Sunday, 19 June 2011

Is it Safe to Abandon Nuclear Power?

Shut Down Nuclear Power!
For weeks after 23,000 Japanese citizens were killed by the tsunami on 11th March 2011, the world’s attention was focussed on the unfolding drama at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  As a result of the events at Fukushima there has been a widespread call for the closing down of nuclear power stations in Europe.  Germany has stated that they will decommission their nuclear installations in 2022; in a recent referendum Italy has voted against nuclear power and the question is being raised regularly in France.  Such is the groundswell of public opinion that it almost appears to be a political "no-brainer" to be against nuclear power.

I feel that, before these decisions are taken in such a highly emotional context, there should be a cool realistic assessment of the risks and benefits of nuclear power.  The perception of a risk is not necessarily related to the reality and since it hinges on probabilities and estimates of consequences it can be very subjective.  Nevertheless, Risk Management is well understood and practised widely in many branches of industry, finance and medicine and people working in the nuclear industry are using these techniques as part of their day to day activities.

A Good Safety Record?
Between 1952 and 2011 there have been six incidents worldwide which have been classified as level 5 or more. To put this into a frame of reference, the scale of seriousness goes from 1 to 7. A Level 5 incident is described as: “A limited release of radioactive material likely to require implementation of some planned countermeasures. Several deaths from radiation”

The description of a level 7 incident is: “A major release of radio-active material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures”.

Fukushima is currently classified as a level 5 incident, Chernobyl was classified as level 7, the only time that this category has been used. Three Mile Island in Pensylvania (in 1979) was classified as level 5.  As you can see from the link at the start of the paragraph there have been others but I think it is true to say that in the West the perceived danger from nuclear reactors is based on these three major incidents.

Since the start of civilian nuclear power in 1952 there have undoubtedly been deaths as a result of radiation, both locally and outside the plant boundaries, but especially amongst the workers involved in the task of making a site safe after a release of radioactive materials.  Because of the delays between exposure and the development of cancers, however, it is difficult to find any reliable figures concerning deaths caused by these incidents over 63 years of the history of nuclear power. Estimates for the number of deaths due to the Chernobyl meltdown, and subsequent fire, range from 4,000 by the Atomic Energy Authority to half a million by Greenpeace. 

UK Road Accident Fatalities
By comparison road deaths are well documented. In the decade from 1999 to 2008 there were 32,173 deaths on Britain’s roads, (fortunately in the UK the numbers are falling, from 3,423 in 1999 to 2,538 in 2008).  Since the UK population is around 60 million people and the worldwide population is around 4 billion then one can calculate an approximate number for the global total of road deaths for the decade, say around 1 million people (allowing for a lower percentage of vehicle ownership in poorer countries) or 100,000/yr. Yet we accept the risks of travelling by road every day, whilst nuclear power is considered by many to be too dangerous to be allowed to continue.

What is the reason for the difference in the perception of these risks?
In order to compare risks you consider the probability of an event occurring, within a specified period of time, multiplied by an assessment of the consequences.  These might be measured in many ways from the financial to the human costs.  Clearly the damage that could be caused by a single nuclear incident, such as a major release of radioactive material, is potentially of a very high magnitude but this has to be considered against its probability.

If, for example, a nuclear accident had a world wide probability over a 63 year period of 6/63 of occurring in any one year and the consequences of such an accident were say 50,000 deaths, then each year there would be a potential for 50,000*6/63=4,761 fatalities/yr worldwide or, in other words, not quite double the total number of road deaths per year in the UK alone.  

The consequences of a single serious road accident would, however, be limited to a relatively small number of casualties.  This is the reason why many people are scared of nuclear power.  Although the probability of a serious event is relatively low, a single nuclear incident is capable of devastating the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in one event, either by turning them into refugees or making them live under the shadow of a radiation induced illness. Whilst we are all accustomed to, and accept, the steady heavy casualty rate on the world’s roads, the latter is less frightening and rarely hits the headlines.

