Episode 75 – 11th March 2011


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Ex-Daily Star Rich Peppiatt Interview (1:54) by Sean Ellis
Shadow Business Secretary John Denham Interview (8:59) by James O’Malley
The New Defamation Bill (16:03) by James Thomas (ft Naomi MacAuliffe, Simon Singh and Julian Huppert MP)
The BHA Census Campaign Poster Row (22:59) by Liz Lutgendorff (ft Bob Churchill)
Green Party Science Policy (28:35) by James O’Malley (ft Jim Jepps)
Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture 2011 (36:21) by Jon Treadway (ft Prof Brian Cox and Robin Ince)

Follow-up links:

21 thoughts on “Episode 75 – 11th March 2011

  1. Some people on twitter have pointed out how timely the Green Party science policy segment is with regard to the damaged caused to some of Japan’s nuclear reactors by the recent earthquake there.

    There is no indication that containment has been lost, and all reactors in affected areas have been shut down. Nuclear energy seems to be holding up as well as can be hoped for, safety wise, in the circumstances.

    Nuclear has its drawbacks, but then so do renewables (they are labour intensive, it even says so on p 10 of the Green Party manifesto for last election). I’m skeptical of any plan for a post-carbon economy that doesn’t utilise both.

  2. Pete, I wish this were true.

    The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has been shut down and just declared a state of alert. The area has been evacuated and those within 10km have been told to stay indoors. Hopefully this crisis will be handled without harm to anyone.

    This is not the sort of situation we find ourselves in with, say, wind turbines. I suppose they might fall over and hurt someone – but it’s not the same sort of risk.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-03-11/evacuation-order-issued-for-residents-near-japan-s-fukushima-nuclear-plant.html

    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/4758904e-4be5-11e0-9705-00144feab49a.html?ftcamp=rss#axzz1GJ1stPvj

  3. I pointed out on Twitter the prescience of Jim’s comments. I didn’t mean it as a comment for or against nuclear power, just “Oh wow, this person’s talking about the possibility of a nuclear power plant flooding, and I’m reading a breaking news report about a nuclear power plant flooding”

    I really don’t have strong opinions about nuclear. Yes, the disaster scenario is scary, but I don’t go through life making choices on the basis of worst case scenarios.

    Besides, as a Public Health Reg, I know where the iodide pills are! ;-)

  4. Jim,

    It does appear as if there is small leak of radioactive material, not something that should be blown out of proportion. Yes, small amounts of radiation can harm health, but then again so can particles emitted by fossil fuel power stations.

    The problem is that any issue that occurs around nuclear power is treated as being inherently worse than an issue that occurs with more conventional power sources. People seem more concerned with a very small leak of radiation from a Japanese nuclear plant than they do with the constant output of soot particles from Chinese coal-fired power stations, the latter of course being a far larger scale threat to human health.

  5. I think you should with hold your judgment until all the news is in Pete.

    Front page of BBC right now ‘Huge blast at Japan Nuclear Power Plant’
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12720219

    I’ve consistently talked about potnetial risks and have tried to avoid hyperbole, particularly as the earthquake situation seems very serious. I suppose one of my concerns, apart from for the people of Japan of course, is that you seem to be playing down what is actually happening and consistently saying nothing to worry about without basing your judgment on the evidence, just what you want to be true.

    There is a serious situation going on right now, please stop trying to play it down, however I’m sure we both agree that we hope the situation is contained quickly and as safely as possible.

  6. Pete’s point about the special way we treat nuclear power is valid. All of the media attention is on the nuclear plant, where there have been a few injuries, instead of the fires that are still out of control at other sites.

    Long-term problems aside (and that’s a big aside) large industrial accidents related to other forms of energy are far more common than minor nuclear accidents. A 3-mile island incident size non-nuclear accident seldom makes the mainstream news.

  7. Jim, I was never trying to play down the situation at Fukushima, I was just asking that it be kept in perspective as a freak occurrence (Plant hit by an anomalously large earthquake, safety systems work pretty much as designed for this situation, THEN the plant gets hit by a tsunami taking out the diesel generators) that is a smaller scale threat than the wider disaster now occurring along the coast of Japan.

