State governments are grappling with massive budget deficits, overburdened social programs, and mountains of deferred spending. But never mind all that. For some conservative lawmakers, it's the perfect time to legislate the promotion of creationism in the classroom. In the first three months of 2011, nine creationism-related bills have been introduced in seven states—that's more than in any year in recent memory:
Legislation: HB 2454 would ban discrimination against creationists, for instance, biology professors who believe in intelligent design. Defending his bill, Texas state Rep. Bill Zedler told Mother Jones, "When was the last time we’ve seen someone go into a windstorm or a tornado or any other kind of natural disaster, and say, 'Guess what? That windstorm just created a watch'?"
Status: Referred to Higher Education Committee.
Legislation: The Kentucky Science Education and Intellectual Freedom Act (HB 169) would have allowed teachers to use "other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner." Kentucky already authorizes public schools to teach "the theory of creation as presented in the Bible" and to "read such passages in the Bible as are deemed necessary for instruction on the theory of creation." The state is home to the world-renowned Creation Museum and it may soon build the Ark Encounter, the world's first creationist theme park.
Status: Died in committee.
Legislation: SB 1854 would amend Florida law to require a "thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution."In 2009, Florida state Sen. Stephen Wise, the bill's sponsor, rhetorically asked a Tampa radio host: "Why do we still have apes if we came from them?"
Status: Referred to Senate Committee on Education Pre-K-12, which Wise chairs.
A map of radiation levels in Japan released by the US Department of Energy on Tuesday evening indicates that potentially dangerous levels of radioactive contamination have spread beyond the 13-mile evacuation zone surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The data is sure to further undermine confidence in Japan's response to the disaster. US authorities have recommended that Americans stay at least 50 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Here's the map, which was generated from the DOE's Aerial Monitoring System and ground sensors:
Spread of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant
To put these numbers in context, a typical chest X-ray produces 10 mRem. US EPA guidelines require government intervention if the public is exposed to more than 1000 mRem over four days. People near Fukushima could be exposed to that amount of radiation at least every 3.3 days in the red zone and anywhere from there to every 19 days in the orange zone above. Of course, it's unclear from the chart to what degree radiation levels in the area fluctuate over time. "Measurements show an area of greater radiation extending northwest from the accident," a DOE backgrounder notes, adding with dry understatement: "This area may be of interest to public safety officials and responders."
Last week, I wrote about an unusual piece of legislation in Texas that would ban workplace discrimination against creationists. HB 2454 would make it a crime to "discriminate against or penalize in any manner" a professor or student based on his or her "conduct of research relating to the theory of intelligent design." On Friday, the author of the bill, Republican state Rep. Bill Zedler of Arlington, called me to defend it. Here's an excerpt from our conversation:
Mother Jones: Are you a creationist?
Bill Zedler: Evolutionists will go "Oh, it just happened by chance." Today we know that’s false. Today we know that even a single-celled organism is hugely complex. When was the last time we’ve seen someone go into a windstorm or a tornado or any other kind of natural disaster, and say "Guess what? That windstorm just created a watch."
MJ: Are you saying a windstorm is like the Big Bang?
BZ: It has to do with things occurring by chance.
MJ: Ok. [Long pause]. Is a windstorm analogous to a genetic mutation?
BZ: Well, not really. I don’t want to go that far. Let me put it to you this way: When we talk about people with faith, there is no greater faith than that life began by chance, with the amount of knowledge that we know now.
MJ: I thought people doing work on the science of evolution typically don’t weigh in on what caused the beginning of life.
BZ: I wonder why?
MJ: They say they don’t know the answer.
BZ: If somebody does decide to weigh in, why should they be discriminated against?
MJ: Because they don’t have the scientific evidence to substantiate their views.
BZ: The debate ought to be: “How did it happen?” But we’re not gonna allow that one to be brought up! I don’t think they oughta be thrown off campus if they come up with it.
