Hinkley C: An alternative response

August 1, 2016

My earlier article on Hinkley Point C received a well-conceived and written response that deserves to be somewhere better than a comment page: here it is:

Hi Michael,
I am no economist either but I will make a few comments on your article about the Hinkley C project. Your conclusion is that overall the project is neither the best thing nor the worst thing could do and therefore sort of Ok. This rather equivocal judgement is made on the basis that the ongoing cost (of £1.15 billion p.a. for 35 years) is probably worth the price because it frees the UK government is from any upfront investment or later costs due to failure or delays. I think this is a very naive view.

This project aims to provide at least 7% of the nation’s power. As far as I am aware the UK government has no Plan B to meet this energy gap. This makes the Hinkley Point C scheme simply “too big to fail”. And if it falters or fails it will be for the UK government to salvage it regardless of contracts agreed at the beginning. The deals will be renegotiated when problems arise and the government / nation needs this power so it cannot just walk away or buy an alternative power station off the shelf.

The situation strikes me as analogous to the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) used to build public sector infrastructure for the last few years. This was sold as a wonderful risk free way of financing new hospitals and schools by using the private sector. Certainly new infrastructure has been built (though often not what was wanted) but at enormous cost which will cripple the public sector for decades. The scheme was devised to avoid government borrowing (even though the costs of this are much lower that for the private sector) but still has to be paid for year in & year out. (It is estimated that the UK owes £222 billion to banks & businesses via the PFI. (The Independent 11 April 2015)

By seeking to avoid public borrowing to finance Hinkley C the government has made a political and ideological choice which reduces it’s control (through lack of ownership), inflates the cost (even if kicked a few decades into the future) and does nothing to reduce the risks (because the government / nation really needs this energy so has no choice but to stick with it).

Best Wishes

It is also the case that the UK government has explicitly underwritten £2 billion of costs through the Treasury’s (infrastructure) Guarantee Scheme. This was announced by George Osbourne on a visit to China in September 2015 as an incentive to get the Chinese to invest in the project. EDF itself, in its own press release on the deal refers to “further amounts [being] potentially available in the longer-term.” So there is real chance that the UK government will increase the amount of the project it will explicitly underwrite.

I basically agree with everything you are saying. And if I had had the time I might already have written some of it myself.

However the point of the article was that in narrowly financial terms, this deal isn’t as insane as it is being made to sound.

Concerning Plans A and B, here are some other thoughts.

  • If we want nuclear power, then the current EDF design is one of the very few options available. The real missed opportunity here is that the decision to build was delayed so long that the option for using UK technology was lost.
  • Like you, I find the government’s aversion towards state ownership bizarre. How can it be OK for foreign governments to own our infrastructure, but not the UK government? That is just bonkers. As you say, if this is critical infrastructure then the owners of the infrastructure – the Chinese and French governments – will be able to hold us to ransom in the future.
  • Assuming the project goes ahead, then – taking a positive view – the government will have freed up the capital resources to invest in what I think is the real challenge facing us: integrating energy storage into our generating mix. But that is a story for another evening.

Thanks for your thoughts.



[August 1st  2016: Weight this morning 73.4 kg: Anxiety: Very High]

Hinkley Point C: What should we think?

July 30, 2016
A schematic diagram of the European Pressurised Water Reactor to be built at Hinkley Point. What could possibly go wrong?

A schematic diagram of the European Pressurised Water Reactor to be built at Hinkley Point. What could possibly go wrong?

One of the pleasures of writing a blog is that one can re-visit one’s own thoughts on a subject.

Given the current turmoil around the contract for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, I was interested to read what I had thought about it 1014 days ago back in October 2013.

First some light relief: I opened with:

So the UK is finally ready to embark on building some new nuclear power stations. I – like most people – don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. But I do feel a sense of relief that we have finally made a decision.

Ha Ha Ha. Nearly three years on and we have still to make up our mind.

Back in 2013, newspapers and commentators seemed resigned to the inevitability of the contract.

Now, given the significant fall in energy prices worldwide, they portray the project with much greater contrast: some calling it a white elephant, and others an essential piece of national infrastructure, all the while prevaricating on whether it is a good idea or not.

