Great Power and Great Responsibility: Belgium’s Nuclear Energy Quandaries

I don’t know about you, but every time I start wading into a news story featuring nuclear anything, I start feeling like we, collectively, as humans, have basically been a toddler that somehow unlocked grandpa’s gun cabinet for the last 75 years or so – we’ve found this Shiny Thing that occasionally goes bang in exciting ways and now we want to see what else we can do with it. And we have absolutely no idea what it’s really capable of. Except instead of just killing like, ourselves, or a loved one, it’s capable of destroying the entire earth. So… more like a toddler that’s got into grandpa’s nuclear warhead cabinet, really.

baby mushroom cloud

I’m really good at metaphors.

Nuclear fission, the process that lies at the core of both atomic bombs and nuclear reactors, has fundamentally altered our world in so many ways that it would be a completely unrecognisable place without it. And while it’s made significant advances in science, engineering and medicine possible, when it comes to associations it’s hard to get past the image of a mushroom cloud and the names of places like Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Fukushima.


On the other hand, it gave us radioactive spiders which would eventually lead to this amazing cinematic moment, so it’s not all bad. [x]

It’s probably deeply unfair to associate nuclear warfare with nuclear power station disasters, one being intentional destruction and killing with weapons and the other being the accidental result of unforeseen circumstances in otherwise useful infrastructure, but the connections seem a lot more concrete once one gets into discussions about the security issues surrounding nuclear power stations. Discussions like the ones Belgium is currently facing after the death of a guard at a Belgian nuclear facility two days after the attacks in Brussels on the 22nd of March 2016. The incident sparked fears of sabotage to a nuclear power station despite the local prosecutor ruling out any military link to the guard’s death, and further security measures heightened tensions in the weeks following the attacks. Media reports have stoked fears that nuclear plants in Belgium might be potential targets for terrorists seeking nuclear materials.

Which… is not great news, although it’s wise to consume news media in the days and weeks following a terrorist attack with a healthy grain of salt. Besides which, there’s a much larger and longer-running discussion around Belgium’s nuclear power plants that poses serious logistical and political problems for a sizeable portion of Western Europe: really friggin’ old reactors.


They no longer identify with the music played on the radio, they need sleeping pills at night and they’re starting to worry about osteoporosis. [x]

Both the Doel plant on the Dutch border and the Tihange plant near the German border have experienced maintenance and mechanical issues in the last five years. Both plants have reactors dating back to the mid-1970s. The Netherlands and especially Germany are calling for Belgium to mothball the oldest of the reactors in these plants – which were scheduled to be shut down in 2015 – due to fears they might malfunction enough to cause nuclear meltdowns, also known as the worst possible crisis your neighbours can have, narrowly beating out noisy marital disintegration and acquiring an anxious and overzealous Chihuahua.

Germany has made similar demands to France, which is closing its oldest nuclear power station, the 39-year-old Fessenheim, this year. The Energiewende, or energy transition, launched by Angela Merkel’s government in 2011 has seen plans put in place to close all of Germany’s nuclear power facilities by 2022. Largely spurred on by the disaster in Fukushima in March 2011, the Energiewende policies saw a reversal of the CDU’s plan to extend the lifespan of Germany’s nuclear reactors to 2050, and instead beat a hasty retreat to the timeline originally proposed by its left-wing predecessors in government.


“After careful consideration of recent events, we have decided that nuclear fallout is scary as shit and we out. We ouuuttt.” [x]

It’s a policy that is not without its detractors, five years on. Nuclear power still provides about 18% of Germany’s electricity production at the moment. Finding a balance between the difficulties in creating new renewable energy infrastructure and trying to limit the need for increased reliance on fossil fuels is no small task. They’re getting there – almost a third of Germany’s energy requirements were met by renewable sources last year. But the nature of the European energy landscape means that there is a not insignificant amount of import and export between Germany and its neighbours, and Germany’s neighbours are still big into that sweet, sweet, nuclear buzz. While proponents of the Energiewende policy claim this doesn’t compromise Germany’s political position on nuclear energy, the fact remains that nuclear energy will still be passing through Germany’s grid and coffers as long as its neighbours are producing it, and that nuclear disaster – of the kind it fears will happen in Belgium – doesn’t respect national borders.


Nuclear fallout doesn’t even need to show its passport any more! [x]

Is it alarmist to talk about an impending nuclear disaster in Belgium? Maybe not, when you consider that the Belgian government decided three weeks ago in late April to provide iodine pills to its entire population, in case of a nuclear accident. The pills are to prevent the build up of radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland, which is one of the most well recorded hazards of radiation exposure from nuclear accidents. The move doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the government’s decision not to shut down the reactors, but then again it’s worth noting that 60% of Belgium’s electricity comes from nuclear power, so it’s not really a decision they can make lightly.

