Archive for the ‘Nuclear Matters’ Category

Research into Nuclear Fusion is a waste of money

November 24, 2019

I used to be a Technological Utopian, and there has been no greater vision for a Technical Utopia than the prospect of limitless energy at low cost promised by Nuclear Fusion researchers.

But glowing descriptions of the Utopia which awaits us all, and statements by fusion Utopians such as:

Once harnessed, fusion has the potential to be nearly unlimited, safe and CO2-free energy source.

are deceptive. And I no longer believe this is just the self-interested optimism characteristic of all institutions.

It is a damaging deception, because money spent on nuclear fusion research could be spent on actual solutions to the problem of climate change. Solutions which exist right now and which could be implemented inside in a decade in the UK.

Reader: Michael? Are you OK? You seem to have come over a little over-rhetorical?

Me: Thanks. Just let me catch my breath and I’ll be fine. Ahhhhhh. Breathe…..

What’s the problem?

Well let’s just suppose that the current generation of experiments at JET and ITER are ‘successful’. If so, then having started building in 2013:

  • By 2025 the plant should be ready for initial plasma experiments.
  • Unbelievably, full deuteriumtritium fusion experiments will not start until 2035!
    • I could not believe this so I checked. Here’s the link.
    • I can’t find a source for it, but I have been told that the running lifetime of ITER with deuterium and tritium is just 4000 hours.
  • The cost of this experiment is hard to find written down – ITER has its own system of accounting! – but will probably be around 20 billion dollars.

And at this point, without having ever generated a single kilowatt of electricity, ITER will be decommissioned and its intensely radioactive core will be allowed to cool down until it can be buried.

The ‘fusion community’ would then ask for another 20 billion dollars or so to fund a DEMO power station which might be operational around 2050. At which point after a few years of DEMO operation, commercial designs would become available.

So the overall proposal is to spend about 40 billion dollars over the next 30 years to find out if a ‘commercial’ fusion power station is viable.

This plan is the embodiment of madness that could only be advocated by Technological Utopians who have lost track of the reason that fusion might once have been a good idea.

Let’s look at the problems in the most general terms.

1. Cost

Fusion will not be cheap. If we look at the current generation of nuclear fission stations, such as Hinkley C, then these will cost around £20 billion each.

Despite the fact the technology for building nuclear fission reactors is now half a century old, previous versions of the Hinkley C reactor being built at Olkiluoto and Flamanville are many years late, massively over-budget and in fact may never be allowed to operate.

Assuming Hinkley C does eventually become operational, the cost of the electricity it produces will be barely affected by the fuel it uses. More than 90% of the cost of the electricity is paying back the debt used to finance the reactor. It will produce the most expensive electricity ever supplied in the UK.

Nuclear fusion reactors designed to produce a gigawatt of electricity would definitely be engineering behemoths in the same category of engineering challenge as Hinkley C, but with much greater complexity and many more unknown failure modes. 

ITER Project. Picture produced by Oak Ridge National Laboratory [CC BY 2.0 (]

The ITER Torus. The scale and complexity is hard to comprehend. Picture produced by Oak Ridge National Laboratory [CC BY 2.0 (

Even in the most optimistic case – an optimism which we will see is not easy to justify – it is inconceivable that fusion technology could ever produce low cost electricity.

I don’t want to live in a world with
nuclear fusion reactors, because
I don’t want to live in a world
where electricity is that expensive.
Unknown author

2. Sustainable

One of the components of the fuel for a nuclear fusion reactor – deuterium – is readily available on Earth. It can be separated from sea water at modest cost.

The other componenttritium – is extraordinarily rare and expensive. It is radioactive with a half-life of about 10 years.

To  become <irony>sustainable<\irony>, a major task of a fusion reactor is to manufacture tritium.

The ‘plan’ is to do this by bombarding lithium-6 with neutrons causing a reaction yielding tritium and helium.

Ideally, every single neutron produced in the fusion reaction would be captured, but in fact most of them will not be lost. Instead, a ‘neutron multiplication’ process is conceived of, despite the intense radioactive waste this will produce.