What has not changed much are the numbers. Back then I wrote:

The power station, planned to begin operating in 10 years time in 2023, consists of two massive plants each generating 1.6 GW of electricity. The build cost is estimated to be £16 billion  which French and Chinese government-owned companies will invest. Yes, this really is an investment backed by foreign governments.

The start date is now shifted to 2025 and the estimated build cost has increased to £18 billion.

However what is not made clear in many news stories is that the UK (government, taxpayer or electricity consumer) still does not have to pay one penny of this.

The gist of the deal is that these foreign governments take all the risk in return for a premium on the price of the electricity they produce. And the risk is substantial.

  • Construction of the first reactor of this type at Olkiluotu in Finland began in 2005 and the reactor is still not operational. Currently it is ‘expected’ to begin generating in 2018.
  • Construction of the second reactor of this type at Flamanville in France began in 2007 and the reactor is still not operational. Currently it is ‘expected’ to begin generating in 2018.

Both projects are billions of euros over-budget, and the ‘expected’ start dates are questionable. The Hinkley Point C project is larger than either Olkiluoto or Flamanville.

Considering only the financial aspects of the deal, whether it makes sense or not depends on the size of premium we have promised to pay when account is taken of:

  • the investment required (£18 billion)
  • the length of time before the investors make any return (>10 years),
  • and the risk (substantial)

So how much have we promised to pay them?

If the plants operate for 90% of time generating 3.2 GW of electricity then the guaranteed minimum income for the plant is £2.3 billion per year. Subtracting the operational costs – typically relatively low for nuclear plant – then after 10 years of no income and substantial risk of construction problems and delays, the operators should generate around 13% per annum return on their investment every year for 35 years.

It has been argued that this electricity is as much as twice as expensive as  the current price. So we are effectively paying a premium of £1.15 billion per year for the privilege of (a) not investing a penny up front; (b) not paying a penny if the project is delayed or fails to deliver; (c) having 60% of the contracts awarded to UK companies.

Does that represent good value? Back in 2013 I wrote:

I am not an economist, but in this context [this may not be] the best possible thing we could do. But it is probably not the worst either.

And I still think the same.


[July 30th 2016: Weight this morning 74.1 kg: Anxiety: Very High]

Impact, basic science and the Tinker Bell effect

July 16, 2016
Tinker Bell will die if you do not believe in her.

Tinker Bell will die if you do not believe in her. 

For scientists in the UK, it has become a reality that research proposals without identifiable ‘impact’ are unlikely to be funded.

This is understandable, but problematic. Because ‘impact’ is difficult to anticipate, and may take many years to become apparent.

I was reminded of this today when I received letter from the son of John Wilson, who died in October 2013.

He wrote to express his surprise that a paper by his father was listed as the most cited paper in Advances in Physics. He asked if this could really be possible?

The paper, written in 2006, was entitled:

The transition metal dichalcogenides: discussion and interpretation of the observed optical, electrical and structural properties

I am absolutely sure that when John co-authored this paper 10 years ago ‘impact’ – such as forming part of the foundation for hundreds of other papers – was the last thing on his mind: it never was.

Everything John did was driven by his fascination with materials and his personal curiosity.


Tinker Bell

Tinker Bell, you may recall, is a fairy. Yes, she is, and I believe in her. Do you believe in her boys and girls? Clap if you believe in her…. I knew you did.

Tinker Bell has given her name to the Tinkerbell effect which describes things that continue to exist only because people believe they do.

It applies not just to fairies, but to more critical and serious matters such as ‘the rule of law’.

And I think it applies to the value of basic science undertaken without any regard to impact. Once we stop believing in it, it will die.

And if it does die, then in my opinion, we will all be the poorer.

Boys and girls! Do you believe in basic science? Clap if you believe in basic science…. harder…harder…


[July 16th 2016: Weight 73.8 kg: Anxiety: Medium]



Too busy to blog

June 18, 2016

As I mentioned at the start of the year, this year I have been trying to live my life free from gut-wrenching anxiety.

