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< On to April 2011

29 March
Energy and the delusion of choice

This post isn’t about nuclear power. Promise. Well, all right, only partially about it. It’s more about eggs and baskets, the dangers of putting too many of one into the other, and the secondary (but relevant) danger of not realising when you don’t have many, or even any, eggs. Or a basket, either. That seems to me to be a real possibility in UK energy policy at present.

Yesterday – a small digression – we had a statement from the UK energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne welcoming the fact that UK energy suppliers would now have to give consumers 30 days notice if they were going to raise prices. This strikes me as somewhat less than big news. If my electricity supplier announces that prices are going up on, say, 1 May, then do I spend a happy April scurrying around “alternative suppliers” trying to get a better deal? Only in your dreams, Mr Huhne. If my lot are putting up the prices, then as sure as eggs is eggs (or baskets is baskets) the others will be doing the same. Or charging a connection fee. I’m sure some people have saved money by switching suppliers (mostly by bundling together electricity, gas, water and other services, I suspect). But essentially the idea of competition at the point of use in these areas is mostly delusional or, at best, marginal.

It isn’t the only point, though. I’d be more worried, and progressively more so, by the thought that in four or so years I might plug in my computer (or kettle, or defibrillator) and nothing would happen. Zilch, zippo, nowt. Four or so years is the timescale on which at present large chunks of UK generating capacity are due to switch off and head creakily off for well-deserved retirement. Coal-fired stations, some gas ones, most of the current nuclear stations: there’s a lot of power that’s set to go, and not, so far, much sign of what is to replace it.

Here, of course, is where nuclear comes in. Or probably should do, as a proven technology that could possibly just about be delivered on time, despite the delays in the system. But in current circumstances, however unjustified the scare stories coming out of Japan are, who would put money on the nuclear programme going ahead without hiccup? And the alternatives? Well, last week in the Budget, if you noticed, the government clawed a lot of unexpected revenue out of oil and gas companies: just the people who might help the government come up with a few more options in case the nuclear plans come unstuck.

I’m not saying, of course, that there isn’t some sly satisfaction to be gained from seeing the oil companies outraged by the tax rise: like insurance firms (and power suppliers), you don’t get much choice but to pay what they ask, and their prices are naturally geared to their own profitability, not to any common weal. But timing is everything. And I suspect the government, by getting on the wrong side of these groups at this point, has reduced the options for all of us.

21 March
Reports of a disaster

I’m sorry to return to the topic of the Japanese nuclear power station and its difficulties in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. But the way what’s going on there is being reported is irritating me. Specifically, this morning, the BBC is irritating me with its lead news story on its website.

Under the headline “Japan nuclear progress as toll up” we are treated to the following introduction: “Electricity has been restored to three reactors at the Japanese nuclear plant wrecked by fire and explosions after the 11 March quake and tsunami. However the cooling systems are not yet operating, and the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, says the situation remains very serious. Some workers at the stricken facility were evacuated on Monday after smoke was seen rising from reactor No 3. The official death toll from the twin disaster has now risen to 8,450. Nearly 13,000 people are still missing.”

Am I being over-sensitive to think that this implies that there has been a nuclear disaster in Japan to go alongside the natural disaster? That the casualties are resulting from both?

Yet in another article, less prominent on the BBC website, scientists and medical people who know about these things are talking about the “worst case” now at the Fukushima nuclear plant being a 1% increase in the chances of some people in the vicinity of the plant developing cancer – when there’s a 20 to 25% chance of that anyway. No, we shouldn’t underestimate that, but against a death toll from the natural disaster of more than 20,000 already, this is not the main story; and it is the “worst case”, not the most likely case. I’m not there, so I don’t absolutely know, but I’d suspect that loss of basic infrastructure – water, sanitation, shelter – is as much of a threat to the survivors as what is going on at the power station. Probably more.

I don’t answer for nuclear power. I have my own doubts about it, and wish there were better alternatives. And particularly what has happened in Japan has in my view to open up new questions about safety protocols in areas of the globe where seismic events are likely. But to class what’s going on there at present alongside the tragedy of the natural disaster is wrong.

15 March
Scares over nuclear power

Many people of my generation have long had an ambivalent attitude towards nuclear power, based on gut feel rather than science, and I’m among them. All told, we’d probably rather that it wasn’t necessary, but increasingly we’ve come to the realisation that alternatives from both the old and the newer technologies don’t really meet the need, on the grounds of environment or security of supply. Nuclear comes out as currently the least worst rather than as the best, but that’s of course good enough. Until something better comes along.

So do my views change with the developing situation in Japan? The answer surely has to be No: and if anything has changed, it’s my attitude to the general news media.

I’m bothered by the way the nuclear issue in the Japanese disaster seems to have been over-dramatised in “reputable” media at the expense of the real human tragedy that is going on there. I’m seeing words such as “catastrophe” and “meltdown” being applied to what are, at present, small increases in radiation. I don’t like the way the word “radiation” seems to be used very loosely as an all-embracing scare term, in much the same way that “cancer” was used a generation ago.

For at least a period yesterday the nuclear “issue” seemed to rank, on websites and elsewhere, higher as a news story than unfolding revelations that a whole town of more than 10,000 people had disappeared, along with many of its inhabitants, as a direct result of the earthquake and tsunami. Journalism should be better than that.