    I didn’t say there was nothing to worry about. Clearly some radiation has been released and at some point the long term health impact of that will have to be assessed and mitigated as best as possible. This shouldn’t be used as a springboard to launch an argument about how nuclear fission is too dangerous for humans to handle, ever. People are seriously comparing this event to Chernobyl, for pity’s sake.

  8. Well, clearly what’s happening in Japan right now is nothing like what happened at Chernobyl.

    However, the spectre of Chernobyl quite rightly haunts any debate about the merits of nuclear power. The thing about nuclear power is that when it goes badly wrong, it has the potential to go really, really, catastrophically badly wrong.

    Obviously not every nuclear leak is on that scale, or even anywhere near it, but there is still a concern that one day there could be another leak on that scale.

    Can we be confident that safety standard in modern western nuclear power plants are now so good that a Chernobyl-style incident is impossible? I don’t know enough about nuclear power to answer that question, but frankly I’d be surprised if we could be certain. Murphy’s law is very powerful. The ability of humans to cock things up is pretty impressive and should not be underestimated.

    Now, I know that the situation in Britain is different to Japan, because we’re not in an earthquake zone. Even so, there are things that could go wrong. Apart from some sort of equipment failure or human error in the plant itself, what about a terrorist attack? How about if someone flew a plane into a reactor? Or what if a terrorist organisation managed to get one of its own a job in a power plant where they got to play with all sorts of exciting dials and switches?

    I guess there are 2 important questions:

    1. What is the risk that there will be another Chernobyl-style incident?
    2. What risk of such an incident are we prepared to accept?

    Now, if we can be sure that the answer to number 1 is “zero”, then we should feel pretty comfortable about embracing nuclear power (leaving aside the question of what we do with the radioactive waste, which is of course a question that doesn’t deserve to be left aside).

    I seriously doubt that the answer to number 1 is zero, but I dare say it’s very low. It might even be non-zero but low enough that we ought to be happy in accepting it. If the risk was about a 1% chance of it happening once in the next 10,000 years, then I think personally I’d be pretty comfortable with that. If the risk was about a 50% chance of it happening sometime in the next 50 years, then I’d prefer to remain nuclear free.

    But here’s the tricky thing: I very much doubt we can really know what the risk is. When risks are that small, they are extremely difficult to measure. Looking at it purely statistically, if we look at the entire time since the first commercial nuclear reactor came online in 1954, then our experience so far is of 1 Chernobyl-style accident in 57 years (that’s ignoring smaller accidents like Three Mile Island for the sake of simplicity, and also ignoring the fact that there are a lot more nuclear power plants now than there were in 1954). But there’s a lot of uncertainty when you have only 1 incident. The upper limit of the 95% confidence interval is that we could expect an average of one such incident every 10 years.

    Bottom line is I really don’t know whether I’m in favour of nuclear power or not. If anyone can tell me categorically what the risk of another Chernobyl-style accident is, then I might stop sitting on the fence.

  9. Adam,

    2222 people were killed on British roads in 2009: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10408417 – none were killed by the nuclear power stations which give us ~20% of our electricity. In light of this, I think its fair to say the risk of a serious nuclear incident does not have to be reduced to zero for the technology to be usable.

    As for using how many RBMK reactors have exploded since the advent of nuclear energy as some kind of predictive measurement as to how modern, western reactors will behave – its utterly meaningless.

  10. Pete, it sounds like we’re in total agreement. I agree that the risk of a serious nuclear incident doesn’t have to be zero, as I said in my previous post.

    I dare say you’re right that the stats on what have happened so far are meaningless in predicting the future. That was kind of my point. So how would you predict the future in a meaningful way, giving reliably quantified risks?

    I’m not sure it can be done, but would be interested to hear if anyone thinks it can be.

  11. Just another thought, Pete:

    Although I don’t think it negates the overall thrust of your argument, the comparison with road traffic deaths is rather a poor one. Road traffic is, for reasons I don’t fully understand, a serious outlier in terms of the amount of risk that society is prepared to accept. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there is any other field of human activity for which we would be prepared to accept the number of deaths of previously fit and healthy people that society is happy to accept for road traffic.

    Now, I agree that if nuclear power caused a few deaths every now and again it wouldn’t rule it out as a reasonable technology. But I’m pretty sure that if the nuclear industry had a record of killing 2000+ people every year, it would get closed down pretty quickly.