I have had a pretty good run during a busy start to the year, despite very challenging experiments and trips to Canada, India, and the USA.

But as we approach the Solstice, I can feel the anxiety gaining in intensity again.

However, my determination to stare it down and make it go away is undiminished!

In testament to that determination I give you this two minute song I wrote earlier in the year. It includes the lyrics:

I refuse to be unhappy, I refuse to be sad, I refuse to spend another day feeling bad. I refuse. I simply refuse.

Fifty years is … long enough

Blogging and running both help me to reduce the chronic effects of work-induced anxiety.

But recently they have been in competition with each other for precious non-work time.

Blogging – if I write thoughtfully – allows me to clarify my ideas. And without that discipline, lots of my ideas have found no proper place for expression.

And running (more than 100 km a month) has helped me lose 13 kg – and also helped me cope with anxiety from day to day.

Hopefully – as my desire to lose weight wanes – I will be able to find a new balance that will allow me to both blog and run.

I just have this keynote talk to write for a conference, and after that I am sure work will calm down…

Wish me luck…

The Zen of Weighing and Running

May 2, 2016
A 10 millilitre gas bottle within the weighing enclosure.

A 10 millilitre gas bottle within the weighing enclosure.

I love weighing.

The technology of weighing is simple in principle: we determine an unknown mass by comparing the force of gravity on the unknown object with the force of gravity on objects of known mass. The basic simplicity of this process is at the heart of its power.

Astonishingly, this simple procedure underpins essentially every result in analytical chemistry, because the validation of almost every technique of analysis (e.g. mass spectrometry or chromatography) can eventually  be traced back to a weighing.

At the moment I am involved in two ‘projects’ in which weighing is the key technology.

Argon Isotopes

The first project involves preparation of a mixture of two gases to create samples of known composition that can be used to  calibrate a special mass spectrometer.

To do this I just need to:

  • Weigh some empty gas bottles
  • Fill them with gas of one of two types.
  • Weigh them again

The difference should give me the mass of gas in each bottle. I then ‘just’ need to connect the bottles together and let the gases mix. Then I should have samples of gas with a known ratio of the amount of two types of gas molecules.

Although simple in principle, the project is difficult in practice.

To contain 10 millilitres of gas requires an object (see illustration at the top) which weighs around 300 grams. The most gas I can put into this container (the gas is crazily expensive – around £3000 per gram!) is around 0.2 grams.

To achieve my target uncertainty in the calibration of the mass spectrometer, I need to weigh that gas with an uncertainty of around 0.2 milligrams. So overall I need to compare objects weighing 300 grams and detect differences with an uncertainty of less than 1 part in a million.

In fact weighing technology can achieve this!

The display of the Mettler AT1005 Mass comparator. On this 200 g to 300 g range, it is possible to read results with a resolution of 0.01 milligrams.

The display of the Mettler AT1005 Mass Comparator. On this 200 g to 300 g range, it is possible to read results with a resolution of 0.01 milligrams – 1 part in 30 million of the object’s mass!

But sadly things are not as simple as just using a great weighing machine.

One aspect of weighing that is often not appreciated is that objects being weighed are constantly being ‘buoyed’ upwards by the air they displace. The extent of this buoyancy is related to the difference in density between the object being weighed and air. For steel objects this typically affects the results in the fourth decimal place e.g. 300.x grams.

And since air density changes from day to day by as much as 10% – the results of a weighing can vary from day to day by parts in 100,000. In other words the y figure in 300.0y grams changes with the weather from day to day. Unfortunately, this is 100 times larger than the changes I am hoping to detect😦

To counteract this, instead of trying to work out the absolute mass of the bottles, I simply compare them with a standard object – called a tare – which has a similar weight and volume and so experiences similar uplift to the object I am trying to weigh. In this experiment I simply use another stainless steel bottle that I don’t fill with gas.

To determine the difference from the tare requires three weighing.

  • First I weigh the tare and wait for a stable reading.
  • I then weigh the object of interest,
  • and finally re-weigh the tare.

