No Politics please…we’re British! – Nuclear Power and Environmentalism in the UK

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Welcome to my author Blog!  I look forward to reporting on news and all things  artisticand creative from over in the UK, from reviews of museums and exhibitions to the latest news and even the odd historical or literary figure from our past.  Perhaps even the a piece on my one sporting passion, that most English of games…Cricket.

Politics is something of a dirty word these days.  Perhaps it always has been? I am naturally the kind of person that sees the good in Communism and the bad in Capitalism and vice versa.  We are all part of one race and the idea that “Never the twain shall meet” is a regrettable reflection on humanity.   But if you then mention the environment, one could be forgiven for throwing up ones hands in frustration at the seeming daily, often contradictory information, of further global warming forecasts and the doom-laden future that seems to await the human race.  At best, and floods permitting, we might have a future – at worse perhaps we should keep searching for habitable planets and plan an occupation a.s.a.p.!  Of course, that will depend on any little green occupants having something to say about it.  Before recent years I had no firm views on nuclear energy other than I don’t like it much when it is in bombs, but when it comes to power than one might just as well accept its use.  Just about everything we do nowadays seems to involve turning something on or off and we are told that is the price you pay.  But need it be?  This is what we are told as the mantra of scientists throughout the globe informing us, albeit that forecasts of demand and what is actually needed in terms of energy is often sourced from conflicting data.

The great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described love’s “Electric Flame” in his touching poem written at the very stations location hundreds of years ago in “lines composed at Shurton Bars 1798”.  If only a ‘fair electric flame’ could have stayed, something that ‘flashed in a love-charged eye’ – instead of becoming an object of such destruction.  Incidentally, the poet had hoped to hop off his ship from a voyage back from Germany and walk the four miles to Nether Stowey, where I now reside incidentally, and have done for many years.

Of course, Shurton and Hinkley Point is well known for its mudflats – apparently the best in Europe and second behind Canada in the world.  One imagines with comic horror our literary hero Coleridge, struggling across the mud with armfuls of bags and cases bringing home to England his latest metaphysical discoveries of various philosophers in Germany such as Immanuel Kant.  What would he think of modern science?  Who knows…he and his fellow romantics such as Robert Southey and William Wordsworth were scathing of the industrial revolution’s beginnings so one assumes he would have been less than impressed.  Still, much as I would love to talk of Coleridge I will keep that for another feature along with my other “C” that fills me with passion – that most English of games…Cricket.

Bringing things to the present and 2011 brought the Fukoshima disaster.  People have short memories.  It was only 25 years ago that we were incredibly close to a nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in Russia that could have seriously affected us all, and indeed, the world.  Some say it did have a global effect, and in a way it did.  That disaster was tragic enough in that many were killed, not only as a result of radiation but also after going in for a kamikaze mission of cooling off the station with huge water jets.  Those fireman and miners embarked on a suicide mission and knew this was the case, but it could be said, they died for our safety.   So dear reader, you might ask what does this have to do with Shurton and Hinkley?   Well if you believe the publicity of the French energy giant EDF…very little.  With the seeming collusion of the local press – jobs and prosperity have been promised.  About four years ago plans begun to be seriously mooted for a new “Hinkley C” nuclear power station near where I live in Somerset.  I had conveniently cordoned off the reality of a new nuclear power station on my doorstep to the back of my mind.  I was wary of being accused on being a typical “N.I.M.B.Y” (Not in my Backyard).  I first became aware of plans which had been unknown to me to begin with, about four years ago, but as it turned out I soon found out that the plans for such a huge development go back decades.  The plan was to begin a station that would take over a decade to build. I even met an unhappy employee of Hinkley Point (which incidentally is an operating station already) two years ago on a coach trip back from London.  He reliably informed me as an employee that, and I quote;

“Don’t bother being against it.  I work there and I agree it is a step too far.  But I am sorry to say it is a done deal.  The golden handshake is what it is all about.  They have wanted to build a new station since the seventies.  That was the plan all along.  Thing is it never produces the local jobs they promise because the specialists they need come from abroad or up North.  I should know…I have seen enough of them getting drunk down the pub though the years.  What’s there now looks ugly enough but it is miniscule put next to what they have planned mate!”.  Not a reassuring thought…

I might discard this as plain anecdotal rumour or perhaps a grudge against his employer, however on closer scrutiny of the facts; it is interesting to note that Flamanville in France, (which is a similar rural community) has actually had worse unemployment since a major station was finished there by EDF.  It is also interesting to observe that with elections coming up in France, that EDF might witness a U-Turn by its government on new nuclear projects – at home OR abroad.  If Francois Hollande becomes French President there may be significant cuts in EDF’s nuclear budget.  In Japan 52 of 54 nuclear stations have been turned off since the Fukoshima disaster…and the lights remain on.

