The time is right to end fossil fuel subsidies

Originally posted on the Sussex Energy Group blog, February 3rd 2015

When the price of the world’s most widely-traded commodity halves within a 6-month period, it has a tendency to draw attention from governments, industry and the media alike.  North Sea oil has recently been selling at around $45 per barrel, a 6-year low following a fairly steady average of around $110 since mid-2011 (fig. 1).  This is not the first time we have seen dramatic changes in the oil price, either; in the months and years preceding the 2008 crash, economists and policy makers were getting used to the idea of impending $150+ oil.  In the month of August that year alone, it plunged by 70%.  For now, the price is potentially beginning to level off, but the volatility of the oil markets is sure to remain an important part of the economic sphere far into the future.

Brent Crude Price

Fig. 1: Brent Crude was trading at $48.50/bbl on January 28th 2015.  A year earlier it was nearly $110/bbl. (FT markets)

What does the recent price fall mean for the nascent sustainable energy transition?  Some see it as bad news; falling oil prices mean higher demand, more carbon emissions and less interest in sustainable alternatives.  We’ve already begun to hear tales of increased SUV sales in the US, and as the price of natural gas is linked to that of oil (in Europe at least) it might be the case that gas-fired electricity generation could become more attractive, offsetting renewables.

On the other hand, in many regions like Europe, renewable generation is mandated by national and regional policy – utilities have to derive a certain amount of electricity from these sources – and many governments have put in place price incentives to do so, with Germany (and others’) Feed-in Tarriffs a prime example.  Renewables are thus sheltered to some degree from the kind of market activity we have recently seen.  In fact, the whole point of these subsidies is to provide an incentive for their use, and the more we deploy these technologies the cheaper they become; a phenomenon which has been borne out in recent years.  ‘Grid parity’, whereby the levelised costs of renewable energy becomes competitive with coal and gas, is now a reality in many places, particularly for solar PV, and is soon to become so elsewhere.  Meanwhile, it’s becoming ever more apparent that the volatility of oil and gas isn’t going to stop any time soon, leaving this kind of energy use (be it in electricity generation or petrol) vulnerable to short- and long-term fluctuations.

But instead of just waiting for cheaper sustainable energy, why not level the playing field?  Fossil fuels enjoy enormous subsidies from governments every year – far more so than renewables.  The IEA estimates that in 2010 subsidies to the fossil fuel industry amounted to $409 billion worldwide, with those to oil companies representing almost half of the total.  These are generally in the form of tax allowances for exploration and production companies, by governments who are keen to see investment in their economy.  But, as unconventional oil and gas (such as that from shale or tar sands) is increasingly relied upon, the costs of production are growing which in turn drives up the cost of subsidies.  What’s more, many of the highest subsidy rates are in emerging nations such as Venezuela, Algeria and Egypt, which ties up a significant amount of potential government revenue which is much needed elsewhere within their economies.

If governments were to begin phasing out these subsidies, companies would pass these extra costs through to consumers.  Hence, energy prices would inevitably be driven up – a politically-challenging issue for any policy maker.  However, with recent market events we find ourselves in the very unique situation of falling prices of clean energy alongside the low price of oil, gas and coal; removing handouts to industry now would cause the least amount of pain for consumers worldwide, whilst bolstering the growth of sustainable alternatives.  We could go further, too.  Effective carbon pricing – much discussed but long unattainble – is unlikely to be much easier to implement in the future than it is now.  Though it would drive up (currently low) costs in the short term, it would do wonders in spurring the development of sustainable energy forms, as investors are provided a clear indication of the direction of government policy and an incentive to act.

As The Economist recently put it, policy makers should act boldly and “Seize the Day”, scrapping “nonsense” energy policy and replacing it with more prudent alternatives.  Though it would require significant co-ordination and political will (perhaps bravery), the imperative to act has never been greater; this year’s UN climate talks in Paris are regarded by some as the last chance to make a meaningful and effective global agreement, and recent research on unburnable carbon highlights the need to leave the majority of proven reserves in the ground.  It seems obvious, then, that governments should begin a concerted effort to reign in an industry whose business model is incompatible with a sustainable future.

