Sunday, 31 August 2014


NUCLEAR  IRAN: The Birth of an Atomic State

 by DAVID PATRIKARAKOS, I.B.Tauris, 340pp, £25 ISBN: 978-1780761251

 This review by Malcolm Bailey was first published in Green World GW80 Spring 2013.

 David Patrikarakos’ book is a highly readable, accessible and well-researched account of the nuclear history of Iran, from the early days of the Shah, through the Islamic Republic, to the present major international confrontation. This is a serious analysis of the intertwined relationship of the scientific, technological and geopolitical aspects of nuclear power and nuclear weapons developments in Iran.
   The Shah’s obsession with nuclear power for Iran derived from his belief that it was an essential route to a modern state, a totem of modernity.  It meant personal and national prestige. He courted the West to develop Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.  Nuclear power would leave more of Iran’s oil to sell abroad, bring in revenue, and serve a rapidly growing population.
    In 1979 the Islamic Republic swiftly reversed the Shah’s interest in nuclear power. The new regime saw it as part of ‘Westoxification’, a conspiracy to make Iran dependent technologically on the West. Nuclear Iran traces the events of the war with Iraq, and the Islamic Republic’s eventual return to a nuclear programme as a positive for Iran’s ‘nuclear nationalism’.
   Patrikarakos traces the unenviable monitoring role of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as suspicions grew that the Islamic Republic was interested as much in achieving a nuclear weapon as in nuclear power. His conclusion is that Iran probably desires the capability for a nuclear weapon, but not the bomb itself.   
   I note that discussion of green issues, climate change and peak oil gets lost in the nuclear realpolitik, as does Chernobyl and Fukushima. There is enough nuclear science for non-technical readers, possibly insufficient history for historians. Nuclear Iran is an excellent read, and I strongly recommend this book.

Saturday, 30 August 2014


The United States has now imposed further sanctions on at least 25 companies and individuals suspected of aiding Iran's nuclear programme, evading earlier sanctions, or supporting terrorism.

The US suspects Iran of seeking atomic weapons. Iran insists it is enriching uranium for use in nuclear power stations and for medical purposes.

David Cohen, the US Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said 'These new sanctions reflect our continuing determination to take action against anyone, anywhere, who violates our sanction'.

The next round of talks on this issue is expected in mid-September. The deadline set for reaching permanent agreement resolving the nuclear dispute is 24 November this year.

Comment: This dispute has been running for many years. It is rich in hypocrisy.  The development of nuclear power worldwide is supported by the US, despite the close links with nuclear weapons production, unless it happens to be a country out of favour with the US. Further, the US supports non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, but has not reduced its own enormous nuclear arsenal in line with non-proliferation treaty obligations.

Friday, 29 August 2014


Early this year students at University College London's teaching observatory at Mill Hill detected a rare supernova explosion in the nearby M82 galaxy. These events occur in a galaxy typically only once every two hundred years.

The star was a dead star - a white dwarf - and the event is known as a Type 1a supernova.

Single white dwarfs just cool off slowly over time. But if the white dwarf star is able to acquire additional mass, either from a companion star or another white dwarf, its mass can exceed a threshold (called the  Chandrasekhar limit)  and a supernova explosion is initiated.

The theoretical mechanism is that the extra mass causes a nuclear fusion between carbon and oxygen atoms to give radioactive nickel, which decays via cobalt into iron. This decay chain generates gamma rays that give rise to the bright emission from the supernova.

Dr Eugene Churazov and colleagues studied these gamma rays between 50 and 100 days after the explosion. They detected the signature of the cobalt decay in the gamma ray profile and the amount of gamma emission matched the theoretical model for a white dwarf supernova.

However their results were not yet able to exclude the possibility that this event was caused by a merger of two white dwarfs, rather than by a white dwarf close to the Chandrasekhar limit acquiring additional mass from a companion star.

Comment: A remarkable investigation of a chance rare stellar event which was observed this year.

Thursday, 28 August 2014


Curiosity rover has been continuing its journey towards Mount Sharp. It encountered wheel slip in the terrain called Hidden Valley, en route to the Pahrump Hills. A decision was then taken to carry out more drilling until a new path was set. However, the initial test mini-drill into a flat slab of rock called Bonanza King was halted due to what is believed to be movement of the rock during drilling:

To examine what has happened, Curiosity is collecting a large sequence of photographs for assessment. If the outcome is positive, Curiosity will resume drilling a full 6 cm deep hole in Bonanza King.