So how worried should we be? Greenpeace certainly has grave concerns. But nuclear energy proponents point out that the dangers posed by increased fossil fuel usage are a certainty, compared with nuclear power, which only poses the possibility of a threat. There are even arguments that radiation exposure after a nuclear accident isn’t as dangerous as we’ve thought. The problem is that the argument around nuclear energy is deeply polarised, with compelling facts on both sides, but a disturbing lack of scientific certainty or consensus. It often comes down to balancing the benefits of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption with the difficulty of storing and disposing of nuclear waste – both extremely long-term issues with ramifications that will need to be dealt with many generations down the line (assuming we don’t annihilate ourselves in the meantime).

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 11.45.41 PM

If only there was a solution… [x]

Ultimately Belgium is left with the choice between taking drastic action to overhaul its energy infrastructure (either in the form of new reactors, or alternative forms of energy production), or crossing its fingers and hoping for the best. But does it have a responsibility to listen to its neighbours on this matter? Given that the EU is currently seeking to strengthen investment in nuclear energy throughout its member states it might be best served by planning construction of new reactors, despite its pledge to phase out reliance on nuclear power. Who knows, maybe we’ll reached the promised land of nuclear fusion, with its increased safety and efficiency, and less hazardous by-products compared to fission. Unfortunately that technology seems to be perpetually thirty years away from commercial production, and Belgium’s problems can’t wait that long. And if it chooses to continue down the path of fission energy, it’s fairly likely that Germany won’t be too keen to let it borrow a cup of sugar or water its houseplants in the near future.



PS While researching I came across that old 1950s video on what to do in case of nuclear attack, so please enjoy this horrifying jaunt through history:

FEAR #7: Malaria

If you’re over the age of 10 then you may have noticed a trend in the way that infectious diseases are reported. When an outbreak occurs in a far-flung nation, TVs and computer screens across the world are lit up with close approximations of a zombie apocalypse.


While there have undoubtedly been some horrific outbreaks, most recently Zika and Ebola, by their very nature many of these diseases are unlikely to become a long-term scourge on humanity. Often an inaccurate picture of reality is conjured by vested interests to score political points or to maintain their position at the pinnacle of ignorant arseholery

We can only hope that the victims got some help during their disease’s fifteen minutes of fame because once the story has served its purpose and the disease fails to live up to the hype, we don’t hear about it again (Bird Flu? SARS? Swine Flu?). Unfortunately, some diseases won’t toe the editorial line, insisting on providing a constant flow of tragedy that numbs us to their awfulness. Malaria is one such disease.

The name “malaria” literally means “bad air” and the reality of transmission is almost as ethereal. Silent, minute creatures fly into your room while you sleep, inject you with an incurable disease and leave without waking you. It sounds like the nightmare of an anti-vax campaigner, but sadly for the 214 million annual victims the nightmare is all too real.

The Plasmodium parasites that cause malaria line the salivary glands of the Anopheles mosquito. When the mosquito takes a blood meal the parasites are injected into the bloodstream (normally around 10-100 of them) and immediately head for the liver where they enter the cells and replicate like mad. Normally, after one or two weeks the parasite leaves the liver and begins a cycle of infection, multiplication and reinfection of red blood cells.


Mobile forms of the Plasmodium parasite, known as sporozoites, are present in the salivary glands of Anopheles mosquitoes. Credit.

The parasites break out of the red blood cells and into the bloodstream in a synchronised manner. The frequency of these breakouts is dependent upon the species of Plasmodium the patient is infected with, as shown in the table below:

Species % Cases Red Blood Cell Cycle Average No. Parasites per μL of Blood
P. falciparum 50 48 hours 20,000-500,000
P. vivax 43 48 hours 20,000
P. malariae 7 72 hours 6000
P. ovale Rare 50 9000
Data from

This synchronisation is a key factor in malaria’s success; a sudden onslaught of parasites producing toxins is far more difficult for the immune system to fight and is the cause of the spike in fever that is most closely associated with malaria.

If the disease is allowed to develop the situation can become grave, a quick search online offers up descriptions like:

“The pain was so intense; I actually believed I was dying”

Things can get especially bad if P.falciparum is involved. This species can cross into the brain and causes hundreds of thousands of cases of cerebral malaria annually. In endemic regions it is a leading cause of childhood neuro-disability and it can strike with devastating speed. In all, malaria causes approximately 400,000 deaths annually and in the 97 nations where it is endemic (see map below), it is often the primary cause of infant mortality.

malaria map

Always interesting to see how much it follows political boundaries.