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A response to Harry Saunders’ “Divestment will not keep carbon in the ground”

– Originally posted on the Sussex Energy Group blog, January 29th 2015. Co-authored with Emily Cox

This blog post is a response to a recent article on the divestment of shares in fossil fuels by Harry Saunders.

Jack and Emily are part of the ‘Fossil Free Sussex’ campaign, which aims to encourage the University to move its investments away from the oil, gas and coal industries.  In his well-written and thought-provoking article, Harry argues that ‘divestment will not keep carbon in the ground’, by pointing out that shares in a company represent a stake in the ownership of that company, but do not affect the fundamental production economics, even if widespread divestment does occur.

These kinds of arguments against divestment seem to be based upon the view that the campaign is trying to bankrupt the industry. Whilst campaigning at Sussex, we have said from the beginning that the damage we are attempting to do is not financial; UK universities have a combined endowment wealth of around £10bn (People & Planet estimation, 2013), of which around 5% can reasonably be thought to be represented by fossil fuel stocks.  We are aware that £500m is never going to financially harm the industry (and after reading the article, it is apparent that were this figure to be much larger, it still wouldn’t).

What we are instead trying to do is inflict reputational impact. The oft-made analogy between divestment in fossil fuels and Apartheid South Africa highlights where this has been successful in the past (though there are of course distinct differences between the two – this analogy is slightly challenging but the basic principles are the same). Our universities do not invest in tobacco, arms manufacture, pornography or gambling industries. The arguments Harry has made apply equally to these companies, yet they have a reputational tarnish and thus have seen their shares sold by certain institutions. We believe this industry should be added to that list, because of issues like unburnable carbon; we are not saying that we should divest to stop carbon emissions (directly), but that because of carbon emissions we should divest.

The divestment campaign is not attempting to halt – or even particularly to slow – fossil fuel extraction. In fact, it is precisely this absence of grand ambition which is appealing, since it thereby avoids the problems of intractability which tend to plague public attempts to tackle climate change. Instead, the campaign seeks to redefine what we mean by an ‘ethical investment’. Most universities (and churches, and other institutions who are considering divesting) already have an ethical investment portfolio, which avoids arms, tobacco etc. What is needed is a redefinition of ‘ethical’ to include concern for the climate. An investment in fossil fuels should not be considered an ethical investment, assuming that protecting the environment and mitigating climate change is an ethic we hold dear.

In this sense, perhaps better parallels can be drawn with other types of ethical investment, such as switching to an ethical bank account or buying fair trade. No-one claims that ethical bank accounts such as Triodos are going to put a stop to the arms trade; it is more a case of feeling that our own money should not be used in ways we feel uncomfortable about. It should not always have to be a choice between changing the world or doing nothing at all; sometimes small actions are correct for moral, rather than pragmatic, reasons.

This campaign is empowering people – in Sussex and worldwide – who otherwise feel they can do nothing about climate change, save ride their bike more and listen whilst policymakers squabble. Even if Sussex doesn’t divest but we cause a few more people to become interested in climate, then we will feel that the campaign has been a success.

Fossil fuel? Nein, danke

I’ve just finished writing a comment piece for the Badger, Sussex University’s student newspaper, about University investment in oil & gas companies.  It’s part of a campaign that I and a few students from the School of Global Studies are undertaking to try to get the University to withdraw their funds (‘divest’) from such organisations.  I’ll be updating this blog with our progress.  Here’s the article:

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last decade or two, you’ll be aware of the very real threat to our civilisation posed by climate change, spurred on by the burning of fossil fuels to provide the services demanded by modern societies.  Perhaps less well-known, though, is the concept of ‘unburnable carbon’, and the colossal inertia we are faced with in trying to tackle the problem.