3. Technical Practicality

I have written enough here and so I will just refer you to this article published on the web site of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

This article considers:

  • The embedded carbon and costs
  • Optimistic statements of energy balance that fail to recognise the difference between:
    • The thermal energy of particles in the plasma
    • The thermal energy extracted – or extractable.
    • The electrical energy supplied for operation
  • Other aspects of the tritium problem I mentioned above.
  • Radiation and radioactive waste
  • The materials problems caused by – putatively – decades of neutron irradiation.
  • The cooling water required.

I could add my own concerns about neutron damage to the immense superconducting magnets that are just a metre or so away from the hottest place in the solar system.

In short, there are really serious problems that have no obvious solution.

4. Alternatives

If there were no alternative, then I would think it worthwhile to face down all these challenges and struggle on.

But there are really good alternatives based on that fusion reactor in the sky – the Sun.

We can extract energy directly from sunlight, and from the winds that the Sun drives around the Earth.

We need to capture only 0.02% of the energy in the sunlight reaching Earth to power our entire civilisation!

The complexity and cost of fusion reactors even makes fission reactors look good!

And all the technology that we require to address what is acknowledged as a climate emergency exists here and now.

By 2050, when (optimistically?) the first generation of fusion reactors might be ready to be built – carbon-free electricity production could be a solved problem.

Nuclear fusion research is, at its best, a distraction from the problem at hand. At worst, it sucks money and energy away from genuinely renewable energy technologies which need it.

We should just stop it all right now.

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]

Road to Nowhere

September 21, 2015
A road to nowhere. This road is 60 metres below the surface of the Finnish peninsula on Olkiluotu and leads to giant silo - the end of the road for low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste in Finland.

A road to nowhere. This road is 60 metres below the surface of the Finnish island of Olkiluotu and leads to two giant silos – the end of the road for low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste in Finland.

I wrote last week that one of the things we in the UK need to build in ‘someone’s back yard’ is a Nuclear Waste Repository.

Last week during a progress meeting for the European Metrodecom project, I joined a visit to the site of such a repository in Finland, on the island of Olkiluoto.

Olkiluoto Island houses two working nuclear reactors, each generating approximately 400 MW of electricity for more than 95% of the time. It is also home to the first construction of a new type of reactor which may (or may not) be built at Hinkley Point in the UK. When completed this third reactor should generate approximately 1600 MW of electricity.

But more important than nuclear generation, Olkiluoto is home to Onkalo (meaning ‘Cave’ or ‘Cavern’) the world’s first final disposal site for high-level waste.

The lower levels of Onkalo are still under construction and so sadly we were not able to visit the tunnels 400 m below the surface. But we did visit the 60 m deep repositories for low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste .

Importantly, these are not ‘storage’ facilities, but represent sites for the final disposal of this waste. When they are full, they will be sealed off and left.

The visit

After three briefings on Olkiluoto in general and Onkalo  in particular, we boarded a bus for a tour of the site, ending up at the entrance to the so-called VLJ repository.

We were asked not to take pictures of the site, but once inside the repository we were told that we could ‘fill up our memory cards’.

We put on obligatory hard hats, and after a large roller-door was raised, we descended on a sloping roadway mined from solid granite.

The tunnel descends, carved out of solid granite.

The tunnel descends, carved out of solid granite.

After 15 minutes or so we reached a large chamber containing two gigantic silos, each about 20 metres in diameter and about 40 metres deep.

Panoramic picture of the Low-level (on the left) and intermediate level (on the right) wast repository.

Panoramic picture of the low-level (on the right) and intermediate level (on the left) waste repository. (Picture from Simon Jerome). Click for larger version.

Above ground, waste is packed into concrete crates about 2 m x 2 m which are then driven along the ‘road to nowhere’ aka the repository. And then lowered by crane into the silo where they are carefully stacked.

Waste is packed into these concrete containers and lowered into the silo

Waste is packed into these concrete containers and lowered into the silo

We weren't allowed to peek into the silos, so this my photograph of a stock photograph of the silo showing the stacks of waste.

We weren’t allowed to peek into the silos, so this my photograph of a stock photograph of the silo showing the stacks of waste.

Most of this waste is ‘operating waste’ from the two existing nuclear reactors on site: typically single-use garments used by maintenance workers and operators, and ion-exchange resin used in maintaining water purity.

