Science in Society Archive

Science in Society #47 - Letters to the Editor

Science in Society 47

Truth about Nuclear Power

Re The Truth about Chernobyl (SiS 47), I have a personal copy of the major 1994 report Belarus-Japan Synposium Acute and Late Consequences of Nuclear Catastrophies Hiroshima-Nakasaki and Chernobyl. The meeting was in Minsk. Afterwards, I worked in Belarus three times and indeed near to Chernobyl looking at the consequences for food production of exclusion policies etc. I was then and am still inclined to think that the problems associated with nuclear as a source cannot be reconciled with its being considered "sustainable". It may well be one of several factors leading towards our extinction-but not just yet!
Dr. Colin Leakey, Cambridge, UK

I have spent a large part of my life opposing nuclear power but lately some scientists who I respect say the new breed of reactors (pebble-bed etc) are not like the old kind as in Chernobyl and are safe. Is that so?
Jenny Goldie, Vice-president of ACT Peak Oil, Michelago, NSW, Australia

Prof. Peter Saunders replies
The new reactor designs are safer than the one at Chernobyl, but they are not so safe that there can never be another serious accident. With any technology, something is bound to go badly wrong sooner or later, and we have to ask what will happen when it does. The nuclear industry takes Chernobyl as the worst case scenario and argues that if at most 4 000 people might die and about the same number get a treatable cancer, the risk is worth taking. When we learn that the number of deaths and serious injuries due to Chernobyl was in the hundreds of thousands, things look very different. The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) that Jenny Goldie mentions is a good illustration. It was designed so that it cannot fail in the way the Chernobyl reactor did, and for some time it was widely seen as a breakthrough in both safety and cost. When looked at more carefully, however, it turns out to have potentially dangerous flaws of its own (see Safe New Generation Nuclear Power? SiS 29). The South African government has now stopped funding the development of the PBMR, apparently because of unresolved technical issues.

Dangers of Glyphosate

Regarding Scientists Reveal Glyphosate Poisons Crops and Soil and Glyphosate Tolerant Crops Bring Diseases and Death (SiS 47), I have lived on a golf course for 14 years where houses are built around the golf course. In our particular location in the village, I was exposed to a lot of spraying for weed control with no notice given beforehand so that windows could be closed. I know Round Up was used among other herbicides. The men doing the spraying were not even registered, which is required by the Act. From 2000, I was in touch with the Management, and the Department of Health, and later the Air Pollution Unit of Cape Town complaining about the use of these herbicides around the homes of mainly retired people. It is a long story, but I am left with lymphatic stasis, compromised mucus menbranes and most nights have to get up as I have difficulty breathing, need to clear my nose and breathe in something to open up the channels. I came to this village with 100 percent good health, and I have never smoked.
Doreen Flanagan, Somerset West near Cape Town, South Africa

O2 Dropping and Air Safety

Re O2 Dropping Faster than CO2 Rising (SiS 44), My concern was over a recent flight on BA when symptoms of hypoxia developed while flying at 39,000 feet (cabin display) over Atlantic. I understand that cabin air circulation uses external air compressed to 8,000 ft equivalent pressure to raise oxygen partial pressure to an acceptable level which should be routinely checked by flight crew (with routinely calibrated meter?). Does a decline in atmospheric oxygen tension mean that this standard practice be modified?
Patrick Foster, Nottingham, UK
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho replies
You raise a very important point. Commercial jets are supposed to be pressurised to an altitude of 5 000 to 8 000 ft, reducing oxygen pressure by 1/6 from 150 to 125 Torr. This greatly exceeds the safety limit of 19.5 percent oxygen partial pressure in confined spaces at sea level. Recently, I passed out briefly from hypoxia on a transAtlantic flight. The air stewardess (ex-nurse) who attended to me said passengers are passing out on average every one in ten flights. Oxygen partial pressure has not decreased to that extent yet. But the safety limit on commercial jets is clearly inadequate

Monsanto Veto over Safety Testing

Regarding Corporate Monopoly of Science (SiS 42), I read somewhere else that Monsanto has veto power over safety testing on their patented seeds. If true, this outrageous state of affairs explains much. It seems the most likely political avenue to address the issue is on the local and state level. I understand GMO beet seeds are being tested here in my home town. Perhaps we should pursue a state or cou.nty ban or morotorium.
Fergus Mclean, Willamette Valley, Oregon, USA
Prof. Peter Saunders replies
Monsanto does not exactly have veto power over safety testing. The company simply refuses to let independent scientists have the GM seeds for testing. Therefore, as described in the article, the group of 26 US scientists stated to the Environment Protection Agency: the data on which approvals of GMOs are given are "unduly limited". A state or country ban or moratorium is definitely a way to go, as already demonstrated in California.