Some degree of global temperature rise is now unavoidable.  Indeed, it has already begun.  By now, the question is where the thermometer stops; international negotiation, underpinned by scientific research, has resulted in the verdict that 2°C is the most we can allow.  Many think of this as some description of a ‘safe limit’, though let’s be clear; even this modest level of warming poses significant risks to global food and water supply, habitats and coastlines.

Recent research, however, puts the scale of the challenge even further into perspective.  Climate change institutes have estimated that if we’re to stick to our target, humanity can afford to release another 560 – 880 billion tonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere before 2050, with almost no emissions thereafter.  Compare this to the reserves of fossil fuels under the ground which coal, oil and gas companies worldwide have on their books; an amount equivalent to a mammoth 2860 GtCO2.  This means that of everything in the ground which companies know they can extract easily, burning about 20% would bring us to our target.  Anything more and we quite literally begin to cook the planet.  In the face of this, companies are still spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year trying to find more fossils under the ground to add to their reserves.  This wilful blindness desperately needs to be stopped.

You may be somewhat surprised, then, to discover that our University has hundreds of thousands of pounds invested in fossil fuel companies.  Nearly all such bodies do, as do churches, local authorities and public pension funds.  This is why student bodies across the globe have begun a movement to demand their institutions stop this practice of profiting from climate change and inadvertently endangering our futures.  The Fossil Free campaign, part of the organisation 350.org, has delivered scores of petitions to Vice Chancellors and their equivalents, and we plan to do the same.

A few hundred thousand pounds in isolation means nothing to the industry, but it sends a message that we will not stand for this.  The campaign is gathering momentum.  Universities and religious organisations are divesting; in January the chief of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim suggested governments and businesses do the same.  Norwegian pension fund managers are looking to galvanise the support generated so far by divesting.  These are small steps, but with each new addition the impetus gathers.  Fossil fuels are a gargantuan industry, but the challenge our generation faces is greater.

If you are in support of encouraging Sussex to divest from fossil fuels and implement an ethical policy, please come along to our next meeting at 1630 on AprIl 2nd in Falmer Common Room, and sign the petition at http://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/sussex-university-ethical-investment-campaign

You’re on thin ice, sunshine

Here’s something to disquieten your day.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a scientific agency within the US Government who do some very respectable work on climate, released this video recently showing the ages of different parts of Arctic ice over the last 27 years.  The whiter the ice, the older it is.  Make sure you watch it to the end.

You can see from the very dark blue that there’s still a wide area covered with ice, even at the end of Summer.  However, what’s less obvious is that this ice is thinning.  As that happens, that which has been buried deep for decades becomes exposed and melts.  News ‘articles’ like this love to point out that the 2013 coverage area was greater than the previous year (2012 took the trophy for lowest sea ice minimum on record).  To anyone who is inclined to believe the Daily Mail, I recommend looking up the phenomenon of regression to the mean.

Maybe this illustrates what I’m trying to get at more clearly:

We’re looking at an ice-free Summer Arctic within a decade.  When this happens, the climate takes a turn for the worse; Arctic sea ice – a shiny white surface covering a vast area of the planet – does an excellent job of reflecting the Sun’s intensity back into space.  When’s it’s gone during Summer months, the dark ocean absorbs the energy much more readily, accelerating the climatic warming process.  This is a well-understood ‘positive feedback’ effect, though there’s nothing positive about it.  It’s because of phenomena like this (and others) that climate scientists are increasingly worried about ‘runaway’ global warming; we face a tipping point some time in the future, where warming triggers these feedbacks and we end up with a temperature increase much greater than the 2 degrees many are trying desparately to avoid.