The current plan calls for three similar silos to be built to accommodate the decommissioned remains of the two existing reactors at the end of their lives.


By the time that Olkiluoto 1 and 2 reactors are being decommissioned, the Onkalo deep repository will be ready to take all the high-level waste that the reactors have produced over their lifetime.

The fuel rods from the reactors will be removed and placed in water storage for about 10 years – a backlog of fuel awaits the availability of the repository. Bundles of fuel rods are then placed inside a strong cast-iron frame and sealed inside a 4 metre long copper cylinder.

Fuel rod bundles (one visible) are placed in a cast Iron frame (right) chosen for its strength. This is then plced inside a copper cylinder chosen for its corrosion properties.

Fuel rod bundles (one visible) are placed in a cast iron frame (right) which is then placed inside a copper cylinder. Cast iron is chosen for its strength and copper is chosen for its corrosion properties.

Significantly, no attempt is made to reprocess to the fuel. This is somewhat wasteful since useful nuclear material remains unburnt in the fuel rods. But this choice dramatically simplifies the disposal.

Simulated gallery in Onkalo. The tops of several cylinders are visible. When the gallery is full, the space will be back-filled with clay and sealed with a concrete plug.

Simulated gallery in Onkalo. The top of one cylinder is visible and locations of its neighbours can be seen in the distance. When the gallery is full, it will be back-filled with clay and sealed with a concrete plug.

Comparison with the UK

The contrast between the rational Finnish approach and the UK’s ‘let’s put this off and make it someone else’s problem’ approach could not be greater.

Admittedly, Finland’s ‘back yard’ is bigger than the UK’s: they have one tenth our population and twice our land area. And additionally they require a much smaller repository than the UK will require.

However, Finland has begun preparing for disposal of waste before their first generation of reactors have reached the end of their life.

In contrast the UK has been generating about 20% of our electricity from nuclear power for around 50 years, so we have benefited profoundly from nuclear power. Our first generation reactors are now being decommissioned and we have lots of spent fuel and other types of radioactive waste.

But despite spending hundreds of millions of pounds planning, in practical terms, we have done absolutely nothing about safely disposing of nuclear waste – including high level waste.

Some is stored in warehouses, but shamefully a great deal is stored in filthy outdoor pools.

Outdoor storage of nuclear waste at Sellafield

Outdoor storage of nuclear waste at Sellafield.

My visit filled me with a sense of national shame. But overall I feel pleased to have seen this site with my own eyes. Finland has shown the world that safe disposal of nuclear waste is possible, and not at an extravagant cost.

And if they can do it, then why can’t we?


Ready for final disposal

Ready for final disposal

The coolest sandpit in the world.

November 17, 2014

At the end of October 2014 I visited the British Geological Survey, (BGS) in Keyworth, near Nottingham.

I was attending a meeting about ‘geological repositories for either nuclear waste or carbon dioxide.

In the foyer of the BGS  was an ‘interactive sandpit’ in which the height of the sand was monitored by a  Kinect sensor (as used with an X-box games console). From the sand height measurements a computer then calculated an appropriate ‘contour’ image to project onto the sand.

The overall effect was magical and I could have played there for much longer than felt appropriate.

Schematic diagram of the ‘interactive sand pit’. A Kinect sensor determines the sand hight and a computer then calculates an appropriate image to project onto the sand.

The meeting itself was fascinating with a variety of contributors who had completely different perspectives on the challenges.

However what is holding back the construction of a UK repository for nuclear waste is nothing to do with the scientific or engineering challenges: it is a failure of political leadership.

The UK has been a pioneer of nuclear power, the technology through which  we reap the benefits of nuclear power.

But we have been a laggard at cleaning up the radioactive waste generated by the nuclear industry. In this field Sweden and Finland have led the way.

Admittedly their repositories will be smaller than the UK’s, and so easier to construct: I have been informed that the UK’s repository will need to be ‘about the size of Carlisle‘. But it is all do-able.

And when the UK eventually builds a repository, its cost will be inflated by the need to ensure the safety of the repository for a million years. What?…did I just say … one million years? ‘Yes’ I did. And ‘Yes’, that’s bonkers.

