Monday, October 24, 2011

The angrier we protest, the simpler the answers

The Exeter Anti-Cuts Alliance sums up "a momentous week in global protest terms". The blinkers are off:
People can see that their governments, everywhere implementing the same austerity measures, are in the hands and the pay of the global corporations and banks and their (largely invisible and unaccountable) wealthy owners.
Occupy, Uncut, anarchists, anti-capitalists, socialists, Anonymous... all are angry about the corrupt system that has resulted in the world's economic woes. You're angry with the politicians. You're angry with the bankers. You're angry with the rich. You're angry about the cuts.

Except... you know what? I'm pretty angry with you. You failed to get behind the only party that was warning about the impending economic crisis and bankers' behaviour; the only party that's against illegal wars and an authoritarian state; the only party taking climate change seriously; and the only party that wants to improve our democracy.

So you cynically failed to engage with the arguments; you failed to rally support for democratic change; and you bleat about "betrayal" and "propping up the Tories" when the reality is that the people were divided on what should be done. We need honest politicians to work together. But you have worked yourself up into a frenzy that dictates that all politicians are venal and that anything less than an automatic transmission of belief into action constitutes a betrayal.

You are holier-than-thou and angrily shout and protest as if you speak for everyone who cares about these matters, as if we don't live in some kind of democracy, imperfect though it is. That you see yourselves as equal to the heroes of Tahrir Square, Tunis, the Libyan NTC and Syria is ludicrous.

Right. You care. Good. Now take a breath. Stop with the sloganeering, the posturing and the negativity. And think how you can engage constructively, collaboratively and cleverly. We can win this one.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why is Chris Huhne hitting the nuclear button?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Homer Simpson is the perfect person to be put in charge of safety of a nuclear power plant.


Because he's made so many mistakes, there are no new mistakes for him to make.

OK, so this reasoning is not exactly analogous with why Chris Huhne believes that, despite all the mistakes that have been made, it's a good idea to start building new nuclear reactors again.

But he does have a quote from Winston Churchill that he feels has resonance with how the British have tried to exploit nuclear energy over the past 50 years:

"Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities."
Perhaps Churchill can be excused this barb, given that he was half-American.

Yesterday, Huhne, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, gave a speech to the Royal Society explaining why the future of nuclear power will be different to its past. He was explicit about the many mistakes that have been made in relation to nuclear power, but averred that nuclear power should be a key part of our future energy mix.

His speech makes five main points:

1. We're still paying for the electricity that nuclear power generated in the fifties, sixties and seventies.

In particular:
  • In the UK, there is currently enough high-level nuclear waste "to fill three Olympic swimming pools. We have enough intermediate-level waste to fill a supertanker, and a lot more low-level waste."
  • We have the world's largest plutonium stocks, which have to be guarded, converted and stored for many years.
  • The government spends £2 billion every year, cleaning up this mess.
  • The costs of decommissioning are still increasing. Now over £50 billion. 

2. Any new nuclear construction must be without public subsidy.

Huhne repeats the Coalition Agreement's vital principle that any new nuclear construction cannot have public subsidy. Whether "Feed-In Tariffs", the Carbon Floor Price or insurance liability count as public subsidy is not made clear.

3. Despite the costs and risks, nuclear should be a key part of our future energy mix.

The reason he gives for this is that "we face the greater risk of accelerating climate change if we do not embark on another generation of nuclear power. Time is running out. Nuclear can be a vital and affordable means of providing low carbon electricity".

Moreover, by 2023, all but one of our current nuclear reactors reach the end of their lives, leaving an 18% gap in the electricity supply. So that gap has to be plugged.

Huhne cites costings for the three large-scale low carbon technologies:

technology £ per megawatt hour
offshore wind 130
gas with carbon capture 95
nuclear 66

These figures include waste and decommissioning costs. He also notes that world gas prices have risen hugely over the last year, and are expected to be volatile. He argues that there are considerable uncertainties about promising renewable technologies such as wave and tidal, and costs remain high.

So he concludes that nuclear is the cheapest low carbon source of electricity.

4. A portfolio of energy generation technologies is needed.

We've been wrong before about the economics of nuclear power. We can be wrong again: "The industry still has to prove that it can build these enormous investments on time and to budget."

A "broad portfolio" of low carbon technologies is therefore needed, to handle the economic risk.