Cats, computers and government surveillance

Last year I shared a stop-motion animation made using single trapped molecules by researchers at IBM.  I went on to briefly talk about the technique’s application in quantum computing, but in retrospect I don’t feel like I did the technology justice.  QC provides an enormous potential to scale down the size of computers, as I mentioned.  This, though, is only half the magic (because it is, basically, magic).  The reality-bending nature of quantum mechanics allows an object to be in more than one state at the same time (explanation of ‘state’ to come), which can cause some astounding things to be made possible.  A company called D-Wave who purport to be the world’s first and only quantum computing company (I say ‘purport’ as there’s a bit of controversy surrounding whether or not the computers they use are actually based on quantum mechanics) have produced their own video which explains the process quite well.  For my own explanation, I will invoke the (somewhat tired) analogy of Schrödinger’s Cat:

Schrödinger’s Cat is a thought experiment devised by the Austrian physicist after whom the experiment is named.  Our unfortunate feline finds itself trapped inside a sealed box, into which the outside observer has absolutely no way of observing.  Next to the cat is a single radioactive atom, a Geiger counter (which detects radiation) and a vial of poison.  Radioactivity is very much a statistical phenomenon – given a certain length of time, there is a certain probability the atom will ‘decay’ (and give out radiation) and a certain probability it won’t.  If the atom decays, the Geiger counter observes it, causing the vial to break.  The cat becomes, to use the wise words of John Cleese, an ex-cat.

Or does it? Quantum mechanics dictates to us that, whilst the box is closed and nobody can see inside, the cat is nether alive, nor dead, but a combination of both alive and dead – in what physicists call a ‘superposition state’.  It’s only when one opens the box and observes the cat that it is essentially forced into a state of either life or death.  Bizarre?  Well, if you’ve ever heard someone talking about the ‘strange nature’ of quantum mechanics, this thought experiment essentially underpins that strangeness.  When you get down to a quantum mechanical level, things just don’t behave the way you’d expect. For example, a single electron attached to the nucleus of an atom cannot be located to one single place, instead it has a ‘probability distribution’ – areas where it is likely to be, and areas where it isn’t likely to be.  It’s not until you actually try and observe this property (‘opening the box’) that it is forced to take a precise location.  The same goes for its speed – as it ‘orbits’ around the nucleus, it’s likely to be at a specific speed, though you can’t be sure, and the further away from that speed, the less likely it is. When you measure the speed, it takes a certain value.  This goes for just about every other parameter relating to the particle.

Now, I should state that in reality, were someone to be so ruthless as to actually do this to a cat (in the name of sciece!) then it would be plain old dead or alive, as we’d expect.  This non-intuitive behaviour only occurs at the quantum level, i.e. really, really, really small – so when an object is said to behave ‘quantum mechanically’, it’s generally something like a single particle.  In the (relatively enormous) biological system which constitutes a cat, the probabilistic nature (‘likely to do this, not likely to do that’) of a single (quantum-mechanical) particle is summed up over the vast number of particles, resulting in a life or death probability which is so enormously high that it’s vitually certain it’ll be either alive or dead.  By the same token, though, that means that quantum mechanically, virtually anything is possible (or, at the very least, it isn’t impossible).  To use an analogy by John Gribbin, if I’m looking at a granite statue, it’s not impossible that the atoms in its hand could suddenly rearrange themselves such that it appears to wave at me. Mind-boggling stuff.

Fundamental explanation of quantum mechanics aside, what’s so magic (I hope you now agree with me about the magic sentiment) about quantum computers?  Think, if you will, about the ‘bits’ (ones and zeroes) in your computer, each stored within a single capacitor.  Millions of these combined form data.  As I’ve previously mentioned, the QC uses the ‘qubit’ – similar to the bit, but far more useful.  This is because not only can the qubit store a zero or one (often, but not exclusively, via its spin-state), but also a superposition state between the two (as in the dead/alive quantum cat).  So now, where a classical computer is contrained to searching for individual combinations of zeroes and ones, its quantum equivalent can search through multiple combinations simultaneously.  Again, the video by D-Wave explains this quite well but you could maybe think of it in terms of coins.  If I have 10,000 coins in a row and am looking for a unique combination of heads and tails, as a classical computer I’d have to move all 10,000 coins into one composition; if that’s not the right one I’d have to move all 10,000 into another composition, and continue this process until I find the right setup.  As a shiny quantum computer though, I’d be able to look at multiple combinations at once – so I’d have multiple rows of 10,000 which I could move simultaneously.  The possible reductions in computation time are astronomical.

