Chernobyl and Nuclear Power

Normally I agree with Sean Guillory when he writes about Russian and ex-Soviet affairs, but I must take issue with the penultimate paragraph of his latest post:

In addition, what is more disconcerting is that the lesson of Chernobyl and the dangers of nuclear power have fallen on deaf ears. Nuclear power is considered acceptable again, not only in Russia, but the US, and of course in Iran. Unfortunately, nuclear power, whether it be fore energy or in its weaponized form is still with us.

This view of nuclear power is common, but mistaken.  A lesson of Chernobyl is not that nuclear power generation is too dangerous to be considered an option, and the risks incurred are too great. For what happened in Chernobyl was a consequence of combining nuclear power with operating procedures, designs, state interference, and umpteen other factors which do not and will not be allowed by any responsible nuclear power operators now or in the future.  For instance:

1.  The design of the Soviet nuclear reactor was fundamentally flawed, and this was a huge factor in the resulting explosion.  Even at the time of the accident, Western reactor designs were fundamentally different, and therefore the chain of events which led to the initial explosion in Chernobyl would be impossible to replicate in a Western reactor.

2.  The Chernobyl plant operators and engineers were not suitably qualified, experienced, or trained to operate and maintain a nuclear power plant.  They were also deliberately not fully informed about the known design flaws and potential hazards associated with operating the reactor, specifically at low power levels.  This degree of incompetence and mismanagment is thankfully absent from Western nuclear power plants.

3.  The operators at Chernobyl were able to disable multiple safety systems and conduct an unauthorised experiment which disregarded all the operating procedures and requirements therein, an experiment which lead directly to the explosion in the Chernobyl reactor.  Recklessness of this kind is very easy to eradicate, and is absent from Western power plants.

4.  In order to cut costs, the reactor housing was able to offer only partial containment in an emergency, rather than full containment as in Western power stations.

There is more than enough evidence to demonstrate that nuclear power generation when carried out properly and responsibly is extremely safe, and accidents such as the one in Chernobyl are entirely avoidable.  For example, the two major users of nuclear power, France and Japan, use vastly different reactor designs from the one in Chernobyl, they ensure their operators are dedicated professionals who have the required support and training, and they do not allow their operators to throw the operating manual in the bin and start experimenting.  It is of little surprise that neither country has experienced an accident which resulted in a release of radioactive material, and it is also of little surprise that no similar accident has occurred anywhere in the past 20 years.

There are many lessons to be learned from Chernobyl, and having started my engineering career in the nuclear industry, I am fairly convinced that nearly all of them have been well learned by those in the West responsible for the operations and maintenance of nuclear power stations.  As lessons were learned when several Comet aircraft unzipped their fuselages and fell from the sky, so engineers learned from the accident at Chernobyl; or, more accurately, had their initial ideas confirmed:  that nuclear power plants must be designed correctly, installed and commissioned correctly, and operated correctly by experienced professionals.  The greatest lesson to take from the Chernobyl disaster is that these basics cannot be circumvented at any time, and thankfully those in the West responsible for operating nuclear reactors safely knew these lessons well before 1986 and haven’t forgotten them in the 20 years since.

To use Chernobyl as a reason to abandon nuclear power is like using the Titanic  as a reason to discontinue all shipping.  It is of utmost importance to ensure that accidents similar to Chernobyl do not occur again, but this is not to be achieved by throwing out the baby with the bathwater by abandoning nuclear power altogether.

Well, I’ll be blowed!

Two girls, with the same surname and first name initial, are born in England a year apart.  Both are raised on a farm, one learning to drive tractors, the other a forklift.  One grows up to be a 6′ blonde, the other a 5′ 11″ blonde.  Yet Ashley Long is not related to Angel Long in any way.  Funny, heh?

Oh, and both become hardcore porn stars.

Playground games in Tsarist Russia

Catherine Merridale, writing in her book Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia, tells us of the consequences of the enormous number of executions being carried out by the Tsarist government following the failed revolution in 1905:

The problem was that playground games of “death penalty”, inspired by the prevailing culture, sometimes went out of control.  In one case, a girl of five accidentally strangled her three-year-old brother after condemning him to death in a mock trial in their nursery.  In others, school bullies would stage larger-scale “courts” (sometimes they called them “military courts”) and condemn fellow pupils to “death”.  If the children panicked, or the bully went too far, the “sentence” was carried out all too realistically before the eyes of terrified onlookers.

Kyoto Reprinted

What with the whole climate change thing still rumbling on, with several bloggers wading in with their thoughts on Kyoto, etc. as part of a discussion on the Euston Manifesto, I’m going to do a lazy blogger’s trick and recycle a post of mine from my old blog.  This post lays out clearly my own opposition to the Kyoto Protocol and the reasons behind it, and it got a fair bit of attention, especially from the US, when I first posted it a year or so ago.  So, I post it again just to voice my opinions once more, and to refer to it from this blog in future if necessary.

I think the overall aim to cut carbon dioxide emissions is a good one, as the consequences of continuing to pump millions of tons of it into the atmosphere each year may be dire. May be dire. This aim is probably achievable, but in order to do so a rational response is required. And this is where my objections to the Kyoto Protocol comes in.