Good News from India

Interesting and welcoming news from Kanyakumari district, to follow on from your reports Farmer Suicides and Bt Cotton Nightmare Unfolding in India, Mealy Bug Plagues Bt Cotton in India and Pakistan (SiS 45); and  Bt Brinjal Halted (SiS 46). District Collector Thiru, Ramaunaja Rathnu has organised a separate grievances day meeting on 23 July 2010. He also has a proposal to convert the district to organic through a series of programmes, he has banned plastic carry bag use in the district after a series of programmes. His e-mail id is
Ramasamy Selvam, Co-ordinator of Tamil Nadu Organic Farmers Federation, Tamil Nadu, India

Dream Farm 2 Scotland

Re How to Beat Climate Change & Be Food and Energy Rich - Dream Farm 2 (SiS 29) and other articles on the subject, I have a five acre smallholding in the north east of Scotland. My interest is in permaculture and farming although I am trained molecular biologist. My aim in starting my smallholding has been to become asself sufficient as possible. The biggest hurdle I have come across has been generating energy to supply the needs of the smallholding. Currently all the energy is imported from external sources but I know this is not sustainable. Anaerobic digestion may be the answer.

I am currently trying to develop the site using permaculture principles and am particularly interested in the methods used by Sepp Holzer (

Permanent natural pastures are something I am considering along with fruit, nut and other beneficial trees to act as fodder for human and animal.
Chris Fletcher, Aberdeen, Scotland

Human Faeces Needed for Zero Carbon Britain

Re 'Zero Carbon Britain' or Dust Bowl Britain? Yes, we need to return human faeces to the soil, not least because of peak phosphorous – we are running out of other sources of phosphorous – but not as sewage, i.e., everything that gets flushed down drains, including considerable quantities of highly toxic waste. And current sewage treatment methods do not reliably destroy all of the pathogens in sewage. It is vastly inefficient to add water to faeces for the purpose of flushing them away, then having to extract the water back again later. We need to say goodbye to the flush toilet and replace flush toilets with composting toilets. After faeces have been composted sufficiently long (to to 2 years in some cases) they can be used safety as high quality fertilizer. To avoid issues with transport they should be used as locally as possible, ideally on site.
David Hodges, Auckland, New Zealand

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho replies
Anaerobic-digester toilets are much superior to composting foilets for retaining and recycling nutrients and hygiene.

Yes! GM DNA does Jump Species
Regarding GM DNA Does Jump Species (SiS 47), we should probably think about the GMO risk of horizontal transfer in relation to environmental viruses much more than in relation to bacteria. This can be inferred from the papers of Frank Ryan and others. I would suggest that bacteriophages are the main agents of environmental horizontal transfer.
Ivo Wiesner, CSc., Biologicke centrum AV CR, Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic

Quantum Jazz & Quan Yin

Reading Quantum Jazz Biology (SiS 47) was like reading the most beautiful poetry about life. My full body intellectual and emotional response was the same as when I stepped off the bus and stood before the Quan Yin Buddhist Temple in China in 1999, the Year of the Rabbit. Thank you for taking me "to that place" again.

I am just an American housewife, an organic gardener striving to restructure our lifestyle and home to a sustainable, urban homestead. I only have a high school education with some other college courses. I refer to someone like you as a “brainiac”. My father-in-law had a PhD in Physcis so I have been exposed. I find it so ironic, almost puzzling, that I understand almost everything you have said in this heart-warming, touching informative article. I would like permission to copy this article for my family and friends to read. So many parts of this article express what I believe, but have been unable to adequately articulate about science interconnecting with Mother Nature and human existence. Also, I would like to send a hard-copy to Jules Dervaes in Pasadena, CA. Mr. Dervaes and his family are self-sustainable organic urban homesteader's. His website is: He began his journey into sustainability 20 years ago to protect his family from genetically-modified foods.
Christine VanHooft, Dennisport, MA, USA

