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Posts from — June 2011

Nuclear Power You Can Trust?

Hav­ing been involved in the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment in one way or anoth­er since the 1970s, I’ve always been in the “anti-nuclear” camp.

Indeed, I think I was the first per­son to cre­ate an Eng­lish ver­sion of the famous “Atom­kraft? Nein Danke” logo – for the cov­er of an edi­tion of Under­cur­rents mag­a­zine – a mag­a­zine that was into renew­ables (main­ly of the DIY vari­ety) before a lot of peo­ple. (You can read some copies of it here.)

Of course there are plen­ty of rea­sons to be wary of nuclear pow­er – of the cur­rent vari­ety at least.

  • There’s the ques­tion of ener­gy secu­ri­ty: Ura­ni­um does­n’t come from here, we have to import it, or reprocess oth­er peo­ples’. So although I gath­er there might be deposits off the British coast, it does­n’t seem at this point to help decou­ple us from poten­tial prob­lems with depen­dence on over­seas sources.
  • There’s the prob­lem of nuclear waste dis­pos­al, though some peo­ple (James Love­lock for exam­ple) are con­vinced that this can be done safe­ly and permanently.
  • Nuclear pow­er as we cur­rent­ly do it is absurd­ly inef­fi­cient. What you do is you let radioac­tive decay heat some water and then pass it through tur­bines. It’s just like a con­ven­tion­al pow­er sta­tion, except you heat the water dif­fer­ent­ly. I can imag­ine the effi­cien­cy is sig­nif­i­cant­ly less than 50%. What­ev­er hap­pened to inno­v­a­tive direct con­ver­sion tech­nolo­gies like MHD (Mag­ne­to­Hy­dro­Dy­nam­ics), where, for exam­ple, you can run a plas­ma back and forth in a mag­net­ic field and pull elec­tric­i­ty direct­ly off the plas­ma, in a kind of flu­id dynamo? The Sovi­ets had some pilot plants gen­er­at­ing sev­er­al megawatts. What happened?
  • And there’s the risk of dis­as­trous acci­dents, like Cher­nobyl, Three Mile Island and now Fukushi­ma, which can poten­tial­ly spread sig­nif­i­cant amounts of irra­di­at­ed mate­r­i­al over a wide area, with poten­tial health effects like increased long-term can­cer risk and oth­er prob­lems beyond the direct effects of radi­a­tion poisoning.

Counter to the last of these, there’s the fact that remark­ably few peo­ple have actu­al­ly been affect­ed by radi­a­tion from nuclear pow­er plants. Many, many few­er than have been killed or injured by coal-min­ing acci­dents and oth­er fos­sil-fuel-relat­ed dis­as­ters. If Ger­many was as sen­si­tive to risks to life from bac­te­ria as it is from nuclear pow­er, it would have closed down the organ­ic food indus­try by now. But instead, it’s clos­ing down its nuclear plants, which, as far as I know, have not caused any deaths at all, unlike the con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed beansprouts.

But of course, it’s nev­er as sim­ple as that.

The fact is that right now we need low-car­bon ener­gy sources, and quick­ly, to com­bat the threat of anthro­pogenic (human-cre­at­ed) glob­al warm­ing (AGW). There is no doubt about the threat of AGW, and I’m not going to enter­tain dis­cus­sion about it here. Sorry.

Much as I am in favour of renew­ables, and much as I like the sight of ele­gant, vir­tu­al­ly silent wind tur­bines dot­ting the land­scape (and I would as hap­pi­ly have some in the field behind my house as James Love­lock would have a nuclear waste stor­age facil­i­ty behind his), the fact is that renew­ables are almost cer­tain­ly not enough, and we need some­thing more to replace our age­ing and hor­ri­fy­ing­ly destruc­tive car­bon-spew­ing fos­sil-fuel pow­ered gen­er­at­ing sta­tions. Nuclear is the obvi­ous option, so after years of tak­ing an anti-nuclear stance, I am chang­ing my mind. And in doing so find myself aligned with peo­ple like George Mon­biot and Pro­fes­sor Lovelock.

In my opin­ion, even if we did no bet­ter in the inter­na­tion­al nuclear pow­er indus­try than we have done to date, any threat to human life from nuclear pow­er, past, present and future, is as noth­ing com­pared to the bil­lions whose lives are threat­ened by AGW and will be over the 50–100 years ahead.

I will be a lit­tle con­tro­ver­sial and say that in my per­son­al view (and I am not a nuclear pow­er expert, so may be wrong), the cur­rent lev­el of nuclear pow­er tech­nol­o­gy is much safer than the chain that ends in a con­ven­tion­al fos­sil-fuel-dri­ven pow­er sta­tion. That, to me, is not the question.