This time-scale makes for a number of unique challenges. At the meeting I attended, scientists were confident of the safety for a time-span somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 years. And frankly, for me that would be good enough.

The ridiculous specifications required to be guaranteed before construction can begin, contrast with the laissez faire attitude towards burning carbon and affecting Earth’s climate. Why do we not have a moratorium on emitting carbon until we can be sure it is safe?

For example one area of uncertainty is the potential significance of microbiological fauna within rocks deep below the Earth, something about which we know very little. Do we have to wait until we can understand the millions of as yet undiscovered microbes before we can proceed?

Of course the main uncertainty – which is ultimately unresolvable – arises from the extreme lengths of time under consideration. This leads to consideration of extremely unlikely scenarios

For example, the Swedish repository company SKB is carrying out extensive research on what will happen to the repository if there is another ice age, and the repository is covered by several kilometres of ice.

First of all, given the problem de jour of global warming, this is frankly unlikely. And secondly, if Sweden is covered by several kilometres of ice, then of course all the people in Sweden would already be dead! At that point the safety of the repository would be frankly a moot point.

You can learn about this research in three short but intensely dull videos here.

Wind versus Nuclear: The real story in pictures

November 3, 2014
Graph showing the electricity generated by nuclear and wind power (in gigawatts) every 5 minutes for the months of September and October 2014. The grey area shows the period when wind power exceeded nuclear power.

Graph showing the electricity generated by nuclear and wind power (in gigawatts) every 5 minutes for the months of September and October 2014. The grey area shows the period when wind power exceeded nuclear power. (Click Graph to enlarge)

For a few days in October 2014,  wind energy consistently generated more electricity in the UK than nuclear power. Wow!

You may have become aware of this through several news outlets. The event was reported on the BBC, but curiously the Daily Mail seems not to have noticed .

Alternatively, you may like me, have been watching live on Gridwatch – a web site that finally makes the data on electricity generation easily accessible.

I was curious about the context of this achievement and so I downloaded the historically archived data on electricity generation derived from coal, gas, nuclear and wind generation in the UK for the last three years. (Download Page)

And graphing the data tells a powerful story of the potential of wind generation – but also of the engineering challenges involved in integrating wind power into a controllable generating system.

The challenges arise from the fluctuations in wind power which are very significant. The first challenge is in the (un)predictability of the fluctuations, and the second challenge is coping with them – whether or not they have been predicted. Both these challenges will grow more difficult as the fraction of wind energy used by the grid increases over the next decade.

As an example, consider in detail an event earlier in October shown in the graph at the top of the page

Graph showing the electricity generated by nuclear and wind power (in gigawatts) every 5 minutes for the months of September and October 2014. The grey area shows the period when wind power exceeded nuclear power.

Detail from the graph at the top of the page showing how earlier in October, wind power went from an impressive 6 GW to less than 1 GW in a period of around 18 hours . (Click Graph to enlarge)

The grid operators have a wind forecast running 6 to 24 hours ahead and would have planned for this. The forecasts are typically accurate to about 5% and so at the high end that amounts to a margin of error of 0.3 GW – which is within the reserves that the grid can cope with routinely.

However the fluctuations in wind power are becoming larger as the amount of wind power increases. The graph below shows the monthly averages of electricity produced by Wind and Nuclear since May 2011. Also shown in pink and light blue are the data (more than 300,000 of them!) taken every 5 minutes.

Monthly averages of electricity produced by Wind and Nuclear since May 2011. Also shown in grey are the data (more than 300,000 of them!) taken every 5 minutes. It is clear that the fluctuations in wind power are large - and getting ever larger. (Click Graph to enlarge)

Monthly averages of electricity produced by Wind and Nuclear since May 2011. Also shown in pink and light blue are the data (more than 300,000 of them!) taken every 5 minutes. It is clear that the fluctuations in wind power are large – and getting ever larger. (Click Graph to enlarge)

Incorporating wind energy is a real engineering challenge which costs real money to solve. Nonetheless, as explained in this excellent  Royal Academy of Engineering report, we expect capacity to double to ~20 GW by 2020, and to at least double again by 2030. So these problems do need to be solved

Because wind-generated electricity supply does not respond to electricity demand, as the contribution of wind energy grows we will reach two significant thresholds.