5. We must learn the lessons of the past.

And this is where Huhne invokes Churchill's quip above about how you can count on Americans to do the right thing... after they have exhausted all other possibilities. In relation to nuclear policy, Huhne says, "we have made pretty much every mistake human ingenuity could devise. And boy, are we British inventive."

  • Fostering a culture of secrecy in relation to strategic national decisions.
  • Conflating energy needs with military needs, and so leading to confused, expensive design decisions.
  • Letting the drive for innovation prevent the gains to be made from standardising designs: all 11 Magnox power stations were built to different specifications, for example.
  • Failing to take into account the environmental impact of nuclear power stations.
  • Failing to devise a costed plan for cleaning up afterwards, heaping costs on future generations.
  • Letting waste pile up.
  • Setting up a body that was supposed simultaneously to give the Government impartial advice and to promote nuclear energy, resulting in a lack of proper oversight.
  • Failing to ensure that regulatory systems were geared towards long-term protection.
  • Letting costs spiral without proper scrutiny.
  • Hiding subsidies in complex financial arrangements.

My reflections on this speech

I'm not at all convinced by the cost arguments presented here. Even if cost differentials turn out to be roughly as quoted over the next 30-50 years, fossil fuels and uranium are finite resources and so are not likely to be cutting-edge 22nd Century solutions. If we are serious about sustainability for future generations, I would have thought we need to focus our technological efforts on harnessing renewable resources.

This is a bit of an over-simplistic cop-out on my part though, because a lot hangs on accurate energy cost estimates. Such estimations are complex, well beyond my capabilities to unpick, and controversial. They need to take into account numerous hard-to-quantify risks and trends. But several authoritative sources have come up with estimates in which nuclear is not always the most cost-effective low carbon technology (e.g. Mott MacDonald, 2011). Of course in all discussions of such calculations there's also political game-playing, vested industry interests, scaremongering and so on, most of which serve to baffle non-experts like me into seeking simplistic grounds on which to decide.

Furthermore, although the commitment to "no public subsidy" sounds like it will finally put the viability claims of the nuclear industry to the test, governments have a long-standing habit of sneaking in subsidies by the back door. And this industry has a, as Huhne puts it, "terrible reputation for secrecy". Huhne says, of course, that he wants to encourage open competition, rather than monopolistic practices, and to ensure tough, transparent regulation, rather than a slipshod, secretive industry. And that's great; but what are the grounds for hoping that this government can get this right in the nuclear industry when the governments so clearly have got it wrong in the past in this industry and in others?

Nevertheless, on secrecy, I do wonder to what extent I'm still subconsciously influenced by that terrific nuclear thriller from the 1980s, Edge of Darkness:

But most importantly, in relation to climate change, the time-scale for nuclear looks wrong. If Britain started building 10 new nuclear reactors now, they would deliver a 4% cut in carbon emissions some time after 2025 [1]. Action is required now. As Greenpeace says, "It's too little too late at too high a price."

In addition, heat and transport energy needs are largely not addressed by nuclear power, and it would only supply a fraction of our electricity. So it is difficult to see why it is getting this level of attention as a way of addressing CO2 emissions. There has been huge investment into nuclear research and development in comparison with the research into renewables. At the same time, there are serious challenges associated with the idea that a huge investment in renewables and energy efficiency could be enough to cover both the lost nuclear power and the fossil fuels we need to stop using. So I don't have the answers, but I don't think that nuclear is the solution.

(These reflections are based on Huhne's speech. So I'm leaving to one side the familiar issues of aesthetics, safety, waste management, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and uranium mining)

Over the years I've moved from equanimity about nuclear power to ambivalence to scepticism to opposition. I'm still open to contrary arguments. But it seems to me that appearing to have "exhausted all other possibilities" does not imply that what we do next constitutes "the right thing". We are ingenious in our ability to create new ways of failing. And I'm not yet convinced that there are strong enough grounds to be confident we'll avoid repeating old ways of failing.


Monday, October 3, 2011

Doctor Who: The War Games

Continuing my catch-up of highlights from the last 50 years of Doctor Who, we reach the end of the Second Doctor's era.

(Spoilers follow)

And the difference in ambition between earlier stories and "The War Games" is huge: 10 parts, richer music and camerawork, multiple time zones, a more complex story, diverse motivations... and... we finally meet the Doctor's own people...

