This forum is about wrong numbers in science, politics and the media. It respects good science and good English.
The Guardian's Damian Carrington seems to be rapidly establishing himself as about the most 'fiskable' environmental journalist around. I noticed this article of his the other day, which is all based around the old chestnut that the nuclear power industry boasted that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter". Carrington not only believes this assertion but goes further to claim that renewable energy can actually achieve this.
The opening paragraph states: ""Too cheap to meter": that was the infamous boast of the nuclear power industry in its heyday. It has been catastrophically discredited by history"
Carrington is the first environmental journalist I've seen in about five years to resurrect this claim. Environmental journalists did exploit the claim pretty regularly back in the 1990s and up to the mid-00s as part of an effort to discredit the nuclear industry, using it to portray them as scammers who could not be trusted with any public money. But after the mid-00s they seemed to quietly drop the claim when information on the background to the quote became readily available on the internet.
The Wikipedia aricle on "too cheap to meter" gives the full original quote made by Lewis Strauss (a US government official, head of the US Atomic Energy Commission) in 1954:
"Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter... It is not too much to expect that our children will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age."
Strauss is actually talking about "electrical energy", which could be anything - fossil fuel, nuclear, renewables, or some as yet undiscovered energy source. Most objective pundits infer that he is talking about nuclear energy, but almost certainly the hyped version of nuclear energy, namely nuclear fusion, which has still not reached first base in its development. Nuclear fusion is sometimes known as the Greeen version of nuclear power as it supposedly produces little nuclear waste. It is the only type of nuclear power that Britain's Lib Dem party have been prepared to endorse, and with their ability to pick winners, that suggests to me that it's never going to work. Wikipedia gives strong back-up evidence that Strauss must have been talking about nuclear fusion by noting that Strauss was in charge of a secret nuclear fusion project (at the time he made his remarks) called Project Sherwood.
There was a British angle to this "too cheap to meter" saga, as mentioned in the Wikipedia article. Taking advantage of Walter Marshall's tendency to downplay UK nuclear energy costs, British Greenies started attributing the quote to him. After Marshall died in 1996, British environmental journalists even started putting the attribution to Marshall in print (there being little chance of rebuttal after he was dead), with Jonathan Leake continuing to make the claim as late as 2006.
Getting back to Carrington's article and his claim that renewable energy can deliver "too cheap to meter", he states:
"Already, on one particularly windy weekend here, the surge of electricity drove the price down to zero. Very soon, due to the 25GW of solar capacity Germany has already installed, hot summer's days will see the same effect: electricity too cheap to meter.
Now hang on, I hear you say, free electricity is actually crazy as it means there's no incentive to invest in new, clean generation capacity, which almost every country needs as the world seeks to cut the carbon emissions driving climate change. Germany's renewable energy policy, which began with a feed-in-tariff in 1990, deals with this by continuing to pay the producer, even when the electricity is sold for nothing."
If I had to make any sense of the above, it sounds like they are producing too much renewable energy at certain times in Germany for its own grid to handle and are having to export it to neighbouring countries who are not paying for it, but the German electricity consumer is still paying.
I can think of one resource in Britain which used to be too cheap to meter, but thanks to the EU and the Greenies, no longer is. Water bills have gone up dramatically in the UK since the late 1990s, to the extent that many have switched to the potentially cheaper option of metered water supplies, but very few people are aware of where these increased costs are coming from. An article by Christopher Booker in 2007 explains that these costs result from a number of over-the-top EU water purification directives. [The Daily Telegraph link for the Booker article no longer works, but I have a copy of the relevant text reproduced below]
"EU swills £65bn down our drain
Do our MPs ever notice the consequences of giving away so much of their power to run this country to that shadowy new system of government centred in Brussels? A startling ministerial answer just given to a member of the House of Lords again confirms how blind they have become.
Last week, the Public Accounts Committee castigated Ofwat, the water regulator, for its failure to get tough with our 22 water companies in failing to spend enough money on the infrastructure needed to maintain our water supplies and stop leaks: hence the fact that eight companies last year had to introduce water restrictions.
