“Tomorrow”: climate change is a starting point for an examination of sustainability in terms of living locally

Tomorrow“, written by Cyril Dion and directed with Melanie Laurent, starts with climate change and gives a five-part prescription for the sustainability of civilization, grounded ultimately in personal morality.

The keep concept is locality of living and personal interaction.  All economic growth is multifocal.

The film comprises five parts.  It starts with Urban Farming, showing people raising their own produce in the ruins of Detroit, before moving to France and England.  The film also argue against big agri-business and shows briefly some of the horrors of poultry plants and feed lots (like the 1995 Australian satire movie “Babe” about the precocious piglet). The film also showed local agriculture on Reunion Island (France) in the Indian Ocean. The film was critical even of our use of grains in our diet, since they make processed foods easier to consumer.

Part 2, Energy, is more predictable, summarizing renewable energy, particularly in Iceland and Denmark. It also shows us how ugly the tar sands in Alberta look.

Part 3, Economics, gets interesting.  The film proposes the idea of local currencies, rather like Monopoly money.  It explains that with a global euro or dollar reserve currency system, it is too easy for banks to invent money by loaning it for interest. Financial crises like 2008 become inevitable. The film might gave gotten into the subject of micro-lending or kiva here.

But this section of the film makes a strong moral case for local businesses, as generating many more jobs in proportion to their customer bases, than Internet based global retail operations.  For a writer and blogger like me, this proposes interesting challenges, like why am I not more supportive of printed books and local bookstores.  Letting Amazon do it for you is too complacent.   I do buy food at farmers’ markets, and I do visit a locally owned supermarket and tavern (the Westover Market in Arlington VA) a lot as well as bug chains.  Consumers (like me) doing so would help a bit with job creation.

This section of the film seems to argue against globalization, feeding into the “Brexit” or “America First” idea of Donald Trump (although the film was shot before these events). The film would want everyone to like in an intentional community!

Part 4, Democracy, proposes the radical idea of choosing legislators by drawing lots.  Apparently this was done after the meltdown in Iceland in 2009. There is such a proposal for choosing the Senate in Belgium.  There is also a presentation of a social experiment in India where “untouchable” castes form extended family units with the better off families.

Despite the anti-globalization view of the film, this section tends to argue that people of different races, religions, social classes or even gender roles should be able to live together and transact with one another locally.

Part 5, Education, gives a look at the education system in Finland.

Name:  “Tomorrow”
Director, writer:  Cyril Dion
Released:  2015
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Filmfest DC, Landmark E St, 2017/4/25, small auditorium, nearly full
Length:  120
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Mars, Sundance Selects
Link:  official (France)

(Posted: Wednesday, April 26, 2017 at 12:30 AM EDT)

“Voices of Chernobyl”: Supplications from the family members of victims of the 1986 nuclear power plant catastrophe in the Ukraine

The documentary “Voices of Chernobyl” (2016, “La supplication”, or “The Prayer”), by Pol Cruchten, is actually based on a “novel” by Svetlana Alexievich)

But the presentation of the film is rather simple.  A number of people, especially family members of the Chernobyl nuclear plant workers and rescue personnel, stand in the ruins, or sometimes in the early springtime river, plains and forest country of northern Ukraine, and give testimonials to their personal losses.  Often the victims (mostly men) are shown, lying still, clothed.  The horrific symptoms of radiation poisoning are described verbally, but the men are usually left intact visually.  Some of the victims are children born about the time of the disaster who then develop leukemias.

The speakers (in French, with subtitles – the country of origin is Luxembourg) mention the upwind damage in other countries, most of all Belarus, where many abortions would then be performed.

Toward the end, a few women gardeners, indeed “The Babushkas of Chernobyl” (index) appear, working the soil fearlessly.

The actual “accident” led immediately, according to Wikipedia, to 31 deaths, but many more must have occurred gradually.

The film was shown at the DC Environmental Film Festival on March 16 at the Ring Auditorium in the Hirshhorn Smithsonian Museum (where I had seen  the “Infinity Mirrors” exhibition one week before).  The DCEFF program gives the title as “Voices from Chernobyl” as do some trailers; But imdb uses the preposition “of”.

