, you hit it dead on the face. That's exactly what I got. Yes, 50 pounds, yes.
Steve: How did you actually do this research?
Holmes: It didn't take very long to run through archives or stuff that you know document exactly what kind of thing that's good for various animals and small species such as mice.
Steve: I see.
Holmes: Whether they happen to be field mice, house mice, pet-trained mice, or even mice for research, which we don't do by the way.
Holmes: Then, they eat as pretty much the same and they are not that far removed from other animals. But that said, if you get a house mouse that has been really starved and desperate, they will chew at most things, but needless to say one of the last things that they will chew out will be that rich cheese.
Steve: Sure, they actually prefer electrical lines to chew.
Holmes: They will eat your feet.
Steve: Alright, speaking of cheese. So tell us what your actual primary research is about. Because I am sure this is not your full-time research area.
Holmes: No, my primary research is usually along the lines of forensic research and clinical psychology. That's my main field, and--I am actually--in the present, I am trying to produce an extremely large book that incorporates the whole of that subject area, hopefully for the first time.
Steve: Forensic psychology.
Holmes: Actually crime forensic psychology. That's the kind of applying psychology to crime and corpse in a very practical way.
Steve: Very interesting. Well, when that book comes out, let's talk again and talk about that serious subject because that's fascinating.
Holmes: I think it is probably the most fascinating area of psychology.
Steve: Dr. Holmes, thank you very much. Enjoy the rest of your day and have some cheese.
Holmes: And thank you, and I might try it.
Steve: For more cheese info just go to www.cheese.com; seriously.
Now, it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.
Story number 1: Robotic-armed Frisbees under development for urban warfare.
Story number 2: Nonplanet Pluto's new name is a number.
Story number 3: Female sheep, deer and reindeer can all identify their own offspring vocally.
Story number 4: Temporary pressure increase in the eyes from weightlifting.
Story number 1 is true. Killer Frisbees are coming. The Web site www.defensetech.org reports that the Air Force has a contract out for an attempt to develop what they are calling Modular Disc-Wing Urban Cruise Munitions. Those would be small spinning discs that could root out and blow up, you know, evildoers. And you thought you played ultimate Frisbee.
Story number 2 is true. Pluto's demotion means that it's just an asteroid; and the Minor Planet Center, which officially keeps tabs on asteroids and comets, has named it 134340. You know back on the August 16th podcast I spoke with 3-year-old Aerie Mirsky about his great affection for Pluto, then still a planet. "It is my favorite". Well, I heard that. Aerie wasn't happy at all with the Pluto's recent demotion, and when I saw him this past Sunday and asked if
you[he] wanted to talk about it, his response was simply, "no."
Story number 4 is true. Lifting weights can make your muscles and your eyes bulge according to a report in the current archives of ophthalmology. Higher intraocular pressures associated with the Valsalva maneuver where you hold a full breath and force it against a closed windpipe, like this (Holding a breath sound). This happens during coughing, weightlifting, certain kinds of smoking, and playing wind instruments. Pumped up, cannabis inhaling, bassoon players with colds are at particular risk.
All of which means that story number 3 about sheep, deer and reindeer mothers being able to recognize the calls of their own offspring is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS, because while sheep and reindeer can, deer cannot. Researchers from the University of Zurich did this study published in the American Naturalist. In sheep and reindeer, which spend most of their time out in the open, the young and the moms do know each other vocally; and while the young deer do recognize their mothers by the moms' sounds, the mothers cannot distinguish their own fawns by call alone. The researchers think that the communication system has evolved this way because young deer hide from predators in the grass while the mother for [a]ges; presumabl
e[y] young know or quickly learn that calling mom won't get her attention, which keeps them quiet and that keeps them safe. They only move when she calls them. Don't you wish your kids behave that, you know, dearly?
Well that's it for this edition of the Scientific American podcast. Our email address is email@example.com. And also remember, science news is updated daily on the Scientific American Web site, www.sciam.com; and don't forget the September special issue, the single-topic issue of Scientific American magazine, "Energy's Future Beyond Carbon.” For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.