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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Stephen writes on the viability of nuclear power

I thought it might be helpful to discuss some of the good and bad bits about nuclear energy given the current events in the Australian Commonwealth Government (Canberra). Al Gore said it, now the Oz government's own advisor has said it, nukes are expensive. My position is that nukes have their place but only for the short term; which given the cost might rule them out under my own criteria.

But I feel that before we can discuss the issue rationally I need to clarify a couple of BIG misconceptions about the dangers of nukes (used for electrical power that is).

Modern nuclear power plants, and I will include 3 Mile Island in that category, are seriously contained. That is, there is a shell built right around the reactor vessel designed to contain the mishaps of fault conditions. Even back when they designed 3 Mile Island, the containment designers considered jumbo jets crashing into them (accidental crash, nor terrorism). The event at 3 Mile Island was contained, as designed. What actually happened was that a pressure relief valve stuck open and the control room operators didn't know it was stuck open (they expected it would spring closed like they usually do). Water got into the reactor system and caused a shut down. Although the neutralising rods automatically used to stop the neutron release in the reactor did their job, there is always a small residual neutron flow from the core that takes a couple of days to disipate - but it was enough to produce a "cloud" of radioactive waste INSIDE THE CONTAINMENT VESSEL.

The media beat this up - it sells lots of papers and TV, someone filmed a {safe and normal} condenser steam release and said there was a toxic cloud release. Hysteria took over, and the US stopped building nuke power plants.

Chernobil was not originally an electrical generating plant, it was an enrichment plant for atom bombs. Later the USSR turned it into a power plant and guess what... it never had a containment shell. To make matters worse, someone in the Cremlin (no doubt with the powers to sent dissenters to Siberia) told the operators to test a shud down to see how long they had to find alternalte electrical supplies. To effect the shutdown, the operators had to OVER-RIDE the safety interlocks. A series of technical errors in the "experiment" meant that the reactor needed to be more quickly controlled but without the safety interlocks... well we all know the rest.

Now we all accept that Australia is a more exempliary place that the old USSR. Canberra is not likely to require silly experiments and we would use protective shells around our reactors. And speaking as an engineer, I am confident the current safety systems and designs and testing are much better than back in the 60s. But the cost; I shudder to think.

Then there is the concern about the waste taking 60,000 years to decay to a safe level. Well yes that is the case for old fashioned U235-6 reactors, but with the modern fast reactors using U233, the decay times reduce significantly to 2000 years. Still sounds bad, but lets keep it all in perspective. Yet again, the cost...

My reading of the engineering literature suggests that India seems to have these plants down to a fine art. The risk managers talk of 3 Mile Island type faults being a 1 in 40,000 year event. Well global warming is a current event. We are having a 1 in 1000 year drought. I think we need to give the technology a good hearing. I must be a miser or something because I can see a huge increase in my power bill coming. Perhaps it will make it cost effective for me to buy a solar electricity system for my home.

BTW, I wonder if Johnie's attitude to carbon trading changed when he read the advanced draft of Ziggie's report and worked-out that he would need a carbon tax to make it all cost possible.

Kindly, Stephen
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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Jeremy's thoughts on Unemployment in Australia

I’ll share some things that I come across in book entitled ‘Status Anxiety’ by Alain De Botton. I think some of this stuff is probably worth mentioning.

Dependence upon an employer to earn one’s living is a relatively modern dilemma, for instance in 1800, 20 percent of the American workforce was employed by another person but by 1900 the figure was 50 percent and by the year 2000, 90 percent, so basically people have over the last 200 or so years been letting their intelligence and skills to employers in return for a wage or cash payment that is heavily weighted in the employers favour. Before these modern times people used to work for themselves on small farms and such thus growing their own food etc, compared to today’s standards life would have been fairly simple and at times difficult but nonetheless rewarding I would imagine. The transformation of this lifestyle began in England around the year 1724 and carried through until around 1815, in this time frame close to 1.5 million acres of the open English fields were enclosed behind walls and hedges by powerful landowners.

Immanuel Kant wrote a piece called ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals’ (1785), in it he argued that behaving morally towards other people required that one respect them ‘for themselves’ instead of using them as a means for one’s enrichment and glory. According to Alain De Botton, Karl Marx made reference to Kant’s work and accused the bourgeoisie and its new science of economics of practising immorality on a grand scale. ‘[Economics] knows the worker only as a working animal – as a beast reduced to strictest bodily needs’. The wages paid to employees were, said Marx, just ‘like the oil which is applied to the wheels to keep them turning. The true purpose of work is no longer man, but money’.

I must say that having worked in quite a few employs I agree fully, you’re not a name now you’re a number. How times have changed, we’ve gone from working for ourselves to being employed by someone else, to work for the dole schemes for the unemployed. Now we have the situation where thousands of workers will be imported from oversees thus creating lower wages and increased competition. You have to wonder about the inner workings of modern life and what really makes things tick, unless there is some sort of change I don’t see society as a collective whole progressing either morally, spiritually, ethically or otherwise.

When the gap between the ‘have’s’ and the ‘have nots’ keeps increasing to the extent that it has now you inevitably run into big problems because work effects people’s lives and people’s lives effect the work that they do. Society as it stands is built upon what I believe can only be referred to as a ‘pyramid system’ whereby at the top you have the people who head and in some cases own the large corporations and companies, propping them up at the bottom of the pyramid is the common worker, banker, cleaner, baker, truck driver etc etc. Like any pyramid or structure if you undermine the integrity of the supports it will most definitely fall down. People talk about the so called stock market crash of 1929 (Some believe there was no crash, See Peter Thornhill’s Motivated Money ISBN:0-9751-7960-8) if things keep progressing the way they are now that crash will look like a picnic compared to what could be around the corner.

In some ways we are already seeing the outcomes of the aptly named property boom. People foolishly and unwittingly over borrowed and as a result accumulated debt that they never had any hope of servicing and are now subject to the dreaded mortgagee sale. What caused this? In part ignorance, caused by a lack of education in relation to money matters. Who is suffering the most? Those workers that are at or near the bottom of that pyramid. What effect does all of this have on the average Joe? Well, stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, etc. Damn, I’ve written another post and gotten of subject again but you have to admit that what I’ve mentioned here is a nasty cycle and all of these things are connected, one effects another.