Wikipedia coverage of Chernobyl disaster, many pictures including sarcophagus.

I remember the newspaper coverage of the Three Mile Island disaster in March 1979, when I was living in Dallas;  for a while a melt-down was feared.  When I worked with Dan Fry’s group “Understanding” from 1975 to 1979, I met a woman, in New York City, who wanted to start a national caravan to oppose nuclear power.  She was a one-issue person.

However, young inventor Taylor Wilson has argued that small underground fission plants for many utilities could make the power grids safer (from solar storms or EMP) by reducing the dependence on large transformers.  Taylor has actually written an article about Fukushima in 2011.  His work (in a book “The Boy Who Played with Fusion” — index) deserves a documentary film now.

Name: “Voices of Chernobyl”
Director, writer:  Pol Cruchten
Released:  2016
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed: Ring Auditorium, Hirshhorn, DCEFF, free, 2017/3/16, large audience (a lot of it young)
Length:  87
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Red Lion
Link:  film

(Posted: Friday, March 17, 2017 at 10:45 AM EDT)

“Blood on the Mountain”: coal mining, especially in West Virginia, did not make America “great” and gives us all bad karma

Name:  “Blood on the Mountain
Director, writer:  Mari-Lynn C. Evans, Jordan Freeman
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed: Landmark West End, DC, 2016/12/21
Length:  90
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Aborama, Virgil
Link:  official

On July 31, 1971, I was nearly arrested (it would have been the only time in my life) for trespassing on a strip-mine along W Va 93 between Mt. Storm and Davis.  Strip mining, and the idea of mountaintop removal, had already been growing by 1970.  Later, in May 1991, I would take the underground mine tour at Beckley W Va.

The film “Blood on the Mountain” (2016), directed by Mari-Lynn C. Evans and Jordan Freeman, provides a good 90-minute history of the coal industry in the United States, particularly West Virginia, since the late 19th Century.  In the early days (until the New Deal) coal companies built company towns in the mountain hollows and miners essentially worked as serfs in what practically amounted to feudalism. Early castastrophes included the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster  with many workers succumbing to silicosis.

Once miners were partly unionized, the usual labor struggles ensued, but mine disasters repeated. One of the very worst was the Buffalo Creak flood in 1972, when a cofferdam failed.

In time, underground mining jobs started to dwindle as strip-mining (with those “Big Muskie” draglines) increased.  The film shows the mountaintop removal at Kayford and Blair (where a child labor controversy had occurred in 1921 ).

Most of the families in this part of the country supported Trump, but it’s hard to believe that, even in the best days (maybe the 1960s), America was “great” in coal country.  The film covers scandal after scandal with government and company officials.  One of the most recent was the Elk River spill near Charleston, W Va in early 2014.

I drove through this countryside twice this year, after the massive floods in June.  Most of the people there seemed quite self-reliant, able to rebuilt their own homes with their own hands and tools, and really didn’t want a lot of outside help or visitors.

The film has some morality tests, like the idea that elites or progressives like trees, streams and mountains more than they like people, and that many coal miners feel that they have been made “extinct”.  There is also a claim that globalism means taking resources from one area and giving them to another and letting the original area be left for dead.  That reminds me of the whole strip mining reclamation issue (latest news).  There’s one shot, apparently from Kayford, of a blackened ridge that looks extraterrestrial (like in one of my dreams).

Add to all of this, is a scandal with pharmaceutical companies pushing opioid pills in West Virginia, most of all the town of Kermit, CNN video.  Make West Virginia great again, indeed.

Maybe Luke Andraka (Jack’s older brother) can help make Appalachia great again, with the science fair project he won at age 15, regarding acid drainage from mines, described here in the Baltimore Sun.  Look at his underground coal mine picture on Facebook, Oct. 19, 2015, here.