The scaled-down size and enormous speed allowed by this technology have huge potential implications.  It names quite a few in the video, though I particularly like the example given where a natural disaster has recently struck and the most efficient distribution of rescue resources has to be computed.  Such a huge number of alternative scenarios demands an enormous computing power, which only a QC could provide in a reasonable timeframe.  Huge numbers of lives could be saved.  One thing which did make me slightly uneasy, though, was the mention of the potential to sift through huge datasets ‘to catch bad guys’.  After everything we’ve heard about the misdeeds of various governments over the last couple of years I’m not sure I want GCHQ or the NSA to have that kind of snooping ability at their fingertips.  Perhaps if they were catching cat-killers my mind would be more at ease?

Tyrannosaurus Lawson

On a fine, soggy February morning a few weeks ago (this post is a bit belated), a chap named Lord Nigel Lawson was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, gracing the nation with his highly-informed views on climate change in a `discussion’ with the esteemed Sir Brian Hoskins.  Having prematurely reached middle age, I happen to listen to this fine broadcast on a fairly regular basis.  I am also prone, as my girlfriend would inform you, to the occasional mild display of wrath towards inanimate information-providing devices.  Never, though, have I held in my heart such a desire to defenestrate a radio as I did that morning.

Lord Lawson (yes, the father of Nigella, poor woman) was, in a bygone era, a member of Thatcher’s cabinet.  Having held the role of Secretary of State for Energy in the early 80s, he was largely responsible for the privatisation of our energy sector.  He’s now the chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation – a group which ideologically opposes the notion that we are influencing our climate (and which won’t disclose the source of its funding).

If you happen to live in this country, you’ll be aware that we’ve had a spot of rain recently, and now vast swathes of southern England are ankle-deep in liquid sunshine, causing something of a political shitstorm for just about everyone involved.  The idea that this could be caused by climate was inevitably brought up, so Lawson and Hoskins (a member of the Committee on Climate Change) were brought to Broadcasting House to lock horns, as it were.  You might want to listen to the discussion – it makes for very entertaining/infuriating listening (delete as appropriate).

Before I voice my disagreements with this true champion of environmentalism, allow me to point out that Lawson has no scientific background, whatsoever, yet he makes atmosphere-related claims with such confidence you could mistake him for a veteran climatologist.

In his very first breath, we are informed that it is not the case, of course, that “these rainfalls [which caused the floods] are due to global warming”.  He carries on in his rambling manner which only an 81-year-old Conservative Lord can pull off, to tell us how “nobody knows” about the effects of climate change (except him, it seems), and that it’s all just “extremely speculative and uncertain” – apart from the bits he knows.  No, really, he knows it.  He went on to utterly disprove the predictions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of more extreme weather events as a result of climate change.  2013 was “unusually quiet” for tropical storms, he asserts, and with such authority!  “You fools,” he may as well have cried, “how could you believe those yoghurt-spoon-waving environmentalists?!”  It would seem, though, that he may have forgotten about the strongest typhoon, ever, in the Philippines last year.  Or in terms of more general extreme weather, Australia’s hottest January, ever.  Or its hottest day on record, ever.  Or its 123 records being broken in 90 days.  Or the worst UK March snowfall in 30 years.  Or the worst drought in California, ever.