Deputy Project Scientist Dr Joy Crisp explained: 'The main purpose of drilling this rock is to find out the mineralogy of the rock unit exposed in Hidden Valley. It looks different from the rocks we've drilled so far, so we are hoping that the mineralogy will also be different, potentially telling us new information about past environmental conditions on Mars.'

Comment: It's fascinating how the Curiosity project team are able to turn unexpected developments into positive new studies on Mars. This is  truly wonderful scientific mission of exploration on the Red Planet.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014


ESA project managers have now selected a longlist of  five potential landing sites on Comet 67P:

If the comet is considered to look like a rubber duck, three of the sites are on the head, two are on the body. The neck region has been ruled out

The decision was made principally on operational grounds, where engineers believe the Philae landing probe can touch down on the comet surface with least risk. Other considerations included the need for a location that experiences a day/night cycle, and a place free from boulders and fissures.

Philae is described as 'washing machine-sized'. Comet 67P has a maximum dimension of about 4.5 km.

Landing on a comet has never been attempted before.

A final decision on the landing site is expected by mid-October. The landing attempt is scheduled for 11 November 2014. Due to the distance from Earth, real-time radio control will be impossible. The landing commands will be uploaded several days in advance.

Comment: This is a dramatic and risky mission, but if successful promises to yield valuable scientific understanding about the nature of the comet. The impossibility of real-time control due to the distance involved and the speed of the radio signals is an interesting feature of operating at large distances from Earth. It is significant when, as in this case, important decisions may be required on a timescale short compared to the travel time of the signals.

Friday, 15 August 2014


The French company EDF has temporarily shut down two of its nuclear power station in England, due to an unexpected crack in a boiler at Heysham 1 nuclear reactor, according to the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR).

Both nuclear reactors at Heysham have been shut down, also the two reactors at Hartlepool nuclear power station.

The company stated that the shut downs would last around eight weeks to allow further inspections. 

The National Grid has said that the shut downs would have no effect on the UK's supply of electricity.

The ONR is seeking positive confirmation of the condition of the boilers, and said that there has been no release of radioactive material and no persons have been injured.

Comment:  'Unexpected cracks' is worrying. We are assured that nuclear risks are all understood and accounted for at nuclear power stations - 'unexpected' is not part of the lexicon. It was the 'unexpected' that did it for Fukushima, and Chernobyl.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014


The European Space Agency spacecraft Rosetta arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 6 August on schedule more than 10 years after launch from Earth.

Rosetta is now 550 million kilometres from earth. Signals take 22 minutes between Earth and Rosetta.

Rosetta is now travelling alongside the comet, some 100 kilometres distant, and will continue to follow the comet for the next 15 months. In November a harpoon is planned to anchor a lander Philae to the surface of Comet 67P.

Rosetta carries a thermal imaging spectrometer VIRTIS which has recorded temperatures on the comet around -70 degrees C, about 20 degrees warmer than expected.

Comment: This is a remarkable mission carrying out an important and unique detailed scientific study of a comet. If Philae lands successfully it will be a wonderful technical achievement with potentially significant results for our understanding of comets. Interestingly, because of the small size and low gravity of 67P, Rosetta is not actually in orbit, but is maintained in a triangular path around the comet by firing thrusters.  

Friday, 1 August 2014


The next Martian rover will be launched by Nasa in the summer of 2020, to land on Mars in 2021.
It will carry a device able to convert carbon dioxide taken from the Martian atmosphere into oxygen.

The seven scientific projects on board will include an experimental weather station, ground-penetrating radar for analysing the planet's geology, two arm-mounted gadgets for analysing the chemistry and structure of soil and rocks, and two cameras.

The oxygen produced by a new 'MOXIE' device could be used to support human life in a future manned mission to Mars, or make rocket fuel for return missions.

The rover design will be closely modelled on Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in August 2012.

Space will be available to store packaged rock samples drilled from the planet's surface, which could be shipped back to Earth by future return flights.

Comment:  An exciting development of the Curiosity work currently being carried out on the surface of Mars. But a long six year wait before launch.