The key result is the difference in the reading from the  object and the average of the two tare readings. This gives me one result. I acquire 5 such results to allow me to assess the stability of the result and estimate the random component of its uncertainty.

In the NPL weighing room. The table top is made of granite. The bottles I am weighing can be seen in the in the foreground.

In the NPL weighing room. The gas bottles I am weighing can be seen in the foreground.

The weighings need to be repeated prior to doing anything interesting – such as filling a bottle – in order to establish that the weights of the bottles are suitably stable when left alone.

Weighing the set of 10 bottles takes about two and half hours and while weighing I achieve a kind of meditative bliss. The activity requires attention and patience, and hurrying simply results in errors. While weighing, time passes slowly, but when I have finished – it seems like the time has disappeared.

My weight

My second ‘weighing project’ is myself.

Long term readers will know that my weight goes up and down. I am currently in a phase of losing weight and, of course, I record my weight each day, at the same time of day and wearing the same clothes.

This particular bout of weight loss was sparked by being invited to the NPL awards dinner in January – I was being rewarded with food for having been at NPL for 15 years.

As I went to put on my suit, I found it hard to fasten the waistband of my trousers. On weighing myself I was confronted with a number larger than any I had ever seen on these scales, and I resolved that immediately after I had eaten this next excellent meal, I would begin to lose weight. And I have.

My weight since the end of January 2016

My weight since the end of January 2016

My strategy for losing weight combines modest calorie restriction with running.

Running serves the dual purposes of burning up fat, while allowing me to enter a second meditative state: at a certain heart rate I am able only to concentrate on putting my feet on the ground safely and I become temporarily unable to release the mental resources to worry.

Long term readers readers will be relieved to know that this effect is transitory: my capacity to worry quickly returns after I stop running.

NPL Open House

April 22, 2016
Preparing my laboratory for the NPL 'Open House' on Tuesday May 17th 2016.

Preparing my laboratory for the NPL ‘Open House’ on Tuesday May 17th 2016.

NPL is having an ‘Open house‘ on Tuesday May 17th from 2:00  p.m. until 8:00 p.m., and I have been asked to prepare a temperature exhibit in my lab.

Unfortunately this involves more than simply opening the doors and chatting to whoever turns up.

The first thing is to work out what to show? I have selected three types of thermometry that people might find intriguing.

  • Thermal Imaging: which measures the infra-red light emitted by objects
  • Phosphor thermometry: which measures how rapidly the fluorescent light decays from a material painted onto a hot surface.
  • Acoustic thermometry: which measures the speed of sound in a gas.

Next we need to figure out how to explain what is going on and why it is worthwhile researching these techniques. This typically involves a combination of posters (which must be designed and printed) and demonstrations (which must be meaningful: neither overly complex nor overly simplistic).

Then we need to make sure it is safe for everyone and convince our internal Health and Safety team that this is so! This involves  thinking about all the ways in which somebody might come to harm, listing them, and then saying what we are going to do about them.

I’ll write more in the coming days, but last night I tried out one of the demonstrations for acoustic thermometry which involves sending sound pulses along tubes.

To allow people to appreciate the speed of sound, I wound 50 metres of yellow plastic tube around the lab (See the picture at the top of this article). People can tap on a drum skin and hear the sound come out of the tube around a seventh of a second later.

It’s is a simple demo but very pleasing. What is astonishing is that we can measure that time delay with an uncertainty of less than a millionth of second and use the result to estimate the average temperature along the tube.

This kind of ‘tube’ thermometer isn’t very accurate, but the lab will also have a demonstration of the most accurate thermometer in the world. Ever! Oh yes, and I will be giving a couple of talks during the day too.

Overall it involves a colossal amount of effort from hundreds of people around the lab. I know that my productivity will plummet for the preceding fortnight, not least because we have to put away all the stuff in the lab which might be inadvertently damaged!

The day itself is usually very pleasant, but exhausting, and if you can make it, it would be lovely to see you. It’s all free, but you do need to register.

I can’t bear to think about it

April 20, 2016

Over the last few years I have written a fair amount about the problem of global warming.

But in the last few months I have felt barely able to bring my mind to bear on the subject – let alone write about it.