(Posted: Wednesday, December 21, 2016 at 8:15 PM EST)

“The Prince of Pennsylvania” and other films about Hillary’s “deplorables”

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Name: The Prince of Pennsylvania
Director, writer:  Ron Nyswaner
Released:  1988
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD 2916/11/3
Length 88
Rating R
Companies: New Line (distr), Columbia (production, unusual arrangement), Image (DVD distr)
Link: NA

The Prince of Pennsylvania” (1988), directed by Ron Nyswaner, now would come across as a comic drama about the “basket of deplorables”, as Hillary Clinton call them, who seem to support Donald Trump – in this case, the lower income whites in a coal mining town.

Rupert Marshette (Keanu Reeves), is a bright and rebellious teen, sometimes working at a local ice cream shop, resisting his father (Fred Ward) Gary’s expectations that Rupert will carry on the family coal mining business.  We all know how some Trump supporters resist the green movement and feel globalism and technology will put them out of business.  But dad has some land which he will sell to a company planning a strip mine.  Dad says that working in surface mine muskies is a lot safer than digging for anthracite underground.

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The film, however, never goes near the mountaintop removal issue.  It’s fair to say, a lot of the outdoor scenes were shot near Pittsburgh, but some seem to look like southern California.

Gary has fights with his cheating wife Pam (Bonnie Bedalia), which Rupert watches (OK. Family values and domestic violence).  Rupert and an older revolutionary female friend (Amy Madigan) hit upon the idea of kidnapping dad (by drugging him first) for the money from the land sale.  The movie comes to a climax in a mine (not very well shown) where the money may be locked in a portable potty.  Eventually, prince Rupert will get away with his new life after the police come.

There’s a curious scene early where Dad tells Rupert about an Army psychologist’s interview: “If you saw a cancer researcher and you own son drowning, who would you save?”  Then there follows an existential argument about loyalty to blood (which actually came up in the series “Jake 2.0” on UPN).

I think there is a fair comparison to the 1999 film “October Sky”, directed by Joe Johnston, where teen Homer Hickam (who wrote the book) fights his father to build rockets (pre-Sputnik) when his dad expects him to follow the family into the coal mines.  When dad gets lung disease, the older brother offers to give up school and risk black lung himself.  Homer is played by a younger Jake Gyllenhaal (long before the body shaving for “Nightcrawler” (2014, Dan Gilroy).  When I worked as a substitute teacher in 2005, this film as shown to a physics class.

It’s obvious you can recall “Foxcatcher” (2014) and the documentary “Team Foxcatcher” (2015) here, also (see index).

(Posted: Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, at 11:45 AM EDT)

“The Grid”: Bakke’s account of the electric power grids doesn’t consider the worst that can happen

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Author: Grethchen Bakke
Title, Subtitle: The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-1-60819-610-4
Publication: Bloomsburg, hardcover (also e-book), 349 pages, 30 roman pages, 9 Chapters
Link: author

The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future”, by Gretchen Bakke, promises to be a definitive account of the history, current state, and particularly future of the United States power grids (three of them).

Indeed, the early chapters give a detailed account of how free market forces starting in the late nineteenth century, first led to small local power companies which gradually would consolidate into today’s industry.  An important milestone was the “discovery” and quick engineering of alternating current.   The History Channel had covered some of this ground in a 2012 series “The Men Who Built America”.   An important concept is that electricity itself cannot be stored or redirected, although charge is stored as chemical energy in batteries.  Resistance, not distance, determines how current flows.

The book does cover the mentality of the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, which was launched by the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 as political retaliation for the US alliance with Israel after the sudden Yom Kippur war.  Jimmy Carter’s fireside chats emphasized the permanence of the need for energy conservation, with sweaters or leggings in winter and 80 degree thermostat settings in summer (which Sun Computer systems bragged it honored).  It got worse with the Iran hostage crisis, but during the Reagan years energy turned around, as industry produced its way out of the jam.  I can remember when moving to Dallas in 1979 that even some people who worked for oil companies thought we would reach “peak oil”.  But by the late 80s, there was oversupply of oil, leading to the Texas real estate crash and savings and loan scandal (which she doesn’t cover but I know it well because I lived through it).

