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Murphy's Law

MURPHY'S LAW: Anything that can happen, will happen!

The fundamental question at Yucca Mountain is whether we can utilize the sophisticated resource called nuclear energy safely or whether we are doomed by some sort of universal Murphy's law to destroy our planet through the use of this forbidden fruit.

At a June 1992 Sawyer Commission meeting, rural sociologist William Freudenburg and NWPO consultant applied Murphy's Law to risk analysis at Yucca Mountain. Roger Kasperson and his sociologists at CENTED as well as Paul Slovic of Decision Research have also used similar lines of reasoning to argue for NWPO that the potential for human error at Yucca Mountain is insurmountable. They argue that it is impossible to accurately detail the risk trees of complex technological ventures and that we therefore cannot guarantee the safety of the nuclear waste repository. Marvin Resnikoff, a consulting physicist for NWPO, has also argued that nuclear disaster is inevitable along transportation routes because human error is insurmountable due to a vague statistical Murphy's law.

Murphy's Law , however, is not a law! At best, it is a bastardized form of the physical law of entropy, and its use by NWPO scientists and others within the environmental movement has led to a distortion of the risks of nuclear waste transportation and in the construction of the repository. However, it is absolutely false that anything that can happen, will happen. These events may happen, often with a probability so close to zero as to be impossible.

The false assumption that Murphy's Law is a scientific verity leads to an apocalyptic theory of impending environmental doom in which every technological invention is impossibly dangerous. For example, an automibile could crash into a nuclear weapons silo, possibly sending a warhead into space, which might collide with a merteorite, likely deflecting the missile to the moon, which might split the moon in two. Fortunately, instead of Murphy's Law, science uses principles of thermodynamics to study the likelihood of technology proving catastrophic. This provides a much less cataclysmic view of our world than Murphy's Law and fortunately doesn't require humans to return to caves to save the environment.

The two laws of thermodynamics which govern everything at the macroscopic level (i.e. all things above the level of subatomic particles) are the following:

FIRST LAW: Conservation of Mass/Energy. Mass and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed.

dM + dE = 0

SECOND LAW: Entropy. The order of a closed system can at best remain the same, or it can degrade, but it cannot become more ordered without an external mass/energy source.

dS >= dQ / T

For those uncomfortable with physics, the laws say in simple English that:

FIRST LAW: Energy and matter don't appear out of thin air.

and:

SECOND LAW: If you want to increase the organization of your world, you'll have to put some work into it

These two laws have been known for better than a hundred years to the physical scientists. However, many social scientists and environmental activists have failed to comprehend that the First and Second Laws work in conjunction with each other. Engineers are familiar with the symbiosis of the two laws in a relation called the Gibb's Free Energy equation (although it appears in other forms depending on the scientific discipline):

GIBB'S FREE ENERGY: A reaction only occurs if it results in a decrease in free energy, G, given by the relation:

dG = dH - T dS

In translation, it takes brains and/or brawn to accomplish useful work. Intuitively, there are multiple ways to get a rock to the top of the hill: (you can push it yourself by hand [brawn] or you can drive a bulldozer [brains and brawn] or you can hire someone else to do it [pure brains]). What is generally not understood is that given a sufficient source of energy, there is little that can't be accomplished. Specifically, if humans can harness enough energy from solar, nuclear or other traditional sources (and use that energy wisely), there is no limit to how far our civilization can progress in an environmentally sound way!

Where environmental philosophers have gotten into trouble is by theorizing exclusively on the basis of the First Law, or the Second Law without reference to the combining Gibb's equation. This has led to endless scenarios of impending environmental doom because the thermodynamic laws taken individually do not describe a complete physical system. There is no way to reverse the effects of pollution within such crippled physics.

In a worldview dominated by an inordinate fear of Second Law entropy processes (bastardized further as Murphy's Law), nuclear radiation becomes particularly frightening. The paranoid physics that results assumes that radioactive substances cannot be kept isolated from the environment and that even minuscule levels of radiation will lead to irremedial damage.

Researchers from the Nuclear Waste Project Office have viewed Yucca Mountain as an impossible technology because we supposedly cannot see to the end of every fault tree. Every risk, no matter how statistically unlikely, thus becomes for NWPO an insurmountable entropy problem. Every chance emission of radiation becomes horrendously frightening. Thermodynamics instead suggests that while we may not know every possible fault path, we can put outer limits on potential disaster scenarios.