In fact, the fight against malaria has gone on for so long that it has left its imprint on human genetics. For example, sickle cell anaemia – a genetic disorder which offers resistance to malaria – is thought to have evolved on several occasions. Unfortunately, people who inherit the gene from both parents tend to suffer from chronic pain and a massively reduced life expectancy. It’s the genetic version of out of the frying pan and into the fire and it kills hundreds of thousands per year.

Less terrifyingly, some West Africans have developed immunity to P.vivax and P.malariae by losing the red blood cell receptor (Duffy Blood Group) that these two species bind to. Furthermore, new-borns can gain resistance from their mother, but it wears off if they do not build up their own by contracting many strains of malaria in childhood. The same is true for adults; if they leave the malaria zone they may lose their resistance.

Thankfully, in the modern world humans are not entirely reliant on good genes and mother’s milk. Current malaria prevention techniques fit into 3 categories: stopping the parasite in humans, stopping the mosquitoes, and prevention of contact between the two.

Stopping the parasite in humans tends to mean drugs. The oldest example of effective chemotherapy is the use of artemisinin by, you guessed it, the Chinese around 2000 years ago. Europeans had to wait another 1700 years until they got their hands on quinine, and it wasn’t until 1934 that the German company Bayer invented chloroquine. Since then several chemically synthesised drugs have been mass produced.

The problem with relying on drugs against such a prolific and deadly parasite is that it encourages overuse and the development of resistant strains. For example, resistance to chloroquine first occurred in the early sixties in South America (it was mixed into salt and flour!) and South East Asia (potentially due to overuse by troops in Vietnam).

What is really required to stop the parasite in humans is a vaccine (because they work, despite what overzealous idiots on the internet say). Potential vaccines have three strategies, anti-infection (stop the parasites before they reproduce in the liver), anti-disease (stop the infection and re-infection of the red blood cells), and transmission blocking (stop the parasite getting back into a mosquito). Previously, promising vaccines have been shown to be ineffective, but the recent development of the RTS,S vaccine, which blocks the parasite before it reaches the liver offers hope. This vaccine has been approved by European regulators and is the first licensed vaccine against parasitic infection of any kind. While this is a massive positive step, RTS,S is only intended for use against P.falciparum – emphasising the problem with combating 4 species at once – and trials showed that it is only effective in infants 27% of the time.

The slow progress with vaccine development means that efforts must be made to reduce the mosquito population. One method is to reduce mosquito breeding sites. Mosquito larvae require standing water to develop so the elimination of open sewers and litter, such as plastic bottles where water can pool, is a must. This requires a concerted effort from individuals on a local scale and does little to help those who live near lakes or swamps.

Population control using insecticides has proven to be controversial; DDT was initially successful, but it persists in food chains and resistance has developed. Regardless of the insecticide, blanket spraying is too expensive for such a large problem and selective spraying is not 100% effective.  A less invasive option is biological control, such as the introduction of fish that prey on mosquito larvae.

The final technique, prevention of contact, has also run into some issues. In tropical climates thick clothing is not a realistic option, but bed nets have been provided by governments and NGOs for night-time protection. But, as anyone who’s slept under one knows, they can be stifling and any gap means mosquitoes can be trapped inside making things much worse. Misuse is also an issue.

Obviously more education on malaria prevention is required, but all is not lost. For those of us who can’t be trusted to look after our own welfare, scientists are working on introducing genetically modified mosquitoes that are resistant to the parasite. This may be a long way from realisation, but a trial using a similar technique is under way in the Florida Keys as part of an effort to limit the spread of dengue fever.

Despite all the flaws in the battle against malaria, using a variety of control methods in concert is beginning to pay off, and it does seem that humanity is finally starting to win. The Roll Back Malaria Campaign claims that from 2000 to 2015, an estimated 6.2 million lives were saved as a result of a scale-up of malaria interventions and around 5.9 million of these were children under the age of five. Furthermore, 19 countries are on the cusp of eliminating malaria. With this in mind, the campaign has set the ambitious target of reducing mortality rates by 90% and eradicating malaria in 35 more countries by 2030. To celebrate, here’s a photobombing mosquito.


FEAR #5: The Hunt for E.T.

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? This edition of FEAR looks at where our quest to end our crushing loneliness will lead us.

