The Times, they are a Changing

There is an ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” For the past few months that seems to be a motto of the world.

The unrest in Libya that started with protest has now proceeded into a full civil war. The group of protesters formed a National Council on Feb 26th to give course to the now rebels. It took less than a month for the new national council to become recognized as the legitimate authority in Libya by both a western nation France (which was the first to recognize another regime change in another county, Go France!) and the Arab League, an organization of Arab nations that stretch from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. A few days after that, the UN passed a resolution to establish a no fly zone in Libyan airspace. This means that UN air forces (United States, France, Britain, Quarter, etc) will take any and all action to help protect civilians in the country. This has led to a cease fire which both sides have mostly observed.

Colorful Old Oil Barrels
Creative Commons License photo credit: L.C.Nøttaasen

All this has led not only to tragedy, but also to a sharp decrease in crude oil production. Libya’s production is down from 1,400,000 barrels a day to 400,000 barrels a day. Remember that the world consumes 80,000,000,000 barrels each day and the amount we use goes up by 2% annually.

Is Libya the only reason that energy prices are going up?

No, our times are far too interesting to have just one event going on.

In addition to the ongoing protests in Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, Mother Nature has added her own 2 cents.

On March 11th an earthquake of 9.0 on the Richter scale occurred off the eastern coast of Japan followed closely by a tsunami. The earthquake was the most powerful to hit Japan and the tsunami crested at 33 feet inside Japan (by the time it reached Chili the waves where down to 6 feet). The damage has caused tens of billions of dollars in damages and tens of thousands of casualties. It also caused major damage to the Fukushima I and II Nuclear Power Plants.

Vogtle nuclear power plant, Georgia, USA
Creative Commons License photo credit: BlatantWorld.com

A fission reactor works by having fuel rods made of uranium, which radiate neutrons and photons. Neutrons bombarding the fuel also helps to accelerate the reaction. Control rods are made of neutron absorbing elements like cadmium. Lowering the control rods closer to the fuel rods slows down the reaction. One type of energy given off by the reaction is heat. Water is used to control the reaction and to transfer the heat to another system to create steam which turns the turbine. The water inside the reactor is kept under pressure to raise its boiling point. If the water, or other coolant/moderator, can not transfer the heat away, it will eventual boil into steam. If the rods are no longer being cooled, then a meltdown (or a core melt accident) can occur. If the core is breached, radioactive steam can be emitted into the atmosphere, where it will be spread by the winds.

All nuclear power plants have back ups to power the cooling cycle. However, the tsunami washed away the emergency diesel generators at Fukushima I and II Nuclear Power Plants. Reactors at Fukushima I have undergone a partial melt down.

So how does all this affect you? (I’m glad you asked)

All the instability and stoppage of crude oil makes the price go up (less supply, more demand). In the short term the price of crude oil has gone down a little because of the disaster in Japan. Japan used its nuclear power plants to generate 11 Gigawatts of electricity (a third of their electricity) so in the near future it will have to import more coal and natural gas to make up the shortfall.

The disaster has also had repercussions around the world. It has caused the United States to put on hold some nuclear plans and reevaluate others. Other countries are also reevaluating their nuclear plans. The Germans have decided to accelerate the decommissioning of their nuclear plants.

So what can you do about it?

The first step, as always to understand the situation, which is one of the reasons you read this blog (the other of course being my good looks and charming personality). The next step is action which you can do by creating an energy plan for your self (what do you leave plugged in, what do you leave on, etc.). There are also innumerable places to help with disaster relief in Japan. Some of which can be found here.

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