In defence of Pastafarianism

Anyone living in Britain will have by now got you’re hands on your census form. It brings up the issue of how will you answer question 4-13, what’s your religion. Last time some 400,000 people claimed to be Jedi’s. This time I’d suggest professing ones deep seated belief in his Noodleness, the Great Flying Spaghetti monster (or FSM). Let me give you the pro’s of this religion, they’ll make Catholicism suddenly look like a whole load of boring work.

Pastafarian’s (those who’ve been touched by the FSM’s noodly appendage) believe in a 3 day weekend (as the FSM rested for 3 days after making the universe, althought that was largely cos he was hungover!)…is there anyone reading this whose still unconvinced. Furthermore the main religious holy day of Pastafarianism is September 19th (international talk like a Pirate day). Now if you think about it that’s the perfect time for a public holiday, just when those winter blues are starting to hit, if you’re Pastafarian you’ve the perfect excuse to bunk off work.

All different religions get various concessions for them, for example there’s an increasing availability of Halal food. Well, if you’re Pastafarian you can demand the provision of food appropriate to you’re religion, such as Spaghetti and meatballs…served by a guy in Pirate regalia of course! Who can argue with that! Also we can demand a lower rate of taxation on Pastafarian friendly foodstuffs, just like the Christians get a tax break on wine and bread. You’ll be pleased to know that the stable of Pastafarian drinking is Beer (heaven to Pastafarian consists of beer spouting volcanoes as far as the eye can see).

Actually the real benefit of Pastafarianism is the ability to get others to shut up about religion. I mean a load of Jehovah’s witnesses show up and you tell them that you’re Atheist or something and rather than fecking off, they go into overdrive “oh! oh! oh! so what you’re saying is that the whole universe just popped out of nowhere, just like that!…is that it ya! ya!”. On the other hand if you state a deep rooted believe in the FSM and begin preaching to them you’re creationist believes, chances are they’ll suddenly remember some prior pressing engagement and beat a speedy retreat. After all the only way for them to disprove you is by making a mockery of their own belief system (and Mormons believe in some pretty crazy shit anyway!). In fact put an FSM symbol on you’re door and you can be all but guaranteed never to be bothered by any such people ever again.

And those global warming deniers get it to. You see according to Pastafarianism the scientists have it all wrong, its not carbon dioxide causing global warming, but a lack of pirates on the high seas (pirates being divine beings according to Pastafarianism and thus the FSM is punishing us for their decline). Again mention this to any global warming denier and watch him shut the hell up as again the only way he can disprove you is by disproving his own case against climate change.

So enough with you’re Jedi knights, embrace the one, the only true path to Heaven (with endless beer volcanoes) and tick that box for Pastafarianism. I’d recommend the Church of the Invisible Pink Unicorn who lives at the bottom of my garden, but there’s not enough space in the census form to fill that one in. Religious discrimination me thinks, they should sue!

Liberating the Libyans, Part III

Among the victims of the Japanese Tsunami, we may need to include many people in Libya. Taking advantage of the distraction caused by the Tsunami and the nuclear emergency, Gaddafi is pressing home his advantage. By the time the western governments have ceased they’re dithering and discussion of the crisis by committee (fiddling while Libya burns) his mercenary army is getting on with the job of winning the war. By the time the west finally does agree to a no-fly zone, I’m quite sure it will be very effective…that is effective at giving Gaddafi a good laugh!

Of course its also unlikely the UN will agree to a no-fly zone anyway as it will be vetoed by the Chinese (they don’t want any precedent set preventing mad dictators from killing they’re own people, after all most of China’s oil comes from similar mad dictators).

To be blunt we are well passed the point where a no fly zone would do any good, more direct action is the only thing that will now unseat Gaddafi. The UN will not approve this action of course, so unilateral action might be necessary. Now while its important to acknowledge that unilateral military action is a rare step to be taken in extreme situations, and the Iraq war was clearly not one of those (even if you believed the dodgy dossier). But the Libya situation is clearly different (having a madman as leader has to count…so if Palin or Ron Paul gets in the 2012 the Canadians can start bombing one assumes…).

Not least is unilateral action justified in Libya, because such action has been called for by the opposition leadership themselves. By the west just recognising the opposition as the legitimate government of Libya, asking them to make a formal request for assistance and Gaddafi’s you’re Camel (as opposed to bob’s you’re uncle ;D) the West has its mandate for a no fly zone, no need to go to the UN at all. Of course getting a legal mandate for the action that is really now needed – air strikes – would be a little more problematic.

Fortunately, Gaddafi might be stupid enough to supply it. If western fighter aircraft were to go screaming across Tripoli every half hour or so, and US navy ships begin to violate the Gulf of Sidra (a region of sea Gaddafi has unilaterally claimed in defiance of the international rules of the sea) its possible he won’t be able to help himself (he is nutty as a fruit cake remember :crazy:) and will respond by taking pot shots at them…giving the Western forces every justification to engage in “defensive” action to protect they’re forces…by bombing the shite out of his air force and SAM sites…but oh! Fiddle sticks! we appear to have blown up a few of you’re tanks by mistake! Sorry about that mate, we’ll try not to do…oh! deary me! we just did do it again!….and again, oh whoop’s a daisy!

