Don’t cry for me Fukushima

The race to rehabilitate radiation continues apace at everyone’s favourite Deep State mouthpiece, the BBC.

After Tuesday’s inept attempt on the Today programme to push the case for cutting-down safety levels at the forthcoming (possibly) Hinckley Point C nuke, the PM Programme yesterday ran a slicker piece from – where else? – Fukushima, basically saying that everyone has overreacted to the 2011 post-tsunami radiation escape there.

This time, though, the expert on hand was actually a qualified scientist with a track record in studying the effects of radiation on people.

Professor Geraldine Thomas, of Imperial College, crunched through the wreckage of a home abandoned in the Fukushima exclusion zone in the company of its owner and the BBC’s Tokyo reporter, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes.

Her verdict: although the average radiation level in the zone is 50% higher than the normal background dose you get everywhere, that’s not enough to harm anyone. Implication: don’t worry, rebuild, go home.

From a propaganda point of view, the only bum note was struck by Rupert W-H as he signed off saying: “If the danger from radiation is being exaggerated then it is making the human tragedy at Fukushima much worse than it should be.”

Should be? It’s so BBC to inadvertently imply that there’s a scale of how tragic, costly and terrifying a nuclear accident can be before it’s considered de trop by the powers that be.

Keywords

As the Absorb-a-Millisievert-with-a-Smile campaign develops, keen observers should watch out for certain keywords including ‘death’, ‘radiation’ and ‘on-site’. On Tuesday I though it was a mistake for the pro-nuke person to mention Fukushima but I was wrong.

The idea seems to be to turn ‘Fukushima’ into a shorthand for a situation where the public danger from radiation can be spun as turning out to be less bad than first feared (or, in spin talk, ‘was grossly exaggerated’). Where no-one died from radiation exposure, at least off-site. And where evacuating can be portrayed as causing far more death, misery and destruction than radiation – never mind that reactor buildings are burning and exploding at the time, or that no-one on the site can get at them or to the spent fuel pools.

If the debate over Hinckley Point C’s safety levels can be framed in this way, they can marginalise awareness of many other real issues such as the idiotic cost of the project and the potential scale of non-fatal health impacts from a future accident.

For those, you have to look back past Fukushima to Chernobyl, whose 30th anniversary on 26th April must now seem uncomfortably close to the pro-nuclear lobby. It’s surprisingly hard to get a handle on the scale and geographical spread of issues such as birth defects and genetic disorders arising from the Chernobyl accident. The World Health Organisation has put the potential toll of premature deaths as 4,000 although many believe the WHO’s estimate to be much too low.

Time will tell. But when someone rocks up on Today in year or two, saying a corners-cut version of Fukushima is good enough for Hinckley C if it saves a billion, just nod along with them and say “What could go wrong with that?”

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The extraordinarily good record of the nuclear industry

Woke up yesterday morning to hear someone on the BBC Today programme seriously suggesting that we should weaken nuclear safety standards to make atomic power more affordable.

It was in a segment (starts 50 minutes in) pegged to the continuing woes afflicting Hinkley Point C.

To recap quickly, the finance director of intended plant-builder EDF Energy resigned on Monday. Why? Well, he judges Hinckley C’s financial prospects to be so dire that they’ll sink his company if the project goes ahead. And that’s in spite of vast taxpayer subsidies, a guarantee of extortionate electricity tariffs and that ‘we saw you coming’ price tag of £18 billion – half the bill for HS2 for one power station.

The air is tremulous with the sound of huge bets going massively wrong. The bet on unlocking loads of (some … any?) domestic natural gas via fracking. The bet on a ‘friendly’ gas pipeline from the Gulf – a bet that’s a big reason for the desperate brawl tearing up Syria. The bet that nuclear power might ever provide affordable AND SAFE base load electricity.