At the time of writing there is no substantive evidence to suggest the existence of extra-terrestrial life, unless of course there is the mother of all conspiracies going on (Wake up sheeple!!!!!1). Many people are attracted by such theories, even omnigeezer Danny Dyer has got in on the act, but if you’re one of them Stephen Hawking thinks you should shut up:

“If the government is covering up knowledge of aliens, they are doing a better job of it than they do at anything else.”


They’re listening to Uranus.

So if the aliens aren’t already here, do they exist at all? Given the vastness of the universe and the seeming universality of physics and chemistry it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest there is probably some biology out there too. The question is how much biology is “some” biology? If we ignore the majority of the universe (sorry guys), which is expanding away from us so fast that it is unlikely that we’ll ever reach it, and focus on the Milky Way then we still have somewhere around 100-400 billion stars to work with. Restricting the estimate to sun-like stars with habitable planets only limits us to a minimum of 1.5 billion habitable planets. From there we can only speculate on the probability of life evolving on these planets, but even if the odds are millions to one we would still expect a few thousand instances of life in the galaxy. This paradoxical combination of seemingly favourable odds and the total dearth of evidence is known as the Fermi paradox.


A very expensive selfie.

In order to resolve this paradox, humanity has gone hunting for life in the cosmos. The search has formed into two main branches, one is the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), which involves listening in on the universe via massive radio telescopes, and the other is NASA digging around in the dirt on Mars with rovers like Curiosity (it’s probably more complex than that).

On the face of it, the discovery of fossilised prokaryotes on Mars may not seem as significant as the discovery of a radio message from a civilisation of super-beings, but if it were to be successful it would have massive implications for humanity. For starters it would show that life was not a rare fluke, comforting if you’re worried about being all alone in the universe, but terrifying when you think a bit harder. If simple life is common, either we’re the lucky first ones to develop intelligence (not impossible but highly unlikely given the age of the Earth) or there is something killing everything off before it develops into a highly intelligent civilisation. This theory is known as “The Great Filter” and it is to civilisation what Dutch sailors were to the Dodo. There are many candidates for a Great Filter, including the initial evolution of life, development of eukaryotic life and development of intelligence a.k.a. stuff we’ve already done. What’s scary is the possibility that The Great Filter lies ahead of us and our day of reckoning may be nigh! Or maybe it isn’t, no one really knows.

Stepping back from the doom mongering for a moment, let’s think about the other contact scenario, a message received by SETI. Firstly, consider that we have only been transmitting and listening to radio signals for around 100 years, which is small in comparison with the lifetime of the universe, stars, planets and even our species. Secondly, the focus of radio observations is skewed towards detection of signals from “intelligent” life. Given the time scales and the bias of the system we can’t really expect to intercept messages from anything other than some kind of super-being.

pond scum


Historically, when a more technologically advanced civilisation comes into contact with a less technologically advanced one it doesn’t end amicably (just ask people living the Americas in 1491). However, debating whether they will be warmongers or pacifists is anthropocentric, their history and culture will not necessarily be a reflection of ours. The fact is that until we detect any signals the nature of any intelligent life in the universe besides our own is unknowable and there is the distinct possibility that their advances will be incomprehensible to us. In this situation they may look upon our “intelligence” in the same way that we look upon pond scum, it exists but we don’t feel any affinity for it and certainly don’t factor it into our decision making processes. It’s unsettling to think that we could be steamrollered without even knowing what’s coming and without them even considering if our existence is worth saving (hopefully we’d appreciate the irony given our treatment of other species here on Earth).


Lonely, but safe. Taken from here.

Thankfully we may have one saving grace, the vast distances involved. This offers us the time to deal with whatever message we receive in a considered manner because it will have taken years to traverse interstellar space. There are already preparations underway, the SETI post detection subcommittee was set up “to prepare, reflect on, manage, advise, and consult in preparation for and upon the discovery of a putative signal of extraterrestrial intelligent (ETI) origin.” and the widely adopted SETI post detection protocol encourages information sharing and international consultations on a response, including informing the Secretary General of the UN.

While it would be nice if a message from extra-terrestrials united us in our common humanity, it would take a fair slice of naïvety to expect things to actually go down like that. It’s likely that the post detection protocol will be broken quickly, it’s not even legally binding (we covered how space law sucks here) and when it comes to it governments may not trust academics or other nations with the information in the message. This will likely breed mistrust.