One technical point I would make though, the Libyan opposition are calling for “precision” air strikes against Gaddafi. However, guaranteeing precision strikes from 30,000 ft, or worse by a aircraft screaming along on the deck at mach 1 (meaning he doesn’t actually see the target until seconds before bombs away) isn’t that easy. Forward air controllers and Special Forces recon units would be required, otherwise collateral damage and friendly fire incidents would be inevitable. This essentially means someone on the ground with a radio talking the pilot onto the target, or even better with a big shiny laser indicating to him park you’re bomb right here. Thus some limited ground deployment of specialist troops would be necessary. And given that the SAS can be bested by a load of Libyan goat herders and can’t even find a hotel, this would be a risk for the west and the opposition would need to accept the presence of small numbers of western troops.

The only other options available are more long term, a blockade of Libya and an oil embargo. Ironically the mandate for that is going to be even harder to justify at the UN than a bombing campaign. Furthermore while the Western navy can easily cut off the oil routes through the Med, Libya has an awfully long land border through which oil can be easily smuggled to world markets through his African allies, and everything else smuggled back in. Saddam’s sanction busting efforts saw vast amounts of oil simply spirited across the borders of Iraq in oil drums, giving much needed hard currency to him and the regime. The only people who suffered from sanctions were his people. By the time the sanctions were lifted they were lifted because they weren’t actually working and were more of an embarrassment than anything. Similarly, its unclear they’d work against Gaddafi. Furthermore, given how stretch oil supplies are right now, its probably not an option the west can afford.

Ultimately Gaddafi is, to a degree, finished. The best he can hope for is to consolidate his hold on power long enough to install someone else, one of his sons perhaps, as the new leader. Even this would not be very palatable to the West, a pariah state right on the doorstep of Europe. More importantly as this regime would be effectively isolated from the West he’d likely turn to China for help. The ultimate outcome of Western dithering over this, aside from the suffering of the Libyan people under an insane dictator, but that China may get themselves a military toehold on the very doorstep of Europe. Also, there’s the danger he might retaliate on the West the way he did last time….

Japanese Nuclear Alert: Time for a Nuclear reality check? Part I

I have a confession to make; Once upon a time, I used to think that Nuclear Power was the solution to all the world’s energy problems. However, as I learnt more and more about the industry I became increasingly sceptical about its claims. Indeed I would now argue that many of its more ludicrous claims (trying to get say anymore than 15% of the worlds energy from Nuclear power….it currently supplies between 2.4% and 4.9% depending on how you do you’re sums, yes really, look it up!) are totally divorced from reality. I have therefore come to consider nuclear power as essentially more trouble that its worth.
The crux of my criticism of the nuclear industry boils down to four major issues, strangely enough, safety does is not one of those, or at least it wasn’t until Saturday morning!

Long term disposal of nuclear waste. We’ve various theories and plans but have yet to implement a system to dispose of this waste (i.e dig a really big deep hole in the ground and convince the people who will live on top of said hole that everything will be okay…for all eternity!). Nor are we entirely sure what the long term costs of such a project are likely to be. Then there’s the (not-so) small matter of decommissioning nuclear power stations. The estimated cost for decommissioning the UK’s existing fleet of reactors is hovering around £73 Billion and growing …and that doesn’t factor in the long term waste disposal and storage costs.

– The high cost of building nuclear reactors. The nuclear industry will often quote figures comparable to natural gas powered stations , however the critics of nuclear energy say that its true costs (i.e. today nevermind the future) will be much higher, as much as 3 times higher according to the NEF, making a “nuclear renaissance” unlikely.
And the current omens suggest the NEF report above (2003 era, dated) actually underestimated the costs of new nuclear reactor construction. The first of the new EPR’s in Finland is years behind schedule and considerably over budget. It’s likely final cost will come in at € 6.4 Billion (up from an initial bid cost of € 2.5 Billion), or about £3,250 per installed kW, v’s the BWEA estimates for wind of around £1,300-1,600 per kW or about £1900-2200 with intermittency backup.

Overall, it seems likely the installation (nevermind decommissioning costs) of new Nuclear reactors will likely prove to be much higher than alternatives energy sources.

– There’s the slow rate at which nuclear reactors get built. Currently new reactor construction globally is outpaced by the rate at which old reactors are turned off (the average age of the world’s nuclear reactor fleet is 24 years). The complex nature of new reactor designs, while it does improve safety, does come at the expense of a slower building rate and (as noted earlier) much higher installation costs. We simply can’t build the damn things quickly enough (or cheaply enough) for them to make any difference in the grand scheme of things. By contrast in 2008 some 80 GW of new renewable energy capacity and 9 billion litres of new biofuels production capacity were added to the global energy grid. This works out at roughly 420 Billion kWh/yr of new energy production (this figure accounts of the intermittency prevalent in certain renewable systems), a little less than double the maximum ever global build rate of nuclear reactors (30 GW’s or roughly 230 Billion kWh/yr new generating capacity) achieved in the 1970’s, and its doubtful given the complexity of modern reactors that we could ever match this 1970’s built rate again (my estimate, at a push we could up things to maybe ½ or a 1/3 this level).