    Where you set the level of risk that is acceptable is, of course, a tough question. Can we agree that it’s greater than zero and less than 2000 deaths per year?

  12. Just chiming in again … road traffic accidents are not so much an outlier as the far point on a fairly long-tailed distribution. For some reason that no one has quite pinned down, it isn’t just the size of nuclear accidents that scares people.

    Google “Farmer Curves” for how people tend to see a few big accidents as worse than many small accidents, but nuclear bucks this trend.

    To answer Adam’s question, the risk of another Chernobyl can probably be somewhat quantified, but obviously there isn’t enough data to have confidence in the quantification.

    Chernobyl from a poorly maintained 1st generation reactor somewhere – I don’t think anyone would be surprised. Back then, “failsafe” really meant “In the event of failure, assuming the safety systems work, it will be safe”.

    Modern reactors tend to rely on intrinsic physical properties – ie, without actively keeping the thing running, it will shut down. An example is a heavy-water reactor where water is both the coolant and slows the particles down enough for a reaction – if you loose coolant you have automatically lost the ability to sustain a reaction. We aren’t talking zero probability of a run-away reaction, but we’re talking very sophisticated sabotage as the most likely causal chain.

    And let’s be clear here – Chernobyl was not the worst industrial or environmental accident of the 20th century. 2 or three Chernobyls a century (unlikely though that would be) would not be a hefty price if it replaced both the acute and chronic casualty rate of coal.

  13. Just to preempt the idea that nuclear being better than coal means we ought to not use both – higher energy costs can be soaked up by westerners simply through more frugal/efficient lifestyle choices. Those who depend on industrial agriculture (about 3 billion people if memory serves) don’t have much choice.

    To us, it might often seem as if energy consumption is often wasteful and pointless – but energy consumption for poor people means better food, better housing, better medicine and better lives. China and India have 2.5 billion people demanding to live like western Europeans, and governments that fully plan to deliver this, and while it is laudable to try and develop a green economy that provides more standard of living for the energy each of use consumes, that takes time and we have neither the moral authority or the political power to tell these nations and their citizens to wait. They are going to improve living standards by increasing their power capacity, and its far better that some of this occur using nuclear power than using fossil fuels or geologically dubious hydroelectric dams

  14. @Pete:

    They are going to improve living standards by increasing their power capacity, and its far better that some of this occur using nuclear power than using fossil fuels or geologically dubious hydroelectric dams

    Totally agree, but I wonder whether that’s the right comparison? I think we can probably all agree that nuclear is safer and greener than coal. But what about solar, wind, wave, etc?

    The argument often made by the pro-nuclear lobby is that those technologies simply can’t generate the capacity required. I would love to know if that’s true. To be honest, I have my doubts. People seem to think nothing of spending billions investing in nuclear. What could happen, I wonder, if the same sort of money were invested in renewables?

    I heard an interesting fact recently (well, I say fact, I can’t claim a totally reliable source, but I did hear it on the BBC World Service who are probably less prone than most media outlets to just making shit up) that even with existing solar technology, the Saraha Desert receives more than enough sunlight to provide the entire world’s energy needs all by itself.

    Obviously it’s not practicable with today’s technology to put in the sort of distribution system that could power the rest of the world with big cables linking back to the Saraha (and we might be worried about the political stability of some of the countries there right now), but still, it makes you think, doesn’t it?

    India gets quite a lot of sunshine. Anyone who tells me that India couldn’t achieve western levels of energy supply by investing in solar power had better show me some convincing data if they want me to believe them.

  15. Adam,

    In terms of jacking up capacity quickly, cheaply, and with minimal need for advanced industrial infrastructure, wind and solar simply cannot compete. China and to a lesser extent India are simply taking the quickest path to higher living standards – as in both cases the stability of the government hinges on rapidly improving living standards (the top brass in China have openly said the only way they can get away with not having democracy is through consistent ~10% growth).