When the message does get out, the public reaction will vary largely between (and indeed within) cultures, no doubt some would embrace it, but you only need to look at B.o.B.’s flat earth rant to know that the cynicism will be off the charts. Furthermore, it’s highly likely that vested interests (read: religious groups and politicians) would do their best to play up this cynicism, perhaps under the pretence of preventing alien cultural influences on Earth. Under these circumstances we must be aware that SETI detection facilities may become the focal point of attacks by groups with whom intelligent life elsewhere in the universe runs contrary to their world-view. All this before we’ve even discussed sending a response.

So should we respond? Well, we are already broadcasting our location and culture with radio and television broadcasts. However, these will be difficult to detect unless someone had an antenna the size of Manhattan within 100 light years of us, so direct response would require a much more powerful signal. While speculative messages have been sent, many have urged caution, arguing that we’re the new, stupid kids on the scene and our lust for knowledge may be our undoing. We would be entering a long term, long distance relationship with an unknown entity that could potentially expose us to things beyond our conception. Besides, the time between messages could easily be thousands of years, so we will be submitting future generations to unknown consequences of our actions. Basically, first impressions count and the price of a fuck up will be paid by our descendants, sound familiar?

Given what’s riding on this, the UN is the obvious choice to make a decision over how to proceed because it’s the closest approximation of fair international representation we have. However, I’m inclined to agree with the more realistic assessment from Michael Michaud who said:

“We cannot assume that SETI is immune from the ancient motivations of egoism, power, and greed.”

There is little that can be done to prevent rich and powerful groups from sending their own unrepresentative messages. I’m talking about this guy:


“Hi Xenu! We’re 6-feet tall… all of us” – Tom Cruise (probably)

This may lead to a situation in which multiple contradictory messages are sent, which would only hinder the establishment of meaningful communication.

As always, assuming we’re not already doomed, the fate of humanity may be in the hands of a small unrepresentative elite and a fuck up may throw us out of the frying pan and into one hell of a fire. It’s enough to make you glad we’ve not found anything yet.


FEAR #4: Water Security

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? This edition of FEAR looks at how real the thirst is going to get.

As children we learn some important facts about water:

Fact 1: Water is essential to human existence.

This isn’t really up for debate. Life on Earth evolved in an aqueous environment.  Since then some organisms have developed an extremely hands off relationship with water, but humans are not one of them so we have to carry water around inside us all the time and occasionally top ourselves up with Fanta. Why this is the case is not really the focus of this article, but suffice to say that water is an incredibly unique molecule and everyone should be a lot more fascinated by it.

Fact 2: Water covers over 70% of the surface of Earth.

Earth’s blueness has given humanity a sense of aqueous hubris, making us feel like our water supply and (by Fact 1) our survival is secure. Unfortunately, our interpretation of Fact 2 is highly spurious, it tells us the quantity (a hell of a lot), but not the quality of the water available.

earths waterOf the abundance of water that confronts us, 97.4% is saline, making it as good as useless for most requirements such as human consumption, agriculture (it’ll kill the crops and other animals won’t drink it either) and many industrial uses (salt accelerates the corrosion of metals).

The remaining water is freshwater but, more than two-thirds of it is trapped in ice caps, glaciers and permanent snow (for now) and another 30% is groundwater, which is not always accessible. This leaves us with a miniscule percentage of the total we started with, but still what seems like a lot of water until you realise that humanity is capable of this…

aral sea

Satellite images of the Aral Sea show that the thirst is more real than we imagined.

That’s right, people already use an incredible amount of water. According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME), in the past century freshwater use has increased at more than double the rate of population growth to about 3.8 trillion m3 per annum.  The Aral Sea (above) was the fourth largest lake in the world, but began shrinking in the 1960s after the Soviet Union diverted rivers for an irrigation project. Unfortunately, a large percentage of diverted water was wasted, which is a common theme in humanity’s use of water.

On a more personal level, you can estimate your water consumption here or if you’re in a rush here. I did the first one and this is what it spat out:


I am an abomination.

If you look past the fact that they went back in time and used Windows 95 to calculate just how much of a drain I am on the Earth’s resources, you’ll notice that I use roughly 3 m3 or the weight of around 40 men in water per day. Although it isn’t an exact science the numbers seem pretty damning, especially the amount of water required to produce my food.

water fry

In weeks I could raise an army.

In fact, 70% of the water used by humans is consumed by agriculture, so any issues with water supply will likely lead to food insecurity too. The massive loss of water via evaporation due to prevalent farming techniques such as spray and open-ditch irrigation only serves to exacerbate this problem.