– Finally there’s nuclear powers dirty little secret. The world has relatively limited stockpiles of Uranium ore. Figures from the WNA (World Nuclear Agency) suggest 80 years of reserves (5.4 Mt) with current consumption rates (68,000 Tons/yr) and extraction techniques if a cost of $80-130kg is tolerated.
Obviously by trying to double the production rate of nuclear energy (i.e raise output to 5-10% of global energy consumption…assuming we could figure out how to build those reactors faster!) we’ll run down this supply in half the time. Trying to completely replace all fossil fuel resources, assuming no overall increase in energy demand, would involve exhausting our reserves in around 2.8 years!
Nuclear advocates like to mention the option of Thorium, forgetting to mention it has no naturally occurring fissile isotopes, i.e we can only rely on Thorium so long as we have supplies of U-235 available or we tinker around with various fast reactor systems (failed white elephant projects that never really worked). Other ridiculous suggestions such as MOX or the plutonium economy are a waste of time, as far as anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the concept of “economics” would know. Similarly the idea that we could extract Uranium from sea water is something only someone unfamiliar with the concept of EROEI could come up with (Energy invested v’s energy returned, if you use more energy filtering billions of tons of sea water to harvest a few grams of Uranium, than the energy you usefully get back from it as fuel – you’re reactor becomes an net energy sink rather than a source).

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Nuclear Energy reality check, Part II

You will note that I’ve ignored the issue of nuclear safety, the one issue regarding nuclear energy that gets everyone’s attention and gets the media in a frenzy every time a nuclear reactor technician so much as sneezes on the job.

Well until Saturday, I was under the impression that this was the one aspect of nuclear power that the industry had actually sorted out. I had a whole conversation with work colleagues about how surely a nuclear industry as well organised, financed and safety conscious as the Japanese would have no problem coping with an Earthquake and Tsunami. These things happen all the time in Japan, indeed one reactor was close to the epicentre of the Kobe Earthquake and survived. The word Tsunami is a Japanese word as these things hit Japan so regularly. Surely of any nation on Earth the Japanese nuclear engineers would know how to cope with a Tsunami. At the time I was slightly more concerned about any US reactors on the other side of the pond whose operators would likely be busy looking up the word Tsunami in the dictionary (fortunately the size of the wave that struck the America’s West coast was minor and not nearly large enough to merit any concern……this time!).

One of these Japanese nuclear reactors having problems, okay rare event, it’s an old bit of kit, we’ll let you off with that one….but TWO out of THREE operational reactors at the site going into meltdown, WTF88|! Before dissecting the aftermath of the Fukushima incident, we’ll take a step back for the benefit of those reading this who are unfamiliar with nuclear safety.

Many people mistakenly assume that there have been only 3 serious nuclear accidents in the past (Windscale, Three mile Island and Chernobyl). The reality is there have been many numerous nuclear accidents, as these lists below indicate.

I would note the lists above are not in anyway comprehensive, but it should give you an idea of the scale of the problems. The lists, for example, fail to include a number of minor but potentially serious incidents; such as the 2006 SCRAM of a Swedish nuclear power station, the “loss” of several hundred kilos of plutonium by the West Valley Kerr-McGee Nuclear Fuels Facility (where the infamous Karen Silkwood worked) and the irradiation of many workers at this and many other facilities, and the many incidents at the Mayak plant in Siberia (only the largest 1957 disaster is included, the 1968 “Darwin Award” incident is not on the list).

While many events on these lists were relatively minor, some were altogether more serious (and in some cases only shear blind luck prevented a calamity). The Kyshtym disaster, for example which is not widely known about, was 2nd only to Chernobyl in its scale, indeed there are many who argue it was worse than Chernobyl, but that’s another discussion.

One comforting fact you will note is that the more seriously rated incidents tended to occur prior to the 1970’s. I would argue this was because back in these bad old days the nuclear industry were playing fast and loose with the issue of safety. To make matters worse they also adopted a very condescending attitude to the public, along the lines of roughly:
“don’t you worry you’re pretty little working class heads about all this nuke stuff, we’re gentlemen who’ve been to Oxford, with big brains and very white lab coats…and we smoke pipes…we know what we’re doing!”
Under pressure to compete against cold war enemies and meet ambitious targets that the themselves had set, led to the cutting of corners and a serious compromising of the issue of safety.

A good example as to numerous incidents of incompetence of this age, in 1968, a US nuclear power plant technician crawled into a cable duct to perform some routine repairs. Unable to see properly he got out his cigarette lighter, accidentally burning through a series of critical cables, leading to a SCRAM of the reactor. This was but one of many thousands of incidents that have occurred in the US nuclear industry over the years. In a one year reporting period (running from July 1973) alone the AEC recorded 3,333 incidents in America alone, 98 of these were rated as “serious”, but only 8 actually led to a fine or any form of punishment.
This sort of carry on eventually led to the AEC being split in two (its regulatory functions being taken over by the NRC) and the commissioning of the 1975 Rasmussen Report on Nuclear Safety (also known as the WASH-1400 Report).