Article first published 11/08/10

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Larry Powell Comment left 12th August 2010 06:06:28
Roblin Manitoba, CA Is Climate Change a Four-Letter Word? If it isn't a "dirty" topic, why then do so many people seem to prefer to walk on hot coals rather than talk about it? I happen to be one who believes climate change is not only real and affecting us now, but is caused by the way we live on this earth as humans. But don't take my word for it. That is exactly what the world's best scientific minds have been telling us for years. But nobody seems to be listening; or, even worse, refusing to hear! And what about the skyrocketing number of deadly storms, both around the world and here on our own doorstep ? I've either been seeing them in the news, a lot, or experiencing them, first hand. Haven't you? I have sometimes tried to get people to tell me what they believe might be behind all this weird weather. (I'm usually met with stoney silence or a noncommittal mumble.) After all, the experts have also been telling us for years that, yes, climate change will not only bring more of these storms but more serious ones, too. And it is! Floods, droughts, blizzards, tornadoes, hurricanes, monsoons, mudslides, wildfires and heat waves are now everywhere. (But, I hear you saying, they always have been. Yes, that's true. But there are now more and more of them and they are getting worse.) They are inflicting death, destruction, hunger and heartache on increasing numbers of people at new and disturbing levels. But is this just happening in faraway, exotic places? Not really. Often, we needn't look any further than the next town or the next farm! Just ask the folks who keep track of such things, such as the Worldwatch Institute; Or, for that matter, the old-timer next door who is seeing conditions he/she has never seen in his/her lifetime, or the northern outfitter or First Nation's resident who've been forced out by forest fires, or a farmer suffering from crippling crop or pasture losses thanks to unprecedented rainfall. In other words, these patterns are, at the very least, consistent with the climate change theory, are they not? If they were not, I'd be skeptical myself! As a matter of fact, there are precious few scientists any longer who do not subscribe to the idea of climate change. And most of these "deniers" are either poorly qualified, connected to the oil and gas industry, plain liars or all three! Another significant group within the climate science community is not quoted very often, even now, in this supposed age of awareness about the issue. But they are not the sceptics. Far from it. They believe our planet's plight is far more grave than the picture generally presented to the public. They're predicting certain parts of the earth will be uninhabitable before this century comes to a close. These will include places where the only haven from fatal heat stroke will be in buildings equipped with air conditioning. While such a convenience is common to those of us who live in the west, it is far from it in "developing" countries where the vast majority of mankind lives. Climate data have been showing for some time now that this latter group's predictions may, alarmingly, be closer to reality. Of course, it would be unscientific of me to single out climate change as the reason behind any given "severe weather event" which our planet might experience. But on the other hand, just how scientific is it for the "climate deniers" to keep insisting that none of this is due to climate change? And just how much longer can outfits like the Canadian Chamber of Commerce continue to obstruct meaningful action on climate change, clinging to the argument that fixing the problem will somehow inflict serious harm to the economy? Just recently, the Chamber unleashed its misguided forces against the Climate Change Accountability Act, which would set significant targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. Already approved by a combined opposition in the Commons, the Act still needs approval in the Senate. Incredibly, the Chamber's President, Perrin Beattie, has been warning of dire consequences for Canadian workers and their families because meeting the emission targets would somehow chase economic activity and jobs to other countries! Does Mr. Beattie actually listen to his own rhetoric? He has rolled out this campaign in the midst of catastrophic flooding that has caused unknown economic damage to Canadian farmers, flash floods and sewer backups which have devastated homes, families, vehicles and other property in Yorkton, Saskatoon, Medicine Hat, Maple Creek, several communities in Manitoba, and washed out highways and rail lines, forcing detours which have cost the transportation industry millions. Then there are the record heat waves in Ontario (and now in Manitoba) and tornadoes in Saskatchewan and Ontario. And don't forget the unprecedented relief packages Ottawa and the provinces have put together for flood-ravaged farmers and beleaguered homeowners in several regions. Meanwhile, 2010 is shaping up as the worst year ever for hail, flood and tornado damage in Saskatchewan . There, insurance claims have already topped $100,000,000. And, as if God had something to do with it, the Regina Leader Post has described the damage as being "of biblical proportions." Add to that the more recent forest fires raging in BC (some in vast pine forests killed and made tinder-dry by beetles which are now thriving due to global warming); floods in Pakistan which have claimed over a thousand lives and affected almost 14 million others; deadly, record heat and wildfires in Russia and on and on. Sounds to me, Mr. Beattie, this smacks more of human suffering and economic damage caused by climate change, rather than efforts to reduce it! Dinosaurs like the Chamber are part of the reason we continue to endure stinking oil spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico and more recently now in Michigan. These have shamefully harmed so much of the natural world, not to mention the livelihoods and even the mental health of ordinary folk who make their living, both from the sea and elsewhere. People like Mr. Beattie would have us believe, moving away from energy sources heavy with greenhouse gases, to cleaner, more sustainable supplies, would somehow cause "serious harm" to our economy! I'm sure glad, Mr. Beattie, that our present system isn't causing any such harm! (Sarcasm intended.) And hats off, by the way, to Canada's Global National News Network and its anchor, Kevin Newman. Newman is the first journalist in this country I've seen who actually has had the courage to point out the ever-more-obvious linkages between destructive storms and the scourge of climate change! (Larry is a journalist/activist and blogger based in rural Manitoba, Canada.)

Joseph S. Johnson Comment left 18th August 2010 16:04:50
All too true. Nobody here but an avid follower of I-SIS. I'm happy to see that the word is getting out to the rest of the world. See, for example "Apocalypse 2012" by Lawrence E. Joseph (2007), and "Aftermath" (a guide to preparing for and surviving) by the same author (2010).