MJ: The bill basically deals with the treatment of creationists as a matter of workplace discrimination. It got me thinking about other efforts to deal with that issue, such as legislation that prohibits workplace discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation, or marital status. A lot of states have laws outlawing that type of discrimination, but Texas doesn’t. Do you think that it should?
GE's ESBWR reactor (passive cooling system is #17)
EDITOR'S NOTE: On Monday, this story was updated with responses from GE.
The nuclear industry likes to claim that each new reactor model is safer than the last. The unfolding nuclear emergency in Japan suggests otherwise.
A major source of the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is its inability to cool down its overheating reactors without electricity, which was knocked out by the earthquake and tsunami. Missing from most of Fukushima's reactors is a passive cooling system that operates without electricity. Phased out by General Electric just as Fukushima was being constructed in the early 1970s, the old system could have operated even after the earthquake and tsunami wiped out the plant's electrical supply and diesel generators. "It can go on essentially forever" without electricity, says Mujid Kazimi, a professor of nuclear engineering at MIT. If it had been in use at Fukushima, he adds, it could have significantly slowed down the plant's overheating problems.
General Electric developed passive cooling systems for use in its boiling water reactors, which were first introduced in the 1950s. Its last passively cooled reactor, the BWR3, debuted in the late 1960s. The BWR3's backup cooling system runs entirely on gravity and steam generated by the reactor. As the steam rises inside the reactor vessel, it is captured by an isolation condenser, cooled off, and pumped back towards the hot core by a gravity-driven injection system. "Something that can circulate on its own would be very helpful" at Fukushima, Kazimi says.
But passive cooling is no guarantee against disaster. The steam in the reactor will boil off after six to eight hours if more water isn't added, which might have been what happened before the plant's Unit 1 reactor, its only BWR3, caught fire on Saturday. It's also possible that Unit 1 was compromised by the earthquake or tsunami. A spokesman for GE, Michael Tetuan, said that GE doesn't yet have enough information to compare how its different reactor models fared in the disaster.
GE has dealt with Japan's nuclear crisis in part by trying to distance its older technologies from its newer ones. "BWR technology has evolved; each design more simple than the previous," says a fact sheet on the company's nuclear crisis website. "As a result, each generation of BWR has provided increased safety and improved economics."
Yet GE's shift away from passive cooling technologies during the 1970s illustrates how some "improvements" come with trade-offs. Tetuan says that GE abandoned the passive cooling system not because it didn't work, but because the new system could keep water over the fuel rods even in the event of a partial pipe break—a perceived safety benefit. Kazimi also speculated that it may have been harder to seal off the old system inside a containment dome. But the airtight domes at Fukushima have proven to be of limited value; Japanese plant operators have been forced to vent them to release radioactive steam building up inside.
Tellingly, GE has revived its passive cooling technology in its next-generation prototype reactor, the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor. Tetuan says that GE first began researching a new passive cooling system in the wake of the Three Mile Island disaster, when utilities requested reactors that were simpler to operate, had fewer components, and didn't depend on diesel generators for backup. A fact sheet on the ESBWR brags that its "passive design features, such as passive containment cooling, reduce the number of active systems, increasing safety." GE claims that ESBWR is so safe, in fact, that humans would be better off spending their time worrying about threats from outer space. The company figures that a large asteroid is 11 times more likely to strike Earth in the next 100 years than the ESBWR is to fail.
Of course, as Japan shows, improbable disasters actually happen, and when they do, they can take out some pretty fancy nuclear plants.
CEO bonuses at 50 major corporations jumped a median of 30.5%, the bigest gain in at least three years, according to a study of the first batch of corporate pay disclosures by consulting firm Hay Group for The Wall Street Journal.
To a large degree, the gains reflect the value of generous CEO stock options, which surged in concert with last year's bull market. It might seem only fair to incentivize executives to boost their companies' share prices—until you consider how few of these gains have trickled down to the average American worker.