This report estimated the actually probability of a catastrophic core meltdown as being in the order of 1:20,000 per core year, at a time when the nuclear industry claimed it was more like 1:10 Billion. Using an engineering technique called “Failure mode and Effects Analysis” the Rasmussen experts identified at least 78 or so ways that relatively minor operator errors could lead to a core meltdown scenario. One of these very meltdown scenarios was eerily similar to the sequence of events that led to the Three Mile Island accident 4 years later.

The TMI incident, the fact that it was becoming obvious to many members of the public that the nuclear industry routinely lied to them about safety (e.g. the description by Edison Electric officials of the TMI reactor being “Stable” mid way through the accident…in that it was stable in much the same way as an out of control train is stable because it hasn’t fallen off the tracks yet!) the Chernobyl disaster and concerns about Nuclear weapons, all led to a perfect storm of mass public opposition to nuclear power in the 1980’s.
It is worth noting that the US, didn’t stop building nuclear power stations in 1979 because of any new law passed by Congress. No, it was because mass opposition at the state and county level led to local officials vetoing new nuclear power plants, or even withdrawing permission for plants part way through construction (tighter regulation and an inability to get proper finance also played a role). The led to several rather expensive holes being left in the ground or indeed partially finished nuclear plants that never got switched on.

Nuclear Energy reality check, Part III

Anyway, I was until recently, under the impression that the “fallout” (if you’ll pardon the pun) of nuclear power being kicked into the long grass for the last two decades, had led to the adoption of a more safety conscious attitude ….well, that’s what I thought until Saturday morning anyway!

The key cause of these accidents in Japan has essentially been a loss of electrical power on-site. Nuclear power stations rely on electricity, typically drawn from the local grid, to supply power to run the computers, control systems, and crucially the cooling pumps needed to keep the reactors cool. Even with all the control rods fully inserted there enough residual heat being generated by the core that it could meltdown if the cooling systems failed (and one problem with an Earthquake is there’s a danger some might become jammed, thought I would caution there is no evidence that this has happened during this particular incident). The procedure in the event of on-site electrical failure is to use diesel standby generators, although there is a delay of up to a minute between power loss and the generators kicking in. During this time potential damage can still be done to the core, plus the operators are left sitting twiddling they’re thumbs in a darkened control room.

There are ways this time gap can be closed, UPS systems, or a technique called “Turbine Inertia Generation”, this uses the residual inertial energy in the steam turbines to keep everything running until the diesels kick in. It was just such a test of “turbine inertia” that the Chernobyl crew were running during the 1986 meltdown.

One nagging worry I’ve had about the nuclear industry for the last few years is I’ve not heard of anyone repeating such tests. Obviously it’s something that, as Chernobyl demonstrated, can go horribly wrong, but its also an important safety procedure that technicians need to be able to access in an emergency. I remember that the Brits planned to run a similar test on a reactor back in 1988 but after a storm of protest they cancelled it. Since then there have been a number of incidents of on-site power being lost at a nuclear station (such as the Finmark incident mentioned earlier) and its led me to worry that the Nuclear industry was now not running such safety tests as often as they should (or at all!), probably in an effort to avoid tabloid headlines like “Local Reactor to undergo Chernobyl style testing – page 3 girl’s scared” and negative publicity, something that could easily scupper the so-called “nuclear renaissance”.
While this failure to test loss of power procedures may have nothing to do with the current incident (although it seems likely it does), it seems to me that the nuclear industry has been more worried recently about PR than about safety. The fact that many opponents to wind farms are now known to be Nuclear lobbyists also suggests that in an effort to push for new reactors that the industry is back to its old tricks of the cold war.

If so then, courtesy of the incidents in Japan that are ongoing, we may well see history about to repeat itself – there may now be a massive swing in the public away from nuclear energy towards outride hostility towards nuclear power, much like we saw in the 1980’s. As then, any hint of the nuclear industry being underhand or dishonest will simply add extra ammo to the anti-nuclear campaigners case that the industry simply cannot be trusted. And remember it was this failure of trust that largely led to the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980’s.

Nuclear Energy reality check, Part IV

I think its time for nuclear advocates to check they’re brains into the Grand Hotel Reality-ville – or else the nuclear industry basically has no future. If we are to continue to utilise nuclear power in the future, never mind build new reactors, I would suggest the following:

•Many of the nuclear reactors globally are old and antiquated and now arguably substandard. This includes of course the two involved in the incidents in Japan. I would suggest a policy of rapidly phasing these reactors out of service. No need to just turn them all off tomorrow, we can turn them down to run at a lower power output rate (which would reduce, though not eliminate the risk of a meltdown) and adopt a much greater willingness to turn them off in the event of an emergency, increase maintenance on them, and gradually replace them with new kit, or alternatives energy sources.