As a “local” of the West Country, (despite my Notting Hill London roots, which will be the subject of a future article I am sure) it saddens me to think that 500 acres will be ruined forever.  All for a station that might not even get the go ahead!  Hedgerows and woods cleared for tarmac and concrete.  Perhaps if the station doesn’t get the go ahead it can be the biggest new golf course in Europe?  You might think I am kidding but astonishingly if it gets the nod it will be the biggest new nuclear construction project of any type in Europe.  It was with these concerns that I have, for the first time in my life – attended protests, signed petitions, written to my MP and even attend a peaceful protest at the station itself.

Hinkley Point was built in the 1950’s.  It is very hard to find information on what was at the site of the existing station before.  One of the two stations was decommissioned in 1990 and a plan for a new Hinkley C Station was mooted and then abandoned due to public unpopularity – perhaps as a result of the local “Stop Hinkley” pressure group lobbying, and a backlash on nuclear energy – due to Chernobyl.  Another reason may have been the disruption to the rural location.

What is also so worrying about Hinkley C is its scale.  It will be four to five times bigger than what is currently there and depending on who you believe – twelve Trafalgar squares –dozens of Wembley Stadiums –in all 500 Acres of new development of what to all intents and purposes, if you look at artist impressions– looks like an Arthur C Clarke 2001 style space station you might find on the moon.  Ironically that great writer was born only a few miles from here in Minehead.

Safety aside, I can’t think it will do much for local tourism…”Let’s get away from here and head to Exmoor!” being the likely observation by any passing tourist, though the Quantock Hills being England’s first area of designated outstanding natural beauty might just keep hold of its tourism.   The fact that it was the first AONB would surprise many, believing it to be the Lake District, the Norfolk Broads, the Yorkshire dales up north or nearby Exmoor, maybe even parts of Cornwall or Wiltshire might be most peoples guesses or the Cotswolds– but no…it was these character filled underrated unique hills that sparked Coleridge’s imagination to best effect and remain a beautiful secret.

I recently had a comical experience on our local bus service.  Usually I keep off emotive subjects in public…particularly with complete strangers.  I broke this rule due to the conversation I overheard which went as follows;

“Those hippie dippy tree huggers have been in the paper again with that stupid protest against the point” (The “Point” being a beacon of all employment hopes and shorthand in terms of local dialect for any decent hard working local persons future employer)

“We are going to rent some rooms out, like….should make a good profit…none of those dirty hippies have done a day’s work in their life!”

Then I just couldn’t help myself and interjected much to my eventual dismay.

“I am one of those protestors, and I tell you they aren’t all hippies…the ones that are…Well they are really nice by the way…and the ones that aren’t work hard and take days off at their own expense to stand up for something they believe in”

The young man turned around and looked at me as if he couldn’t quite believe what he had heard.  His head almost seemed to pulsate in front of my eyes, like a malfunctioning robot.  Then the middle aged, rather frightening woman leant forward and just about fulfilled every preconceived theory of what small-town folk are like with a classic one liner if ever there was one.

“Are you a local?”  I thought about the question and decided to chop off ten years from when my family actually really moved to Somerset.

“Yes I have been here since I was five”   Then she looked at me with hatred and scorn.

“Then you’re NOT LOCAL!”  The young man looked taken aback by her hatred and flinched.

“That seems a bit harsh…he has been here since he were five like…”

I tried to regain some dignity in the face of her outburst.

“If there is so much employment promised for local people why are you and many other renting to outsourced workers?”

“You aren’t a local…I can tell you’re a Londoner…”  She said the latter as if it were the worst thing you could level at anyone.

“This is the 21st century you know!”  I said smiling as she got off in disgust.

What this episode reminded me of was perception.  Perception in terms of what we think of others when we judge and also of perception of statistics.  Statistics, as the Nazi’s showed can fit any purpose.  We have – with the internet – more information AND misinformation than ever.  Perhaps it is the true “Chaos theory”.