I’m not going to claim any great insight, and nor am I going to downplay any risks that there may be. But as I write, it seems that the safety regimes at the Japanese nuclear plant may have just about coped with a natural disaster at the upper end of the scale that was thought possible. That isn’t the case with buildings and other structural safety codes, or sea defences, where many thousands have died. In any case, no one’s realistically talking about a Chernobyl-style situation: a shoddily-built, badly-operated, flawed reactor design.

And quite what relevance this has to nuclear development in, say, the UK is not at all clear. Seismically, the UK is just about the dullest place in the world: the chances of us having an earthquake and/or tsunami on the scale Japan has just experienced must be infinitesimal. Nothing that has happened should affect UK plans one way or the other. I can recognise, of course, that that isn’t the case everywhere in the world. In some other places, nuclear plans are being re-inspected, and they should be in Japan too, where this unprecedented natural disaster has been too close for comfort.

But here in the UK? Not needed. And to use this tragedy as a means to frighten and to distort the argument seems somehow shoddy and rather cheap, and I’m disappointed that reputable journalists seem not to see this.

PS. An update on Wednesday morning. Good to see BBC main news last night making some of the points made above and quoting expert people about the real doses of radiation that are happening and about the dissimilarities to Chernobyl. More of that, please.

7 March
Football minnows make a splash

I went to watch the football at Leyton Orient on Saturday in their curious little home about a mile or so from the 2012 Olympic stadium. And for the second time in little over a month I was richly entertained by the home team’s clever, attacking football. They won 2-0, and might easily have scored more. The other time I’d seen them this season, they’d won 4-0.

I’d reckon it’s probably a good time to be an Orient supporter and there’s a smidgen of hope that, after 20 or so years in the lower two divisions (and mostly in the lower reaches of those as well), something more elevated just might be possible. Not likely. But possible.

In which case, there’s a chance that next season Orient could be consorting with a neighbour of theirs. West Ham, winners of the two-horse race with Tottenham to move into the Olympic stadium once the London 2012 games are over, have been hovering in and around the relegation places from the Premiership all season. If West Ham go down and Orient go up…

All right, there’s a lot of ifs in that. But it did make me wonder who decides, when these things are decided, that West Ham (and Tottenham) were big clubs who could bid to move to the new big stadium while Leyton Orient were, to my knowledge, deemed too small to be given the option. Current crowd sizes and past histories would suggest the decision was correct. But in how many other areas of business would you be allowed or encouraged to divide the world into sharks and minnows, with no fear of contradiction or hope of appeal?

Well, Leyton Orient are appealing against the imminent arrival of a bigger fish in their pond and good luck to them. And if the quality of the football they served up on Saturday was any guide, they may not need the luck. They may get to be bigger through their own merits. And wouldn’t that be good?

1 March
Railing against the railways

High-speed rail has always had its detractors in the UK. From the original pioneers who faced accusations that passengers would be unable to breathe at elevated speeds of around 15 mph is but a small, slow step to today’s antis, chuntering about whether anyone really needs to be in Birmingham five minutes earlier. In fact, rail innovation of any kind has been criticised: just look up “Sir Edward Watkin” or the “Great Central Railway” on Wikipedia to see how corporate Britain and, 80 years on, governmental Britain treated people who tried to bring railways up to international standards. (Basically, one lot tried to block it and eventually the other lot ruthlessly closed it.)

The government has now opened discussion and debate on the proposed high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham, which is dubbed HS2 because we already have, little thanks to government, one high-speed line that links London to the Channel Tunnel. Posh shires are up in arms about it all; middle England is collectively harrumphing; nimbies are assembling cases that prove their narrow self-interest is, in fact, a “noble cause”. In most instances, the real point about HS2 will be missed entirely.

The real point is that our economy, like everyone else’s, relies on personal mobility – the ability of people to get around in order to live their lives, do their business, make things happen. We can wish this wasn’t so, and maybe in time, when fossil fuels have run out, the lights have dimmed and fear stalks the streets, mobility won’t seem such a big deal. But that’s not the case now and it’s daft, maybe dangerous, to pretend otherwise. Lots of people need to get around and the proof of that is that the roads are full to capacity and the trains are stuffed to the gills. You really can’t change that overnight.

Geography of course doesn’t help. The UK is an offshore island, slightly peripheral to the main action, and we’ve got our most populous and prosperous area inconveniently slap-bang in the location where it’s bound to be a bottleneck. Sorry, but that’s not going to change either.

The facts are that we need more transport capacity and we need it foremost in the places where HS2 is going to go. Rail is the right way to deliver that, because the alternatives are either environmentally undesirable (more cars or planes) or economically illiterate (tunnels across the UK) or technologically unfeasible (matter/antimatter gravity-powered transaccelerators). And it has to be high-speed because that way you get even more capacity and because we’re not living in the 19th century any longer (except on the Great Western main line, of course). Passengers will get to Birmingham five minutes (or more) faster because then we can get more of them to Birmingham (and beyond), and a Thomas-the-Tank-Engine service, however charming, doesn’t do the business.

There is, of course, something rather beguiling about the fact that, at Quainton Road in the heart of the area with the loudest objections to HS2, there is an old railway centre of great charm, interest and antiquity, where Nimbys and others can play at trains as they used to be. Quainton Road is where Sir Edward Watkin’s dream for the Great Central Railway met the harsh realities imposed by his detractors. One dream for a “proper” UK railway has already died there: we mustn’t repeat that mistake with HS2.

[This post got six comments at johnpullin.wordpress.com]

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