As unpalatable situations go, this one is up there with a decomposing frog sandwich. Procrastination, wishful thinking and willingly doing the Neocons’ bidding have got the UK exactly where you’d expect. Which is:

  • Plan A. Pour blood into sand for years to come in an unwinable play-off for oil and gas between the US-dominated bloc, the Gulf states, Russia and the many – often overlapping – proxies of all three.
  • Plan B. Pay whatever ransom is demanded by anyone capable of building us a nuclear power plant.
  • Plan C. Anyone got a plan C?

Now, we know the BBC could no more allude to a state of affairs in which Plan A exists than it can ever come to terms with its high-level culpability for the long reigns at Broadcasting House of Jimmy Savile and other molesters of the airwaves.

That leaves the option of selling – sorry ‘examining the issue of’ – Plan B. So with the first hour of Today rapidly closing in on the weather, Sarah Montague introduced a ‘nuclear specialist’ to discuss the ballooning price tag for Hinckley Point C. What, she asked, Malcolm Grimston of the Centre for Energy Policy and Technology, makes it so costly?

”It is a big plant. It is going to generate 7% of our electricity. But nonetheless what we have seen is, as safety system is piled on top of safety system, this has become enormously complex as well as having a vast number of pumps and valves and the like associated with that.”

Right, ‘pumps and valves and things like that.’ Easily explains why Britain’s next nuke could cost, what, £20 billion allowing for the inevitable overruns.

OK, let’s forgive the shaky start. Doing live radio can be a tough gig at ten to seven in the morning.

Mr Grimston had another run at explaining why nuke safety has got out of hand and ought to be reined in to keep the price down:

“Given that the safety record of nuclear power is so extraordinarily good – I mean a single accident in the whole of its history that has had health impacts off site – I’m sceptical as to whether this is really the way forward,” he began.

Woah! How do you jumble up the letters F-U-K-U-S-H-M-A and C-H-E-R-N-O-B-Y-L and come up with ‘extraordinarily good safety record’?

nuke-accident

Had Today introduced Mr Grimston as what he is, that is a career-long PR person and advocate for the nuclear industry, this would have been the moment for the presenter (note the term) to go for his attempted spin like the Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh savaging Sir Lancelot.

Instead, apparently for the benefit of not-quite-awake-yet listeners, Montague fed him a neat summary of the pitch he was there to sell:

“So are you saying that we should remove some of these layers of safety to ensure that the next generation of nuclear plants are built?”

Grimston:

“Well I think you have to reach a level of safety – which I think we have reached in the nuclear industry – whereby the chance of an accident is extremely small. But we learnt from Fukushima that, actually, the health effects of nuclear accidents are not the radiation – nobody, certainly off site, and probably even on site at Fukushima – is … we’re not going to be able to detect anybody dying as a result of radiation … the evacuation has killed an awful lot of people.”

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It’s so easy to do. I know I have. A friendly ‘presenter’ lobs you a ridiculously soft ball just before they cut to to the weather and you not only fluff it, you end up mangling your message until it looks like the shredded, bloody leftovers from lunch with the Rabbit of Caerbannog.

DON’T MENTION FUKUSHIMA. Yes, no-one’s (yet) apparently been killed by radiation there. But many people died during the emergency evacuation of nearby settlements carried out to avoid exposure to escaping radiation. And two clean-up workers have died of heat-induced heart attacks at the site under the strain of working in full-body radiation protection gear, including masks and helmets covering their entire heads.

Grimston’s claim that “we’re not going to be able to detect anybody dying as a result of radiation” stretches credibility to the absolute limit.

(Sigh). It’s surprising how many take-aways can come out of a two minute slot.

  1. Nuclear accidents do kill people (but not on site, so that’s OK)
  2. ‘Safe’ nuclear plants are stupidly uneconomic to build. But it’s apparently not stupid to reduce safety levels to make them slightly less stupidly uneconomic in the hope that someone will be stupid enough to sign up to build one.
  3. It may be that, like Churchill’s take on democracy, nuclear power is the worst non-fossil-fuel energy option available to us – except for all the others. But if the foregoing lamentable exchange is the best debate the BBC and the industry’s finest spokesperson can come up with, God help anyone hoping to find out.