Instead, the ques­tion is, can we trust any­one to build, main­tain and oper­ate nuclear pow­er sta­tions safe­ly?

You could argue that by and large, the answer to that ques­tion is yes. Nuclear pow­er as it is prac­tised today is in fact extreme­ly safe com­pared with fos­sil-fuel gen­er­a­tion. But there is a bit of a knife edge here. Fun­da­men­tal­ly, how­ev­er intrin­si­cal­ly safe the cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy is, the fact is that I do not trust for-prof­it cor­po­ra­tions to do the job prop­er­ly. I am not even sure I trust gov­ern­ments. They will always be look­ing to cut cor­ners and save mon­ey, time or what­ev­er else, and the result will be a great­ly increased risk. Take a look at this:


This is the seg­ment on nuclear pow­er from Adam Cur­tis’s Pan­do­ra’s Box series on some mis­us­es of sci­en­tif­ic research. I’m a big fan of Cur­tis’s work (although I have some issues with his lat­est series, All Watched Over By Machines of Lov­ing Grace) and I think the above is spot on.

So, I think the tech­nol­o­gy of cur­rent nuclear pow­er is fine in the­o­ry, but we are going to screw it up in prac­tice. How can we have our cake and eat it? What we need is a method of nuclear pow­er gen­er­a­tion that you can’t screw up [very easily].

The answer just might be hint­ed at in this arti­cle from, of all places The Mail On Sun­day, a paper I would nev­er have thought I’d find myself rec­om­mend­ing in, er, a month of Sun­days. It’s also rec­om­mend­ed by the cli­mate-scep­tic Glob­al Warm­ing Pol­i­cy Foun­da­tion. Talk about strange bedfellows….

The piece is about the “Elec­tron Mod­el of Many Appli­ca­tions”, or EMMA. Here’s the arti­cle. Research into this tech­nol­o­gy is going on in Cheshire and it might just pro­vide the key to one method of using Tho­ri­um in a reac­tor to gen­er­ate elec­tric­i­ty – assum­ing the UK gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues fund­ing the research prop­er­ly, which I doubt. Here’s the begin­ning of the piece:

“Imag­ine a safe, clean nuclear reac­tor that used a fuel that was huge­ly abun­dant, pro­duced only minute quan­ti­ties of radioac­tive waste and was almost impos­si­ble to adapt to make weapons. It sounds too good to be true, but this isn’t sci­ence fic­tion. This is what lies in store if we har­ness the pow­er of a sil­very met­al found in riv­er sands, soil and gran­ite rock the world over: thorium.

One ton of tho­ri­um can pro­duce as much ener­gy as 200 tons of ura­ni­um, or 3.5 mil­lion tons of coal, and the tho­ri­um deposits that have already been iden­ti­fied would meet the entire world’s ener­gy needs for at least 10,000 years. Unlike ura­ni­um, it’s easy and cheap to refine, and it’s far less tox­ic. Hap­pi­ly, it pro­duces ener­gy with­out pro­duc­ing any car­bon diox­ide: so an econ­o­my that ran on tho­ri­um pow­er would have vir­tu­al­ly no car­bon footprint.

Bet­ter still, a tho­ri­um reac­tor would be inca­pable of hav­ing a melt­down, and would gen­er­ate only 0.6 per cent of the radioac­tive waste of a con­ven­tion­al nuclear plant. It could even be adapt­ed to ‘burn’ exist­ing, stock­piled ura­ni­um waste in its core, thus enor­mous­ly reduc­ing its radioac­tive half-life and toxicity.…”

Now read on.

It seems to me that this tech­nol­o­gy could answer many, if not all, of the envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns about the accept­abil­i­ty of nuclear pow­er. Of course I want to read the full report that is appar­ent­ly soon to be pub­lished, and no tech­nol­o­gy comes with­out draw­backs (or unin­tend­ed con­se­quences for that mat­ter), but pre­lim­i­nary accounts, like the one above, seem to offer promise.

For more on oth­er pos­si­ble uses of Tho­ri­um for pow­er gen­er­a­tions, see this Wikipedia arti­cle. You’ll see it’s not entire­ly prob­lem-free – but then noth­ing is.

*Head­er image from


June 21, 2011   Comments Off on Nuclear Power You Can Trust?

Re-learning basic life skills

I remem­ber clear­ly one of the first pieces of real­ly use­ful infor­ma­tion I ever got from the World Wide Web.

It was back, prob­a­bly, in the ear­ly-to-mid 1990s, when I was essen­tial­ly cod­ing HTML by hand, as one had to do. The pre­vi­ous year, I’d com­plet­ed a demon­stra­tion of what a mag­a­zine I was work­ing on at the time might look like on the web as a method of inter­na­tion­al elec­tron­ic dis­tri­b­u­tion instead of send­ing Page­Mak­er files to var­i­ous loca­tions via AppleLink, and the client had liked it. I was inter­est­ed in find­ing out how to make it, and oth­er sites, look better.

