Just as with fracking, the Camerlot Coalition is rushing into a hasty energy deal with China that could have untold negative consequences on several dimensions
The salutary lesson of New Labour’s naivety in dealing with Huawei Telecoms ten years ago clearly hasn’t been learned….if the Camerlot Coalition’s approach to a new Chinese-built nuclear reactor off Britain’s coast is anything to go by.
In 2003, BT put out a tender to provide the equipment for its £10bn 21st Century Network project. The Government – desperate the keep Beijing sweet and make tons of money – hurried the Chinese bid through. Later, Britain’s security services realised that our cyber-security infrastructure had almost certainly been damaged because we were running the country’s data traffic through Chinese hardware.
An investigation about this by the Intelligence and Security Committee earlier this year referred to the “haphazard” Westminster and Whitehall awarding (and assessment) of the Chinese bid. But Draper Osborne is powering it through with the same uncaring tactics he applied to Help to Buy.
Critics of the Hinckley Point deal are already citing “patchy” safety records in China’s domestic infrastructure, and talk of concerns about lapses in safety in its nuclear industry “based on inexperience” . Beijing has never had a nuclear incident above level two, but the Fukushima nuclear accidents have cast doubt on whether even an advanced economy like Japan can master nuclear safety.
China has the world’s most ambitious nuclear construction blueprint, with 17 reactors in operation and 28 more under construction. But what many observers have overlooked is just how radical some of the changes to the country’s design safety features have been since Fukushima. Fukushima was claimed to be bombproof, and clearly wasn’t.
In the wake of Fukushima, last July the Chinese government enacted what it admitted was a ‘nuclear emergency plan’. Says one industry expert, “The very fact that they had to make so many emergency design changes suggests they were guilty of many of the suppositions of Fukushima”. Again, in a statement from Professor Gu Zhongmao, the scientific adviser to the China National Nuclear Corporation, it was made clear that the Chinese government had withheld the approval of new thermal reactors after Fukushima, and “the new national plan features many big changes from the 2006 edition”.
There are two major issues here: are we grabbing something on the cheap in exchange for the Chinese relative lack of experience in this field? And do we want a major generation plan off our coastline to be in the hands of a potential future enemy world power with a ropey track record on straight dealing?
When it comes to energy policy and cost, the main feature of Camerlot is haste. After a tidal wave of spin about fracking, more of the testicular nature of this ‘miracle’ is coming to light with every week. Prime Minister David Cameron recently claimed that “future gas supplies from the US” would help provide British consumers with a new “affordable” source of fuel. And former energy secretary jailbird Chris Huhne last month urged the UK government to pressure the US to allow more exports, which he claimed would “gradually equalise the gas price in the US with the rest of the world” and help reduce UK prices.
Well, it turns out they’re both full of it, but that’s not exactly new news. Shell CEO Peter Voser states categorically that, “the idea of cheap US gas going into the rest of the world and therefore changing the pricing structures across the world is a myth”. Keen frackers will I’m sure insist that this is “he would say that” stuff, as Shell has repeatedly played down the prospects for shale gas development in Europe and the UK. It has zero involvement in the embryonic UK shale industry – which Cameron has also suggested will cut energy bills – because, the CEO thinks – this is all a frack in the pan, and the numbers simply don’t stack up. And its injurious to our water supply, using up yet more land, a diminishing returns energy source, and generally a bit of a J. Arthur.
The fact that we’re desperate enough to even consider fracking is a damning criticism of British Energy policy: but now we’re going to get Franco-Chinese nuclear reactors using uranium because we haven’t invested in our own plants using thorium. Such plants could’ve been a massive export earner for Britain: now we have to pay other people to build more risky and less modern generators.
Today, Britain is doing nothing in the area of genuinely cutting-edge energy ideas. A few years ago there was a very promising project to make coal so clean, one could burn it with near-zero pollution. As this entire island is sitting on coal, it would reduce our imports and create employment if we followed this up. But the budget has been cut and enthusiasm has waned. Funny how things one can’t put in place until after 2015 tend to suffer from waning….except an EU referendum of course. But that’s more to do with enervation than innovation.