  • When demand is high, unanticipated reductions in wind-generated supply could exceed the margins within which the grid operates.
  • When demand is low, unanticipated increases in wind-generated supply could exceed the base supply from nuclear power which cannot be easily switched off

These challenges will require both economic and engineering adaptations. At the moment, because the marginal cost of wind power is so low, we basically use all the wind power that is available.

However, it is possible to ‘trim’ wind turbines so that they do not produce their maximum output. In a future system with 40 GW of wind generating capacity, we might value predictability  and controllability over sheer capacity. Then as the wind falls, the turbines could adjust to try to keep output constant.

These challenges lie ahead and are difficult but entirely solvable. And their solution will be essential if we really want to phase out fossil fuels by 2100.

But for the moment wind is providing on average about 2 GW of electrical power, which is around 6% of UK average demand. This is a real achievement and as a country we should be proud of it.

Perhaps someone should tell the Daily Mail.

What do you do with an old nuclear reactor?

September 11, 2014
To search for tiny additional additional amounts of radiation you first need to screen out the normal level of radioactive background.

To search for additional amounts of radiation in the scrap from a nuclear power station you first need to screen out the normal level of radioactive background. To do this you must build a ‘chamber’ using special, non-radioactive bricks.

I find myself in the Hotel Opera, Prague this rainy Thursday evening, tired after having spent a fascinating day at the Czech Centre for Nuclear Research UJV Rez.

There I saw one outcome of a European collaboration (called MetroRWM) designed to answer just one of the difficult questions that arises when one needs to take apart an old nuclear power station. This is something Europe will need to become good at in the near future.

This didn’t concern the highly-radioactive parts of the power station: that’s another story.

This concerned the 99% of a nuclear power station which is no more radioactive than a normal power station.

What should happen is that this material should join the normal scrap system and be re-used.

However, the understandable surplus of precaution that surrounds nuclear matters will prevent this, unless every single bucket load of concrete or scrap metal can be verified to have a level of activity less than a specified standard.

The collaboration based at UJV Rez have built an apparatus to do just that. And most importantly, they have proved that it works i.e. that tiny hot-spots on the inside of pipes can be detected quickly and reliably.

Here is how it works.

To detect the tiny levels of radiation potentially coming from hidden radioactive particles, the apparatus uses ultra-sensitive radiation detectors.

However these detectors are useless if they are not shielded because our normal environment contains too much radioactive material. So the first step is to shield the detectors.

The low radiation chamber at UJV Rez At teh far end you can see a fork lift truck loading a pallet which will travel through teh chamber and emerge at this end.

The low-background chamber at UJV Rez At the far end you can see a fork lift truck has just loaded a pallet which will travel through the chamber and emerge at this end. The doors at this end are currently closed.

The UJV team did this by building a ‘room’ using a special type of brick which is almost as good as lead at keeping out radiation, but much cheaper, much lighter, and much easier to work with. Using this they lowered the level of radiation inside to just 1% of the background radiation.

The sensitive radiation detectors can be seen inside the room as the doors open to allow the entry of test pallet.

The two ultra-sensitive radiation detectors can be seen inside the shielded room as the doors open to allow the entry of test pallet.

They then built a system for loading pallets of material on a conveyor at one end, and drawing it through the shielded room to check the radioactivity in all parts of the pallet. The measurement took about 5 minutes, and after this the pallet emerged from the other end (Video below).

The key questions are:

  • How do you ensure that ‘not detecting something’ means that there is none there?
  • Could some activity slip through if it were shielded by some gravel, or steel piping?
  • Could it slip through if it was in the bottom corner of the pallet?

To answer these questions the UJV team, in collaboration with scientists across Europe, created samples that simulated many of these possible scenarios.

Pallets of 'radioactive' waste

Pallets of ‘radioactive’ waste. These pallets are a standard size, but there thickness is determined by the need to be sure any radioactivity trapped inside can be detected. The pallets above have been made very slightly more radioactive than the background.

One of their clever ways of testing the machine was to create samples of known radioactivity and place them inside hollow steel balls (actually petanque balls!).

