Saturday, December 16, 2006


Severe flood warnings were the order of the day in Scotland yesterday as more than 40 days of gales and rain showed little sign of letting up. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency said that there was "serious danger to life and property" from the rivers Lyon and Tay in Perthshire, and the River Teith at Callander. There were also nine flood warnings and twenty-two flood watches in place elsewhere.

Scotland has suffered the wettest November on record, and there is more bad weather to come. Worst hit has been Glasgow, which has endured the highest levels of rainfall on record since the First World War. The city recorded 342mm of rain last month, double the expected average, while Scotland was drenched by 244mm of rain, significantly higher than the average 166mm November total.

Continuing torrential downpours have already delivered 141.5mm of rain this month, about 91 per cent of the total average for December. The outlook for this week continues to be poor for the West Coast and Central Belt, with up to 40mm of rain expected in some parts. The Highlands and the Northern Isles will be hit by 80mph gales. A Met Office spokesman said: "It has rained every day in Scotland for more than 40 days and so far every day in December has brought wet weather. It's not going to get any better."



The article below if from the deep-green "Independent" of London

It's a word that's been generating a steady, background hum in the scientific community for decades now. And the glow of hope emanating from the word "thorium" is now burning brighter than ever. Is this element really the nuclear fuel of the future? Is it really - as some are claiming - cleaner, greener and safer than its scarcer cousin uranium? One thing's for sure: there are massive reserves of thorium throughout the world, and if the power that represents could be harnessed, it could keep us in energy-saving light bulbs for thousands of years to come. So why aren't governments investing in the technology needed to make that potential a reality?

Over the past year, Professor Egil Lillestol of the Institute of Physics and Technology at the University of Bergen, has been attempting to convince the world that nuclear reactors fuelled by thorium could be the answer to the world's energy problems. If we accept that we need alternatives to the CO2-belching fossil fuels, then, Lillestol says: "We all have to do whatever we can to reduce the consumption of energy and to develop solar and wind energy. These are, currently, the only two sources that can give us substantial amounts of renewable energy, but unfortunately far from enough."

Lillestol believes that nuclear power is the only solution. But nuclear power has a bad reputation. The public remembers the disasters all too well, from the Sellafield fire of 1957 to Chernobyl's meltdown in 1986. We are frightened, too, by the prospect of waste from spent fuel rods that remain lethally radioactive for many thousands of years. If that's not nasty enough, some nuclear waste can also be reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium. The processing of plutonium for re-use as fuel for reactors is difficult and consequently much of the waste is left to build in weapons-grade stockpiles that could pose a serious security threat were some to fall into the wrong hands.

But according to some, including Lillestol, thorium - a silvery white metal discovered in 1828 by the Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius, who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder - could solve all these problems. As Lillestol points out, thorium is "three times more abundant than uranium in the earth's crust, and produces 250 times more energy per unit of weight than uranium in the present reactors". Unlike a uranium reactor, a thorium power station would produce no plutonium. Consequently, the waste produced from burning thorium in a reactor would not be such a security risk if it fell into the wrong hands, and the spent fuel rods are dramatically less radioactive than conventional nuclear waste. Dr Paul Norman of the University of Birmingham's Physics department talks in terms of "hundreds of years of radioactivity as opposed to thousands".

Furthermore, thorium requires an accelerator-driven system (or ADS) reactor, and these have significant differences from reactors commonly used for uranium. When a uranium-235 atom splits, it releases a wave of high-energy neutrons which can then collide with other U-235 atoms, releasing more neutrons. This is the chain reaction responsible for the explosive power of an atom bomb, and when out of control, it is also the force that can drive a disastrous meltown in a reactor's core.

But in an ADS reactor, that chain reaction cannot get out of control. "The technology for building such a reactor became ripe some 10 years ago. It uses an external beam of protons to kick-start the reactions," says Lillestol. The thorium does not then continue the reaction on its own - it needs the external beam of protons to keep it running. To stop the reaction, and close down a power station, all that would be needed to be done would be to pull the plug on that external beam of protons.

"In the first step, the protons enter into molten lead where a large number of neutrons are produced," continues Lillestol. "These neutrons enter into the thorium blanket. In fact the proton accelerator has to have a rather intense proton beam, and such accelerators could not be built 10 years ago. This is no longer considered to be a major obstacle."

Lillestol says that the problem is political will - and money. "Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia began work on the ADS while he was director-general at CERN [the European Organisation for Nuclear Research]. He and his group made so much progress that we all believed that a prototype would be built within a decade. However, when the EU turned down the application for $500m first in 1999 and then in 2000, Rubbia gave up pushing and concentrated on solar energy which he then was also heavily engaged in."

Lillestol - whom Rubbia appointed as deputy division leader of CERN's Physics Division back in 1989 - has continued to fight for the thorium cause. He estimates the cost of a prototype reactor at 550m euros and believes it will take around 15 years to develop: "Molten lead becomes highly corrosive - and the problem is, how do we contain that lead? But the greatest difficulty is getting the world's experts to work together in one place and on one prototype. This, I believe, can only be achieved if all the participating countries have equal rights to all the results." Of course, the supply network for uranium has already been established, and is an important issue for governments all over the world. Switching to thorium would move the goalposts and put new power in the hands of the countries that have the thorium. And on such massive issues, it seems that no one likes change.

