Category Archives: Nuclear power

Going critical

The world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place in the west stands, Old Stagg Field, of the University of Chicago on 2nd December 1942. Which means that I was born in the atomic age. Just about.

I blanch at Enrico Fermi’s confidence in his own expertise, that one of the most (ahem!) explosive experiments in all science was undertaken alongside East 55th Street.

Coitus interruptus

Translate that to national economics, and today an experiment of comparable magnitude is happening next to Westminster Bridge. The (erstwhile) “Great Repeal Bill”, then down-rated to mere “Repeal Bill”, has now slithered into the light of parliamentary day as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

The Mayo Clinic reckons the withdrawal method of “contraception” has, in practice, a failure rate of 22%.

It’s hard, ain’t it hard?

Of course, today is only the First Reading, so little more than a nod-and-a-wink.

The real event will be the Second reading; and there we can expect the Labour Opposition to lay amendments, and vote against any substantive motion. With a nominal majority of a bare dozen (and that’s only achieved with the mercenary aid of the DUP), the work of the government whips will be severely taxing. This is where the business of minority government becomes progressively more onerous. All the Opposition has to do is keep the powder dry, and a cohort floating in and around the Commons chamber, and every single Tory (and paid DUPper) has to available for instant voting service.

The nearest to living through the dying months of the Callaghan Government is James Graham’s drama This House. I saw that in its original at the Cottesloe Theatre, so that must have been in the late autumn of 2012. Philip Glenister (yes, DCI Gene Hunt of Life on Mars) humanised the (more-brutish-in-real-life) Labour Whip, Bob Mellish. The best rôle was Charles Edwards as the Tory Whip (and later Speaker of the Commons) Jack Weatherill. The play was revived in the West End over the past winter. Next tour it will be on tour around the provincial theatres. It’s not just a good (arguably, great) play: it is supremely relevant to our present political predicament.

For anyone with socialist/anarchic tendencies (like myself), the progress of the Brexit legislation is going to somewhere between fascinating and a-laugh-a-minute. There are few things more delightful than watching the natural enemy impaled on a cross of his (or, in this case, her) own construction. As the BBC web-site summarises:

MPs must “work together” on Brexit, the minister in charge of the UK’s EU exit has said, as he published a bill to convert EU law into British law.

The legislation, known as the repeal bill, will ensure the same rules apply in the UK after Brexit, while giving UK parliaments the power to change them.

Brexit Secretary David Davis said he will “work with anyone” to make it a success, but he faces opposition.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron told the government: “This will be hell.”

Labour vowed to vote against the legislation unless there were significant changes to the details previously set out, while the SNP said there needed to be “clarity” over which powers repatriated from the EU should go to the devolved nations.

The Conservatives are relying on Democratic Unionist Party support to win key votes after losing their Commons majority in the general election.

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said there could be “parliamentary guerrilla warfare” on the bill.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “For opposition parties and for Remainer Tories there is a sense today of ‘here we go’. This is government critics’ first big chance, bit by bit in Parliament, to try to put their version of Brexit, not Theresa May’s, on to the statute book”.

Formally known as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the draft legislation is a key plank of the government’s Brexit strategy.

Note therein: government critics’ first big chance, bit by bit in Parliament, to try to put their version of Brexit, not Theresa May’s, on to the statute book. This is why Theresa May was induced to go for that General Election, which was supposed to bring in a phalanx of Tory Brexiteers, all grateful to the all-powerful Theresa May for giving them their seat. This is why the Labour Opposition (who, where it counted, exploited the Remain tendency) feel the political wind behind them. This is why the SNP and Lib Dems feel they have a chance to regain lost ground. This is why, for all the Corbyn bounce and froth, the combined Opposition may not — yet — want to bring the whole thing crashing down. Better to watch, wait, and relish the Tories in a terminal agony.

The Tory press

What allowed Fermi’s reactor to “go critical” was withdrawing the control-rods:

A simple design for a control rod was developed, which could be made on the spot: cadmium sheet nailed to a flat wooden strip … The [thirteen-foot] strips had to be inserted and removed by hand. Except when the reactivity of the pile was being measured, they were kept inside the pile and locked using a simple hasp and padlock …

(Herbert Anderson, a research student at Columbia, under John R Dunning, who became Fermi’s assistant at Chicago, quoted by Richard Rhodes, pages 433-4)

The extent to which the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill goes critical, and toxic for the Tories, depends on how the public prints moderate the reaction. The analogy of those cadmium strips is how the “papers of record” record it. Since the UK press is heavily dominated by foreign and Brexiteering owners, I have little faith the delivery will be as honest (and inflammatory) as it should be.

Take, for an example, Iain Martin in today’s The Times.

