Scientific American June 2011
The Latest in Science News
Nuclear Energy: Planning for the Black Swan (p 60 & p 14)
The U.S. will soon start installing a new generation of nuclear reactors, outfitted with safety features meant to withstand extreme threats and disasters. But the recent events at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have stirred up concerns once again. As Adam Piore explores in a feature in this month's issue of Scientific American, the real question is: How has the technology improved in the last few decades and what can it withstand?
Nuclear power contributes approximately 20 percent of the U.S. electricity supply, though there is now a greater push for more nuclear power plants, with 22 applications already pending. As the editors write in an accompanying editorial, one reason for this push is the consequences of other energy sources: pollution from fossil-fueled power plants shortens the life span of as many as 30,000 Americans a year; coal and hydraulic fracturing of natural gas threaten the environment and water supplies; and oil dependence undermines the nation's energy security.
Piore notes that though regulations for the design of new nuclear power plants include more stringent safety features than the Fukushima power plant, nuclear power will always be vulnerable to those highly unlikely occurrences that have big repercussions. And preparing for such scenarios is hard enough without having to stay within a budget.
But as noted in the editorial, abandoning nuclear power is not a realistic option, either. Instead, the U.S. needs to demand transparency and rigorous enforcement of regulations by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Now is the time to make tough, transparent decisions that could regain public trust," the editors write.
Global Warming: "I Stick to the Science" (p 86)
Physicist Richard A. Muller has been a vocal climate skeptic, asserting that many of the measurements and analyses by climate scientists are deeply flawed. But to many people's shock, in testifying in front of the U.S. Congress on March 31, Muller confirmed what mainstream climate scientists have been saying: Earth is warming in line with the projections of climate models.
In an interview with Michael D. Lemonick in this month's Scientific American, Muller discusses his views on climate science and why he testified before Congress. "I don't care whether I'm speaking to a Republican or a Democrat; science is nonpartisan. And I believe that my refuge is sticking to the science," Muller says regarding the preliminary findings of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, which he heads.
Forum: An Epidemic of False Claims (p 14)
The ability to prove something false is one of the hallmarks of scientific study, but scientists need to improve how they do their research and how they disseminate evidence, John P. A. Ioannidis writes in a column in this month's Scientific American.
As the number of scientific researchers has increased in recent years, so has the frequency of conflicts of interests, false positives and exaggerated results. The pressure on scientists to publish their work in a high-profile journal can also affect funding allocation and academic careers.
Ioannidis proposes a number of measures that could ameliorate this situation. Scientists should be encouraged to register detailed experimental protocols before starting their research and disclose the full results and data when the research is completed, for example. Furthermore, they should declare potential limitations of their studies and any conflicts of interest. Ioannidis also calls for scientific reports to take account of the number of analyses that have been conducted, which could downplay false positives.
"Eventually findings that bear on treatment decisions and policies should come with a disclosure of any uncertainty that surrounds them," Ioannidis writes.
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