I also had oil stocks, which increased in value, and my parents had a lot of utility stocks, which is one reason why they were financially stable (it didn’t hurt that a relative on the mother’s side owned a gas well in Ohio).  And I had a few I.T. job interviews with oil companies and with Texas Energy (through a consulting firm).  One of the gigs might have had me working at the nuclear power plant near Glen Rose (which I actually visited in 1982).

A critical point in the history of utilities was the passage or PURPA, or Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act, Section 210, which, while allowing utilities to remain local “monopolies”, denied their continued “monopsony”, of being the only customers.  The result would be more incentive for local production of power.

Bakke does cover failures of the grid, but incompletely.  She gives a detailed account of the Northeast Blackout of 2003 which developed as a cascading of events after a tree fell on a power line in Ohio.  A software bug called XA/21 led to the failure to parse line signals properly, leading them to “add up” and overload various other circuit breaks, forcing utilities all over the northeast (and into Canada) to shut down.  She says that the greatest enemies of power grid stability are overgrown vegetation and animals (especially squirrels).  But perverse economic incentives had led companies to neglect some kinds of maintenance and software testing.

The other big catastrophes, in her account, were the Great Gale of 2007 in the Pacific Northwest (starting December 1), and Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.  Lower Manhattan, below 34th Street, lost power for a week, mainly because much of Con Ed’s infrastructure was place too low to the ground; built on higher floors it would have survived.

Later she does discuss physical attacks on the grid, especially a major rifle assault in the Silicon Valley in California in April 2013, which might have had much worse consequences than it did, and maintains that small attacks (as well as “accidents”) are common.  But she never goes into the biggest threats – like a Carrington-level solar storm (which we may have barely averted in the summer of 2012), or an enemy-launched high altitude electromagnetic pulse attack.  That would naturally lead to a discussion about the inadequate transformer manufacturing and replacement capacity of the US utility industry.  She does mention cyber attacks, but only briefly.

She makes an interesting distinction between resilience (she spells it “resiliency”) and security, and says that utilities and consumers need to stress the former.  One way to achieve some resilience is decentralization (less reliance on power shared over hundreds of miles) and use of micro-grids, which many companies today (even some banks) have.   Small local grids can often effectively use wind or solar power, or natural gas generation which is usually much cleaner than coal or oil. There has been controversy over whether utilities must buy back from consumers who generate their own electricity, from renewable sources.

She looks to the future, mentioning fusion down the road, but not acknowledging the work of Taylor Wilson (Clines’s book “The Boy Who Played with Fusion”).  She does discuss the possibility of transmitting power wirelessly by magnetic resonance, an idea of Martin Soljacic at MIT, replacing earlier ideas of Tesla.

In her epilogue, she describes experiencing a blackout at home in winter.

It seems to me that most people assume that their background infrastructure (plugs and sockets) will always be there for them, and they can go about making money without thinking about it.  But what if we’re all wrong?

The author is a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago.

(Published: Monday, Aug. 22, 2016 at 9 PM EDT)

“Guilty Knowledge”: The media and political establishments remain asleep on power grid security (Oh, do they really know?)

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Author(s) or Editor(s): Frank Gaffney, editor; David Reboi and Adam Savit
Title, Subtitle: Guilty Knowledge: What the US Government Knows about the Vulnerability of the Electric Grid, but Refuses to Fix
publication date 2013
ISBN 978-149535018-4
Publication: Center for Security Press (Amazon), 62 pages, paper, 11 short chapters after Foreword
Link: Secure the Grid

There are some issues which potentially imply individuals and families need to prepare themselves to take on challenges they don’t think they have chosen for themselves.  And the media seems loath to talk about these very openly. So are the politicians, except at the fringes.  That may be one reason why you get a presidential candidate like Donald Trump.

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Such is the nature of the security of our electric power grids – all three of them.  A group called “Center for Security Policy” publishes a 62-page booklet (inexpensive, $6 from Amazon), edited by and with Introduction by Frank Gaffney. Jr., “Guilty Knowledge: What the US Government Knows about the Vulnerability of the Electric Grid, But Refuses to Fix”, apparently dated 2013.