The reason is that the news is overwhelmingly terrible, both in our knowledge of the unfolding reality and our utter inability to focus on the hundreds of do-able things we might be doing.

So for example working backwards through my bookmarks:

Global Warming February 2016 anomaly

The monthly-mean global land-surface temperature anomaly based on data from meteorological stations only. The base period 1951-1980 is shown as a thick red line. The data for this February 2016 is shockingly exceptional.

I could report more stories, but in short, I am overwhelmed.

Now before you say “but its it’s not all doom and gloom” please let me elaborate.

  • I know that the world – and even civilisation as we know it – will not end if the Earth warms by 1 °C. Or even 2 °C. Or probably even 3 °C.
  • And I also know that ‘bad news’ is great news for the media that bring ‘news’ to my attention and so I experience a cognitive bias towards ‘bad news’ because I encounter it more frequently.
  • And I also know that there is good news. For example, use of coal to generate electricity in the UK has fallen dramatically (See Gridwatch for data)
The amount of electricity (GW) generated from coal in the UK. The data are taken every 5 minutes since May 2011. The decline is very striking.

The amount of electricity (GW) generated from coal in the UK. The data are taken every 5 minutes since May 2011. The decline is very striking.

I understand all these things. But overall, I give us – by which I mean me, my generation and this government – a massive vote of disapproval.

IMHO this issue is completely solvable by actions available to our government right now. But they are choosing not to do them. And I just can’t bear to think about the entirely avoidable consequences.

The Erudite Andrea Sella

April 13, 2016

Definition of Erudite

I had lunch with Andrea Sella today and reflecting on our conversation, I found that the word Erudite came repeatedly to mind.

Hearing him recount his rationale for creating carbon nanotubes stuffed with white phosphorus, I was reminded of my vision of the Tree of Knowledge. Not the one in the bible, but my imagined metaphorical organic structure within which all knowledge belongs.

On this tree, each thing we know is a small leaf. And each leaf is near other leaves. And the leaves are on twigs, which are on branches that are all connected to a trunk. And importantly the trunk is connected to roots.

In short, all the things we understand are ultimately connected. And acquiring the perspective to understand that the few ‘twigs of knowledge’ with which we are personally familiar really are a part of this vast tree represents a first step towards erudition.

What brought the words ‘Erudite’ and ‘Andrea Sella’ together most clearly in my mind was a series of articles that Andrea has written called ‘Classic Kit’.

Each article describes a piece of apparatus, most typically something that might once have been commonplace in a chemistry laboratory, but which has now become obsolete or obsolescent.

Each article is a gem: a distillation of extensive reading combined with an appreciation of the personal nature of each item: either the genius who invented it, or the frustration it engendered in generations of bewildered chemistry students who tried to make it work! The mixture is then catalysed by Andrea’s enthusiasm.

Each article represents a journey along the roots of the tree of the knowledge – those parts of the tree which are hidden from common view.

Typically Andrea pushes his muzzle into the deep mulch formed from discarded leaves of knowledge and unearths rare truffles of delight. Luggin’s capillary, Abderhalden’s drying pistol, Vigreux’s column, Büchner’s funnel. Who knew their history?

I think that one of the paradox’s of erudition is that when one is exposed to it, one becomes better informed, but feels more generally ignorant because one has been reminded just how small is the fraction of the tree of knowledge with which we are generally familiar.

Ciao Andrea .

To find out more, try starting here.

1001 grams: Film Review

March 19, 2016

Scene from the film ‘1001 grams’ showing delegates to the BIPM ‘Kilo Seminar’ holding their respective national kilograms.

It has been one year, 5 months and  23 days  since I posted a trailer for the Bent Hamer movie “1001 grams”. And this week I finally saw the film.

I had sought it out many times with no success, but a couple of weeks ago I managed to obtain a DVD encrypted as DVD Region 1. And so when the DVD arrived, I then needed to buy a new multi-region DVD player just to watch the film!

The story follows Marie, who works at the Norwegian National Measurement Institute, her relationship with her metrologist father, her trip to Paris with the Norwegian prototype of the kilogram, her adventures with the kilogram and her relationship with Pi, a scientist who is now a gardener.