India, which has about a quarter of the world's total reserves, has already planned its nuclear power program eventually to use thorium, phasing out uranium. But Greenpeace thinks this is a bad idea. The organisation's senior adviser on nuclear energy, Jean McSorley, says: "Operating thorium reactors would mean taking an enormous risk with untried and untested reactors. We shouldn't forget that we need to reduce energy demand, and fully embrace clean, safe and secure alternatives such as renewable energy systems."

But Dr Norman says that new nuclear technology, of some description, is the future. "If you want evidence that nuclear power is back on the agenda, then take a look at what's happening at universities. Our Masters course on the Physics and Technology of Nuclear Reactors was launched 50 years ago, and this year we've got 36 students - the most we've ever had, almost double the previous highest number which was 19 students back in 1957. Global warming is proving far more deadly than Chernobyl. We could try and keep running with the current reactors, which will run as long as uranium-235 lasts. Or we could try something new." He agrees the something new could well be thorium. Or nuclear fusion, which, he admits, "is technically harder to achieve". Perhaps a thorium reactor is not so far-fetched.


NHS spend 7 billion pounds of taxpayer's money on 'private consultants'

And it's not medical consultants we are talking about

More than 7 billion pounds [Yes. That's billions, not millions] of taxpayers' money was lavished on private consultants in the public services over the last three years - thanks to soaring costs in the NHS. Spending on consultants in the Health Service has increased 18 fold in just two years, from 31million in 2004 to a staggering 578m in the 12 months to April - partly thanks to the spiralling costs of the new NHS computer system. That raised the total bill for consultants in the public services to 2.8bn last year - a rise of a third over the last two years.

The National Audit Office warned there is no evidence at all that taxpapyers have got value for money because Whitehall departments keep such poor records. A hard hitting report by the government spending watchdog found that ministers could save more than 1billion over three years if they put in place even basic controls to cut the number of consultants and get better value from their contracts.

The company cashing in the most is computer firm IBM, with contracts worth 275m pounds last year, while Accenture - the management company who have worked for Labour since before the 1997 election - raked in 175m. PA Consulting, who are presiding over the controversial ID card scheme, pocketed 102million last year.

The report slams government departments for paying consultants millions on a daily 'time and materials' rate which encourages them to spin out contracts to milk money from the public purse, rather making payments dependent on delivering successful projects. The worst offender is the Department of Education and Skills, which receives four 'red lights' for its failure to get a grip on consultant spending. After the NHS, the biggest slice of the bill comes from local government, where consultants earned 386m last year. The Department for International Development, despite being a small ministry, ran up a gigantic bill of 255m. The Ministry of Defence spent 213m and the Environment department 160m.

Among the contracts singled out for criticism is the Home Office's ID cards project, where more than 2m a month was being funnelled to PA Consulting last year. The report complains that the department rather than the consultants 'bear the costs for increases in project duration', which have exceeded original estimates. The NAO concluded that most departments do not bother to 'make a proper assessment of whether internal resources could have been used instead of consultants' or 'collect adequate information on their use of consultants'. Crucially their report said that departments do not talk to each other about which consulting firms and partners at those firms do a good job, nor do they make sure consultants train up civil servants to do the job once they have left. It concludes: 'Fewer than half of central government organisations collect information on how the consultants have performed against what they were intended to do.'

Keith Davis, director of the NAO efficiency centre which compiled the report, said: 'The way that Government is managing consultants doesn't represent value for money. Part of the problem is there is no clear information.' Edward Leigh, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said: 'Today's report from the NAO confirms what many of us have long suspected: the external consultancy gravy train continues full steam ahead, courtesy if the public purse. 'In the past three years, 7.3bn of taxpayers' money has gone to big consultancy firms. Too often departments hand over a signed cheque to consultants without first looking to see what skills they have in-house. 'Perhaps the most damning finding is that, time and again, departments fail to keep an eye on how these companies perform or if they are delivering.'

Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, branded progress in government 'disappointing'. He said: 'Departments need to think ahead about what skills they should have, so they don't have to rely on consultants year after year. Peter Hill, chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association said: 'The increase in the use of management consultants is against a background of unprecedented public sector reform which requires skills and competency not available in sufficient numbers in the public sector.' CBI director of public services Dr Neil Bentley said: 'Consultants offer expertise and experience often not found in the public sector, but government departments need to make a clear business case for using them if the taxpayer is to get value for money. 'As the NAO rightly suggests, this does not always happen.'