    The problem with deploying wind and solar on scales massive enough to challenge existing power plant technology (fossil or nuclear) is not the availability of the raw resource, its the labour and technology required to deploy them. As I mentioned, page 10 of the last Green Party manifesto, in an attempt to show renewables as a good prospect for job creation, inadvertently draws attention to the fact they are labour intensive. I did some back of the envelope calculations with their stats (and total consumption figures from the CIA world factbook) – you would need 26,000 people employed in energy generation to provide all the UKs electricity from nuclear, and almost 600,000 to provide it from wind power. This may be an underestimate, as most of our best wind resources are offshore which presumably makes them harder to utilise and maintain.

    Soaking up that much skilled labour in power generation could potentially deprive the rest of the economy with the skills needed to make it greener (i.e. provide better living standards for lower energy input).

    I don’t know how much skilled labour would be required to make India completely solar powered, but it would likely be a lot. Then there is the materials problem if you want the most efficient photovoltaic cells. After that, there is the problem of needing a very good grid with lots of load balancing capacity, something I am struggling to imagine exists in rural India.

    I don’t think the burden of proof is on those who doubt India could be completely solar powered, because there is no precedent for such a project. If you think that a completely renewablely powered India is possible, you should prove that, and then please send that proof to the Indian government because they seem pretty set on the pursuit of Thorium nuclear plants right now.

  16. As an addendum, the Great Sahara Power plant is being seriously considered. A German company wants to run superconducting DC power cables to north Africa to support it and are trying to get the EU to fund the project.

    This is probably more likely if the turmoil in the region throws out some reasonably democratic regimes that the European population won’t be appalled by their governments dealings with.

  17. Point taken about the burden of proof, Pete. I’m not claiming that all our problems can be solved by solar power, I’m just saying that I don’t believe those who say that they can’t. They may be right, but I haven’t seen enough to convince me of that. I would also be distrustful of anyone who tells me that they can without providing good evidence. The fact is I simply don’t know who’s right.

    However, I don’t find your argument about the amount of labour required convincing, for 2 reasons. I don’t know how accurate your figures about 600,000 people needed for wind power are, but I’m happy to take them at face value for the sake of argument. I certainly accept that whatever the figure is, it’s going to be higher than the equivalent figure for nuclear.

    So, of those 600,000 workers needed, how many of them would need to have skills that are in short supply? Given that we currently have about 2.5 million people unemployed, finding that number of people is not even remotely a problem. Whether it’s a problem depends on the skills mix needed. Even if the skills were in short supply, basic laws of supply and demand should mean that more people develop those sort of skills, although it’s true that that sort of thing would take many years.

    But the other thing to consider is that the technology is still in its infancy. If people were to start spending money on it, then it’s probably a safe bet that it would become more efficient over time and that fewer people would be needed to generate the same amount of power as time goes on.

  18. Here’s a nice example of the way solar power can be used in a resource-poor country. Whether this sort of thing could be scaled up to meet the needs of a country the size of India is, of course, another question, but I can’t think of any obvious reason why it should be impossible.

  19. I am not anti- solar: I have a 1.7kw system on my house here in Australia. It works fine, I feed it to the grid and it makes roughly double what I use, but it was expensive. I will make the money back in a few years all going well but I can see that 90% of folk will have better things to spend their money on.
    The mega-solar plants in faraway deserts people keep brining up are just pipedreams. Aside from the immense expense, Europe would be really setting itself up for further energy insecurity into the future- do we want to hand such strong leverage to the dodgy governments of Algeria or Morocco? Demand peaks in winter which is when the sun in the sahara is weakest. Surely distributed solar pv on rooftops across europe would make huge efficiency savings over transporting power 1000s of km? And PV isn’t necessarily low impact- the factories in china knocking them out these days cause appalling pollution.
    Besides, covering desert with panels might seem like an attractive option but the reality is that deserts are fragile ecosystems often already pushed to the brink by human mis-use. Big solar plants in the USA planned for the Mojave desert will be nature conservation disasters.
    I am a reluctant supporter of nuclear power- I’d prefer to have something else but I accept the reality that unless we are happy covering our hilltops in windmills, our coasts in barrages and our deserts in PV panels at mammoth cost and still only get dodgy supplies, nuke is the only serious contender. To be honest I’d prefer to see a huge effort be made to cut energy use- with forethought and planning most people’s energy consumption in the developed world could easily be slashed by a huge percentage. As our political and economic elites are disciples of the church of endless growth, that sort of suggestion is blasphemy.

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