High entropy farewell

Quadranting travelled to the coast yesterday to see his aunt turned into about 250kg of CO2.

Well, it would have been bit less than that. Auntie was pretty tiny and they cremated her in a lightweight bamboo coffin. Yet, for all its simplicity, this low-key funeral was still an exercise in high entropy living.

Mourners arrived from far and wide – all but one of them by car. Vans delivered wreaths. Gas from Norway or Russia roared through the burners at the crematorium. Coal and gas-powered internet connections brought everyone together.

Small event. Gargantuan system. That’s the nature of life in a developed country. Even the little things we do float on a roaring sea of pure heat. The fossil sources of that heat become less affordable every day. We don’t notice because the process runs at a glacial pace. Industrialised countries are also adept at displacing the bad effects on to poorer nations.

So yesterday the sun shone, birds sang and, amidst death, we scarcely noticed the real miracle we call modern life.

The Permanent Low Growth Disconnect

Pundits popped up on Radio 4 this morning to drop passing mentions of the UK’s permanent low growth outlook into their previews of the Autumn Statement.

Their hints bobbed across the breakfast airwaves as we digested the news that George Osborne will have to ‘extend austerity’ for another year to 2018.

I guess many people took away the thought that that means it will take even longer for things to turn round.

But that’s not what they said. When you cut the drug of hope with the talc of the truth lurking in that word ‘permanent’, the actual implication is that things won’t get better at all. Come 2018, we could find ourselves exchanging austerity for something more astringent.

We’re being softened up. The future won’t be the happy, shiny place we allowed ourselves to believe it would be. Or the one ‘they’ promised us if you took the politicians’ mantra of endless growth as a pledge they could somehow deliver.

Writing this at my PC in a warm room, central heating working and electricity flowing, streaming classical music over a 20MB web link, there’s no obvious connection between my blissful life and the bad news on the radio.

But the roll-over from increasing to decreasing net energy is not an abstraction. It’s real and it’s starting to trash the easy economic dogmas of the past 70 years.

UK industry hit by costs and ‘dying’ supply chain” reports today’s Telegraph business section. Yup. Not merely ‘inefficient’ or ‘under-invested’ but on the way to the knacker’s yard.

This is what happens to a highly technology-dependent society when its most important input – cheap fuel – goes away.

Life doesn’t suddenly change. Chaos doesn’t erupt. Hairline cracks appear. Then big ones. And even some of those – like the pensions breakdown – can be papered over for a long time.

But it gets clearer and clearer that we turned a corner five to 10 years ago. “Where’s the demand gone?” muttered one of Radio 4’s pundits this morning. That’s the connection. Welcome to the century of unaffordability.

No friends for electric cars

That fizzling noise in the marketing-o-sphere is the sound of something terminal happening to Electric Cars 1.0.

By now, the UK’s roads were supposed to be filling rapidly with the silent swooshing of a juiced EV market. Instead, the EV scene is flatter than an iPhone 4 battery at 2.30 in the afternoon.

Leasing companies are lining up to tell their customers not to waste any more time on mains powered motors.

“Slow burning” is how the kindest commentators in the fleet car sector are describing battery-powered cars’ potential. After all, what is the commercial point of acquiring them for fleet use?

On a coalface-to-wheel basis, EVs emit more CO2 than dozens of more-capable combustion models. Functionally, they’re pants. In return for costing a small fortune to buy, their pathetic range is designed to keep a driver on tenterhooks most of the way from London to (nearly) Swindon – or Newbury if it’s cold, dark and raining.

Cargo cult

QuadRanting has always averred that current EVs are simply a cargo cult response to the withdrawal of the cheap liquid fossil fuel that enabled the Age of Happy Motoring; facsimiles of real cars.

Driving an EV is not a happy thing to do. The EV-makers’ latest throw of the dice – the Tesla S – is said to be good for 300 miles on a charge. But so what? Buying the additional 140 miles-worth of batteries adds £15,000 to the price of the 160-mile base model, which already costs thirty grand.