Let me continue by being completely honest.  I am about as “On the fence” as you can get as a person.  Though my heart is in the right place and I enjoy a good natured argument if I believe in something passionately enough.  But I always try to find a solution in the best way, looking diplomatically, at all arguments.  At present the example of Germany is an interesting one.  They have led the way in shutting down Nuclear power stations, perhaps as a knee jerk reaction to the Japan disaster.  Though recent news suggests this beacon of hope to fans of renewable energy might not be so rosy a picture.  Apparently nuclear energy might outsourced to Poland.  However one hopes this is not the case and Germany stay true to the pledge they made last year following the Fukoshima disaster.  The mantra “If they can do it we can” is one I have been saying for months as have anti-nuclear protestors, understandably so.   If you look at this, and the prime minister of Japan’s view that we are; “Not in a safe world…if it is filled with Nuclear stations” – then surely we are collectively moving away from Nuclear?  Particularly if a major superpower with an enviable track record in all things technological, to say the least, are saying this.  What I will try to do over the coming pages is to look at all the options.

Wind (Turbines/Windmills) and Tidal wave power (the Sea), Solar power (the sun’s powerful rays) and Geothermal power (power from the earth’s Molten core…a favourite of mine!) are all on an impressive list of viable options.  Particularly in tandem it seems.  All come under the mantle of “Renewable energy” – which seems a safer option without any of the downsides – unless you look at possible Dam disasters and the very unlikely scenario of a windmill malfunctioning and falling on a passer-by.  This would seem to be a joke – however only a few years ago my local council made that a reason NOT to build a wind farm!  You couldn’t write it, still swiftly moving on…

Oil, Gas and coal are of course seen as the worst form of energy by many.  Particularly holding this view are the new rather confusing variant on an environmentalist – the new rather unusual one that actually PREFERS nuclear energy to the CFC’s given off by poisonous carbon omissions caused by Coal.  Of course a disaster with oil or gas and coal can be catastrophic, but I would say far less catastrophic than a nuclear meltdown – which can ultimately endanger the entire planet on a much bigger scale.

This is where things get confusing.  Nuclear energy actually has two far SAFER possibilities.  One is a reality that has been shamefully not used and the other seen by many as a “fantasy”.  One is nuclear “Fusion”.  At the moment we use “Dirty Fission” technology which splits rather than fuses atoms for nuclear energy.  This produces toxic waste which hangs around for thousands of years.  There is also anecdotal evidence of leukaemia and cancer deaths as a result of living near a station from various reports from around the world, but due to its nature I have not included that in my assessments.

Fusion Nuclear on the other hand, if it was to be produced, (and scientists are still trying), could be a safer alternative.   It is claimed you could run one power station in a relatively small area, probably beneath the surface underground and power half the planet.  It also wouldn’t be anywhere near as dangerous as current stations.

One thing I always ask myself when looking at statistics is who to believe.  I have seen documentaries which included government reports, which claimed that thousands died and still die as a result of Chernobyl.  On the other hand some scientists claim (rather patronisingly) that deaths were “psychosomatic” due to depression.  This is always something I find hard to stomach.  After all, I recently viewed a BBC documentary which showed a resident of Fukoshima relating how he had to take his daughter (who he had found in the wreckage of their house) to safety and away from the dangerous radiation.  This he had to do, rather than continue searching for other relatives – as they would both die of radiation sickness if they did not leave immediately.  A quick glance at the Fukoshima disaster site confirms 1000 plus deaths (only a forecast.  It may be even worse looking long term) – yet only the other day a scientist on BBC Newsnight programme here in the UK stated;

“It is all anecdotal…dozens died…that is all”.  If that were true I should think that would be a hard thing for the gentleman of Fukoshima, whom I mentioned earlier, to stomach.  He who so gallantly and bravely saved his daughter and fought back the tears as he remembered having to abandon his search for the other possible survivors of his family…So where does this all lead?  Again – who do you trust?

Having looked at and discussed renewable energy with many friends, I was once accused of being “Naïve”.  Where does this perception come from?  Is it another illusion to Hippies?  Is it perhaps because people can’t believe something so simple and under our very noses could be achieved I wonder.  This brings us back to politicians who seem to have pulled the rug over everyone’s eyes, charity and third world debt being an example.

Tsunamis are rare.  However here in Somerset we had one in the sixteenth century.  Apparently a church was destroyed in Glastonbury.  Hinkley C and the station that is already here – are on a floodplain, again all a big worry.