The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe discover a planet on which soldiers abducted from various times in Earth's history are being brainwashed into continuing their conflicts in simulations of those periods. The idea is to train an army to conquer the universe. The plotters are helped by a renegade Time Lord, "The War Chief", one of the Doctor's own race.

There is a revealing exchange between the Doctor and the War Chief, in which the Doctor is defensive about his reasons for leaving his home planet and rejects the War Chief's quest for power.

WAR CHIEF: You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are.
THE DOCTOR: Oh do you?
WAR CHIEF: Your machine is a TARDIS. You're too familiar with its controls to be a stranger.
THE DOCTOR: I had every right to leave.
WAR CHIEF: Stealing a TARDIS? Oh I'm not criticising you; we are two of a kind.
THE DOCTOR: We most certainly are not!
WAR CHIEF: We were both Time Lords and we both decided to leave our race.
THE DOCTOR: I had reasons of my own.
WAR CHIEF: Just as I had.
THE DOCTOR: Your reasons are only too obvious: power!
WAR CHIEF: How much have you learnt of our plans?
THE DOCTOR: I know you've been kidnapping soldiers from the Earth from various times in its history and bringing them here to kill one another.
WAR CHIEF: But do you realise our ultimate objectives?
THE DOCTOR: No objective can justify such slaughter!
WAR CHIEF: The war games on this planet are simply a means to an end. The aliens intend to conquer the entire galaxy. A thousand inhabited worlds.
THE DOCTOR: Yes, but why choose the people of the Earth?
WAR CHIEF: They are the most suitable recruits for our armies. Man is the most vicious species of all.
THE DOCTOR: Well that simply isn't true!
WAR CHIEF: Hmm... Consider their history; for a half a million years they have been systematically killing each other. Now we can turn this savagery to some purpose. We can bring peace to the galaxy - and you can help. You see, I'm not the cold-hearted villain you suppose me to be. My motives are purely peaceful.

The climax sees the Doctor calling for help from the Time Lords via a small box, a means of communication that cropped up again earlier this year in "The Doctor's Wife". The last episode is on the Time Lord home planet (which we now know to be Gallifrey).

Having seen the Time Lords appearing as from Hell in the Tenth Doctor's final story, the Time Lords in the War Games initially appear monk-like. They seem austere, gentle, peaceful, thoughtful, serene, slightly aloof. But then we come to their punishments... They decree that the planet behind the war games plot is to be isolated forever from the rest of the universe by a permanent force field. And the leaders of the plot are removed from time, as if they never existed.

Meanwhile, the Time Lord's punishments for the Doctor's crimes (stealing the TARDIS and interfering in history) are particularly cruel. They force a regeneration on the Doctor and exile him to a single time on a single planet (Earth); something like torture for an inveterate wanderer in time and space. But they go further, and wipe Jamie's and Zoe's memories of the Doctor, apart from their first encounter with him. Just as with Donna Noble in recent series, the loss of memories of so many adventures that saw these companions develop and grow as people seems shocking. Jamie and Zoe do not know they have suffered, but a central part of their existence has been lost to them. Moreover, this action also punishes the Doctor horribly. There is no possibility of his ever being able to reminisce about old times with these dear friends.

How was it?

Not too bad. A bit long, with some (unintentionally) laughable moments, particularly the mannered acting of the Security Chief and the unrealistic fight scenes. The bad guys come across as interestingly intelligent and diverse, although subsequent television history means that Blackadder's General Melchett has made one of the protagonists less scary than he might otherwise be! Nevertheless, some interesting ideas, pursued intelligently, unfolding nicely, and without crudely spelling everything out. The Doctor's terrific fear of the Time Lords is palpable, and his attitude to them hints at a liberal critique of the powerful.

Audience Reaction 2011

I decided to show just episodes 8 to 10 to one of the 21st century companions with whom I have been erratically sharing this Doctor Who catch-up. Despite the borderline offensive stereotypes (particularly of the Mexican bandit), the historical periods were of interest. But boredom thresholds were quickly breached. The special effects, music, dialogue and pace were the familiar culprits. Nevertheless, clear improvements in these aspects over previous stories were noted. The quality of the ideas was also appreciated.

Idle Questions
  • Why did the War Chief not regenerate when shot by the security guards?
  • Aren't ground troops a slightly underpowered way of conquering planets?
  • How will the Doctor get his TARDIS back?
For an alternative view...

Next time on LW's DW catch-up...
The very next episode, the Third Doctor appears in "Spearhead from Space".