His main thrust is:

Negotiating Brexit terms with a nascent superstate will require leadership that Theresa May is not equipped to provide

Out of the traps, one recognises a frothing Brexiteer by the travesty of the EU as a nascent superstate. It isn’t. It is a working model of 27 proud and separate nations who have chosen to subsume some aspects of sovereignty in a common enterprise. Martin even goes so far as to nominate the next Tory Prime Minister:

Of the available candidates the Brexit secretary David Davis looks to me the best choice and Boris seems done for. But the chancellor Philip Hammond could emerge, or a compromise candidate such as the home secretary Amber Rudd or Priti Patel, the international development secretary.

We can see we have wandered further into Cloud-Cuckoo-Land when Priti Patel (few come harder rightist) can be suggested as a compromise candidate.

Go forth, or fourth, and stupify

In the middle of Martin’s musings comes this:

Right now, Britain does not have any leadership: it must find it soon or lose badly.

Partly this is because voting to leave a superstate in the making is, it turns out, much easier than actually leaving. The hard Brexiteers had given too little thought to how it would be done, certainly. The softer Brexiteers (me included) cannot agree on what a compromise looks like. And gleeful ultra-Remainers want to try the experiment of telling the voters that last year’s referendum doesn’t count.

Martin elides any distinction between the Tory Party and the wider nation. If Theresa May is not up to the job, the whole national enterprise is rudderless, without leadership. Not so, unless we have truly evolved into an “imperial presidency”. The power in the land should be the collective will of the Commons. If there isn’t a dominating political majority, the various views represented in the Commons have to be sifted until a consensus (actually, no more than a general will of over 320-0r-so MPs) is arrived at.

But Martin’s worst bit of journalistic legerdemain is to assert there are only three possible viewpoints: hard Brexiteers, softer Brexiteers and gleeful ultra-Remainers. The 48% (or, as recent polling suggests, now nearer the mid-50s %) are all gleeful and, like the Irriducibili football hooligans of Lazio, ultras? Catch herself’ on, Iain!

Outside the foetid world of Tory tabloids, one general opinion is closer to a fourth category: soft Remainers.

These are the folk who, regretfully, accept what came out of the 23rd June 2016 referendum,

  • whether or not it was fairly run (the electorate was appropriately pruned),
  • whether or not we voters were told truths, half-truths, or diabolical lies,
  • whether or not a 48.1/51.9 split is final and decisive’
  • whether or not it multiple subsequent interpretations anyhow approximate to what was argued beforehand.

And “soft Remainers” are going to be the crucial mass of MPs and their noble Lordships who will be the equivalent of those cadmium rods, and determine the final shape of  the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

One practical example

What happened at Stagg Field has had consequences over the intervening three-quarters of a century (Grief! Am I that old?). It led to:

  • Hiroshima, and Nagasaki;
  • deterrence theory, and MAD;
  • some 500 nuclear power plants across thirty countries around the world;
  • Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl;
  • the production of 11 or 12% of global electricity supplies;
  • nuclear and isotopic medicines and advances.

One thing that has been universally agreed is that nuclear power should be controlled and regulated internationally. After various failures (the Baruch Plan, UNAEC, attempts at non-proliferation treaties), for sixty years we have had the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Not perfect, not wholly world-wide, but it largely works.

Gone critical

Across Europe and 29 nations we have Euratom. Originally Euratom was somewhat aside from the Coal and Steel Community, but was pursued as a discrete operation and source of energy. For convenience, Euratom was folded into the 1965 Merger Treaty of the EEC. Even after Maastricht in 1993, Euratom remained a separate entity, not under direct EU control. There is, logically, no reason why the UK should not remain as associated as Switzerland — except the bone-headedness of one, Theresa May, as the thrall of the Tory head-bangers. The objection by these types is the European Court of Justice’s

rare and arcane judgments on nuclear matters… Rules on nuclear energy are not politically sensitive and were not an issue in the referendum campaign. The government does not need to take such a rigid position on the ECJ in this domain.

(The Times, second leader, 12th July 2017.)

In recent days, all and sundry have recognised that the UK needs supplies of isotopes (for which we have no production facilities) through Euratom (which also gives access to 71% of world uranium production).

Then there is the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. It will be owned and un by EDF Energy. That is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Électricité de France. Which, some may think, raises intriguing questions of Euratom oversight.


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Filed under BBC, Britain, Conservative Party policy., DUP, EU referendum, Europe, health, History, Law, Music, Nuclear power, politics, Theresa May, Times, Tories.

Jimmy, we hardly knew ye …

Of all weekends, this is one of the harder ones to tell about things American.