The UN predicts that the global population will swell from 7.3 billion in 2015 to 9.7 billion by 2050, which means there will be 2.4 billion more mouths to feed. A dietary shift from starch to meat and dairy, which occurs as people become wealthier, will further amplify the demand for water, as shown in the graph below. Indeed, the IME predicts that the food production may require 10–13 trillion m3 of water annually by 2050.

water for food

As always with food, what goes in, must come out and this is the origin of another demand on the water supply, sanitation (seamless). Despite the United Nations recognising the human right to water and sanitation, over 700 million drink water that is inadequately protected from contamination by their own faeces and a third of the world’s population does not have access to sanitation that hygienically removes their excreta.

The number of people living in urban areas without these basic facilities grew by 20% between 2000 and 2008. Given that the population increase over the next 35 years is expected to be focused on cities in less developed regions, where urban planning is less rigorous, the growth of slums will pose a major challenge to attempts to supply urban populations with clean water and adequate sanitation. Fast growing urban areas are known to struggle with implementing sufficient waste-water infrastructure. A good example is Varanasi, a city on the Ganges, where untreated sewage, industrial pollutants and large numbers of human corpses are dumped into the river daily. Implementation of action plans, such as the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) have received mixed reviews at the very best.

tom sellick

Apparently that moustache can hold 1,000 litres of whatever liquid you want.

Even in developed nations, the water supply is used poorly. The UK has massive losses in its water piping systems. This wasteful attitude towards water (epitomised excellently by Tom Selleck, who stole water during a drought to grow avocados… which he hates) has led to an increased use of aquifers (essentially ancient groundwater stores) which may take thousands of years to replenish. Seriously, have we learnt nothing from the whole fossil fuel thing?! This is why we end up with mega-rich companies, who don’t believe in water as a human right, trying to sell the equivalent of my daily water footprint to L.A. for $960!

Going back to the estimate of how much water I personally consume, second to food production is industry, which accounts for roughly one-third. This data isn’t broken down into different industries, but the demand has a variety of origins from clothes manufacturing to the cooling of nuclear reactors. The energy industry is a particularly interesting example, one of the major complaints about the controversial process of fracking (excellent impartial video here) is that as well as using a vast amount water, the fracking fluid, containing various organic compounds, is pumped back into the ground potentially contaminating the water supply of nearby towns and cities.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s this thing called climate change, which will (can’t emphasise that enough) cause significant variations in rainfall, snowmelt, river flows and groundwater. Rising sea levels are also predicted to cause salinization of river deltas and groundwater, upon which populations are dependent. According to the UN, water supplies are already under stress in developing countries and while there is enough water for all, its uneven distribution means water scarcity is already a real concern affecting billions across large regions.

Even “greener” forms of energy place a large burden on water supplies. Biofuels, which are tipped for increasing use in the transport industry, still require the use of a vast amount of water for their production. If 5% of road transport is powered by biofuels by 2030, there could be a 20% increase in water demand in agriculture as well as an increase in water pollution from fertilisers and agricultural chemicals.

three gorges

The impressive bit.

Hydroelectric power generation may not poison the air, but it also has its downsides. Damming rivers prevents migrations of fish to breeding grounds and the flow of sediment downstream, essentially putting food security and ecosystem services at risk. An extreme example is the Three Gorges Dam in China, undoubtedly an amazing feat of engineering, but one that displaced over a million people and has a major effect on life downstream.

Regardless of the application, our desperate need for water also makes it a potential source of conflict between nations because inanimate molecules don’t respect political boundaries. We’ve already seen how oil’s blasé attitude to invisible lines contributed to the First Gulf War (an example of how prequels can be better) and even before that water was a major issue in the run up to the Six-Day War. Given the geopolitical importance water will take on in a post-fossil fuel world perhaps we should worry a little more that 90% of the world’s population live in countries that share river and lake basins and if living in the UK makes you less concerned just remember our enthusiasm for foreign wars and the potential for Scottish independence.

In order to avoid a future where our water security is threatened, unilaterally pissing in the shower every day to avoid flushing the toilet is not going to cut it and neither is the realisation that bottled water is bullshit. What’s required, as always with these things, is innovation, implementation and sustained political cooperation. The innovation, though difficult, is something humans generally succeed at; newer more efficient irrigation methods and waterless dyeing of fabrics are just the beginning.

The tough bit will be maintaining the political will to cooperate in a world dealing with the impact of climate change and the uncertainty that it brings, when on a national scale the UN believes water resource management plans are “unsatisfactory and well behind targets”.

FEAR RATING 8/10 – We’re a long way from a victory sip on this one.