What seemed to escape the MPs was the astonishing degree to which capital spending on water is skewed by the need to comply with three EU water purification directives. On April 24, Lord Pearson of Rannoch pointed out in the Lords that, up to 1997, we had spent £48 billion on complying with the often absurdly over-the-top requirements of these directives (the companies had to spend over £3 billion, for instance, on "denitrification plants" to solve a problem that turned out not to exist).
Lord Pearson asked the minister how much more money had been largely wasted on these directives since 1997, and how much had been spent on the infrastructure needed to improve the efficiency of our water supply and sewerage systems. In a letter, Lord Rooker, as "Minister for Sustainable Farming and Food", has now given the answer. Spending to comply with the directives now totals £65 billion. Only £14 billion has been left for infrastructure. It is hardly surprising we still have hosepipe bans, despite our ever-soaring water bills. But we cannot expect our MPs to notice the embarrassing reason for this.
Much better just to lash out blindly at Ofwat."
For the Green-leaning scientists who tend to be involved in drawing up these sort of technical regulations, you can't have air or water that is clean enough. In the UK, unlike many countries, we don't have a separate drinking water supply (we use drinking quality water to flush toilets), so we get hit particularly hard by these regulations.
Firstly, I'd seriously question the unsourced sums of money mentioned for the water issue.
Secondly, the usual problem with most euro-bashing is that you end up bashing a lot of things that a sensible national government might have done anyway, but it suits some political views to define anything euro as "waste" and anything national as "investment".
Nitrate in drinking water certainly isn't a complete non-problem - as an enthusiastic aquarist I know it's a serious problem for fish and we ain't that biochemically different. Where this can go wrong of course is when a scientifically-illiterate bureaucrat writes a law setting a zero or impossibly low threshold value and a scientifically-illiterate parliament passes it. Again, doesn't really matter at what level the law is made - at euro level you will get harmonised junk legislation across 27 countries, at national level you will get an approximately equal amount of junk legislation but it will be different junk in different places. The former at least has the (dubious) benefit of being slightly more efficient.
And where precisely did they decide it was more efficient to install two water distribution networks than to install just one and purify lots of water that won't get used for human consumption? Off the top of my head, parts of Cyprus. But where else? Can't think of anywhere.
In reply to James, I agree that the last sentence in my original post is somewhat inaccurate. I had picked up the impression from somewhere (probably from reading too many reports written by Green NGOs) that the practice of dual water domestic supplies with potable (drinking) and non-potable water was reasonably common. After some checking it does appear to be quite rare, so in practice most domestic consumers in most countries are probably flushing toilets with drinking quality water.
To give an idea how high EU water prices are, consider this news story from 2008 which reported Germany as having the most expensive water in the world:
German water was reported as costing four times as much as in the USA and twice as much as in drought-stricken Australia. In the UK we were only about 20% lower in cost than Germany, but our costs were rising at a rate where it was speculated we might soon overtake Germany.
The above costs are metered rates. About two thirds of people in the UK have no water meter as yet and pay a flat rate cost (which is reckoned for most people to be more expensive than if they switched to metering). My guess would be that the UK annual flat rate cost is the highest in the world.
I'd say that if you live in a country where it rains at least every few days and you are paying amongst the highest prices in the world for water, then some sort of waste and political incompetence is going on.
For those concerned about high water bills in the UK, it looks like there is another potential price hike on the way that was reported a few days ago:
This one relates to a £30 billion clean-up bill to remove the contamination effects of chemicals in urine produced by women who are taking contraceptive pills.
The article does mention the possibility of getting the pharmaceutical industry to pay for the clean-up rather than domestic water consumers, which would be an example of implementing the Green principle known as the "polluter pays principle". However from my observations this principle tends to be only applied selectively to inflict extra costs on industries the Green movement strongly dislikes, such as the nuclear and chemical industries and Big Oil. An example of the polluter pays principle not being applied would be the sometimes floated idea of a 'chewing gum tax' to pay for the £150 million per year specialist street cleaning bill to remove chewing gum. I've never heard of any Green NGO supporting the idea of a chewing gum tax, and as the British political class generally take their lead from Green NGOs as to which environmentally-related taxes and tax breaks to introduce, you therefore don't see a chewing gum tax. In the case of contraceptive pills you couldn't get a more politically correct product or a product which fits in more with the aims of sustainable development, so I can't see the Greenies lobbying for the pharmaceutical industry to pay for this clean-up. Therefore I think this extra cost is going to be slapped on the domestic water consumer.
