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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Nukes and Nukemen

Blair has lost it.

I am now prepared to say that it is time to stick a fork in the Blair administration; it's done. The reason? The decision this morning to approve in principle a load of nuclear power stations, based on "a first cut" of the DTI's review of energy policy.

It seems a bit harsh to write someone's political career off entirely on this basis alone, particularly when it is probably quite sensible to have a few more nuke stations as part of energy policy going forward (quite apart from anything else, it would make us less dependent on a big natural gas pipeline with Vladimir Putin at the other end of it, albeit that we are not exactly going to discover North Sea Uranium any time soon). But I have my reasons.

I grew up in North Wales, at a point roughly equidistant from the Wylfa and Trawsfynydd nuclear power stations and on the northern edge of the Chernobyl cloud (Update: thinking about this it can't be true; the Chernobyl cloud passed over Cumbria. I suspect I was actually smack bang in the middle of it. I don't have superpowers or anything). Because of this, as an inquisitive teenager, I made it my business to find out a bit about nukes and nukemen.

In my experience, nuclear advocates don't half talk an awful lot of bullshit. Not very many of them are actual liars (unless the context is a leak they are trying to cover up), but there are an awful lot of Walter Mitty characters and chancers in the field. I think that this is a constitutional problem for nukemen, mainly because the lack of power plant building in the UK over the last twenty years means that almost all of their knowledge of nuclear reactors is theoretical (or at best, based on presentations of other people's nuclear reactors) rather than hands-on practical with their own kit. In general, all the problems of nuclear reactors have been solved, in principle. The problem comes when you have to put them into practice, because most nuclear engineering solutions rely on being able to make very big things, machined to incredibly fine tolerances.

(Somewhere in North Wales, there used to be what amounted to a big lead-lined swimming pool, which had a teeny tiny hairline crack which was only noticed when something very nasty indeed began to leak out of it. It is powerfully difficult to weld these things once they are in place, so the main safety response to this problem was 1) a fence, which was moved back a couple of feet every year, and 2) a small laboratory that as far as I know, may still to this day be working hard on the problem of designing a robot that can carry out precision welding in very hostile conditions. While we're on the subject of fun nuke anecdotes, did you know that there are farms in Caernarvonshire that still aren't allowed to sell their lambs, because the Geiger counter still goes click a bit too often?).

Big things are expensive, and fine tolerances are expensive. Nukemen have a really bad habit of forgetting this fact. This is why, in general, nuclear projects tend to go over budget in such an extravagant, life-affirming, joyous kind of way. Also, partly because of the ill-informed criticism that they often get from well-meaning crusties, nukemen are constitutionally inclined to always minimise the dangers of radioactive waste. This habit of mind tends to feed off the first one, in a kind of chain reaction; because they are trying to tell the public that most of the waste from a nuclear plant is basically less radioactive than Cornwall, they find it difficult to admit to themselves or the budget committee that you need to spend millions and millions of pounds on building a special facility to deal with the teaspoonful or two of high-grade waste, which tends to fall into the category "Very Very Very Not Safe".

What I am trying to say here is that the nuclear lobby systematically puts out estimates of the efficiency and safety of its industry which are genuinely laughable, even by the standards of long-dated projections in general. They always, until their backs are absolutely forced up against the wall, give projections which are based on the perfect nuclear project which exists in their mind rather than anything that could actually be built. They tend to assume that every stage, from putting a fence round the site to lowering the rods, will be completed in the most efficient way possible, rather ignoring the fact that the typical big construction project looks a lot more like Wembley Stadium, and nuclear power stations are more complicated. At present, they appear to be pushing the idea that you can basically buy nuclear reactors off the peg from Westinghouse or Areva. Remember, these are the guys who kept on insisting that BNFL could be a viable independent privatised company, right up to the point at which someone reminded them that a prospectus is a legal document and people who fib in them go to jail.

So what I'm saying here, is that the fact that our Prime Minister has taken at face value a "first cut", which of necessity reflects the barely filtered optimism of the nuclear lobby, is as good an indication as I need that his judgement is shot. Britain may or may not need nukes. I am certain, however, that its politics does not need nukemen.
0 comments this item posted by the management 5/17/2006 01:56:00 AM

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