Sunday, 20 November 2011


The Royal Opera House’s summer production of Tosca was showing this week at a cinema in Brive.  It was an artistic triumph.  In decades of going to operas I have never seen one in which the principal parts were so well cast and so superbly sung and played.

Bryn Terfel was totally convincing as the evil Baron Scarpia, who got more than he bargained for from Tosca.  His very physical interpretation used his powerful presence and sweaty lasciviousness to enormous effect.  It would be easy to imagine him terrifying the population of Rome.  I was so taken by his dramatic persona that I almost forgot to listen to his singing, but he was magnificent and there was absolutely nothing to criticise.  Unfortunately I can only imagine his powerful voice making the ROH resonate when he hit full volume.  I have inserted an extract from his manically intense "Te Deum" below.

Angela  Gheorghiu as Tosca, combined a beautiful liquid tone in her quieter moments with a nervy  intensity as she was overcome by jealousy.   Her acting was also very free and expressive, moving easily between love, jealousy, repulsion, murderous violence and back to love again with no sense of unease or discontinuity.  She is, and was in this production, a real diva!  You can easily imagine why Cavaradossi was in love with her, in spite of her jealous nature.  “Vissi d’arte” generated plenty of frissons, which is always a good sign that true artistry and professionalism have really worked their magic.  
Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi had me applauding, along with the ROH audience, within the first ten minutes!  Near the end of "Recondita armonia" he came off the top notes at full volume and produced a faultless decrescendo ending in a sustained pianissimo.  This is so difficult to do, and it was so well done, that he won me from that very moment.  In the more tender duets with Tosca there was a real chemistry between them.  The rest of his performance was just as accomplished including “E lucevan le stelle”.  
At the end, in the closing scene with Tosca just before his execution, his doubts about her promises of a new life together were subtly tempered by his desire not to show that he still feared Scarpia's betrayal.  He didn't really believe that he would be free, but he didn't want to spoil the moment for Tosca.  This was very subtly conveyed and gave great depth to his interpretation of the role.  For me, for the first time in a staging of Tosca, I felt that the role of Cavaradossi was more than a caricature. 
I formally renounce my earlier criticism of his French pronunciation, although I’d still hesitate to see him in Carmen as Don José.

The supporting roles were also well cast and well played.  Jeremy White as the sacristan used his experience and stagecraft to good effect, Lucas Jacobski as Angelotti  had a strong stage presence as well as a fine baritone voice and Hubert Francis as Spoletta, looking like a young Robespierre, kept all the menace underneath his pale exterior.
Jonathan Kent’s relatively traditional production did not distract.  After Scarpia’s aria in act III the audience roared in approval and, when that had died down, Bryn Terfel, with a sneer on his face, gave himself an ironic slow hand clap.  Moments like that, and also when from time to time minute details of the action on stage were perfectly timed to coincide with the orchestral score, demonstrated that a very refined and intelligent director was at work.   I’m sure that I would notice more such touches if I was able to view it again. 
Antonio Pappano’s conducting of the excellent ROH orchestra formed the bedrock supporting the whole structure, and it was also faultless.  His understanding of the singer’s parts and his keen sense of communication allowed them to relax, knowing that when they were ready to start the next phrase he would follow.
I fully endorse the opinion of a colleague in the choir who said, “C’était plus qu’excellent, c’était un régale”. “It was better than excellent, it was a real feast”.
Was it a real experience?
So bearing in mind that this was a digital recording on a large HD screen in a cinema, how did it compare with the real operatic experience? 
Everyone I have spoken too thought that there were too many close ups.  Personally that didn’t bother me since the acting was good enough, even in close up.  It was not a film, with lots of short takes and make-up girls, but a recording of a live event, so there was plenty of sweat and even a dribble.  Singing is, after all, very much a physical business and, although in London I used to like sitting in the cheap seats at the front and watching the spit flying, I can imagine circumstances when I would not want to see the faces of certain singers projected three metres high on the screen.  Usually in the theatre you are too far away to really see the expressions on the faces and everything is viewed in wide angle.  Perhaps the video directors need to think less in terms of the language of film and more from the point of view of opera.
I wanted to join in the applause and the bravos at the high points, and the standing ovation at the end, but the cinema audience didn’t, and I was inhibited!
Finally the direct contact with the sound and the ambience of the opera house was not there.   Only when you feel the power of a singer’s voice filling the room as he or she really opens up, or sense the audience holding its breath for the pianissimo passages, can you really say that you are having the true operatic experience.
I certainly would not have wanted to miss the cinematic presentation, but I wish that I’d been there!  Here’s another taster.  Look out for the DVD!

