Friday, May 19, 2006

Back to the 50s with Tony Blair

One of the many sad things about the 1950s, apart from it's unwatchable films and really bad pop-music, is the quality of the technology developed in that awful black and white decade.

Someday I’ll write a long and detailed rant about the appalling design of most 1950s cars (not for nothing does James Bond drive a 1930s Bentley 4 1/2 litre in Casino Royale - published in 1954). The ridiculous civil aircraft design of the period deserves another rant.

But ‘best’ of all is the technology specifically invented that decade. Two of my favourites are the hovercraft and the nuclear power station. Both were largely invented and (heh heh) ‘perfected’ during the 1950s, both had incredible claims made for them (‘the end of the wheel’ and ‘free electricity for all’) and both turned out to be almost completely useless, with, at best, extremely limited applications.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I learn that the rattled and increasingly eccentric Tony Blair has decided that Britain needs more nuclear power stations in the future. Daniel Davies puts the case against in practical engineering terms you don’t often encounter in the emotional world of nuke power:

In general, all the problems of nuclear reactors have been solved, in principle.

The problem comes when you have to put them into practice, because most nuclear engineering solutions rely on being able to make very big things, machined to incredibly fine tolerances…

Big things are expensive, and fine tolerances are expensive. Nukemen have a really bad habit of forgetting this fact. This is why, in general, nuclear projects tend to go over budget in such an extravagant, life-affirming, joyous kind of way…

What I am trying to say here is that the nuclear lobby systematically puts out estimates of the efficiency and safety of its industry which are genuinely laughable, even by the standards of long-dated projections in general. They always, until their backs are absolutely forced up against the wall, give projections which are based on the perfect nuclear project which exists in their mind rather than anything that could actually be built. They tend to assume that every stage, from putting a fence round the site to lowering the rods, will be completed in the most efficient way possible, rather ignoring the fact that the typical big construction project looks a lot more like Wembley Stadium, and nuclear power stations are more complicated.

Amen. I’m currently involved in a fairly straightforward software project that uses entirely proven technology to accomplish a logical, albeit somewhat complicated task… We’re currently 120%+ over budget, and almost precisely 100% over time. Thank god we’re not making anything actually capable of hurting someone should it happen to go wrong, or be built with less than perfect precision.

Nobody dies. Unlike when nuclear power stations go wrong.


Blogger David Young said...

I think that you are making a comparison with a vacuum here. We need energy. Civil society will break down without it. And whatever energy generation method we pick will have costs and risks:

Coal miners die when their mineshafts collapse.

Gas terminals can explode.

The purchase of oil involves enriching people who spend the proceeds on weapons to destroy you and the education of hard core wahabbism to young men in Pakistan and South-East Asia.

Wind Farms take up huge amounts of space and generate little

Hyrdo-electric dams involve displacing huge numbers of households and the flooding of entire regions.

and so on ...

Here's an example:

36 coal miners killed

There is no perfect solution, so we have to pick what is least worst. I think nuclear energy should be considered in that context.


2:16 PM  

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