For example, we know the nuclear waste will not explode with the force of a nuclear bomb because there are no mechanisms for creating a super critical reaction at the repository. We know nuclear spent fuel pellets are ceramic and highly unlikely to engage in substantial exothermic reactions. We know the heat load on Yucca Mountain will be about 56 megawatts. We know that transportation casks will not melt and vaporize unless a well characterized amount of energy is available in an accident. Most importantly, we know that even in the event of a release, radioactive substances can be cleaned up if sufficient effort is expended.

Nature also argues that radioactive substances can be handled effectively, though they must be treated with care. Biological systems already have billions of years of experience successfully dealing with natural radiation ranging from cosmic rays, radiation from the sun, background radiation from soils and rock, radiation from ingested substances like radioactive potassium and radon gas, etc. Humans have the added advantage of being able to "see" radioactive emissions with simple devices like geiger counters and dosimeters.

Consequently, while everything that can happen may happen, this does not imply they will happen, or that they cannot be reversed. If Murphy's law were a law, biological organisms would long ago have become extinct due to radiation mechanisms. Fortunately, neither the biosphere nor Yucca Mountain are inherently doomed by some arbitrary law of human error.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL ENTROPY CRISIS

If the Earth were a closed entropy box, disorder could enter or be created on planet earth but never leave and chaos would soon overwhelm us. Just such a theory has become imbedded in environmental policy because it promises ecological catastrophe and buttresses environmental lobbying efforts in Washington. However, misusing the laws of thermodynamics to support popular political ideology can prove dangerous.

Historically, the First Law (i.e., the conservation of Mass/Energy), was used and abused by communist regimes until the eventual collapse of their entire social system. Workers were valued for their efforts in mass or energy production (how many shoes they made, how many tons of energy rich coal they dug), completely ignoring the entropy and information content of their efforts (The Second Law of entropy), which in this case was the order or quality of the products they produced. The managerial, information element of civilization was ignored, resulting in a society in which senseless production was preferred to quality and timeliness. This eventually resulted in the massive degradation of their environment.

Where the Marxists over-emphasized the First Law, the new Greens over-emphasize the consequences of the Second Law, which says that closed systems degenerate into chaos over time. They theorize that the earth is a closed entropy box doomed to self destruction from man's technology (epitomizd by Yucca Mountain). Fortunately, we do not live in a closed entropy box. Noted climatologists Jose P. Peixoto and Abraham H. Oort have the following to say about the entropy balance of the earth:

Thus solar photons are richer in energy than terrestrial photons. In other words, the amount of entropy associated with the incoming solar radiation is much lower than the amount of entropy associated with the emitted terrestrial radiation, and the climate receives high-quality "rich" energy and returns low-quality "impoverished" energy to space. Thus, solar radiation revitalizes the meteorological phenomena, feeds the hydrological cycle, and renovates the biosphere. If earth were an isolated system there would be an unavoidable increase in entropy leading to a death-like uniformity of the planet earth. It is this capacity for permanent renovation that makes all natural phenomena possible in the climate system. [Peixoto, Jose P. and Oort, Abraham H.; Physics of Climate, American Institute of Physics, 1992, p 403]

Also:

As we see from the values given . . . the total amount of entropy exported by the climate system to space is -925 mWm-2K-1. This value is 22 times the amount of entropy imported by the incoming solar radiation at the top of the atmosphere (41.3mWm-2K-1). [ Physics of Climate, p409]

This points out why understanding the thermodynamic laws is so important; literally the difference between the life and death of civilization. As stated by Peixto, the ratio of entropy influx into the earth is twenty-two times less than the efflux going out, so we are not doomed to increasing randomness and disorder as a civilization. Natural energy input from the sun to the earth is approximately 3.5 X 10 17 watts versus 5 X 1012 watts from man made energy, a difference on the order of 1 in 100,000. In other words, the entropy we produce is a negligible fraction of the entropy 'current' already flowing through Mother Earth.

Because Earth is not a closed system, if we can find sufficient energy reserves there is no reason we can't effectively export our entropy (i.e., our pollution) to the universe. The trick is to find an appropriate energy source.

Solar and alternative energies have inherent inefficiencies, hydrocarbon resources are finite and polluting. Nuclear energy, if not artificially restricted by political processes, promises a substantial energy reserve capable of stretching thousands of years. This would allow us to avoid entropy death indefinitely and reverse the polluting effects of man on his earth environment. The Yucca Mountain repository obviously plays a critical role in such a scenario; without it nuclear energy ceases to be a positive part of the human entropy equation..