•The plants in question got into difficulty because they were hit by a Tsunami wave, which likely took out the diesel generator plant. Is it sensible to put nuclear power stations in Earthquake prone areas or along coastlines? While you might argue the likelihood of a Tsunami in other parts of the world is lower than in Japan, it’s still a risk. Off the US West coast for example there are a lot of faults that can trigger a Tsunami.
While the likelihood of a Tsunami in the Atlantic is relatively low, there are rare phenomenon that can strike oceans and trigger such event, or even worse, so called Mega-Tsunami’s, notably Volcanic Island collapse, in particular the Cumbre Vieja Volcano off La Palma.
Again, while the likelihood of a Tsunami (or Mega Tsunami) is still small, you have to consider the timescales involved. A typical nuclear reactor has a 50 year operating life, with a further 5-10 years of construction and 100 years or so of decommissioning at the end (so nuke stuff on site for 150-160 years). Many of the next generation of proposed nuclear power stations in the US and UK are at coastal sites, which have already had an active nuclear reactor for many decades, and presumably will continue to have reactors of some sort on-site so long as we continue to use nuclear energy. These long time scales upgrades the risk of some calamity striking one or more nuclear sites, even within the UK, from very low to not that unlikely! Also there’s climate change to worry about, which will almost certainly push up sea levels in the next century or so (making coastal areas more prone to tidal surges and storm damage). Overall, it might be prudent to phase out any reactors at coastal/low lying locations and build them further inland in future.

•The latter point is particular important on the topic of nuclear waste. Selafield, Britain’s principle nuclear waste dump, is fairly low lying and has many hundreds of potential Chernobyl’s worth of nuclear material stored on site in containers which I’m guessing, were never designed to withstand a Tsunami (nevermind a mega-Tsunami) nor a crazy suicide pilot flying a plane into them, nor a thousand other possible things that could go wrong (right down to a carelessly discarded cigarette). Many US nuclear plants, both those on the coast and further inland, have much of they’re 40 or so years worth of spent fuel stored on-site in interim waste storage pens. These typically consist of large concrete and steel casks mounted out in the open. These are designed to withstand radiation and normal working stressed but nothing extraordinary (such as again Tsunamis or suicide attacks, etc.) A typical one of these facilities would contain 20 times the radioactive payload of the nuclear reactor itself. Obviously such storage of waste as it is now practiced is not a long term option. Whether you are pro-nuclear or against it, you have to agree that this waste needs to be moved to a safe location, preferably located underground. Here the waste can be stored and contained safely for extended time periods.

•The nuclear industry needs to come out with its hand up as far as the true cost of nuclear power are concerned. As I pointed out earlier, there is a massive widening gulf between the claimed cost of nuclear power by the lobby groups and the actual costs on the ground. The industry is doing itself no favours in the long run by promoting figures that are wildly inaccurate. Eventually they will get “found out” by the markets (and governments), indeed I would argue they have already been “found out”, as I mentioned in a previous post. As the situation in the US shows just because a country starts building reactors doesn’t mean they won’t stop and leave a billion dollar hole in the ground if it circumstances change (even more likely if its private investors rather than taxpayers who loose out!). The indications from the two EPR projects is that new nuclear plants will be much more expensive than either coal/natural gas with carbon capture and storage or indeed wind energy with intermittency backup (most likely in the UK via hydro) or indeed other options such as Geothermal energy (which I would note the Japanese have in abundance if they’d only use it).
Of course, the cost issue alone isn’t grounds to say we shouldn’t build nuclear power plants. We got into this energy mess by letting the markets decide everything and they went for the lowest common denominator – which proved to be gas from Russia and oil from the Middle East. Let’s not make that mistake again! Nuclear reactors can be useful for providing baseload power for large areas (continents), and while they may well be expensive (to build and decommission) the cost is fixed (gas and coal prices fluctuate depending on demand and market forces). There’s also climate change to consider and nuclear is a (relatively) low carbon source of energy. So even if the nuclear industry came out with cost figures substantially higher than other energy sources, there would still be a case to build a few reactors, though obviously not nearly as many if the costs were lower.

•The 2nd Fukushima is more of a worry if it melts down as it appears to be fuelled by MOX. For those not in the know, MOX (mixed oxide fuel) is basically Plutonium (from bombs or Fast Breeder reactors) and lots of other “stuff” recovered from spend fuel via reprocessing, which is then blended together to form a kind of synthetic nuclear fuel, which you can use much like standard enriched Uranium. The problem is that if a reactor loaded with it melts down the consequences are much worse as MOX is substantially more dangerous than the conventional “stuff” we put in reactors. This alone, in context of what’s happening in Japan, would be grounds to stop using it…..Or, at the very least, only use MOX in our very latest and safest of nuclear facilities (certainly not ageing reactors like this Fukushima one). I would also note that if the financial viability of nuclear power looks shaky, the MOX case is even shaker. The books on MOX are cooked to a degree than would have the Enron board shaking their heads in disgust. MOX fuel supply is dependant on a nation either having an active nuclear weapons program or using Fast Breeder reactors. Fast Breeder reactors have a dire reputation for reliability, danger, and massive cost overruns. The most recently built at Monju (also Japan), which has already suffered 2 coolant leaks and fires, cost a staggering $ 5.9 Billion and took 10 years to complete, despite its tiny 280 MW output (that’s about $21,000 per kW! 3 times the cost of PV at the time of its installation!). It has only actually been active and working for a fraction of the time since its completion.
If there’s one thing recent events have proven it’s that reprocessing is a very effective way of burning through lots of cash, generating lots more nuclear waste that you finally have to get rid of and raising the stakes in the event of a nuclear incident. It would be sensible as a result for the nuclear industry to simply ditch such ridiculous boondoggles and focus on the more practical applications of nuclear energy.