The book comprises a Foreword and 11 abstracts, each with a strike page, on the issue, dated from 2004 to 2012.   The first two abstracts are Electromagnetic Pulse Commission Reports;  other pieces deal with solar storms, cybersecurity, and unconventional weapons.  But there is little attention to physical attacks, like the rifle attack on a station in the Silicon Valley in April 2013 (and there have been other small attacks).

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The booklet does layout the background setting, that western society (and the individuals pimping themselves out in it) has become “addicted” to technology, especially electricity, whose modern grid developed somewhat by fortuitous decisions by a few early entrepreneurs (as in the History Channel’s Modern Marvels documentary on the topic). That context means that the old “mutually assured destruction” of “Dr. Strangelove” during the Cold War, as applied to nuclear war and thermonuclear weapons (which do emit EMP) doesn’t deter terrorists interested in destroying our way of life but leaving us alive to be conquered and converted.

The Foreword gives us a taste of the problem. In 2014, Fox got a rude memo from the Pentagon, “The Department is unaware of any increase in the threat of a deliberate destructive use of an EMP device. Further, any reporting to the contrary by those without access to current threat assessments is both reckless and irresponsible.”

Oh, we get it. Knowledge of critical national security issues is to be passed down through the cabal of political authority (disguised as security clearances), and the rest of the public goes shopping as usual.  No wonder, then, the doomsday prepper crowd guards its “right” to build up caches of assault weapons for a world like NBC’s “Revolution”.  The Pentagon is unwittingly feeding the lunatic, right-wing fringe.  For power grid security is not a partisan or “right wing” issue, even though Fox News (with Bill Hemmer) and the Washington Times (and probably the Examiner) pay disproportionate attention to it compared to more mainstream media channels.

On Monday, August 8, 2016, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Fox sponsored a “Your Voice Your Future” roundtable on “U.S. Grid Safety” from a Fox studio in Green Bay, WI.  I review the broadcast here.  On Saturday, August 6, ABC Affiliate WJLA (owned by Sinclair) had promised the forum on Monday.  True, the link to the stream was there, but the broadcast was not carried on any DC station (not even on News Channel 8)   I had to pseudo-hack for ten minutes to get the stream to work.  I could not have watched it if I didn’t know something about how the stations and broadcasts are set up. (Does that make me an “ethical” hacker?)  I could not get the system to stream a second hour strictly from the local Fox station in Green Bay.  I wonder if it was shown on stations in Milwaukee or (where I used to live) Minneapolis.  I’ve contacted several parties at (locally more politically liberal) WJLA and News Channel 8 and nobody wants to talk about this!   Sinclair Broadcasting did create a two-minute clip on the issue which WJLA aired just once this summer (my account).

The booklet does cover some critical bases, like the questionable capability of US utilities to replace large transformers should they be damaged by an event.  It covers the Carrington Even in 1859, the Quebec 1989 outage caused by a solar storm (with subsequent large coronal mass ejection) along with another incident in the 1920s, and the solar threat in general (although it doesn’t mention Earth’s reported near miss with another Carrington in July 2012).  It also covers IEMI, intentional electromagnetic interference, and distinguishes between the acronyms HEMP (high altitude electromagnetic pulse) and HPEM, high power electromagnetics.  There are haphazard Youtube videos on how to make HPEM, which hopefully would not work in the hands of amateurs.  An HPEM device could disable and fry electronics (like PC’s and smart phones) in a small area (maybe a few city blocks at most) but could be devastating for small businesses affected (a good reason for making not only Cloud backups but also optical CD’s, which would not be affected).  It’s possible to imagine an attack like this from enemies as a kind of ransomware, although that right now sounds more like a Hollywood B Movie plot.   It’s effect could be compared to a dirty bomb, although it would not leave real estate contaminated or uninhabitable.  It could pose enormous public safety problems for people in high rise buildings (like elevators).  The military uses HPEM weapons in Afghanistan and has used them in Iraq, but they have not been used in civilian settings (the Washington Times had an article about this in 2009, and there was a controversial Popular Mechanics article back in 2001 just before 9/11).