Another Nuclear option I haven’t mentioned is “Thorium”, a naturally radioactive metal which was discovered as far back as 1828.  In comparison with Uranium it is according to many scientists and even some environmentalists, far safer.  As we know, despite claims Nuclear energy does not omit harmful carbon omissions and greenhouse gases – it should be observed that enriching “Uranium” – which usually happens for the west’s Nuclear stations (out in…you guessed it, Africa) – IS harmful and DOES release the gases the nuclear industry stridently claim is not the case with nuclear power.  Where did I find this out?  In a YouTube video by some protesters who bravely inhabited a derelict barn on the proposed new Hinkley point site and risked major prosecution in doing so.  Of course the cynic might say “Isn’t that information biased and from those preaching to the converted?”  But on closer scrutiny and a few Google searches later it seems to confirm the fact, along with many other facts ignored by the mainstream media.  To say the media is in a huge conspiracy with the nuclear industry would make me sound a paranoid conspiracy lunatic, but it is interesting how – despite Fukoshima and Germany’s example – all the news seems very positively skewed toward new nuclear in the UK – particularly in our local news here in the West country.

In the USA, on PBS only recently I saw a very balanced assessment of the dangers of a nuclear station 25 miles from New York called “Indian Point” (an ironic name, given the endless Thorium to be found in India).  Last year a New York Times piece assessed the very real dangers of a New York earthquake and that the station itself is in a dangerous position.  I quote; “A Columbia University study found that Indian Point sits at the previously unidentified intersection of two active seismic zones, and could pose a greater earthquake threat than the plant’s design is expected to meet”.  Officials of the plant denied any risk.  Let’s hope they are right.

Returning to “Thorium” (named after the Norse god Thor incidentally) – a recent BBC Radio 4 Documentary informed us that Thorium is; “At least 90% safer than Uranium and does not release harmful radiation which can be so deadly”.  It then concluded that the only reason this extraordinary material currently found particularly in India – is not used “instead of the deadly dangerous material we use in the shape of Uranium…is…because it wasn’t cost effective.”  Ultimately that is a huge failing of the industry, particularly in the light of safety issues and the disasters that have taken place, and may even still take place in future.  Now we get to the crux of the matter.  This is an industry, in the shape of the nuclear industry – that puts profit and viable financial gains above human life.  What else can you conclude?  So far I do not trust this industry, at least as it is currently run, from that fact alone.  Thorium has been around a very long time and if as safe in comparison with Uranium as it is claimed, then its lack of use is inexplicable.  One possible explanation is that it is not so easily found in the west – but then that hasn’t stopped the oil industry crossing continents.  Perhaps this suggests a business system that is by definition corrupt, and even most of those caught up in the nuclear industry do not even realize what they are partly complicit in.

The French firm EDF have filled local Somerset newspapers in my area with “Jobs promised…massive cash injection for the region”.  At what possible human cost?  Truly a case of “It can’t happen here”.  The UK is a small group of islands, yet we will have eight more stations by 2025 if the current government has anything to do with it.  Indeed Prime Minister David Cameron recently signed a “Nuclear deal” with France to that effect.  Again the somewhat xenophobic assertion that rightful “Local jobs” will be produced is ironically, largely a fantasy.  The quoted “1,500 jobs”, really doesn’t seem that many.  Some might say they are French jobs on offer…and lots of them too.

I suppose for me it is about a simple question.  Who do I trust?  Well a pressure group like “Stop Hinkley” or “Greenpeace”, “Friends of the earth” and many others run the risk of being looked down on as “Tree hugging hippies”.  I see it that they have nothing to gain.  This was particularly the case when I witnessed during a protest in my nearest town– individuals standing outside pubs and shouting “Get a job losers”.  Protestors have a lot of pride to lose but a lot to be proud of.  They stick to the peaceful path, which must be commended, in the face of huge corporate companies.  They are about protecting lives and investing our futures in a renewable safe future…naïve?  The question isn’t “will the lights go off” but “would I be prepared for them to be?”  The answer is yes.  We haven’t lived millions of years needing the endless gadgets we are addicted to.   Alternatively those that believe in renewables proudly claim the lights most certainly would NOT go off if we turned to wind farms, wave and tidal dams, Solar Panels etc…Indeed, as I write a new super solar panel has been developed in the US.