•The Nuclear industry needs to realise that the supplies of nuclear fuels, while certainly not scarce, they are limited in scale. As I pointed out above recycling of spend fuel is largely a pipe dream. The Thorium fuel cycle has major limitations, it can help stretch things out….a bit, but not by much. And besides, we can’t run everything off nuclear reactors (cars? planes? ships?).
There’s also the intermittency issue to worry about. Nuclear power plants like to be on all the time, but the grid demand varies considerably. Once nuclear output goes above 40% of a nation’s electricity demand (about 10-20% of total energy use) you start to get problems with load balance, i.e. the grid suddenly demands power the nuclear reactors can’t add power quickly enough to cope. When the gird demand drops, they can’t shed load quickly enough. The solution is to either export the power aboard and buy it back later, which is what the French do and why they are currently the world’s largest net electricity exporter (and one of the largest importers), but that’s not an option if everyone else goes nuclear too and are trying to shed load at the same time.
As a consequence of these fuel limitations and practical matters there are limits to what we can do with nuclear energy, even more so when we factor in the economic matters mentioned earlier. At best nuclear power can supply a small fraction of the world’s energy, again probably not much more than the 2.4-4.9% we actually get from it now, maybe even a bit less than that if we’re realistic.

•If the nuclear industry have, as I suspect, been more interested in the perception of safety and avoiding scary tabloid headlines, as opposed to maintaining actual safety, then this needs to stop. If there is a need for UK nuclear reactors to run some drills to say, verify they can keep everything running in the event of a power black out, then that’s something that has to been done. Yes I’m quite sure the Daily Express and the Sun will claim that such tests will have a 99% probability of killing 45 Billion people in the UK alone :lalala:. And the Greenpeace mob will no doubt show up and have to be scraped off the reactor roof by PC plod, but who said science was ever meant to be easy ;D!

•If we are going to build new reactors in the future, let’s build the right ones. Smaller reactors tend to be safer (lower thermal mass, less likely to go into meltdown, less radiation released if they do). Disposal of the core at decommissioning tends to be easier. The Americans have managed to transport a few smaller reactor cores to the INL in Idaho and bury them, something that isn’t feasible with the larger cores (such as the EPR or ABWR’s) currently proposed (which have to be enchased in concrete and left in place). Also, for many of the world’s smaller countries these large multi-GW plants currently on offer are unwieldy and impractical (when you consider the grid balancing issues I raised earlier). While smaller reactors have lower economies of scale that is only a concern if we’re trying to do things on a economically competitive basis, another reason why the nuclear industry would be better off coming clean on its true costs.

Nuclear Energy reality check, Part V

In short what I’m saying is that the nuclear lobby needs to wake up and smell the coffee. They need to realise that they’re industry is but a small cog in a very large machine. A small piece of a very large puzzle that may unlock our future energy resources. Bashing wind farms just makes them lots of enemies and encourages the sort of NIMBYism that will make new nuclear stations (and lots of other bits of kit we’re going to need in the future) all that harder to build. Saying “oh we don’t actually want subsidies” isn’t fooling anyone anymore, other than a few gullible politicians, who will turn on the industry at the first sign of public opinion waning.

Unfortunately, my fear is the nuclear lobby are unable to change course. The biggest enemy of the nuclear industry is, as I see it, not Greenpeace, but themselves. There are simply far too many vested interests within the sector, often backed by large states sponsored companies (notably in France and Japan) to allow the sort of changes I suggest above. Obviously, having spent many tens of billions of taxpayers money and the best part of twenty years developing new LWR designs such as the EPR or the ABWR, neither the French nor Japanese governments are likely to abandon these programs, nor they’re MOX programs, unless somehow forced to do so by circumstance or a massive public outcry.

There are also quite a number of nutty cheerleaders of the industry, many of whom have scant to limited knowledge of the practical implications of nuclear energy and base they’re “facts” purely on industry derived propaganda. Unfortunately, such individuals are also the more public face of the nuclear lobby, as they are often the ones who get interviewed by the media and they make up the bulk of the pro-nuclear bloggers online. This despite that fact they’re only qualification is they were Maggie Thatcher’s Press Secretary or they once drove past a nuclear power station, or some dotty professor they used to have for physics 25 years ago who said it was a good idea (though he also said that they should bring back hanging and a women’s place is in the kitchen…) Obviously, such individuals don’t know enough about nuclear energy to form an opinion, they’re basically sheep, so it’s highly unlikely they’ll change their tune any time soon.