You could buy an equally roomy, year-old, ex-demo Passat or A4 with 12,000 miles on the clock for that £15k and then, if you wished, spend the £30k you’d saved by avoiding the Tesla on approximately 230,000 miles worth of diesel.

OK, so the Tesla’s a luxury car but, again, so what? If the answer to EVs’ shortcomings is to make toys for rich boys at the meagre rate of 12,000 units a year, that’s the biggest ‘sod off’ to the herd since Marie Antoinette urged starving commoners to switch to cake.

Trick question

So, if EVs are neither cheap nor cheerful nor plentiful nor environmentally sound, what are they for? It turns out that the answer to that question is the same as the response the trick question on QI: nobody knows.

The makers, who are being sucked into a monster whirlpool of overcapacity and disappearing demand for combustion cars in Europe, can barely give their pricey, heavy, range-crippled EVs away.

Nissan has sold 12,000 Leafs so far instead of the 44,000 p.a. it was counting on. It is planning to sell a ‘budget’ version of the car next year at a £4k discount to the current tag of £30,000 after we taxpayers chip in for the £5k Government subsidy per car.

Look dearie, if I wanted a budget Nissan that’d only do 70 miles before needing a good rest, I’d buy a knackered £950 Micra with two gallons of petrol in its tank.

Plain stupid

That’s the circle that EVs in their current form cannot square. If the proles are being priced out of conventional cars by the global debt implosion and peak oil, it’s plain stupid to try offering them super-pricey, barely functional EVs instead.

The future of mass vehicle ownership is in 2-wheelers and microlight cars – a shift the manufacturers are resisting as furiously as you’d expect of corporations with billions tied up in the wrong products.

Even so, I reckon we’ll see the first Ford scooters and GM microlight prototypes before 2020. Of course, this will require a complete rethink of road rules and infrastructure design to accommodate millions of lightweights among the legacy of conventional cars.

Ironically, by then Europe will have shovelled trillions of euros into perpetuating the current, doomed automotive infrastructure as it tries to stimulate its way out of GD2. It’s going to be interesting.

UK blackouts countdown – year 10 of 13

What was it that Cambridge professor David McKay said in 2009?

Oh yes, he warned that unless Planet Great Britain pulled its head from its arse and got on with it, we’d be facing blackouts during seasonal demand peaks by 2016.

Well, he put it more politely than that. And it was a brave move for someone who’d just been appointed as the government’s energy advisor.

The prof was doubtless rewarded for his honesty with a swift, if metaphorical, kicking by his new masters. Meanwhile, then energy minister Ed Miliband rushed into the arms of the BBC’s Andrew Marr, declaring that the public love wind farms and there would be loadsa power on tap. Not that the one necessarily follows from the other.

The ever-balanced Catholic Church BBC added: “The Conservatives say the government has been complacent over energy security and that ministers have dithered over policy.”

How right they were. And black pot, meet kettle. Now the Conservatives are the government and they’re being told the same thing. Only this time it’s by someone they can’t shut up (Ofgem, the energy regulator). In the meantime, they’ve wasted another two years.

They urgently need someone to blame, So the right-wing-puppet-mess – sorry, muppet-press – was immediately on song with the usual ‘it’s all the fault of EU regulations’ cant. As if the government will give a toss about those when keeping the lights on is at stake.

And it’s ‘will’ rather than ‘would’. Having finally got off the pot over nuclear, Westminster is having a hard time finding anyone who’ll risk building new plants in a country whose economy could start flickering on and off in a few winters’ time.

So they’re making a dash for gas (“Put on stout pants chaps and keep an eye over your shoulder for Mr Putin”). Then it’ll be an about-turn on closing coal plants in a couple of years and possibly even going for some new ones.

How strange is the world where ERoEI is inexorably declining. And how smart it would be of Mr Miliband to do more than simply kick the can down the road the next time he runs into an energy expert who actually knows how many beans tons of coal make five.