The 2015 Head in the Sand Award

Actions often have knock-on effects that lead to unforeseen consequences, but rarely is a lack of understanding of cause and effect so easily exposed as in this year’s Head in the Sand Award. The award goes to David Cameron for writing to the leader of his local Council, Ian Hudspeth, claiming to be “disappointed” about the prospect of “significant cuts to frontline services”, cuts which have been enforced by his own slashing of the local government budget. The response letter included a methodical take-down of the Prime Minister’s incorrect assertions, revealing both the extreme pressure on local councils to balance budgets and the Prime Minister’s ignorance of the consequences of the spending cuts his government has implemented. To top it all off, Cameron offered the services of staff at 10 Downing Street to the Council to help them resolve the issue, leading to accusations of a breach of ministerial code.

Honourable Mentions:

  • alrighty thenJim Carrey: This was a twitter rant to remember. Everyone’s favourite pet detective has had his head in the sand for a while now, but finally his ugly anti-vaccine rhetoric was released onto social media. The tweets bottomed out when Carrey tweeted the image of an autistic child without his parents’ consent. For more detail see our piece on vaccines.
  • Men in Science and on the Internet: The scientific method uses evidence to establish truths, but men don’t seem to have got the memo. Despite no genetic difference in the scientific potential of men and women (we refuse to supply a link here), when presented with evidence that sexism is rife in the scientific field (plenty of evidence of that here, here and here), a study found that men trivialise sexism and deny its existence. Sadly unsurprising though.

FEAR #3: Vaccines

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? In this edition of FEAR the highly polarised issue of vaccination gets a rise out of us.

The vertebrate immune system is has two main strategies to fend off infection, namely, the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. The adaptive immune system allows vertebrates to form immunological memories, discriminate between the body’s own cells (self) and foreign objects (non-self) and orchestrate an effective response to rid the body of pathogens (viruses, bacteria, protozoa etc.) that have the potential to cause harm. HOLD IT… why are we explaining pathogens when bored teachers with autotune is a thing?

Anyway… despite coming in various forms (see table below or this video), vaccines generally achieve their goal using the following mechanism, which we’ve massively oversimplified for the sake of brevity:

  1. The vaccine is introduced to the body, usually via an injection, but sometimes orally.
  2. The immune system responds and learns how to fight off the pathogen.
  3. Information on how to fight the pathogen is retained by specialised cells, such as B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes.
Vaccine Type Contents Example Pros Cons
Live Attenuated Live but weakened pathogens. Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) … more on this later. Induces a strong and long lasting immune response. Possibility (very small) that the vaccine will revert to its wild type and cause disease.
Inactive “Dead” pathogens. Typhoid (injection) If it’s dead it can’t reproduce and cause disease. Not always effective long-term, boosters are required.
Antigen (Subunit) Antigens, which are the parts of the pathogen that stimulate an immune response. Hepatitis B Does not introduce viral particles. Provokes a weaker immunological response than the whole pathogen would.
Virus-Like Particle Broken up viruses with the nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) removed. Influenza The particles can self-assemble into a shape resembling the original virus, but contains no nucleic acid (DNA or RNA), so it doesn’t reproduce. Getting the particles to self-assemble correctly is a challenge.
Toxoid The toxin produced by the bacteria. Tetanus Highly effective at blocking harmful toxins. Does not actually help the immune system deal with the pathogen.

By inventing vaccines, rather than continuing to tackle the disease mano a mano as nature intended, it would appear humans have learnt how to trick the adaptive immune system giving us something for nothing. If you count getting stabbed in the arm with a needle nothing. FYI we don’t, but we’ve got used to our smallpox free lifestyles.

So, the time has come to address the elephant in the room. There is a lot of controversy over vaccination and the internet is one hell of a breeding ground for it. That said, the controversy dates back about as far as vaccination itself, the old timey propaganda images are evidence of that (see below).

old vaccine poster

Anti-vax cartoon from 1894 (via The Atlantic)

On the face of it, issues tend to be separated into two types, efficacy and safety. Turning first to efficacy, since the introduction of vaccines the prevalence of diseases has dropped massively (see infographic below), smallpox has been eradicated and efforts to eradicate other pathogens are well underway. The obvious counter argument made by anti-vax campaigners is that correlation does not imply causality. So far, so good.

vaccine infographic

Vaccine infographic by Leon Farrant.

Anti-vax campaigners argue that improvements in hygiene and sanitation since the introduction of vaccines are the real reasons for the reduction in disease, but this is where their science is flimsy. Certainly, better hygiene and sanitation can massively reduce the incidence of disease, but even in a highly sanitary environment pathogens would still be around and people will still get infected, so you would expect serious but localised outbreaks of disease to occur every so often. The fact that this doesn’t happen in the developed world indicates that this theory is incorrect. Further to this, developing nations, which may lag behind in terms of sanitation, have also seen a fall in disease, efforts to eradicate polio in India are a testament to this.

vaccine graph

Graph via Current Offence.