Malcolm is acutely aware that, ten years ago this morning, his eldest daughter was due back to work in one of the buildings adjacent to the World Trade Center. At about 8:45 am she should have been arriving at the WTC from Hoboken via the PATH rail-link. At 8:46 am American Airways Flight 11 struck the North Tower.

Her new child had been fractious that morning.He had an upset stomach and twice needed a nappy change. As a result, by the time the child was sorted and delivered to day-care, she missed two trains, and was seriously late to work. So, instead of being underneath the WTC in the subway tunnels she was detained at Hoboken, and could see the smoke across the Hudson.

Her husband was at a conference in Houston: the only way contact could be achieved was daughter ‘phoning London, then both husband and London ‘phoning Los Angeles. Since there were no flights, husband and a couple of other New Yorkers hired a car and drove non-stop from Texas to home.

The diminution of Bush

Everything we have learned since about that critical moment in history has diminished George W. Bush as a political leader and even as a man.

What perturbs Malcolm as much as anything about those six minutes is — when did the cameraman know what had happened?

Macho men

When the coolness of time allows objective history of the last decade, another question will have to be answered: to what extent has subsequent American policy been mere knee-jerking?

There is ingrained in some American psyches the old Scots, and therefore Scots-Irish, motto: Nemo me lacessit impune. Wha daur meddle wi’ me, y’ken?

From the earliest times, US “diplomacy” required the element of force.

As early as 1801-5 President Jefferson had the nascent US Navy  intervening in Tripoli. The Monroe doctrine of 1823, in fact the construct of John Quincy Adams, relied in large part on the active support of the British Royal Navy — pending the development of a native American military and naval capacity.

Let us pause for a reflection. Is there already a pattern here? Michael Fry proposing How the Scots Made America — Malcolm notes his copy was bought, remaindered at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle for $6.99 — would certainly think so:

Scots blood, which he does not seem to have been proud of, also ran in the veins of … Thomas Jefferson: his mother, Jane Randolph, claimed descent from Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray in the time of King Robert Bruce.

James Monroe … was the great-grandson of a Scot who had come in shackles to America. This was during the Civil War in Britain … [the Scottish Covenanters] invaded England, only to be defeated by Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Preston. Andrew Monroe was one of many Scottish soldiers taken prisoner there. Had they been Irish, they probably would have been slaughtered; the easiest other way to get rid of them was to ship them to the plantations.

But then, to support his essential thesis, Fry reckons three-quarters of all US Presidents have Scots or Scots-Irish descent.

Moving swiftly on …

The classic definition of US foreign policy was Teddy Roosevelt’s: Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.

Fry happily adds that:

Roosevelt was what used to be called a Knickerbocker … But he had a Scottish-American mother, Martha Bullock …

The Road Less Traveled

Roosevelt apart, the two twentieth-century Presidents with first-hand experience in the services were Dwight Eisenhower and … Lieutenant James Earl Carter USN. One knew the ultimate burden of command. The other had served at the sharpest end, leading from the front the guys who made safe the melt-down at the Chalk River Nuclear Reactor.

Eisenhower’s final speech as President contained a solemn, and heart-felt warning:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

He knew of what he spoke. He had seen the totally-fictitious “missile-gap” become a major — possibly decisive — campaign issue.

Finally, Jimmy

This weekend the Observer had a full portrait and Carole Cadwalladr’s interview with Carter. There’s a wee puff of an editorial, too:

Nobel peace prize winner (2002), Carter says he is proud that during his presidency: “We never dropped a bomb. We never fired a bullet. We never went to war.” The day after Carter lost his bid for re-election, he told the press that he would not make money off the back of his presidency.

It’s an unusual moral maze for a leading politician to enter but even his harshest critics must acknowledge, Jimmy Carter has navigated the challenge superbly well.

There’s nothing obviously Scots, or Scots-Irish in the Carter ancestry, though there may be — seven American generations back — a family link to the Pres(s)leys. And Michael Fry does not find one either.

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Filed under 9-11, Eisenhower, History, Northern Ireland, Nuclear power, Observer, Scotland, US Elections, US politics, World War 2

Fart tax?

When Malcolm, in truth just to play with WordPress, split Malcolm Redfellow Revivus into this Home Service and a Malcolm Redfellow’s World Service, he did not fully realise the rod he was making for his own back.

He had doubled his commentating commitments.

He also had invented the constant problem: where does “World” end and “Home” begin?

This one is definitely homely, and of the earth, earthy. Even if it is Irish in origin.

Tout change, mais c’est la même chose.

Modern male adolescents of a certain age find intense amusement in the loud dangerous-gases1anal parp. When Malcolm was of that age, the knack was “silent but deadly”, an innocent expression and the accusation “who smelt it, dealt it”.