Friday, 18 November 2011

François Hollande - the First Compromise!

Negotiation is the art of compromise!
Yesterday, the soap opera concerning the negotiations between the Socialists and the Greens (Ecologists EELV) finally came to an end.  In exchange for a policy agreement to reduce the proportion of electricity generated from nuclear power to 50% from 75%, by closing 24 out of 58 nuclear power plants between 2012 and 2025, François Hollande has offered them up to 60 seats unopposed by the Socialists.  It is expected that at least 30 will be elected. 
At first the negotiations centred on the fate of a partly built reactor at Flamanville, which the Greens wanted to abandon completely, and a temporary freeze on construction was agreed.  The agreement was then announced and immediately the Greens pointed out that a clause concerning the closing of a MOX reprocessing plant at Marcoule had been left out.  Yesterday it was agreed that its activities would be reduced by 50% but it would still continue in operation.  Exactly what that means is not clear but Eva Joly has gone into retreat for the weekend!

A gift for the UMP
This episode has handed a gift to the UMP which has lost no time, for once, in mobilising their senior spokesmen to pour scorn on the whole thing. 
Eric Besson, the Energy Minister has stated on France Inter that going down that route will increase the cost of electricity in France to the level of its neighbours, who pay 40% more, which will lead to reduced competitivity for French industry, and is a recipe for exporting jobs. 
Jean-François Coppé (UMP Party Secretary) has decried the agreement as being carried out for purely political gain and not for the benefit of the country. 
Nicholas Sarkozy has said that the nuclear power industry in France has been built up over 50 years, by a series of left and right wing Presidents, to ensure that France, which has no oil or gas, can have a degree of energy independence and he wasn't going to put that at risk. 

Finally the unions are saying that more than 8,000 jobs will be lost directly, together with many more in subcontracting companies who serve the industry.

François Hollande’s record
François Hollande has no experience of government but according to his own statements he is proud of his ability to unite the often fractious elements of the French left, but there is a big difference between political horse-trading and taking decisions which could have consequences at the national level.

I will be generous and put to one side his leadership of the Socialist Party between 1997 and 2008, when as First Secretary he presided over three lost presidential elections and sent Segolene Royale into battle in October 2007 without proper support.   She had been his partner since the late 1970’s until they separated in June 2007.  They had four children together but never married.

I also won’t dwell on the fact that, since he resigned in 2008, Martine Aubry, his replacement as First Secretary has, over four years, successfully implemented the radical concept of having an agreed set of socialist policies well before the next election.  She has also introduced the idea of holding primary elections to select the Socialist’s Presidential candidate, which have been widely supported by the public.

But he won and she lost!  I think that she was perceived as being too much on the left, too uncompromising and too likely to deliver on her election promises. 

M. Hollande continues to lead Sarkozy in the polls, but his lead is slowly being eroded.  So, if the opinion polls are to be believed, it appears that, at present, the French prefer a presidential candidate who is not likely to impose his own views or successfully reform too much, too fast.  Someone who can accommodate many strands of opinion and is open to wide ranging political compromise! 

Friday, 11 November 2011

Join a Ratings Agency if you want Real Power

This week yet more events have demonstrated that young people who aspire to influence today’s world should join a Ratings Agency.

After completely missing the risks involved in the US sub-prime mortgage market in 2008, these unelected organisations have panicked markets around the world into increasing interest rates for sovereign government debt. 
In July Moody’s put the US on notice that, as a result of a lack of political agreement between Republicans and Democrats over the means to reduce the national debt, its rating risked being downgraded from AAA   In spite of making serious mistakes with the figures that they used, Standard and Poors, in an unprecedented move in August, cut the triple-A rating of long-term U.S. debt.  Treasury officials said that the downgrade was based in part on a $2 trillion error in S and P's calculations and lawmakers lambasted the credit-rating firm.  S and P said that the discrepancy was about a difference in debt assumptions.
Acting Responsibly?
On 25th July 2011 Moody’s downgraded Greek government ratings to Ca, one level above default, and in response the market has forced up interest rates to unaffordable levels. 

Italy, which everyone agrees has a sound real economy, and which has lived with high public debt, but low personal and business debt for many years, had its credit rating downgraded for purely political reasons.  The ratings agencies have forced its Prime Minister to resign because they consider that he was unlikely to be able to deal with reducing the National Debt.  This was an entirely political judgement and it clearly demonstrates that the Ratings Agencies have more political power than elected leaders of national governments.  But with such great power comes the responsibility to convincingly demonstrate both competence and impartiality.