As a German-resident domestic water consumer I can tell you what I pay - it's about 0.4 eurocents per litre, including sewerage charges. No idea how that compares to the rest of the world, but my water bill is not something I am bothered about reducing. Power shower and hot tub are likely to be installed in the soon to be renovated bathroom.
The excellent Tim Worstall recently did a back-of-envelope calculation that a "polluter pays" tax on the contraceptive pill to cover the cleanup costs would amount to about £1000 per woman per year. About 10 times the retail price of the drug, in other words. And also made the point that this is a "polluter pays" tax the greenies are unlikely to support. They could of course, in line with green orthodoxy, suggest that rather than use contraceptives more people sleep with those of the same sex, but that has the regrettable opportunity cost of reducing the probability of an evening's horizontal entertainment for the rest of us.
I managed to find the article by Tim Worstall that you were talking about:
The first paragraph of the article pretty much sums it up:
"I agree that this sounds entirely absurd, that women who take the contraceptive pill should pay £1,000 ($1,500) a year more in tax, but it is the inevitable outcome of the standard logic that the polluter should pay. We do have to make a couple of assumptions of course, the first being that the European Union has got its science right, the second that they have got their costs right. But if they have then yes, the end result really is that women should be charged a higher tax for using the contraceptive pill."
There is actually a precedent for singling out a section of British society to pay a "polluter pays" type tax rather than charging an industry or company. Vehicle excise duty, popularly known as 'road tax', has been levied on British motorists since about 1920 for the nominal purpose of providing a contribution to the repair of roads resulting from wear and tear by vehicles. Then in 2001 the Blair government kowtowed to the Green lobby and changed it effectively into a "polluter pays" tax where CO2 is assumed to be a 'pollutant'. The road tax is now charged in several CO2 emission related bands, with a £1000 tax slapped on somebody in the top band for the first year. Little or no tax is paid by those driving politically correct vehicles. The new purpose of the tax is pretty much to punish a section of British society, headed by J Clarkson, that the Greenies don't like.
Worstall's proposal looks like a logical idea, but I can't see it happening. My prediction would be that British domestic water consumers will foot the bill if this does go ahead. I also predict that all MPs (Lib Dems, SNP, some Labour and Caroline Lucas) who are currently expressing 'concern' over the cost of the Trident nuclear weapons programme (about £18 billion in today's money) will not give a monkey's about imposing this even bigger cost on the British domestic water consumer.
The Island of Bermuda has deep and plentiful fresh water wells. Interestingly enough, the fresh water under Brrmuda, was found by a "water-witcher" . . by a water dowser.
Cheap nuclear power left out the reality, as no one knew much of anything about the great hazards of radiation back then. Highway engineers were talking about using low yield "bombs" to blast through mountians, for highway construction.
I might add that I am 76 years old, and am a retired professionalev transportation engineer
In reply to Laurence, the cheap nuclear power that Lewis Strauss was talking about, assuming the original ambiguous quote is about nuclear, is nuclear fusion rather than nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion involves a very much reduced radiation hazard relative to nuclear fission, and that might be a contributory factor as to why he thought nuclear fusion would be so cheap. If nuclear fusion ever becomes operational in the lifetimes of people in this forum, we'll find out whether he was right.
I don't know if you can assign a 'reality' to the cost of dealing with the great radiation hazard in the case of nuclear fission reactors. If you could, you might expect nuclear plants to take the same time to construct all over the world. The variation in construction time (which could be used as a proxy for the cost of the plant) varies from 12 years average in the USA in the 1980s to 4 years for two nuclear plants built in Japan in the late 1990s and a range of 4.5 to 5.2 years for four plants built in China in the early 2000s. In the UK we built our last three nuclear plants in about 7 years. With that variation in the plant construction time it might be argued that the particular influence of the Green lobby and the litigation culture that exists in a specific country are big factors in the cost of a nuclear plant, over and above dealing with the radiation hazard.