A colleague showing a very low level sample of known activity coudl be place inside a hollow steel ball,simulating radiation trapped inside steel pipes.

A colleague showing a very low level sample of known activity which can be placed inside a hollow steel ball,simulating radiation trapped inside steel pipes.

The machine could then search for the activity when the balls were arranged in many different ways.

A pallet filled with steel balls, some of which have radioactive samples of known activty concealed inside.

A pallet filled with steel balls, some of which have radioactive samples of known activity concealed inside.

The aim of all this effort is that at the end of the day, scrap material like that in the picture below can be rapidly screened on-site and sent to be recycled in the confidence that no hazard will ensue at any time in the future no matter how this material is treated.

The aim of the system is to screen very diverse scrap such these old pipes and ducts.

The aim of the system is to screen very diverse scrap such these old pipes and ducts.

These measurements are not easy – but this work really impressed me.

Why headlines matter

July 22, 2014

Consider the following:

  • Imagine a hypothetical country in which the president made a decision to change the rules by which medication for heart disease was prescribed.
  • And suppose that in this country a woman died from a heart-related problem and her grieving son blamed his mother’s death on the President’s decision.
  • And further suppose that a reporter interviewed the son who said: “I feel as though the President has stabbed my mother through the heart”.
  • And finally imagine that a newspaper ran this reporter’s story with the headline at the start of this article:

President stabs woman through heart

Now if I read that headline I would assume that it was an assertion of a fact. But in fact it isn’t. And once I read the article and discovered that this was a quote from a grieving individual I would ask:

  • How did that headline, with its misleading and negative view get written?
  • If the newspaper wanted to highlight this important issue, why did they pick this misleading headline which undermines their own credibility?

So back to reality, and a letter from Thom Davis (reproduced in full at the end of this article) who thinks that I have been unfair in my comments on his article in The Independent.

I called attention to the fact that the article’s headline asserted that as a result of the Chernobyl disaster there were ‘cemeteries the size of cities’. This is completely untrue. And to me it raised the same two questions I highlighted above.

I am not sure of the timeline, but as I recall it, when I tweeted the author for more details he went quiet and when I looked again at the article, the headline had changed to something which was not an untruth. It may have been as a result of my questioning that the headline was changed. The newspaper made no record that the article had been changed.

Months later Thom wrote to me arguing at length that I should conclude nothing from the fact that a misleading headline was placed above his article: that it was just an editing mistake. I beg to differ.

Reading the article itself, without the misleading steer of its headline one can hear Thom’s genuine concern for the plight of these refugees. And I am happy to accept that the headline was indeed not of his choosing.

But in what Universe could a junior editor claim the existence of hundreds of thousands of dead people? The answer is: only in a Universe where nonsense is believed and propagated as easily as in a school playground. And I find it hard to believe that anyone in that profession could be unaware of its potential impact on UK readers.

The point of my article was to highlight this misleading headline and the fact it was changed without any record of the change. And that The Independent has a history of doing this.

The Independent did Thom a disservice in choosing a headline which exposed their own editorial prejudice and undermined his article’s credibility.

The headline of an article sets the tone and expectation for an article. And it matters.

P.S. (A blog is not a newspaper article, but for the sake of accuracy, I edited the text in red on Tuesday 5th August 2014)


  • My original article is here
  • Thom’s article – with its modified headline – is here
  • Thom’s reply to my article is reproduced in full below

Dear Protons for Breakfast,

I am the author of this article.

I did not choose the original title. As I believe I pointed out in a following tweet (not shown above).

As Vanessa rightly suggests, it is standard practice in journalism for the titles and taglines to be the choice of the editor. As soon as I read the title, I immediately emailed the editor to get it changed. Which he promptly did, within minutes. I agree with you, to put “cemeteries the size of cities” in the title like this is obviously misleading, as this is not what the article is saying – and precisely why I had the title changed immediately. It seems in your critique of the article you have focussed upon this.

For what it is worth I do not think the editor did this on purpose as some kind of anti-nuclear (or in your words ‘Nuclear Nonsense’) agenda – but was merely the consequence of a misreading and rushed deadline. As Vanessa suggests:

“An alternative approach might be to acknowledge the possible devaluing of an otherwise informative article from a specialist author by a flawed editorial process – and perhaps even to credit the editors for the fact they changed the headline quickly.”