Currently, DESERTEC is a concept proposed by the DESERTEC Foundation for making use of photovoltaic Solar and wind power.  It is run by a German consortium and the plan is for huge Solar panel developments in the deserts of Africa such as the Sahara, and the Middle East.  These huge solar panel plants covering hundreds, even thousands of miles will power a super grid and will in theory will power Europa, North Africa and the east.   More energy falls on the world’s deserts in six hours than the world consumes in a year, and the Saharan desert is virtually uninhabited and is close to Europe. Supporters say that the project will keep Europe “at the forefront of the fight against climate change and help North African and European economies to grow within greenhouse gas emission limits”.  DESERTEC officials say the project could one day deliver 15 percent of Europe’s electricity and a considerable part of MENA’s electricity demand.  The downside is the possible terrorism risks of such plants along with the political situation between the east and west.  Surely what better way to solve our many differences?  The real tragedy is that had the First World War not halted its development, solar power has been around a long time, in fact since 1913.  Frank Shuman – an American engineer developed the first solar panels in Egypt – Cairo to be precise.  The Great War halted its development however and his innovative solar troughs were broken up for scrap as a result.  It took Chernobyl in 1986 for solar energy to be explored again in the late eighties.

Only today I heard in local news (again only via “Stop Hinkley” but sourced from the BBC and Reuters) that an outage caused a malfunction at the station last week.  “Unit 4 at Hinkley Point B power station came offline on Sunday March 18. It was unplanned,” a spokesman said.  It barely made the local news – though recent protests did.  Traffic chaos has been warned for the area and already 100 Lorries pass an average road in the area –a day – to build the station.  In fact financial incentives are being thrown at my local council by EDF to fund research into the local impact and as “Compensation” if the project finally proceeds.  You would think that words used such as these would warn local people (though to be fair many are anti), but as pointed out – many have relatives going back generations who have made their livelihoods from Hinkley Point.  Rather than a new nuclear nightmarish training centre in my local town of Bridgwater and a toxic waste product that has to be buried and stored for 150 years (and is dangerous for even longer), surely there is an alternative?  Particularly as EDF’s recent projects in Finland and France produced more jobs for specialist foreign workers than as my local paper put it – “A chance of a lifetime for local employment”.

There is one element I haven’t mentioned…terrorism.  I remember the days of the IRA and in some ways the current threat seems exaggerated, however it must be noted that if a Nuclear power station can be vulnerable from the weather then surely it is a massive risk in terms of a terror strike that could wipe out a country or continent?

So in conclusion…I don’t really have one to offer.  We have conflicting anecdotes from all sides and conflicting data.  Since the fifties the nuclear industry has promised cheaper electricity, and it hasn’t happened.  So for them to call those that believe in wind and wave “fantasists” is hypocritical.  The nuclear industry is the only thing that will lose if Hinkley Point and the many other proposed stations are not built.  In the long run the price for us all could be a lot worse.  Again, that word springs to mind…PROFIT.  Human lives, a safe future, and an alternative for our children…these are all our goals whatever side we are on surely?  I am saddened to see intelligent men and woman at such opposite sides.  Again studies tell us renewables can’t “fill the gap” and that is why we need nuclear energy and then on the other there are government independent reports which say the opposite.  Many in the nuclear industry debunk these reports as not credible, but most, if not all most certainly are when you check the source.

When mentioning “Fusion” and “Thorium” to a fellow protestor a few weeks ago at the Hinkley point protest I was told “I wouldn’t trust them, anything as big as a fusion reactor, if it were possible would be too centralized…and open to corruption.  Too much power…held by too few.  Back in 1980 we thought we had won the battle…our failure was taking the foot off the gas”.  I then replied comically “Pardon the environmental pun!”  CND and the campaign for nuclear disarmament was a huge force back then – arguably more than now, and no twitter or Facebook was needed to galvanise individuals.  It was a time when thousands, rather than hundreds filled the streets peacefully.

When I mentioned Thorium he has was just as sceptical.  I am less so.  I don’t believe there is any completely right or wrong side.  If Thorium is safer then bring it on!  If Fusion is possible then do the same in the next fifty years, as promised by scientists.  My feeling is that to make expensive, dangerous fission new reactors is a step backwards for the world.  The last thing I want to see is another Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukoshima.  I am not a doom laden judgemental hater of the nuclear industry – I just distrust one that has a questionable track record.  Films like “Silkwood” and “The China Syndrome” (starring the late great Jack Lemmon) were only made because we are playing with fire as the huge potential of nuclear warheads attest.  I cannot help but feel that if safer nuclear developments are made then perhaps each side can work together to find a clear and safe path.  Advances in renewables such as wind, Geothermal, Wave and superb new solar technologies with maybe the included use of Thorium…together perhaps?

Then we will all have a better, truly safer, cleaner world and a future with a less deadly, toxic nuclear power by-product which could ultimately at worse, be the end of us all.

Ben Manning – 21/2/12

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