Consequently, I expect that the attitude of the industry post the Fukushima incident, will be to try and brush it off as being much ado about nothing, much as they tried to do about Three Mile Island back in 1979. Indeed they’re already at it. They’re trying to pass these Fukushima accidents off as a 4 on the Nuclear Accident scale after two major explosions and a series of radiation releases, which would make this 5 or even a 6. Of course such careless talk will do them no favours in the long run. You will note, that while expressing scepticism of nuclear power in this post, I’ve not actually said we should take it off the table. Of course, there are plenty of people in Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth or similar organisations who will say that we should phase out nuclear power at once. And the longer the nuclear industry ignores the issues I’ve raised above, or engages in a cycle of spin and disinformation, the stronger the case of the anti-nuclear lobby becomes, and the louder their voices get.

And we the public need to think very carefully before taking the nuclear lobby seriously. If they continue, post- Fukushima, to show signs of delusion, carrying on as if nothing had happened, still peddling myths about MOX fuel or too-cheap-to-meter EPR’s or Fast Reactors that will magically whisk all the nuclear waste away to laalaa land, then I would probably have to side with the Greenpeace and FoE gang on this one. In such a situation, a future with no nuclear reactors is better than the inevitable train wreck that will follow if the Nuclear Lobby has its way.

Liberating the Libyans part II, what’s up with the oil price?

Another interesting point about the Libya situation is the issue of what it’s doing to the oil price. Obviously, its going up, but should it be? March/February is a pretty lean time for the oil industry. The two peak times (where loosing a major supplier like Libya could actually lead to shortages) are in June/July when the US summer driving season gets underway and there’s typically an increased demand for jet fuel (all those holiday flights). A 2nd smaller peak occurs in autumn/early winter when people start stocking up on home heating oil for the winter. If shortages do occur in the UK (between now and the summer) it will be more the fault of the chicken little brigade, who panic at the first sign of anything, usually egged on by the Tabloids, who after the panic that they themselves have stoked starts will fill endless more column inches giving out about it while claiming that the panic is all Nick Clegg and the previous Labour governments fault.

So if Libya could go off-line for a few months at this time of year and nothing much would happen, why has the price of oil, both in the markets and at the pump shot up? There are two reasons, the first is pure unadulterated greed. The oil industry spiv’s and speculators, plus the oil majors they work for know they can jack up the price and we’ll believe they’re excuses, bend over and take a good shafting, they’ve been doing it for years and its almost instinctive now to us.

The second reasons is a bit more genuine – fear. The fear being that this crisis could drag on into the summer, when as noted demand will rise sharply. Ordinarily this shouldn’t be a problem, the other OPEC states have such vast reserves they could just open the valves a bit and let loose a lot more oil. However, as I pointed out in a previous posting there are serious concerns as to how accurate these claims of OPEC are. While it is likely that OPEC (particularly the Saudi’s) do have some spare capacity, the question is how much? And how long can they tap into it for? The pessimists say that the answer could well be not a lot and not for very long. If the Libya situation does now drag on and the Saudis fail to make up the difference (they’ll increase production that’s for sure, but we might be talking a few 100,000 bbl/day v’s the 1-2m bbl/day we’d need to replace Libya’s output) then the penny may drop – that the Saudi’s have indeed peaked in conventional oil production and that thus in all likelihood the world has peaked.

While, again, nothing I’ve just said is in anyway proven, the fear stalking the oil markets right now is, what if things pan out this way? Well if it becomes obvious that the Saudi’s have peaked then you can expect increased volatility in the oil markets in the future and much higher prices, so it’s a case of everyone in the oil markets now piling in and getting to the bar before the “happy hour” comes to an end.

Liberating the Libyans

As you may have heard there’s trouble in Libya, the glorious leader (the Lion of the Sahara, defender of Arabia….from Senile old Yanks, Greatest Leader in African history, Lord of all the beasts, fish, insects and microbes, Most Butch(er) boy in Tripoli, Scotland’s best friend (actually I think he once called himself this!), The Real Slim Shady, Big Girls Blouse, 50Cent’s greatest fan (after paying $1m for him to give a personal performance), finder of lost children, etc.) well he has a few problems. He seems to think its an issue of ticks and cockroaches and midges that are causing these protests, in which case he should just order some Avon skin-so-soft and everything will be fine and dandy. Then he says the protestors are all on drugs…supplied by Al-Queda.

Now we all knew Gaddafi was never the full shilling (his prior policies include mandating that all Libyans should keep chickens, even those who live in apartments) but it’s becoming obvious now that he is in fact OFFICIALLY BAT FUCKING INSANE!

So, joke’s aside, how do we get rid of him? You would think the west would be in there like a shot, bombing the shite out of him and his mercenary army, but no they are not, for several reasons. Firstly dithering by governments, any intervention would be expensive and difficult, also the links between the many western governments and Gaddafi is a major obstacle. Berlusconi and Gaddafi were as thick as thieves until recently, so he could be trying to stall the use of Italian airbases.
And the UK or US are hardly angels either. They’ve done deals with Gaddafi to get access to oil, the French have sold him fighter aircraft. The UK/US would also be worried that if he goes the more murky truth about Lockerbie might come out.