As is quite clear is you read the text, the cemeteries quote comes from an interview with a research participant who was stressing how Evacuation and forced displacement has killed more people, in his opinion, than living with the constant threat of radiation. Like many others who live near the Exclusion Zone, he believes more people have been killed through forced evacuation than from staying to live with the radiated landscape.

It is a widely held opinion that the stress of becoming an environmental refugee has negatively impacted the lives and health of the hundreds of thousands who were forced to abandon their homes. Something supported by other academic research on other disasters, and from many interviews I have conducted with evacuees.

The revised title, made minutes after I emailed the editor now reads:

“Ukraine’s other crisis: Living in the shadow of Chernobyl – where victims receive just 9p a month and are left to fend for themselves”

This is something I stand by 100%. And I am grateful for The Independent’s swift action on this.

I am guessing your following critique is based on the briefly shown original erroneous title:
“by making unjustified and hyperbolic claims, the whole article becomes discredited: which parts should we believe?”

It is clear (from reading the main text) that the original title is an editorial error. If you believe other parts of the article are in anyway hyperbolic or unjustified I would very much like to hear, as this is a topic I take incredibly seriously. I very strongly dispute for example that what I have written counts as ‘Nuclear Nonsense’. It is based on three years of in-depth ethnographic research with communities throughout Ukraine.

Your assumption that the point of the article was “to cause people to think twice about nuclear power in the UK” is also unfounded. As the author of this article, I can tell you that the point – would you believe it – was to draw attention to the plight of people I have spent years getting to know in Ukraine, who are continuing to suffer from nuclear disaster. Something I believe this article achieves.

You say that the “article [is] seeking to conjure a horrific vision, which is just nonsense, and not true.” I would love to know on what basis you think what I have written is both ‘nonsense’ and ‘not true’?

I am glad this article, for whatever reason, has caused a discussion, as I believe it is an important subject, especially for those involved.

If you are interested further in my research on this subject, I can suggest reading this peer reviewed academic article:

Best wishes,

Thom Davies

Nuclear Nonsense in The Independent

April 28, 2014

Can you spot the difference between the two headlines below?

Two headlines for the same independent story about the plight of residents of the Chernobyl district of the Ukraine

Two headlines for the same Independent story about the plight of residents of the Chernobyl district of the Ukraine. The first one claims there are ‘cemetaries the size of cities’: this is not true.

That’s right: The first shocking headline claims the existence of’cemeteries the size of cities’. The implication is clear: that vast numbers of people have died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.

This was not my understanding, and  I was so shocked by this claim that I tweeted the author: you can read our conversation below:

weets exchanged with Thom Davies. I have no idea if this was personal or public conversation - twitter is like that!

Tweets exchanged with Thom Davies: Thom didn’t reply to my last question. t have no idea if this was personal or public conversation – twitter is like that!

After this exchange I thought I would re-read the article and was surprised to find that the headline had changed. Indeed, I wondered if I had been mistaken in what I had seen, but fortunately I had left a browser window open and was able capture an image of the earlier page.

So what have we learned?

Firstly we learn that there are no ‘cemeteries the size of cities’ containing the unacknowledged dead from Chernobyl.

Secondly we learn that despite the absence of ‘cemeteries the size of cities’, the Chernobyl disaster was just that: an ongoing disaster played out in the lives of poor people trying to earn a living.

The ‘point’ of the article was probably to draw attention to their plight and to cause people to think twice about nuclear power in the UK. However by making unjustified and hyperbolic claims, the whole article becomes discredited: which parts should we believe?

And finally we learn that The Independent is continuing its splendid tradition of nonsense front page ‘scare’ stories. They have sadly taken down their front page story from  Sunday 20th January 2008.

That story began routinely reporting results of an unrefereed conference article which claimed that mobile phone radiation affected the sleep of a cohort of people studied. Scratching around for supporting evidence they wrote:

It also complements other recent research. A massive study, following 1,656 Belgian teenagers for a year, found most of them used their phones after going to bed. It concluded that those who did this once a week were more than three times – and those who used them more often more than five times – as likely to be “very tired”.