The booklet anticipates Ted Koppel’s concerns about cyberwar.  It does seem that portions of the electric grid are more closely connected to the public Internet than they should be.  The power grid needs the same level of cyber security as the Pentagon (which is better than civilian federal agencies and even banks and retail, which do get hacked).

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have finally started talking about “infrastructure banks” which could be used to shore up gird security.  One idea could be some decentralization, and Taylor Wilson, who get investments from Peter Thiel (who spoke at the RNC) proposes small underground fission reactors as a way for utilities to become less vulnerable to external events. It mystifies me that Donald Trump, in particular, doesn’t take the opportunity to talk about this issue frankly in his speeches.  He could gain credibility as a candidate if he talked about real security threats and solutions and stopped the name-calling and race or religion or ethnicity baiting.  Isn’t that true conservatism, what the GOP ought to stand for?

I take this kind of personally.  This sounds like an issue of journalists’ “connecting the dots”, which the political establishment is afraid of.  I’m told to be quiet, and that my most important concern should be who among my cultural sisters can use the bathroom of her choice in North Carolina, and that if something catastrophic happens, I’ll have to learn to live with less in more intimate settings around others, that all this “external world” (or even outer space) stuff is above our heads and beyond our control.  Bull!  We can be smart, and prevent most catastrophes.  The Neanderthals did not survive because they didn’t innovate, and didn’t understand ego well enough.

I’ve covered other books on my legacy blogs, missives like “One Second After” (William Forstchen), “Gridlock” (Dorgan), “A Nation Forsaken” (Maloof), and “Lights Out” (Koppel).  I will review Bakke’s “The Grid” soon.  Clynes’s book about Taylor Wilson, “The Boy Who Played with Fusion”, is also relevant. This topic needs a documentary movie from a filmmaker like Morgan Spurlock or Andrew Jenks (not sure Michael Moore would be interested).

(Published: Friday, August 12, 2016 at 1 PM EDT)

“Catching the Sun” documents shifting to solar energy, especially in CA and in China

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Name: Catching the Sun
Director, writer:  Shalina Kantayyi
Released:  2015
Format:  film, normal aspect, 72 min
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Companies: 7th Empire Media
Link: official site

I spent a night in a motel in Richmond CA the first night of a trip in February 2002, shortly after “retiring” (at age 58, from my last “real job”), and remember penciling out some plans before parking the rent car and taking the Bart to San Francisco for the evening.  All of this shows in the early scenes of “Catching the Sun” , by Shalina Kantayya.

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The film starts with graphic scenes from the Chevron refinery fire in August 2012, which caused extreme disruption to residents, who were told not to use electricity even when it was on.  Soon we get to know the family of Paul Mudrow, whose house is under-water (or was caught in the 2007 subprime mess), who takes up training to become a solar panel installer.  Yes, you have to become a climber, which my own mother used to say I am not. Eventually, we see him interview for the job.

The film then shows us a solar entrepreneur in Wuxi, China, on the Pacific coast a few hundred miles north of Shanghai.  It amazes me how many multi-million-pop cities that I have not heard of exist in China.  The movie does not explain China’s lack of progress in the horrific air pollution of many of its big cities (especially Beijing itself).  Then we meet a Green Tea Coalition activist, who says she is normally a conservative Republican. We also learn that in Germany, 75% of the power is generated from renewable sources, to be 100% by 2022. We also see a little bit about India’s solar industry.

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Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Richmond CA refinery by Nickols Kolb, under CCSA 3.0

Wkipedia attribution link for picture of Wuxi by DizzyNN under CCSA 4.0 International.

As a counterweight, I’ll add a YouTube video from 2013 of Taylor Wilson’s Ted Talk from Long Beach, CA where he proposes (at age 18) a plan to decentralize the major US power grids (make them more secure, indirectly) with small fission reactors.  I’ll come back to this later on my news blog.

(Published Monday, May 23, 2016 at 8 PM EDT)