For those many years when Malcolm taught at the rough end of the chalk-face, provided the moment was right, he would address the issue and gently suggest that the human produced less than a litre of fart-gas a day. By comparison, any cow could manage about eighteen. An elephant, loud and proud, could trumpet its eighty litres. The numbers may well be queried by specialists in the field; but they were usually good enough to make the point, and allow the class to continue in decency and application.

Now we’re Green!

So today comes a story from the Irish Times: it’s Jamie Smyth writing from Brussels. So, no comments about sprouts. And catch the full flavour before the rest of the reptiles sniff it out tomorrow:

THE GOVERNMENT may have to introduce a “cow tax” to help it meet new tough targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions laid out in the EU’s climate change strategy…

Under the EU’s climate strategy, which was agreed in December, Ireland must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, when compared to 2005 levels. But the memo warns it faces major challenges in meeting the target because agriculture accounts for 26 per cent of overall emissions and reductions in the sector are difficult to achieve.

The memo details the cost of offsetting methane produced by Irish livestock and the likely revenues produced by a levy. It proposes a levy set at €5 per tonne of CO2 emitted, which generate revenue worth €104 million for the Government. This implies a levy of €13 for each dairy cow, €7 for non diary cow, €1 for sheep, it says.

Apparently, somewhere in this strategy there is a phenomenon here identified as “carbon leakage”.

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Filed under human waste, Irish Times, Nuclear power

The realities of power

Malcolm has long been intrigued by the curiosity which is First Post. It is worthy enough (if innately conservative, with or without an initial capital); but it suffers from one inexcusable fault — detail and depth are sacrificed to brevity. The desire to have a one-page, no scrolling story makes almost every story trite and trivial. First Post pops into Malcolm’s in-box with monotonous and commendable regularity late each morning. It rarely says anything new, but it has an odd stable of columnists.

Most days, Malcolm scans its headlines, and quickly commits it to Trash (since Malcolm is a Mac-man, we have no truck with the “recycling bin” here).

From Bernard…

Today, one story caught Malcolm’s attention:

Safe, clean and cheap: the case for nuclear energy.
Nuclear power has a powerful friend in Bernard Ingham, says
Margareta Pagano.

The story does not move the debate forward. It is interesting because it reminds Malcolm that all volcanoes are not extinct, it links names, and makes a useful propaganda point.

The dormant volcano is, of course, Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary and general arse-kicker, and one-time [1965] Labour candidate. He now enjoys an active retirement, including being secretary of SONE (Supporters of Nuclear Energy).

Malcolm will already be double-damned by the Greenies for even venturing onto such territory. The names associated with SONE admittedly include the usual suspects: McAlpine, Jack Cunningham, Gavin Laird, Dick Taverne and co. But there are some more respectable additions: Dennis MacShane, Fred Holliday, James Lovelock, John Edmonds. For the poor, struggling pursuer of balance, the SONE website is a ready source of information and links.

However, Malcolm commends the First Post piece for this:

Ingham is not anti-green. What he can’t abide is the “delusional myth-making and nonsense” talked about alternative energy supplies. “We need the lowest cost and the lowest carbon output consistent with a viable economy,” he argues.

While Ingham has grudging respect for Labour’s attempts at a grown-up energy policy, he has little time for David Cameron and his policies: “Hugging huskies and misplacing a wind turbine on your roof does not encourage me to think that the Conservatives are closer to reality.”

The first of those paragraphs is Ingham’s usual bluntness (would that present “spinners” could make the point so effectively), the second his commendable debunking of Tories (he was always harder on the Tory back-sliders than on his nominal opponents).

The punch-line is:

While the UK procrastinates, he warns, the rest of the world is moving ahead. Globally, there are 250 nuclear reactors being built to add to the existing 435 – providing 17 per cent of the world’s electricity.

… to Bravefart

Which brings Malcolm to his second topic: the continuing slipperiness of ScotNattery.

The SNP campaigned on an anti-nuke platform. Salmond achieved his enstoolment by breaking bread with the Greens. During the campaign, Salmond and his crew were preaching that Scotland had a third of the wind and wave potential for all Europe: therefore the nuclear power stations could be consigned to history. Once in their Holyrood offices, the SNP masters had to address reality. And reality is that 40% of Scottish electricity is nuclear-produced. So, yesterday, it was officially recognised that Torness could be operating and producing power into the fourth decade of this century. Alistair Darling must have enjoyed his comment:

“There is going to be nuclear power in Scotland for the foreseeable future,” said Alistair Darling, the Westminster industry secretary.

“Torness will be around long after Alex Salmond is gone.”

Whether the domestic harmony between the SNP and its two tame Green MSPs lasts is less predictable.

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Filed under Bernard Ingham, Nuclear power, Salmond, Scottish Parliament, SNP, SONE