On the issue of highway engineers talking about using nuclear explosives to construct roads through mountains, what you're referring to is the 'Plowshare Program' (which would be spelt 'Ploughshare Programme' in British English), which was a US research and development project aimed at investigating the application of nuclear explosives for peaceful applications which ran from 1958 to 1975. It was only an R & D programme, not implemented 'for real'(one of the purposes of R & D is to investigate ideas that may at first sight not look very sensible). Peaceful nuclear explosions were however actually carried out for real in the Soviet Union, being used for construction of a dam in Kazakhstan and for extinguishing gas well fires.
Another thing about peaceful nuclear explosions, if this isn't obvious, is that where would be a considerable political bluffing element going on in all of this. Talking about using nuclear explosives to build roads and dams, and even power spacecraft (there was a spacecraft design powered by a series of nuclear detonations called 'Project Orion') would be a useful ploy to counteract the rise of anti-nuclear weapons campaigning groups who were gaining influence in a number of Western countries. The Plowshare program was terminated in 1975 and I can give a very good guess for why it ended then. India exploded their first atomic weapon in 1974 and proceeded to claim that the bomb had only been developed for peaceful purposes. Once the Indians started using the peaceful nuclear explosions bluff, the US decided to drop the idea.
The biggest problem with nuclear power is that it is very very safe until something unexpected goes wrong. You then have costs that are frankly incalculable, up to vast amounts of land rendered unusable for decades to centuries. There's no way of insuring against it. It's also far from clear that standard decomissioning costs are being put aside from the income generated by the plants - there still isn't enough thought going in to the whole life cycle of a nuclear power plant.
Maybe the Indians will get throrium plants working before the rest of us - that would be the end of all our problems.
Part of the problem with nuclear power is that the dangers are vastly exaggerated by the anti-nuclear lobby. Fictitious body counts are generated by an act of numerical prestidigitation based on the bogus, and unfortunately still dominant, linear no-threshold model of radiation exposure. The same model is used to declare an elevated level of background radiation in an area either hazardous or safe, with an excessive bias towards the precautionary principle. Although this can lead to a high cost, when a great swathe of land is declared unfit for human habitation, the dangers are quite often largely in people's minds because they have been conditioned by years of anti-nuclear propaganda into a state of radiophobia.
In reply to James, the main method of avoiding the cost of nuclear accidents serious enough to lead to land being written off is to design the plants so that such accidents have a return period of at least several thousand years, and you can then probably forget about such an event occurring in a specific country in the time window for which nuclear fission reactors are likely to be around.
The way it has worked with nuclear power so far is that governments have been prepared to tolerate the small risk of a nuclear accident, and treat it as being something similar to a natural disaster like a hurricane or earthquake where they would pay most of the bill, in return for perceived benefits for that country from using nuclear power such as improved energy security and energy independence associated with having to import less fossil fuel, reduced pollution from deploying fewer coal-fired power stations, reduced CO2 emissions (if you believe in CAGW), and in the unique case of the UK, a reduced probability of governments being brought down by coal mining strikes. If you wanted a situation where private industry pays for such accidents, the first step would be remove the large amount of conservatism that is believed by many to be present in the current radiation safety limits. At the current level of conservatism, only governments can pick up the bill.
The Chernobyl and Fµkµshima incidents were obviously unexpected in the countries where they occurred, but I don't think similar incidents could occur in the UK and most other Western countries. The Greenies probably couldn't believe their luck when a nuclear accident happened in a country as outwardly sophisticated as Japan. I remember it used to be speculated that India was a strong candidate for a future nuclear accident due to them having an everyday life safety culture even worse than the old Soviet Union, with a very high road safety death toll and such practices as railway passengers being expected to cling to the outside of a train, but they seem to run a tight ship when it comes to their nuclear plants.