The shameful episode yesterday when S and P sent out a notice falsely saying that they had downgraded France’s rating from AAA by mistake, and corrected themselves a couple of hours later, makes it plain that these agencies now need much tighter supervision than is currently being exercised by the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

More Transparency
When it comes to sovereign debt, how the Agencies exercise their functions, including the names and votes associated with their decision making should be made public and transparent. As should the political backgrounds, financial interests and tax records of their senior managers and directors.  An Agency’s senior managers should also have to declare, under threat of legal pursuit, whether they, or their close relatives, hold offshore accounts, and if so how much is in them.  It would be far too easy at present for unscrupulous organisations or individuals to bribe decision makers to vote to downgrade a country’s rating for private gain or for highly politically motivated individuals to infiltrate these agencies over a period of years.  In fact senior staff should submit themselves to the same degree of scrutiny as a US politician standing for government office.

If the spotlight is not shone into the darker corners of these agencies’ decision making processes and commercial practices, then they risk even more draconian measures than I have suggested above, or have already been suggested in the US and the EU (see below).

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

So You’re Against Nuclear Power?

Health Effects
“So why do you oppose nuclear power?”
“Because it’s so dangerous! Look at what’s happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima!”

“Yes. Chernobyl is the worst nuclear accident that the world has seen, and in the area affected by the fallout there have been about 4,000 documented cases of thyroid cancer among children and at least 9 deaths. There are also the expected premature deaths among the over 600,000 people who were directly involved in making the remains of the power station safe, which have been variously estimated at between 4,000 and 6,000 individuals. 
If you look on the internet you can find whatever figure you wish for future long latency premature deaths and accurate numbers are impossible to deduce but the World Health Organisation and the IAEA have agreed on a figure of 4,000. 

All energy production incurs risks, accidents and fatalities, and as the graphic below shows, coal is among the worst.

Coal contains uranium and its radioactive breakdown products It's a fact that a typical coal fired power station releases 100 times more radioactivity into the environment than a nuclear power station and they are not monitored or controlled. The figures quoted above are just fatalities caused directly by accidents without considering the more general effects on health associated with air pollution and the release of radioactivity as particulates in the fly ash.
“OK, but don’t forget the upheaval to people who lived in the exclusion zones, where radioactivity is going to remain high for thousands of years. They’ve lost everything, their homes, their jobs and their whole way of life!”
“Yes I agree. And on top of that many of them live in constant fear for their health and that of their families. The WHO report states that the psychological damage is the real harm done to the health of residents in areas affected by the Chernobyl accident.”
“So just taking the case of Chernobyl you agree that it’s resulted in major economic losses and political upheavals, as well as direct physical health effects and indirect psychological harm.”
"Yes and the same will be true for Fukushima, although since there was much less radioactive material released, the direct health effects will be orders of magnitude lower. Also, after the Fukushima nuclear plant failures, which seem to have eclipsed the fact that 23,000 people died as a result of the tsunami, it’s such an obviously attractive and vote-winning posture for environmentalists and politicians to be against nuclear power.”

Satisfying the Base Load
“So why do you still support nuclear power?”
“Because, in spite of having many reactors in operation worldwide which are inherently unsafe, there have been very few accidents and even then, with the exception of Chernobyl, which was an RBMK plant which didn't even have a reactor containment structure, their effects have mostly been local. I also believe that there are no fully viable alternatives, capable of continuous running, that don't contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Nuclear power is a source of energy which is available all day and every day, not only during daylight hours or depending on weather conditions, but unlike fossil fuels, it doesn’t contribute to climate change.”
“But surely energy conservation and renewable energy is the way forward.”
“I agree that both have a place in any future energy strategy, but there are limits to energy conservation; and renewable energy, like all of the options, has associated problems and disadvantages.”
“Such as what?”
“Well the fundamental problem with most renewable sources is that they can’t supply the continuous base load of power generation that’s necessary in developed countries.  Of course, if you think that we should all change our lifestyle to be like that of someone living in a religious order, you could go to bed when it gets dark, do without street lights, television, washing machines, computers and electric cookers after dark and get up when it’s light to work on your vegetable garden. I like cooking with charcoal or wood but I would miss my computer and my TV!”
“ I still don’t get it! Why can’t renewables satisfy the base load?”
“Well, photovoltaic power only works during daylight hours; and on cloudy days in Northern latitudes it produces very little; solar thermal power has the same problem, although versions exist where heat is stored to allow overnight generation; wind power only works when, and where, there is wind; and wave power needs a coastline. Hydroelectricity needs water to be able to run, but when river flows dry up in the summer it often can’t be used. You could burn wood or biofuels to generate electricity, but then you’d need huge areas of sustainably managed forests or agricultural land dedicated to raising fuel crops. There have been some power stations built to run on biomass fuels, and there are circumstances when it’s feasible, but it’s not a universal solution for most developed economies. Or for highly populated countries that use as much of their land as possible for agriculture, like China and India.  
There are also the problems associated with transmitting electricity from one region to another. In Germany the wind is in the North and people are objecting to transmission lines being installed from North to South across the country.”