Vegetarians are more intelligent, says study

Another rubbishy finding that ignores social class

Frequently dismissed as cranks, their fussy eating habits tend to make them unpopular with dinner party hosts and guests alike. But now it seems they may have the last laugh, with research showing vegetarians are more intelligent than their meat-eating friends. A study of thousands of men and women revealed that those who stick to a vegetarian diet have IQs that are around five points higher than those who regularly eat meat. Writing in the British Medical Journal, the researchers say it isn't clear why veggies are brainier - but admit the fruit and veg-rich vegetarian diet could somehow boost brain power.

The researchers, from the University of Southampton, tracked the fortunes of more than 8,000 volunteers for 20 years. At the age of ten, the boys and girls sat a series of tests designed to determine their IQ. When they reached the age of 30, they were asked whether they were vegetarian and their answers compared to their childhood IQ score. Around four and a half per cent of the adults were vegetarian - a figure that is broadly in line with that found in the general population.

However, further analysis of the results showed those who were brainiest as children were more likely to have become vegetarian as adults, shunning both meat and fish. The typical adult veggie had a childhood IQ of around 105 - around five points higher than those who continued to eat meat as they grew up. The vegetarians were also more likely to have gained degrees and hold down high-powered jobs. There was no difference in IQ between strict vegetarians and those who classed themselves as veggie but still ate fish or chicken. However, vegans - vegetarians who also avoid dairy products - scored significantly lower, averaging an IQ score of 95 at the age of 10.

Researcher Dr Catharine Gale said there could be several explanations for the findings, including intelligent people being more likely to consider both animal welfare issues and the possible health benefits of a vegetarian diet. Previous work has shown that vegetarians tend to have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol, cutting their risk of heart attacks. They are also less likely to be obese. Alternatively, a diet which is rich in fruit, vegetables and wholegrains may somehow boost brain power. Dr Gale said: 'Although our results suggest that children who are more intelligent may be more likely to become vegetarian as adolescents or young adults, it does not rule out the possibility that such a diet might have some beneficial effect on subsequent cognitive performance. 'Might the nature of the vegetarians' diet have enhanced their apparently superior brain power? Was this the mechanism that helped them achieve the disproportionate nature of degrees?'

High-profile vegetarians include singers Paul McCartney and Morrissey and actress Jenny Seagrove. Past exponents of a meat-free lifestyle include George Bernard Shaw and Benjamin Franklin. Promoting the cause, Shaw said, 'A mind of the calibre of mine cannot drive its nutriment from cows', while Franklin stated that a vegetarian diet resulted in 'greater clearness of head and quicker comprehension'. Liz O'Neill, of the Vegetarian Society, said: 'We've always known that vegetarianism is an intelligent, compassionate choice benefiting animals, people and the environment. Now, we've got the scientific evidence to prove it. 'Maybe that explains why many meat-reducers are keen to call themselves vegetarians when even they must know that vegetarians don't eat chicken, turkey or fish!'


Vegetarianism is almost solely a bourgeois preoccupation and, as Murray and Herrnstein showed long ago, the middle and upper classes have an IQ advantage. They also, however, tend to overestimate their own wisdom and go off chasing all sorts of rainbows -- in the belief that they can see truth and virtue where most people cannot


Clothes made in larger sizes should carry a tag with an obesity helpline number, health specialists have suggested. Sweets and snacks should not be permitted near checkouts, new roads should not be built unless they include cycle lanes and food likely to make people fat should be taxed, they say in a checklist of what we might "reasonably do" to deal with obesity.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, the team says that "pull yourself together, eat less and exercise more" is an inadequate response to obesity, voiced only by "less perceptive health professionals" and the media. What fat people need is help, advice and sympathy to overcome their addiction to food, says the group of public health professionals, which includes Sir George Alberti, the Government's national director for emergency care. Their checklist of possible actions includes:

* Printing a helpline numbers for advice with all clothes sold with a waist of more than 40in for men and 37in for boys, women's garments with a waist of more than 35in or size 16 or above, and more than 31in for girls

* Banning the placement of sweets and fatty snacks at or near shop tills and at children's eye level

* Taxing processed foods that are high in sugar or saturated fat

* Introducing health checks for all school leavers, both primary and secondary

* Allowing new urban roads only if they have cycle lanes

* Establishing a dedicated central agency responsible for all aspects of obesity

The report was put together by Laurence Gruer, director of public health science at NHS Health Scotland, and Sir George, who is emeritus professor of medicine at Newcastle University. The Glasgow University professors Naveed Sattar and Mike Lean also contributed to the report, which calls for wider acceptance of drugs and surgery as ways of cutting the health risks that stem from obesity.

The report concludes: "Medical practice must adapt to the current epidemic of obesity and nutrition-related diseases. The profession must unite the forces of public health and acute services to generate sustainable changes in food and lifestyles: matters at the heart of our cultural identities. "Furthermore, training in public health medicine should urge all doctors to contribute towards bringing changes in the food industry and in the environment that will lead to a more physically active, healthier and happier population. "As the prevalence and costs of obesity escalate, the economic argument for giving high priority to obesity and weight management through a designated co-ordinating agency will ultimately become overwhelming. The only question is, will action be taken before it is too late?"


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