I’m being facetious, and possibly labouring the point a little too hard (I could go on though), but I can’t help but be astounded by the sheer hypocrisy of Lawson.  One second he dismissed the climate as too complex to study, and minutes later he makes wild oversimplifications by suggesting that the planet hasn’t been seen to be getting warmer in the last 15 years.  This `pause’ is in fact a slightly slower rate of increase than observed before – though still an increase – and is in part (amongst many factors within such a complex system) due to the oceans acting as a giant heat sink.  To simply suggest that climate change has stopped is short-sighted wishful thinking.

Perhaps I should be more understanding that an elderly gentleman is disinclined to change his entire worldview because of evidence which undermines it after so many years – we are, after all, beginning to reach a deep understanding of the psychological factors behind climate change denial (more on that another time).  What really has wound me up, though, is that the BBC even asked him to appear on the programme.  In their unending pursuit of fair journalism, organisations such as our beloved public broadcaster will never fail to voice both sides of a story.  In the majority of cases this is, of course, the right thing to do; we, as the public, want to hear both sides of the story so we can make our own mind up.  Now, I don’t want to be interpreted as dictating what the public should and shouldn’t be told, but scientific stories like this just don’t fit this model of subjectively-formed news.  By placing someone like Dear Old Nigel in front of the microphone, the BBC lets the message be put across that there is still a significant amount of debate amongst the scientific community about the causes and effects of climate change.

Here’s the thing. There isn’t.

If you’re here reading my ramblings (quite possibly at my behest), then hopefully you already understand that.  But let’s just make sure we’re absolutely clear here.  The overwhelming scientific consensus is that human emission of greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide – into the atmosphere over the last century and a half is causing the average surface temperature of the planet to increase.  As Lawson rightly points out, the climate is an extremely complex system, but these are the facts and their fundamental causal mechanisms are well-understood.  If you have any doubt in your mind, I implore you, please go and look at the latest report by the IPCC.  Here’s the summary – it’s not technically challenging, it’s quite long, but it’s relatively easy to get the gist of.

I don’t want to get too much into the IPCC right now (this has ended up being longer than I intended, again), but they are the crème de la crème of scientists who are involved in climate.  As such they use the language of science, in the sense that it is very purposeful, particularly with regard to uncertainty;  statements like “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of … observed warming since the mid-20th century” (p.17) use the concept of `likeliness’ in a scientific manner – as the result of thousands of analyses, models and expert opinions.  It is of a different league to “it’s extremely likely that I will insult my radio tomorrow morning when I am woken up by it” (which, I assure you, is extremely likely).  Unfortunately, it’s precisely this language that brings so much grief to climate scientists – the very manner in which they themselves try to respect scientific uncertainty (which must be respected) leaves them vulnerable to criticism by the likes of Lawson spouting off that they “don’t know”.

(He does though).

Don’t take it out on the tuna

I was recently confronted with this image on a social networking site:

 RADIYASHUNZderp

Part of its tagline read “The medias [sic] latest distraction is working nicely. Meanwhile, our entire planet is flooding with extremely high levels of radiation and it keeps getting worse by the day. Something must be done.”

I have no problems agreeing with the sentiment of the statement about Miley Cyrus’s antics and their ability to captivate audiences.  Frivolous nonsense aside though, this is a deeply misleading image.  The dramatic colours permeating the Pacific supposedly represent  the extent of radioactive material leakage from the Fukushima nuclear power facility in Japan.

You may be inclined to think, that’s a lot of radioactive stuff, and it’s gone very far.  For half a moment I did.  Then I remembered not to blindly believe the message being portrayed, and looked more deeply into it…  Hang about, that scale is in centimetres – a unit of length, not radioactivity.

That’s because this map has nothing to do with radioactive leakage – it doesn’t even have any direct relation to Fukushima.  It’s the projection onto a 2D map of this image from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showing the 2011 tsunami’s maximum wave height.

I’m curious as to whether or not the person who produced this drivel knew the mistake they were making.  If I had to guess, it would be no – I can easily imagine someone involuntarily spitting their organic antioxidant-rich superfood cereal bar over their laptop after having googled ‘Fukushima’ and seen this, then feeling duty-bound to share it with the world.  Dishonest intentions or not, when faced with an image like this it’s easy to come to one’s own conclusions a little quicker than one should.