The Problem of Energy Storage
“Well, they will just have to get used to the new ways. But why can’t we store the energy somehow? What about having lots of electric batteries?”
“They’re not yet viable on a grid scale, and they won't be until new technologies allow batteries to be built with a much greater energy density. At present they're expensive, they need replacing after a few years and they use toxic metals, like lithium, manganese and cobalt, for their construction. Using batteries as a large scale storage option is being done in South Australia at Hornsdale Power Reserve” but output is currently limited to 3 hours at 30MW, not enough to substitute for a lack of wind power generation on a calm day.
“But there must be other ways of storing energy.”
“There is a pumped storage scheme at Port Dinorwig in Wales that was completed in 1984. It works by pumping water up to a high level when electricity is abundant or cheap, then releasing it down through turbines to generate power when electricity is scarce and expensive. This simple article explains it. It’s possible to use schemes like this to store renewable energy, but they don’t store much energy, Port Dinorwig, for example, can only run for six hours, and they are expensive. Firstly you need to have the right location where you can construct a power station between two lakes, separated vertically by a few hundred metres, and after you’ve built the station, you have the problem of efficiency.”
What do you mean by that?”
Any pump can only convert a percentage of the supplied electrical power into hydraulic power. For a typical pump you might get 70% of the electrical energy back in terms of mechanical/hydraulic work. The rest is lost as heat in the motor or the pumped fluid. But with a pumped storage scheme you have the same efficiency problem in both directions. When you convert the water stored at high level back to electricity using turbines, you once again lose about 30% as heat. So overall you are left with 0.7 x 0.7 = 0.49 or about 50% of the energy that you started with.”
“So we would need twice as many wind turbines?”
“Well it’s not as simple as that, because it depends on when the wind is blowing, what the demand is at the time and how many pumped storage schemes you can build. But you would certainly need extra generation capacity and you can see that it would be a lot more expensive than satisfying the base load with power stations capable of generating the base load requirements in the first place.  Assuming that all your electricity is generated from renewable sources and ignoring the cost, I don't believe that there is any European country where it would be possible to find enough pumped storage sites to satisfy the base load at night, if there was no wind.”
There are many other possible ways of storing energy and proposals to use surplus power from wind and solar to generate hydrogen that could be stored, and then used to power vehicles and fuel cells are interesting, but the concept is still being considered in feasibility studies.
“But we don’t want to build any more gas, oil or coal fuelled power plants, which are the only other power stations capable of running 24/7.
“Yes I agree. Climate change is a threat to the well being of everyone on the planet!  In addition I don't like the fact that fossil fuels have finite reserves and are mostly under the control of undemocratic regimes.  So why not re-examine nuclear power?”