What actually happens is that vaccines prime our immune system so that the infection is stopped before it causes damage i.e. becomes a disease (see graph above) and spreads, thus preventing us from suffering disease symptoms and the scientifically named “sad times”. If a large enough percentage of the population is vaccinated then the pathogen cannot jump from one susceptible person to the other and the whole population is safe. This called herd immunity and it allows us to protect those who cannot be vaccinated for legitimate medical reasons, such as old age or immunodeficiency. This is how, in combination with improved sanitation, hygiene and education, vaccination can aid the total eradication of diseases.

In terms of safety there have been many reviews, but this one, from a respected scientific journal (the fact that we even have to say this tells you how much pseudoscience there is to wade through) is a good example of a systematic analysis of the evidence.

The review claims that as the success of immunization increases the safety concerns also increase, because if the prevalence of the disease reduces, people are less worried about disease and become more occupied with adverse effects of the cure. This seems like vaccines could be considered a victim of their own success, but that would gloss over the failures of those charged with maintaining the confidence of the public. However, maintaining public confidence is tricky and the reviewers have recognised a consistent pattern in how vaccines get blamed for stuff:

  1. Cases of a medical condition increase or new medical condition arises.
  2. Someone cries foul and blames vaccines (the correlation is not causality argument disappears when it suits them).
  3. Investigations with poor methodology confirm their suspicion.
  4. Investigators tell the public, often before/without sufficient peer review.
  5. The results resonate with those who suffer with the condition and public confidence is lost.
  6. The results are found to be incorrect and the fear unfounded.
  7. Regaining the confidence of the public takes longer than it did to lose.

A good example of this is the MMR vaccine. In 1998 former doctor Andrew Wakefield falsified data to suggest a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This destroyed public confidence in the safety of the vaccine (see graph below) and over 15 years later uptake of the MMR vaccine in England has finally rebounded but remains below the World Health Organisation’s target of 95%.


Uptake of the MMR vaccine in England for children before 24 months. NHS Immunisation Statistics England 2013-14.

The reality is that medical testing standards are sufficiently high, requiring several phases of trials that can take many years and the safety of vaccinations is constantly monitored.

Provided that the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t suddenly become extremely lax with their safety testing, the real danger to the population is those who do not get vaccinated. When more and more people refuse vaccination, herd immunity is compromised and you get outbreaks of preventable disease, just like the measles outbreaks in the USA in recent years.

Unfortunately, once people have hold of an idea they tend to find it difficult to let go and research suggests that such is the case with vaccines. Moreover, the methods of hardcore anti-vax campaigners don’t seem to change with time or evidence. Essentially, having ignored the evidence they’ve become charlatans, peddling mistruths and propaganda.

One such charlatan is Jenny McCarthy, leader of Generation Rescue, a group who still incorrectly promote the link between vaccines and autism. McCarthy a former co-star of Charlie Sheen, displayed her lack of medical expertise quite recently when Sheen announced that he is living with HIV.

Generation Rescue campaign heavily against a mercury based vaccine preservative called thiomersal, which has been scientifically established as safe in the volumes used in vaccines.  McCarthy’s former partner Jim Carrey, has also been vocal on the subject (yeah, we were heartbroken too), earlier this year he posted a picture of an autistic boy along with a rant about vaccines on twitter. Needless to say the boy’s family weren’t happy and he ended up having to apologise (below).

carrey tweet

This is just the thin end of the wedge, as the evidence gets weaker, the fearmongering gets stronger and as Godwin’s law dictates, eventually someone will invoke the Nazis. That makes this a good place to stop.

nazi vaccine

In conclusion, it is patently obvious, to all who have considered the evidence, that the vast majority of arguments against vaccination are fundamentally flawed and often just made up, but that’s indicative of the problem. Not everyone has considered all the evidence and it is counter-productive to climb upon a high horse and tar all those who don’t vaccinate their kids with the same brush as a minority who pump the internet full of “toxic” (see what we did there) propaganda. Fundamentally, these are people who are concerned for the wellbeing of their kids, but were misled by charlatans. The only way to overcome this is through greater education about vaccination specifically and promotion of science and evidence-based critical thinking in general. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it’s easier to constantly fear monger than constantly educate and falsehoods are easily sown, but difficult to root out.

Fear Rating: 1/10 – The needles are sharp, but don’t be afraid of pricks.