What is the Risk of a Nuclear War?
Vertical scale is no of warheads
If you want to consider another scenario which has very serious consequences, what about a nuclear war!  Several countries like North Korea or Pakistan, with recent histories of conflict or politically instability, have nuclear weapons and others, like Iran, are seeking to make them. The devastating consequences of a nuclear conflict would be fully global and could reduce human life on this planet to a fraction of its current population. The graph shows the number of nuclear warheads held by the US and the USSR/Russia against time. I think it is very scary but the vigorous political campaigns for nuclear disarmament of the sixties don't seem to be very active today!

Forgo Nuclear Power and add to Global Warming?
Of course if nuclear power generation (which has the major benefit of being carbon neutral and therefore doesn't add to global warming) is abandoned, most of the generating capacity must be replaced. Is it possible to develop renewable sources and reduce consumption to replace the 30% or so of electricity generated by nuclear power in Germany?  Although Germany has announced aggressive targets for increasing the percentage of renewable energy, from 17% in 2010 to 35% in 2020 if these are not acheived the power currently generated from nuclear sources will be replaced by some renewable energy, by importing power from France, which generates 83% of its electricity from nuclear power, by importing more gas from Russia and by augmenting generation from coal burning power stations.

In other words, unless you can afford to invest very heavily in renewable energy production, and everyone accepts its associated inconveniences, closing nuclear power stations is likely to add to the carbon footprint of Europe and increase the inevitability of global warming! Now there’s a scenario with very serious irreversible consequences and an almost guaranteed probability, (although there are still people who don't believe it).  We already know that the north polar ice cap is shrinking and that glaciers are melting at a very high rate in Greenland, so the only question is when will the results be felt in mainland Europe!

How do you balance this risk and its consequences against those of a potential nuclear accident?  I hope that the politicians responsible for these difficult decisons are capable of thinking further than the next election and that they don't follow their instincts to chase the votes by taking the easy way out!

Fortunately other options exist even though, at the moment, they are not being actively pursued by western nations!

Monday, 13 June 2011

Rational and Irrational

Man is fundamentally irrational with a recent overlay of rationality
A bull at Lascaux - click to enlarge
Ever since man lived in caves, and painted beautiful pictures of animals, to evoke their spirits and help them with their hunting, humanity has evolved both rational and irrational beliefs in parallel. Whilst the Cro-Magnon proto-rationalists of their communities applied their knowledge and experience to find the animals and trap them, their artists/shamen called on the spirits to help them.

In the 21st century things haven’t fundamentally changed. At the same time as science and its application has transformed day to day life, mankind remains fundamentally irrational with science and rationality being just a thin veneer on top of superstition and emotionally driven beliefs.  Many people have no difficulty in holding beliefs which are not supported by, or are contrary to, the facts, especially those people who have not benefitted from education concerning science or who refuse to accept the scientific method.  People whose thinking is not constrained by any rational framework, like science or logic, and whose thought processes are based on deeply held beliefs or prejudices, believe what they believe as a matter of faith. 

Here is a selection of current irrational beliefs. The first three come from local sources and are sincerely believed by people we know. 
Click to enlarge
 If you plant and sow seeds according to the phases of the moon they grow better.
White washing left outside in the moonlight goes yellow (or is bleached).
Moonlight makes wood which has darkened in the sun lighten in colour.

Or perhaps one of these is your favourite conspiracy theory!

Or perhaps you hold a belief which overrides everything else and determines your interpretation of all the relevant facts.
The Bible is literally true 
The Earth is flat not round
The Earth is not moving or rotating
Now although some of the examples cited above concern religious beliefs, I am not primarily concerned with religion here!  (People who start from the assumption that the Bible is literally true, if they have read this far into this post, are encouraged to make comments. If they are polite, I guarantee that they will be published).

I have to admit that, although I have tried to be a rationalist since my mid-teens, I am not immune to irrational responses and fears, especially at moments of heightened emotion. I wouldn’t be human otherwise! Sometimes the thought processes work with a rapidity, and on a level which bypasses logic.  If you reflect later you have to work out why you reacted that way and rationalize it after the event. 

