A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Going nuclear.....

At last, we are to get a reasonable UK Government energy policy, and one that includes a new generation of nuclear power plants and a strategy for clean coal, exactly what 'EnviroSpin' has been proposing over the last two years [see: 'Nuclear plants set for go-ahead' (BBC Online Politics News, July 11)]:
"Number 10 says 'wishful thinking will not keep the lights on', as ministers look set to give the go-ahead to a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Tony Blair says the UK needs a mixture of energy sources to lessen reliance on imports and to address climate change....."

Of course, it won't do anything predictable about climate change; but, never mind, this policy is on the right tracks, although it does remain a tad over-optimistic about the possible contributions of so-called 'renewables'.

Nevertheless, lots of Green bunnies, the Liberal Democrats, and the usual suspects in the Labour Party will, like automata, "go nuclear", many of them marooned in the hippy, anti-nuclear world of the late-60s. Expect to hear lots of nonsense about Chernobyl, a plant which would never have seen the light of day in the West, even at that time.

This is surely the moment to ignore such knee-jerk responses from a past age. The new generation of nuclear reactors is in a different world, and they represent the safest, and, I might add, the least environmentally-damaging, forms of energy production. "Well done Mr. Blair for spotting this. Now, don't lose your nerve."

The only real debate is over which system should be adopted for the UK. We will need at least 20% of our power from nuclear reactors, although, personally, I should like to see an energy mix more like: 30% coal; 30% gas; 25% nuclear; 15% other.

First, a summary of the safety, costs, and speed of construction of the new Generation 3+ reactors:

(a) the new plants are modular in construction, and they are incredibly simple in relation to older designs. For example, the Westinghouse AP 1000 employs 50% fewer valves, 35% fewer pumps, and 70% less cabling. The whole plant can be contained in a building half-the-size of current plants;

(b) this means that the plants express a very small environmental footprint (just compare this limited footprint to an extensive wind farm) and they are much safer, employing 'passive' systems of control, not 'active' human management. In the event of a problem, the safety systems rely on 'natural' forces, including gravity, circulation, and evaporation, not on human-controlled, and potentially unreliable, pumps and valves. Indeed, human action is required to keep the system going, not to shut it down;

(c) inevitably this makes the plants cheaper (c. £400 - 500m), and they can be constructed in 36 to 42 months, with a productive life of 60 years;

(d) they are also highly efficient, and they will produce only 10% of the nuclear waste of the past.

EPRSecondly, with regards to the major manufacturing options, my own personal choice would be the Areva/Framatome Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) (the Areva EPR), with a generation capacity of 1,600 MW. One is already under construction at Olkiluoto in Finland, and this type will be the choice for France's next generation of nuclear reactors. The UK should make immediate plans to work with France over both expertise and maintenance. Other alternatives are the Westinghouse AP 1000 PWR (1,117 MW), which will probably become standard in China, and the CANDU ACR 1000, which is a Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) (1,200 MW) being built in Canada. [Above right: computer simulation of an EPR Generation 3 nuclear power plant. Image: under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2. From: Wikipedia.]

But, whatever happens now, let's ignore the usual whingers and whiners and just get on with the job, ensuring that we choose one system that can be serviced and maintained easily throughout the whole country. I believe the European Areva EPR makes particular sense because we can share expertise with other countries on this, like Finland and France. Ten would do the trick nicely.

[For further information: BBC News provides a good summary of the various options here.]

Philip, excited by the prospect of a new generation of safe and sound nuclear plants. Let's go for it. Time for more fission & chips. With tea, of course.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Where farming is concerned, beware romantic European nationalisms.....

Recently, there have been a spate of alpine flower-tinted articles on old-fashioned European farming by middle-class journalists just home from their continental holidays, as well exemplified by Magnus Linklater writing in The Times ('Picturesque little farms, delicious local produce ... Obvious clue: not Britain' - apologies, no link for copyright reasons: see The Times, July 5).

The themes are common: small, quaint farmsteads; hosts of meadow blossoms; delightful anti-industrial rural inefficiency; delicious slow meals of regional fare, washed down with local wines; hardy hands-of-the-soil defining 'La France profonde' and the true spirit of Europe; and, all under a glowing, cloud-free sky, redolent of summers long past.

And the plea is basically the same too: let's keep these landscapes free from the taint of horrid 'capitalism' and of the nasty, real world.

Richard-Walther DarreUnfortunately, we have heard such tropes before, and the context was extremely nasty. Although one must never tar with an unfair brush, and one must be careful of drawing crass historical parallels, the romanticisation of European 'peasantry' recalls too dangerously for my liking the language of Richard-Walther Darré (1895 - 1953), SS-Obergruppenführer, and the leading Nazi 'blood and soil' theoretician, who was Reich Minister of Food and Agriculture between 1933 to 1942 and Reichsbauernführer, National Farmers' Leader, for some twelve years [Opposite: Darré, Berlin, 1940(?)].

In his many publications, including, for example, Das Bauerntum als Lebensquell der Nordischen Rasse (1928), Um Blut und Boden (1929), and Der Schweinemord (1937), Darré argued that it was the European farmer who had been the creator of European culture, and he proposed the formation of a Germanic 'aristocracy of the soil', rooted in the old agrarian community, which would be protected from, and be a bulwark against, the 'capitalist' (for which, read 'wandering Jewish') world, the "chaos of the market", and industrialisation. The movement was to be 'völkisch' (nearly impossible to translate), with a romantic focus on folklore, the 'organic', and purity. Provocatively, he even placed the pig at the heart of this cult, a celebration of German peasant life, coupled with unsophisticated racism, and, above all, anti-Semitism. The process was to be progressed through Erbhofgesetz, entail farm legislation, which would tie the peasant to the land. Moreover, the Reich would seek autarchy - self-sufficiency.

Inevitably, it didn't work, even in the ugly 'Fairy Tale' that was Nazi Germany, and Darré was soon in conflict with the Reichsbank, with the free market economics of people like Hjalmar Schacht, with the progressive, industrial side of Nazism, but, more importantly, with 'the peasants' themselves, many of whom were more than happy to turn 'capitalist', or who fled the land altogether. By 1939, Darré had lost Hitler's confidence, and he was sidelined under Himmler, but not before he had ordered Jews to be cut off from German food supplies, a crime for which he was given a five-year prison sentence at Nuremberg.

Of course, there is no direct parallel today. Nevertheless, there are resonances in the protection of patently-inefficient 'peasant' agriculture from 'capitalism' by extremely heavy and costly EU subsidies at the expense both of the urban poor in Europe and of developing-world farmers - a problem which could yet derail vital current world trade talks at the WTO. I also think we must be ever-wary of the 'organic' concepts of purity and of the persistent cry that farmers are a special 'aristocracy', a defence against the evils of a globalising world. It is further worth noting that threatening political figures, like Jean-Marie Le Pen, draw much of their support from 'La France profonde' and its ilk. And one must even be cautious about the incipient autarchy behind such concepts as 'the local' and 'food miles'.

I thus think it wise to distrust over-romantic views about European farmers and peasants, even from well-meaning journalists.

And, as Zola reminded us: agriculture is "dur" - damned hard work! You only romanticise it when you don't have to do it for subsistence.

[Suggested further reading: Blood and Soil: Richard Walther Darré and Hitler's "Green Party" by Anna Bramwell (Kensal Press, 1985, ISBN 0946041334)]

Philip, ever on the look out for Spode and his ilk. "Tea, sir?" "Tickety-boo, Jeeves!"

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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