Also there is the mess that was the Iraq war. The US went into Iraq for all the wrong reasons, this now makes it very difficult for the West to go into an Arab country, even when its clear the nation’s run by a madman, as people in the Middle East are naturally suspicious of the West’s motives post-Iraq. The “collateral damage” that comes with US intervention naturally worries them (they’re safer with Gaddafi’s airforce trying to kill them than the USAF trying to save them!). The troop commitments to Iraq/Afghanistan limit the forces available. Worst of all, there is the fact that America spent all its political capital on the Iraq war and Bush went out of his way to marginalise the UN. Now it needs the UN again, it finds Russia and the Chinese in the driving seat, who have every incentive to keep Gaddafi in power as they don’t want a precedence set for military action against crazy dictators (given how many of both their allies are also crazy dictators! see links below).
Americans need to realise just how much damage Bush did to the world, which isn’t merely measured in the form of the Iraq body count, and the War’s now near 3 trillion dollar cost, but also the geopolitical costs to the West.

Finally, there is an element of “better the devil you know” logic within the Western governments. Yes Gaddafi’s off his tits, but he’s willing to sell us oil at a reasonable price. Who will take over if the opposition win? It could well be democrat types who’ll only sell oil to the highest bidder and get rid of all the corruption…or it could be a lax ineffective bribery ridden government could take over. In some respects, either of these would favour the Russian and Chinese oil companies more, as they have the money to outbid western companies in any “fair” bidding competition and the financial muscle and the lack of accountability to bribe they’re way into a corrupt regime. In short without Gaddafi the West could loose access to Libya’s oil. Obviously if the Jihadi lot take over then forget it!
So there are probably some in the halls of power thinking that actually, feck democracy and all that shite, we might be better off being seen to do something but actually doing nothing and keeping Gaddafi in play, not to mention the fact that if its likely he’s going to win anyway, there’s little to be gained politically by intervening…well aside from standing by the high minded principles our supposedly free nations were founded on!

University Challenged

As you all know the government jacked up tuition fees sometime ago. The upper limit was set at £9,000, but don’t panic they told us, only a few university’s will charge such high rates and then only in a few years time and probably only for things like medicine, etc.

Fast forward to today and it seems numerous universities are planning to start charging the full monty ASAP. And while we had previously been assured that these £9-6,000 scale fees would be confined to a few courses in Russell group uni’s (where most of us mere mortals have little chance of attending as we didn’t go to Eton and Daddy doesn’t play golf with the Dean) now even university’s outside the Russell group are charging 9 grand a pop. You may ask why? and the answer is obvious, so obvious in fact that if you meet any ministers soon I’d recommend you check they’re pulse to make sure they’re not (brain) dead.

It’s about creditability. If Oxford charges £9,000 for engineering, well obviously Cambridge has to do the same, as will Exeter or anyone else who reckons they’re engineering course is as good as Oxford. If, say, Exeter only charges £6,000 for the same course, well everyone will assume that those charging £9,000 must be offering a much better course, consequently Exeter’s student numbers would actually fall in this scenario rather than go up. Market economics doesn’t work in these situations! Give a footballer a choice between a £200,000 car and a $500,000 one (with a wing mirror falling off) and he’ll take the more expensive one, as obviously it must be better. Give me (a climber) a choice between a carabiner costing £23 and one costing £9.99, I’ll probably go for the more expensive one as I don’t want to be contemplating how they made it cheaper while dangling off it over a cliff.

And there’s also a matter of keeping the riff-raff out. Its been point out (see link below) that for example Harvard university could easily afford due to its huge endowment fund, to allow its undergrads to study free of charge – yet instead it charges some of the highest fees in the world for study. Why? Well obviously because we can’t have ordinary folk walking the hallowed halls (then getting those top jobs, I mean good grief a commoner running a major US company, oh! the horror!).
While the UK Russell groups universities aren’t quite so well endowed (Wahoo! :>>), they aren’t far off it and could easily afford to fund themselves with much lower tuition fees, but again we can’t have members of the great unwashed wandering around the Radcliffe.

Then, there’s pure greed to consider. If the universities can charge £9,000 well that’s a lot more lolly to managements pay packets, so of course they’re going to take the money and run. A lot of people seem to think that universities are still run by crusty old, slightly dotty, learned academics types, a sort of modern day Dumbledore – the reality is most uni’s these days have a pretty face as a Dean, some minor celebrity usually, whose sole purpose is to make a nice photo for the Prospectus cover. The day-to-day decisions at universities are now usually taken by some Gordon Gecko style corporate types who are about as committed to education as a office psycho is to veganism. They’re only goal in the job to milk the post for every penny they can, balance the books/make money, increase market share, or make at least make it look that way…course they may well have screwed the uni over to the verge of collapse (as nearly happened with caley a few years ago!). These managers can then justify a ridiculously high salary and an opulent executive compensation package when they move on to they’re next victim…sorry job!

So for the government to have expected the university’s to voluntarily hold back from applying these high fees, after they introduced legislation allowing it, and at a time when they’ve been cutting funding to the universities, it means that they are either A. naive or B. stupid or C. back to they’re old nasty, Tory-selves.