Ironically the Fµkµshima accident probably occurred as a result of trying to prepare for the possibility of such an accident. It looks to me like the Japanese have copied British siting policy for nuclear plants (the UK built Japan's first nuclear plant), which is to stick them in a sparsely populated area next to the sea. If you put a plant next to the sea, it reduces the land area that could be written off by a factor of two, and you've also got an unlimited supply of emergency cooling seawater if things get desperate. I suspect these selected seaside locations also have a prevailing wind direction where the wind blows out to sea. But the Japanese seem to have been highly complacent about the tsunami run-up hazard, which isn't applicable in the UK, where we would only consider storm surges, and these would have a return period of ten thousand years, (I think there is a weather related tsunami-like event called a meteotsunami which is taken into account in the consideration of UK storm surges.) In the country that supplied the Fµkµshima plant, the USA, they are much more cautious about a tsunami hazard where relevant.
One thing that may not be appreciated about nuclear accidents is that they may have benefits as well as costs. According to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last ever Soviet president, Chernobyl was the key event in triggering the collapse of the Soviet Union:
"The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was a historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed."
Chernobyl appears to have inflicted huge damage on the confidence of the Kremlin in Soviet science and technology. Luckily for us in the West, they appear to have adopted a Greenpeace-like view of the incident where they thought hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, would die. Subsequently the official death toll after an assessment by the IAEA in the early 00s has turned out to be only 50, with 4000 estimated long-term deaths. If the Kremlin had known the IAEA figures back in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union and the Cold War might still be going strong.
On thorium reactors, I would advise people to be sceptical. The Greenies have a tendency to be keen on the idea of there being some sort of Green version of nuclear power waiting in the wings, as it has the useful effect of increasing the amount of dithering by our technically-challenged politicians on making decisions on the current working version of nuclear power. For decades this contribution to political dithering has been reliably provided by nuclear fusion, and the Green NGOs have always been ambiguous about whether they support nuclear fusion or not. But a few years ago, Greenpeace decided to clarify their position, and as might be expected they're against it, as discussed in this article:
After Greenpeace came out against nuclear fusion, the idea of thorium reactors, which I don't recall ever being previously mentioned in the news media, has been increasingly talked up as the new Green version of nuclear power. THe main proponent of thorium power in the UK seems to be the former Friends of the Earth activist Bryony Worthington, who was heavily involved in drawing up the UK's Climate Change Act. Worthington, who is now in the House of Lords, was previously in charge of anti-nuclear power campaigning at FoE, so her promotion of thorium reactors looks a bit suspicious.
I agree getting the risk down is the whole point, but all the major nuclear accidents seem to have involved unexpected things happening. Calculating risks of that is quite hard. Sure there is zero to minimal risk of tsunamis taking out any of the UK's power plants, that doesn't stop a plane crashing on them though, or more likely someone intentionally driving a plane into one.
So suddenly we need to design nukes to withstand a direct hit from an A380 with full tanks at the fastest you can hit the ground with one. I'm no architect but I guess that has to be basically an impossible to achieve level of safety. I guess this also has never been considered as the previous "worst case scenario" would have been the Russians firing nuclear missiles at nuclear power stations. But if it had come to that we would have been irretrievably Fµkµushima'd anyway, so there was no point guarding against it.
Flying planes into nuclear reactors...
There are two very important things to remember.
Planes have the smallest safety factor in engineering. Planes are really expensive because every pound matters. Weight is near the top of the list to minimize. Safety factors increase weight.
Designing the containment structure for nuclear reactors DO NOT have much weight consideration. Put a plane up against a wall of concrete, and the concreted needs to be pretty chinzy to lose.
Trying to hit the reactor is the bigger challenge. If there are cooling towers, those cooling towers are great targets. They aren't reactors. The reactors are typically in much smaller buildings... Much harder to hit.
The storage facilities attached to the Nuclear Reactor are perhaps a better target, but those facilities are usually pits. Hit the building and the plane travels right over the dangerous materials. The steeper the dive you try to make in a big airplane to hit such a building the harder the task...
Nuclear Facilities are terrible actual terror targets. They are awesome as virtual terror targets though.
Why don't we put the reactors underground?
That might be a stupid question coming from a nuclear engineer but I'm not one.
I agree hitting a small target with an A380 or 747 flying near-vertically at as fast as it can go without breaking up mid-air is a tough call (much much harder than flying a jumbo stable and level into the side of a building), but you really, really don't want anyone to succeed at it. For most western nukes that really is the worst case scenario, other than an internal problem leading to a meltdown. So people are going to (not entirely without reason) insist you engineer for it.