Inherently Safe Nuclear Reactors
“But you‘ve already agreed that it’s not safe!”
“What I actually said was that “.... in spite of having many inherently unsafe reactors in operation there have been very few accidents and even then, with the exception of Chernobyl, their effects have been local.”
“So you do agree that nuclear power is not safe!”
“Yes at the moment, with the existing fleet of 50-60 year old reactor designs. But what if there was a type of inherently safe nuclear reactor that can’t explode, can’t meltdown, can’t overheat and shuts itself down safely if there’s a total power failure?”
“But we all know that nuclear power stations aren't like that, and if that was possible someone would have built one by now!”
“Someone did! Alvin Weinberg built one in the sixties at the Oak Ridge National Nuclear Laboratory in the USA, and it operated between 1965 and 1969.  It’s described here in this Wikipedia article about the Molten Salt Reactor ExperimentIt was a small 10MW reactor and it was the first of its kind. In spite of that, it operated successfully and demonstrated that the technology was feasible. Alvin Weinberg ran a very well managed research laboratory and the design, with all of the results, operational experience and engineering detail, were written up in a series of papers. They’re available here. (be patient the pdf’s take a while to load)!
The MSRE used molten liquid fluoride fuel running at high temperature, but at atmospheric pressure, so it couldn't explode.  Since its fuel was already molten it couldn't melt down. In addition this demonstration reactor used air cooling, not water cooling, so it didn't need to be near the sea or a river.
They didn’t want to staff it at the weekends, so they used to switch off the power, which stopped the fan cooling a “freeze valve”, and this allowed the liquid reactor contents to discharge by gravity into a set of tanks. These tanks had no neutron moderator and a geometry that didn't permit a critical chain reaction to continue. Since it was a small reactor the decay heat was limited and it needed no special cooling systems. Basically they let it shut itself down on a Friday afternoon. It was walk-away safe!”
“That’s amazing! But why wasn't this work pursued further?”
“Because at the time of the Cold War the priority was to generate nuclear material suitable for weapons, and this type of reactor doesn’t do that! Unlike the MSRE, those reactor development programmes which bred plutonium from uranium continued to be fully supported and Alvin Weinberg, who wanted to work on the thorium fuel cycle, which he considered was inherently safer, was asked to leave his post. He was subsequently reticent to continue promoting this type of reactor in the US because he was concerned about what the nuclear establishment of the period might do to his career.”
“Ah where would we be without politics! But what’s thorium?”
“Without going into too much nuclear physics, thorium is a naturally occurring radioactive element, about four times as abundant as uranium and it's geographically widespread. As thorium 232 it can be used to breed uranium 233, which is what was used to fuel Alvin Weinberg’s Molten Salt Reactor Experiment.”

The Oak Ridge Molten Salt Reactor Experiment - click to enlarge

What About Nuclear Waste?
“Hang on, what about the nuclear waste issue. Nobody has found an answer to that. It stays radioactive for thousands of years!”
“Ah that’s where it gets even better. If thorium is used, the amount of waste is drastically reduced. Thorium powered reactors generate about 35 times less waste from spent fuel, a fraction of the nuclear waste generated by a uranium fuelled reactor, with only 17% of the waste having a long half life, and in the case of thorium that means about 300 years instead of tens of thousands.
Liquid fluoride thorium reactors can burn most of their fuel instead of the 1% consumed by a uranium based plant before the solid fuel elements need reprocessing. This slide tells the waste story better than I can!

In addition the wastes generated from thorium are radioactive for only hundreds of years and don’t decay into plutonium. If you bury spent nuclear fuel from the uranium fuel cycle, after thousands of years the other radioactive components decay leaving plutonium. In effect you create a plutonium mine for future generations of terrorists! This 40 minute video presentation from Kirk Sorensen explains it well.
But Kirk Sorensen also suggests that a liquid chloride reactor could be designed to burn weapons and reactor grade plutonium in the fast spectrum, and at the same time the neutrons could be captured in a thorium blanket to generate U233 for burning in Liquid Fluoride reactors. We could permanently get rid of redundant plutonium stocks whilst producing energy and new fuel, but I should say that the research work on that hasn’t been done yet.”
Now you’ve lost me in technical detail!”
“Sorry! It’s a complicated and technical subject. I think that’s one of the reasons why not many people know about it yet.”

Not in My Backyard?
“So you wouldn’t be concerned if a Liquid Fluoride Thorium fuelled nuclear power plant was built near you?”
“As long as I couldn’t see it or hear it and I had had the opportunity to satisfy myself about the safety aspects of the design before it was built, it wouldn’t worry me. A couple of kilometres away would be no problem. It might even slow down the house building that’s happening all around us. What a shame that would be!”
“So you think that inherently safe nuclear power is possible? “
“Yes, not only possible, but investment in safe nuclear power is essential if thinking globally, we are to avoid expanding the burning of fossil fuels to fulfill the rapidly growing energy needs of countries like China, India and Russia. I’m far from alone in thinking this way, because, as well as nuclear enthusiasts, there are a number of environmental campaigners who’ve publicly stated that this is also their opinion, and they’ve accepted that Liquid Fuelled Thorium reactors are the best choice.“
“I’m still not completely convinced.”

Back to the Future
“Well others are, and it’s a case of back to the future! Alvin Weinberg, if he was still with us, would be very pleased, although he would probably be campaigning for more active US government involvement. China has announced that it’s pursuing the development of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors ( LFTRs), the US has a number of private companies promoting them, Russia and France are doing research work and India has already built reactors fuelled with metallic thorium.
Japan also has people promoting LFTRs but after Fukushima, if I was them, I wouldn't give up the day job! 

This review from the World Nuclear Association written in 2020 gives a detailed account of the many different research programmes associated with molten salt reactors and also explains many aspects of the technology.

If you want to read more, here’s a list of links that might help you, but be prepared to put some effort in! “