Politicians spend a lot of their time trying to manipulate people’s beliefs and prejudices in support of their cause. They do this by distorting the facts or being highly selective in choosing the things which appear to support their case.  Most people are familiar with the dissembling of politicians but it sometimes becomes more worrying when political opinions are entirely irrational.

The other day I was at a meeting of a local non-political association and someone was reporting the recent events in Spain, particularly the protests which have erupted across the country and how the protesters were forcibly removed from camping in the main square of Barcelona.  Amongst the 30 to 40 people present there seemed to be a fairly strong current of support for these protests. The speaker even expressed the hope that the spirit of revolutionary change in Arab countries would spread to France and no-one challenged him.

Revolutions almost always leave people worse off.  Sometimes they result in civil war and they are often hijacked by butchers like Robespierre and Pol Pot; or dictators like Franco, Salazar, Sadam Hussein or Stalin. (Come to think of it Stalin was also a butcher, responsible for the deaths of more than 30 million of his own citizens. I haven't mentioned Hitler, even though he is a very good example of irrational behaviour patterns, because he was democratically elected!) 

To mix up the Arab revolt, against oppressive and corrupt regimes, with the protests of European young people is, in my view, irrational and unhelpful. The unemployment, redundancies and cutbacks in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and the UK result from the bursting of speculative financial bubbles in badly regulated democracies and not because economic development is being stifled by ideology; or because money is being siphoned out of the country by corrupt leaders, instead of being re-invested to develop the economy.
An appeal for revolutionary change in Western societies is not based on rational argument but is founded emotionally on the a priori belief that capitalism is bad and does not deliver prosperity to the majority of the people.  That it's wrong to reward people for investing their money in expectation of a financial return!  We all know the slogans, "Property is theft", "No war but the class war", "Political power comes from the barrel of a gun", "The end justifies the means"!  Although communism as an ideology has failed, there are still plenty of individuals left like the lady interviewed on France Inter this morning, who clearly stated that she was prepared to use all means available, including violence to effect revolutionary change.  These people should always be challenged vigorously.  They are trying to impose their views on the rest of us and they don't believe in democracy.  The State has a duty to keep them under surveillance to ensure that they are not planning terrorist attacks.
On France Inter, on Saturday morning, Aurélie Trouvé* was arguing that we should stop the IMF demanding spending cuts in near bankrupt countries.  I was struggling to find any logic in the proposal.  Surely if a country overspends then it must correct its budget and repay its debt. If it doesn’t it's logical to expect lenders to charge more interest to cover the risk of default or to refuse to lend altogether. 
Clearly she also believed that capitalism is wrong and should be replaced.  She was starting from the proposition that the spending cuts demanded as a condition of financial aid were too destructive socially, but there was no discussion about how the countries concerned had arrived in their parlous state or could be prevented from doing so again in the future.

When she also proposed to turn the IMF into a way of redistributing wealth between rich and poor nations I became agitated. Then logic began to assert itself and I realised just how unrealistic she was being and I relaxed slightly.

Perhaps she also thinks that individuals should be treated the same way and those that overspend, and can’t pay the interest on their debts, should be bailed out without consequences. Perhaps she believes that society as a whole should protect such ill advised or irresponsible individuals by paying off their debts and supporting their lifestyle out of general taxation. Or does she believe that capitalist institutions , like banks, are at fault for lending the money in the first place.

Just like the lady who advocated violence to promote change, the interviewer allowed Mlle (or Mme.) Trouvé to complete her discourse without interruption or challenge, so people who don’t think rationally but are in sympathy with her point of view could applaud her fine sentiments and her idealistic approach without needing to think it through. Like some of the members of the non-political association I referred to above, they could then carry on with their lives as normal but with the comfort of knowing that, in their deepest emotional levels, they were in favour of revolutionary change, and solidarity with poorer nations, and that they agreed with the redistribution of wealth from richer to poorer, as long as they never have to think rationally about the consequences to their own lives if these beliefs were ever acted upon!

*Aurélie Trouvé, (Co Présidente d'Attac France- Maître de conférences en économie - Candidate à la Direction du FMI)