There is the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) but it’s all a bit biogas and insulation. It informs us of course that it does ‘world class research’ – always a bad sign – but it’s about demand and supply and ‘informing public policy’. There isn’t any experimental research going on. Not as such.
Then we have the Energy Research Unit (ERU), which is ‘a world leader’ in wind energy, several places looking at ‘the challenge of wave power’, The Sustainable Energy Research group (waves and solar), and The National Renewable Energy Centre (wind) which tells us excitedly that ‘World wind capacity now generates enough electricity to meet more than 3% of the world’s electricity demand’.
In fact, there are dozens of these places. But no sign of anyone looking at our nearest star with a view to harnessing what it chucks out beyond stuff to heat solar panels and thus domestic water. Good idea in Spain and Greece, not so hot in Britain. And nobody looking more broadly at those areas of quantum physics we still don’t understand.
Look beyond the pedestrian, and you will see Swiss, German, US, Japanese and even Russian companies experimenting with plasmon technology, graphene (see earlier posts), elastic strain funnels, molten salts and other ideas I find utterly impenetrable. But two things worry me about all of it.
The first is that none of it seems to be taking place in the UK. Worrying, but not surprising: we are a country being devoured by short-termist Westminster politicians and obstructive Whitehall mandarins. The second is that it strikes me as being about quantitative improvements in energy-gathering efficiency, rather than any leap of the imagination about what the sun chucks out. Nuclear fusion, the source of all the energy radiated by the Sun, converts mass into energy. The energy emitted from the hot surface, on average, is nearly 230 million watts per square metre.
By the time it reaches us here on Earth, it has reduced to roughly a millionth of that – for which we should all be eternally grateful, as there is no sun cream factor yet able to deal with 5800 degree temperatures.
Two questions may be valid here: first, how could that heat be diverted and its energy-loss dramatically slowed down? Second, the surface area of the sun is 6.0877×1012 km2. So even at 230 watts per metre, we are talking about a massive potential for energy. (And, of course, radiation: this is the kind of blue touch paper from which one couldn’t retire, immediately or otherwise.)
One day – probably quite soon – somebody somewhere is going to have an idea about all this which will be of game-changing importance. The chances are, however, that this person won’t be British.
But I see no sign of anyone experimenting with other energy possibilities that have emerged from the Einsteinian Universe. Einstein was about far more than just e = mc2: the central idea of Einstein’s theory of general relativity is that gravity is not an ordinary ‘force’, but rather a property of space-time geometry. However, just as Maxwell’s theory of Electromagnetic fields predicted the presence of waves, later identified as light, Einstein’s theory for gravitational fields predicts the presence of gravitational waves.
If those gravitational waves can be manipulated – even reversed – then the internal combustion engine’s day will finally be over….and fossil fuel requirements will shrink to a fraction of what they are today. Rather more to the point, the way will be open for Timeless (ie, instantaneous) travel to anywhere in the Universe. There is work going on across the globe into anti-gravity methodologies and machines. But guess what? The MoD Sir Humphreys say that they do not currently have any anti–gravity projects…but they are “aware of and monitor research in this field”.
Britain the touchline spectator, as usual. Even William Hague at the FCO admits that Britain’s ‘defence’ against cyber warfare is “pretty much at the level of bows and arrows”. We are in this position because we have a lazy, hidebound bureaucracy, lightweight vote-centric politicians, and….when you get down to it, no money.
We have no money because from 1955-1979 we priced ourselves out of overseas markets with unreal wage demands; and because from 1979 to the present we have either sold out or destroyed our manufacturing communities….without investing in a planned programme of research and development to replace them. And just to complete the disaster, we let far more migrants in than we could ever employ.
But ultimately, we are our own worst enemy because we don’t invest, we don’t grasp opportunities, and we don’t look ahead. It’s an attitude that typifies the cynical sociopaths of Whitehall and Westminster, but it filters down into every sector of British life: academia, business, banking, social service and the media: money, money, money NOW.
Chinese reactors off our shores. I do not have a good feeling about it.