Unfortunately, discussion about Fukushima is littered with this kind of fear-mongering.  Take for instance the headline-grabbing reports about radioactive fish near Fukushima waters.  Many west-coast Americans are now afraid to eat tuna caught in the Pacific for fear they’ll grow another limb if they do.  The situation is explained perfectly here; what none of these reports tell you is that elevated levels of radioisotopes by no means necessarily constitute hazardous levels of radioisotopes.

You may also have read about the ‘300 tonnes of radioactive water’ leaking into the Pacific every day since the crisis.  Judging by the vastly-conflicting media reports I personally think that number is a little dubious.  Nonetheless, it does sound like a lot – to use the classic unit favoured by journalists the world over, that’s a 2-metre deep Olympic pool every 8 days.  It’s important to get a perspective on the scale of dilution going on here though.  1OP emptying into the Pacific Ocean, which has a volume of 6.6×10^17 m^3 (cheers Wolfram), every 8 days, for 2.5 years, represents 0.0000000004% of the ocean’s content originating from the site.  Ok, this is very much a ballpark figure, and that water is nowhere near evenly-distributed throughout the ocean, but hopefully it gives you an idea of how long it would actually take for the ocean to have any meaningful content of radioactive material.

The problem the nuclear industry has where public opinion is concerned is that so many people hold irrational opinions about the risk of radiation.  It’s important to remember that we come into contact with it every day.  Walls, food, even people have a small level of radioactivity.  The xkcd comic-writers have wonderfully illustrated this with a radiation dose chart which worth bearing a look at. Aside from the Olympic Pool, one of my favourite units is the Banana Equivalent Dose.  The average banana has an activity of roughly 15 Becquerels (15Bq), i.e. every second around 15 potassium-40 nuclei in your lunchbox decay, producing radiation (this isn’t quite the same as a BED, which takes into account the source and way in which the radiation is absorbed by the body).

Some figures released by Tepco in August show that there are 50,000-80,000 Bq (roughly 3000-5000 bananas) per cubic centimetre in the highly contaminated water collecting in the basements of the facility.  This is collected and treated, though it’s thought a lot leaks into the ground. Post-treatment, the water has levels of activity which are orders of magnitude lower. That which makes it into the groundwater contributes to the aforementioned ‘300 tons per day’, though again my dilution point applies: Put a litre (or 300 tons, you choose) of highly-radioactive water into an ocean of clean water, and you’ll get… an ocean of clean water (or, a negligibly differing amount of radioactivity, if you understand the concept of negligible).

Also, what none of the fact-scarce media reports have pointed out is that nearly 100% of the radiation detected at on-site storage leaks is beta radiation.  If you’ll cast your mind back to GCSE Physics, beta radiation is the emission of a single electron, and is absorbed by say, a sheet of paper, or two metres of air.  It is nearly impossible for a beta-emitter to cause a lethal dose in a human, no matter how strong, unless it is ingested.

Some of the more absurd claims about How Much Danger You’re In tend to come from websites such as ‘thetruthwins.com’ and ‘popularresistance.org’, with the former enlightening us all with ‘11 facts about the ongoing Fukushima nuclear holocaust that are almost too horrifying to believe’.  Amongst this reputable list you’ll find truths such as ‘Something is causing fish along the west coast of Canada to bleed from their gills, bellies and eyeballs.  Could Fukushima be responsible?’ (no), or ‘150 former sailors and Marines say that they now have radiation sickness as a result of serving on U.S. Navy ships near Fukushima and they are suing for damages.’

To conclude, the point of my post is this: You are not in danger because of Fukushima.  Do not let anyone tell you otherwise, and treat misinformed media reports (even mainstream ones), with a healthy dose of scepticism.