I would like to finish by saying that ‘you can’t make this stuff up’. Except that The Independent can. And continues to do so.

Do we really want lower energy prices?

October 31, 2013
Graph from the Daily Mail, 16th August 2013. It shows that increases in prices of electricity has resulted in a reduction in consumption. The question is

Graph from the Daily Mail, 16th August 2013. It shows that increases in prices of electricity has resulted in a reduction in consumption. The question is this: “Is this a good thing, a bad thing or just an ‘obviously true’ thing?”

The gist of news stories about our energy supply in the last few weeks is that energy – electricity and gas – is ‘too expensive’. However I disagree: I think that energy is not just ‘too cheap’, it is much too cheap. Let me explain.

Cheap energy feels great. When energy is cheap, poor people can keep warm in winter: in the vernacular of the press, they can heat and eat. And importantly they don’t worry about their fuel bills which makes them both warm and happy. Likewise transport becomes cheaper, and everything that we manufacture or grow becomes cheaper to produce and move – and so we make more things and sell more things to people who are not using their money to pay fuel bills. So the economy grows, and we all – on average – benefit.

However there are two problems with cheap energy. Firstly  when energy is cheap we use more of it. And then we spend less on things which helps us reduce energy consumption. For example, if energy is cheap it makes less sense to insulate houses well. Then when energy prices do rise, we will find ourselves doubly disadvantaged. The cause of this expected rise is not to do with the environment but simply that many more people on the planet want to use the finite amount of coal and gas to which we have access. Of course, if we took advantage of cheap energy to increase our investment in energy-saving measures then that would make sense: but sadly that is the opposite of what happens.

The second problem is that cheap energy is dirty energy. Cheap electricity comes from coal and gas and is associated with emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As I mentioned in a previous post, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted is phenomenal and rising year on year. To the best of our knowledge and understanding, it has, in our lifetimes, changed the climate of the planet and we expect the effects to increase over the coming decades. This effect is irreversible. Energy sources which don’t cause this pollution are all much more difficult in one way or another than burning fossil fuels. In other words, energy produced sustainably is more expensive.

So cheap energy feels good, makes everyone happy (except me), and gives rise to economic growth. However, it causes us to reduce investment in energy-saving measures and makes sustainable energy generation uneconomic. It also makes the effects of Global Warming – whatever they turn out to be – worse.

So what can we do? The only realistic way to reduce energy consumption is to increase the price of energy – see the graph at the head of the page. This makes sense in the long term, but results in suffering in the short term. Is it still possible to imagine a United Kingdom in which some sense of social justice could ameliorate the effects of increasing energy prices? I would like to think it is, but I am not sure.

Hinkley C: Is it a good deal?

October 21, 2013
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? Click for a larger view. Image from AREVA – see link at end of article

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.

My thoughts consist of three tangled strands concerning the price of electricity; the wider issue of energy costs; and the barely mentioned issue of carbon dioxide emissions. For this evening, let’s just look at the costs.

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 ‘strike price’ is the guaranteed minimum selling price of electricity generated by the stations and the figure agreed with the government is £92.50 per MWh – with the possibility that the figure will drop slightly if further reactors are built. This is equivalent to 9.25 pence per kWh – the electricity units on our electricity bills.

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 10% per annum return on their investment for 35 years.

Is the ‘strike price’ right? Well I obviously don’t know, but it is interesting to compare it with the current wholesale price of electricity which is quoted to be around  £55 per MWh. This price is dominated by the price of coal  which (as I write) is generating 43% of the UK’s electricity. Coal is not in short supply worldwide but it does emit lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: nearly 1 tonne for every MWh of electricity produced.

The guaranteed  price of offshore wind power is currently £155 per MWh, although this will fall to £135 by 2018. Onshore wind is currently guaranteed £100 per MWh, falling to £95 in 2018, with large solar farms getting £125 per MWh, due to fall to £110 per MWh by 2018.

I am not an economist, but in this context £92.50 per MWh doesn’t seem a crazy price for electricity which has very low associated carbon dioxide emissions. That doesn’t mean that it’s the best possible thing we could do. But it is probably not the worst either.


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