The best first line defence against planes might be missiles.
If you have missiles ready to respond the window of opportunity depends on finding some set of conditions where missiles cannot be used.
By the way, I am rather less sanguine about nuclear power than I was because it occurs to me that if we are prepared to let an unsupervised literature degreed green activist write the Climate Change Act (Bryony Worthington who was lent to the government by Friends of the Earth and now a Baroness) who, I wonder, will they get to direct our nuclear power policy and will they be looking to over protect us or make an "I told you so " situation?
PS I can't say I'm happy that the government (in the form of the MOD who are answerable to the government, in principle anyway)are going to allow our nuclear deterrent be looked after by a private sector company.
I guess our troops are too busy being sacked or sent to act as spectators at the olympics to look after any military hardware themselves....though it seems to me the MOD is very good at spending money on the wrong thinsg and then not letting to troops near any of it in case they want to use it.... such is life.
Dive bombing required special engineering. I suspect that special overrides would be involved in diving a fly by wire plane in the ground. Unless the concrete containment of the tertiary containment unit is really really badly done, it is going to beat the plane. Flying a plane which is safety factor limited against a building that is safety factor limited give much higher chance of success. The trade centers failed, not in their collapsing, but in not surviving just a little longer before collapsing. It is possible that had they continued using asbestos in the process instead of the slightly less capable material, it might have survived longer.
Building reactors underground isn't a Nuclear Engineers job, it is a Civil's worry.
Looking at the responses on the issue of planes flying into nuclear plants, it may be worth adding a few things to the thread.
As DaveE is suggesting, there have been studies carried out which have concluded that nuclear plants can withstand impact by airliners. This link gives an example of a US study carried out in 2002 which considered impact by a Boeing 767:
Note that the validation status of structural impact computer models is way above that of the computer models we normally talk about in this forum, namely climate models. The Greenies only accept computer models which give politically correct results. so they would reject any computer model which demonstrates nuclear safety, whilst at the same time accepting the far more dubious climate models as being settled science.
Brad's point that an aircraft is pretty flimsy in comparison with a nuclear plant concrete outer wall is illustrated with this Youtube video clip (narrated by Carol Vorderman), which shows an F4 Phantom disintegrating when it hits a concrete wall:
One point that could be made regarding a repeat of a 9/11 incident in the future is that the 'easier' route to gaining control of a plane, by hi-jacking the plane, is effectively now closed down. It is now much more difficult to smuggle weapons on to a plane due to increased security at many airports and the cockpit area of airliners is now effectively sealed off. Also the attitude of airline crews and passengers to being hi-jacked is substantially different following 9/11. Before 9/11 it made sense to co-operate with a hi-jacking and treat it as being a bit like an armed robbery; after 9/11 it makes a lot of sense to attempt to mob and overpower the hi-jackers if you think they intend to crash the plane or blow it up. So I think a future 9/11 incident would require a terrorist organisation to recruit an airline pilot for a suicide mission, or have some of their people train and get jobs as airline pilots to be used as 'sleeper agents'.
On JMW's suggestion that ant-aircraft weapons could be used to defend nuclear plants, I think the prefered practice is to send up military fighter jets to investigate any slightly suspicious behaviour by airliners, and the most likely targets in the UK are expected to be skyscrapers and landmark buildings in London rather than nuclear plants, which as Brad points out could be tricky to hit. Most countries accept the idea that it may be necessary to shoot an airliner down if it is seen as a significant threat, but there is one exception to this - Germany (where JamesV is resident). In Germany they did introduce a law that allowed commercial airliners to be shot down, but it was ruled as being unconstitutional as it contravened the human rights of the terrorists (there was a rumour that German greens were behind this ruling):
On underground nuclear plants, the idea does exist, but only for small scale plants of not more than a few tens of MW. Sweden built an underground nuclear plant called Ågesta about 50 years ago that was under a suburb in the capital city, Stockholm. There is a proposed modern day small scale reactor called "Hyperion", which supposedly has a hundred orders, which is intended to be buried underground. As I understand it, burying nuclear plants underground is regarded as too expensive for normal sized plants, and is probably not compatible with the fairly high water table that occurs at many sites.