I stum­bled upon the web site of a design­er and dig­i­tal typog­ra­ph­er. My mem­o­ry sug­gests (though I could be wrong about this) that he was David Siegel, the design­er of the Tek­ton font, who was demon­strat­ing tech­niques for mak­ing your web pages look halfway decent from a design point of view, long before the advent of CSS and oth­er web lay­out tools. That would make this in 1994 — I designed my first web site the pre­vi­ous year. Siegel went on to write the best-sell­er Cre­at­ing Killer Websites. 

In those day, the idea of the web was that it car­ried infor­ma­tion, and that infor­ma­tion had a struc­ture and hier­ar­chy — dif­fer­ent lev­els of head­ings, text and so on — and as long as you iden­ti­fied those struc­tur­al ele­ments accord­ing­ly, that was all you did: the view­er decid­ed what the fonts were and what the page actu­al­ly looked like.

But it’s not  web site design I’m talk­ing about today. On one of his pages, I found a real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing set of illus­tra­tions. They were sole­ly there to show how you could lay them out, but they were on the sub­ject of how to tie your shoelaces.

Now you would­n’t think there was a lot to learn about tying your shoelaces. It’s a life skill we learn real­ly ear­ly. We also, I sus­pect, learn it essen­tial­ly the same way. The page not­ed that the prob­lem with this was that shoelaces, espe­cial­ly those round-sec­tion nylon ones, tend­ed to come undone very eas­i­ly. The dia­grams showed a bet­ter way, that stopped this from hap­pen­ing. In a nut­shell, what you do is instead of going once round and through, you go twice round and through. It’s not nec­es­sary to go into any fin­er details, as you’ll dis­cov­er in a moment.

I imme­di­ate­ly tried this, of course, and it worked! And that’s how I’ve tied my shoelaces ever since. Well, until the oth­er day.

Back in 1994, I real­ly nev­er thought that I would be re-learn­ing how to tie my shoelaces. But I am all in favour of learn­ing new things — even if that means un-learn­ing old things. So at the age of 43 or so, I learned this basic life skill all over again, and used it all the time for the next sev­en years or so.

The method he described has some issues, I should point out. The big one is that if you are unlucky how you pull an end to undo them, you can end up in a very com­plex knot that can take a while to untie. This, of course, will hap­pen when you are in a hur­ry, or in the dark. But the ben­e­fit of the tech­nique out­weighed the downside.

Then the oth­er day, I was get­ting to know the shiny black new Box­ee Box I acquired. I’ve had Box­ee on the lit­tle Mac Mini con­nect­ed to the TV as a media cen­tre type com­put­er for ages but nev­er used it that much. But with the Box­ee Box it all becomes much more acces­si­ble and, give or take a few bugs which I am sure will get fixed over time, it’s a very impres­sive piece of kit.

One of the main ways of access­ing con­tent with Box­ee is Apps, and one of them is for TED Talks. TED stands for Tech­nol­o­gy, Enter­tain­ment and Design. It’s a non-prof­it that holds two inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences a year where some amaz­ing speak­ers talk about some amaz­ing things — you can learn more about them here. Their slo­gan is “Ideas worth spread­ing”. It’s where I first heard about the com­pa­ny Bet­ter Place, for exam­ple, and their amaz­ing­ly sen­si­ble idea of hav­ing swap­pable elec­tric car bat­ter­ies so you don’t have to sit around while they charge (you can see the video here).

On the front page of the Box­ee TED app is a set of pan­els pro­mot­ing a selec­tion of talks. One of them was from Ter­ry Moore and it’s called How To Tie Your Shoes. I won­dered imme­di­ate­ly if he was show­ing what I might call “Siegel’s tech­nique”. Well, he’s not. He’s show­ing you a new way of doing it that also does­n’t come undone — and does­n’t have the risk of knot­ting. It’s in fact both sim­pler and bet­ter. In essence, instead of going once round anti­clock­wise, you go once round clock­wise, and get a stronger form of the knot (note that if you’re left-hand­ed you may already be doing this). But don’t let me say any more: just watch the video. It’s only 3 minutes.

[vod­pod id=Groupvideo.9234779&w=425&h=350&fv=vu=;year=2005;theme=ted_in_3_minutes;theme=new_on_ted_com;theme=hidden_gems;event=TED2005;tag=Culture;tag=Entertainment;tag=demo;]

There are in fact loads of ways of tying your shoelaces. This web site sug­gests at least 18 pos­si­ble knots and also describes the tech­nique dis­cussed above.

June 19, 2011   Comments Off on Re-learning basic life skills