Sadly I have to report that although I enjoyed the film, I was disappointed.

The whimsy and insightful observation that characterise Hamer’s films is certainly there. But whereas it is concentrated in the trailer, it is diluted in the film itself.

The film has many great features:

For this metrologist as least – it had many many laugh-out-loud moments. The casting and characterisation (caricaturisation?) of the delegates to the BIPM meeting (i.e. people like me and my colleagues) is shockingly perfect; the scene in which the camera fleetingly captures two delegates asleep in a seminar is also true to life.

The metrologist’s obsession with minutiae and attention to detail is well-captured, both in Marie’s day-to-day work calibrating ski-slopes and petrol pumps – and in relationship to the kilogram. The moment that the delegates peer in to see the ‘Mother of all kilograms’ is exquisite.

And the cinematography is beautiful. The filming of the metrological artefacts and activities is delightful, and the depiction of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) is charming.

And I have to admit that tears did fill my eyes at the point where the meaning of the film’s title is revealed.

But overall I felt the film was just a little light on content, in both the storyline and dialogue. This may be because I lack Hamer’s Norwegian perspective. Or perhaps silence is a bigger part of personal interactions between Norwegians than it is between English people.

The lingering shots at the start and end of scenes that establish a sense of continuing stillness can eventually become irksome for the non-auteur. After a while I got the sense that these were simply padding to get the film past the 90 minute mark.

But overall, I do not regret the £62 I spent to see the film!

Back in 2014 I wrote:

Bent Hamer’s films about IKEA researchers and retired railwaymen were not really about IKEA researchers or retired railwaymen. And I am sure this film is not really about the kilogram.

It is probably about the same thing that every other Bent Hamer film is about: the weirdness of other people’s ‘normal’ lives, and by implication, the weirdness of our own lives. And how important it is to nonetheless grab whatever happiness we can from the passing moments.

I was right.

You can catch a more detailed review with spoilers here


Arctic Sea Ice Update: Spring 2016

March 6, 2016
Graph showing the extent of Arctic Sea Ice in millions of square kilometres. This  has been measured by satellites on almost every day since 1979. It looks as though the Sea Ice Maximum this year will be the lowest ever recorded.

Graph showing the extent of Arctic Sea Ice in millions of square kilometres. This has been measured by satellites on almost every day since 1979. It looks as though the Sea Ice Maximum this year will be the lowest ever recorded. Data courtesy of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre. Click for a larger version of the graph.

While I have been venturing South and East, the Arctic regions have been a enjoying a mild end to their long winter.

One way to quantify this is to use satellite imagery to measure the extent (in millions of square kilometres) of the area of sea which contains at least 15% of Sea Ice. This figure is called Sea Ice Extent.

When the sea and air are cold, Sea Ice grows quickly and extends over a large area. So this relatively simple measurement provides a ‘proxy’ measure for the severity of the Arctic Winter.

Fortunately we have a continuous record since 1979 and the graph at the head of the page shows this years data in context.

Although the freeze is not quite (it usually ends around the Equinox on March 21st), it looks like the extent of Arctic Sea is the lowest it has been at this time of year – at least since 1979.

This is consistent with the long-term trend which has seen the Maximum Extent of Sea Ice shrink by approximately 40,000 square kilometres per year on average.

This is only half the long-term trend in the Minimum Extent of Sea Ice which occurs every September. This has been shrinking by approximately 83,000 square kilometres per year on average.

Using just a linear extrapolation, we would expect the entire Arctic ocean to be free of Sea Ice in September in just 60 years – by 2076. However there many reasons to expect this to happen much faster.

Personally, I expect see the Arctic ‘ice-free’ in summer in my lifetime, which I am anticipating will end in 2040 at the age of 80.

It is worth noting that the record low extent of the winter freeze is not necessarily an indicator that the summer melt will also reach a record low extent. The US National Snow and Ice Data Centre have an excellent discussion of these issues and many more here.


P.S. Whew: All that and still I managed to avoid the use of the phrase minumum maximum!


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