Firstly, the US has not signed up to it, and we all know why: because Bush ripped it up in favour of getting a 2% increase in the value of Dick Cheney’s Halliburton stocks. Or something. Actually, in a democracy such as the US, it is not possible to browbeat a president into doing something which is deeply unpopoular with the general population. In tin-pot countries such as Azerbaijan, Congo, Djibouti, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Russia, and Syria, the president can ratify anything he likes, because if he bothers with elections at all, they are mere formalities which simply prove that the incumbent should be in office for life. In short, if the world wants the US to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, they are going to have to make a decent case and sell it to the general population of the United States. (In Europe this has not been necessary, as thanks to the EU, sweeping decisions are made at a lofty and detached level guarded by a phalanx of bureaucratic jargon and overpaid consultants, meaning there is no longer a requirement to gain approval from the ignorant masses.) And in so far as the world has tried to sell Kyoto to the US population, they have failed miserably. Beyond repeating the mantra that the US is the “biggest polluter” and is responsible for the impending armageddon – and hence they must sacrifice their standard of living for the good of mankind – not the world, the UN, or anybody else has made a case at all. When the Yanks question the presented evidence, be it of the problem itself or the suitability of the Kyoto Protocol to address it, they are met not with reasoned argument but by howls of derision, insult, and abuse. This tactic of trying to browbeat the American public into sacrificing anything, as history would have told them, has not worked despite four years of the world’s great and good trying.

To the average Yank, and to a great many other people (including myself), the Kyoto Protocol looks as though it has been craftily developed by political parties wishing to hobble the US economy. Until such time that somebody steps forward and persuades them that this is not the case, the Yanks are not going to budge – and nor should they. This became evident when the US tried to incorporate a carbon trading system into the Protocol, which would enable them to purchase carbon dioxide allowances from those (usually poorer) countries with a surplus. A thoroughly sensible suggestion, one would have thought; the poor countries make money, the US is given an incentive to reduce its pollution, and the level of emissions is to some degree controlled. But No! cried the great and the good of the world. That would not do at all. Sneaky Yanks typically trying to buy their way out of their commitments! No, they must incorporate their commitments at home, thus hobbling their economy in return for little demonstrable benefit.

As the US is a highly developed country with a huge population, it is little surprise that they are the ones who produce the greatest amount of greenhouse gases, and hence would be most affected by the proposals. So one would have thought that any outside body wanting to persuade them to cut down on their emissions would have considered that perhaps they will be a little reluctant to do so, and a strong case would have to be made. And that is where the rest of the world has failed. The failure of the US to sign up to what is clearly a flawed agreement is not that of the Bush administration (especially when considering that the US senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol by 95-0 in 1997, when Clinton was president), but that of the people who tasked themselves with trying to get them to do it in the first place. As French winemakers are finding out, selling something requires more than hurling abuse at your sales target and bullying them into submission. That the UN, EU, and a gaggle of tin-pot dictators cannot sell an idea should surprise nobody.

Incidentally, when people refer to the US as “the world’s biggest polluter”, it raises some interesting questions. Firstly, how accurate is the data coming from countries like Russia and China? Are we to believe that the respective governments are open and honest about their emissions, in the same way that they used to be open and honest about their economy, political freedoms, etc.? Personally, I wouldn’t trust what the Putin government told me for one second. And secondly, the term “world’s biggest polluter” is somewhat misleading in itself. It may be the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but the two are not the same. In effect, the statement lumps together all kinds of pollution and fails to recognise that some kinds of pollution are worse than others. It is like referring to a town which is plagued by shoplifting as having the highest crime rate, when a town nearby is plagued with murders, albeit but of fewer number than that of shoplifters in the first town. Thirdly, does anyone honestly believe the likes of Russia is going to implement the carbon cutting measures, and truthfully report its emissions figures?

Even at this early stage, this UN plan is likely to go the way of the Oil-for-Food program in terms of effectiveness, transparency, and lining the pockets of despots, bureaucrats, and a select number of western politicians.

Bistra! Bistra!

The joys of doing business in Russia:

French giant Total is developing the Kharyaga oilfield, in Siberia, too slowly, Russia’s Natural Resources Ministry claimed today.

The ministry added that the state is receiving less profit from the development than planned.

The Kremlin doesn’t like it when it receives less profit than planned.

Former German Chancellor Gags Opponent

Can you imagine the media storm which would result had this concerned Bush, not Schroeder?

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won a court order today upholding a legal injunction to silence a political opponent who criticised his appointment to a top job at the Russian-led gas North European Gas Pipeline company (NEGP).

Guido Westerwelle, leader of the opposition Free Democrats (FDP), had suggested Schroeder acted improperly in accepting the post of supervisory board chairman of NEGP after he had helped to launch the enterprise while in office.

After Schroeder won a gagging order last month, Westerwelle challenged the ruling, citing his right to freedom of opinion.

A court in the northern city of Hamburg rejected Westerwelle’s objection so if the FDP leader repeats his allegation, he could face a fine of up to €250,000 ($300,000).

In passing judgement, the court said that Westerwelle had every right to criticise Schroeder but had been wrong to assert that the former Social Democrat leader had “handed a contract” to Gazprom and then joined the company.

“We interpret the phrase ‘handing a contract’ not as political support, but as a business transaction which the chancellor concluded,” the court said.

However, it was manifestly “not the case” that Schroeder had made a deal with Gazprom, the court said.

“Westerwelle is quite permitted to offer harsh and trenchant criticism of Schroeder’s behaviour, but he is not allowed to do this by making incorrect factual claims,” it ruled.

The law is the law is the law.  But I repeat:  can you imagine how the media would have reacted had Bush behaved in this manner?  To summarise the situation:

While he was chancellor, Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin helped to launch the consortium headed by Russian gas giant Gazprom for a Baltic Sea pipeline to supply gas to Germany, a plan that was heavily criticised by Poland.

In December, less than a month after leaving office, Schroeder accepted the job on the supervisory board of the pipeline consortium.

Precious little in the European press about Germany’s leaders being in hock to Big Oil, or in this case, Big Gas.  Odd that.

Quote of the month:

“I cannot understand this criticism,” Schroeder told a news conference at the headquarters of Russia’s state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom.

Yeah, it’s a complete mystery.