Half-life?

For the third of this week’s posts about our holiday on Anglesey we’re going on a walk, on a Nature Trail, unlike any walk either of us has been on before.

The sunshine of the last two idyllic days of cliff walking, lighthouse climbing and wildflower exploring has gone, so it’s a cloudy Monday morning as we set off to walk on this remote Anglesey headland.

Wylfa Head.

Wylfa Head.

That’s at the far end of the headland. The starting point for our Nature Trail looks much more manicured.

Neat lawns, neat notices.

Neat lawns, neat notices.

We set off into the woodland.

We set off into the woodland.

Almost immediately coming across the first clue about the place where we are.

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Too small to read the writing? We walk on.

There’s a funny buzzing noise we can hear now. Buzzing and crackling. And it’s getting louder.

Looking a bit industrial for a woodland?

Looking a bit industrial for a woodland?

But pleasant enough as the sun breaks through.

But pleasant enough as the sun breaks through.

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Passing directly underneath that giant pylon and close to the source of the loud, electrical buzzing that's been getting louder for a while now.

Passing directly underneath that giant pylon and close to the source of the loud, electrical buzzing that’s been getting louder for a while now.

We of course know precisely where we are, and you’ve probably guessed by now that it’s a power station. A nuclear power station.

We pass another 'Emergency Plume Gamma Monitoring Out Station'.

We pass another ‘Emergency Plume Gamma Monitoring Out Station’.

Yes, it’s emissions monitoring equipment.

Next we head up the hill to the viewing platform we’re expecting up ahead.

As well as being on this Nature Trail, we're also on part of the Anglesey Circular Walk here.

As well as being on this ‘Nature Trail’, we’re also on part of the Anglesey Circular Walk here.

Up the hill...

Up the hill…

To the viewing platform...

To the viewing platform…

At Wylfa Nuclear Power Station.

At Wylfa Nuclear Power Station.

This is a public space. We haven’t sneaked up here. We’ve been to a Visitor Centre, yes really, where very helpful people have told us exactly where we can go, and that it’s ok to take photographs. Nevertheless this feels like one of the strangest experiences of both of our lives. A bit like we’re in some 1960s science fiction drama.

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The tallest of the buildings contains the two nuclear reactors.

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And I’ve been near to here before. My last time was in 1966 during a family holiday in Anglesey. We were on a day out nearby, at the beach at Cemaes Bay, when our Dad drove us up to the top of a hill to look down on this thing that he was working on, that was still being built.

It was the days of Harold Wilson and Tony Benn’s ‘White heat of the technological revolution’ and I know I was very proud that my Dad was so much a part of it. He worked as an Engineering Draughtsman for English Electric on the East Lancs Road in Liverpool, and his current work was being part of designing the switchgear for Wylfa Nuclear Power Station. When it was finished it was going to be the most powerful nuclear power station on Earth. Powerful enough to supply the needs of the whole of Wales or, alternatively, all of Liverpool and Manchester. It felt like standing on a new frontier.

Now, Wylfa is being decommissioned. Coming to the end of its productive life.

But now, Wylfa is being decommissioned. Coming to the end of its economically productive life.

Though not of course to the end of its active life. We’d learned earlier that Reactor Two here has already been shut down, and Reactor One will be following by the end of 2014. Which is when the true decommissioning will begin, the slow, protected, encased and even buried half-life of nuclear materials when our use for them has passed, but their aeons of being an environmental threat to the future begin.

And as we complete our ‘Nature Trail’ on Wylfa Head a discussion between us two begins which we want to try and give you a flavour of. A discussion we might all want to be having before too long.Anglesey19

Walking off through this marked up woodland still making up only half-joking science-fiction scenarios.

Walking off through this marked up woodland still making up only half-joking science-fiction scenarios.

Past ancient gates behind which the ancient house has been long absent.

Past ancient gates behind which the ancient house has been long gone.

And further neatly manicured pathways.

And further neatly manicured pathways.

To our Nature Trail's end.

To our Nature Trail’s end.

So, nuclear power, it’s a clear ‘no’ isn’t it, obviously?

Well for most of the years since I stood so proudly watching Wylfa being built back in the 1960s I’d have agreed with that unhesitatingly. From the 1970s onwards I came to agree with most people ‘on the left’ in Britain that nuclear anything was a bad idea. Now, I’m not so sure. I think that climate change might have changed everything.

The beginning of my mind opening up to even the possibility of not being totally and implacably opposed to all things nuclear came about three years ago when I read Stewart Brand’s ‘Whole Earth Discipline’. I’d followed and respected Stewart Brand’s thoughts and writings for years, on environmentalism, buildings and time, and have written about him on here before. So when his new book linked global warming and our continuing survival on the planet to the urgent need to scale down our use of carbon burning fuels, which are in any case running out, then I felt obliged to listen carefully when he talked about what else we might do to warm our homes and fuel our lives on this blue-green planet, in ways that won’t continue to damage the atmosphere, the way the industrial use of carbon’s been doing for the last 200 years.

He thought that we’d have to get clever, use our intelligence and curiosity, and engage with scientific possibilities rather than turn our backs on all progress. And that some of this progress might be nuclear.

9781843548164As a long-term and noted environmentalist he was critical of what he was now seeing as an old style, almost sentimental environmentalism. Inclined to be opposed to everything, close to conservatism of the nimbyest kind, imagining we can fix the disaster of what humanity has done to our atmosphere and weather systems by enthusiastic recycling and bike riding.

Not enough, he says, nowhere near enough.

We’re going to have to get clever. And part of that involves, for him, taking a serious second look at nuclear power and what possibilities it holds now – as well as other new energy technologies sure – and becoming new kinds of environmentalists, because we have the intelligence, and because we have to. Climate change has changed everything.

In an Afterword to ‘Whole Earth Discipline’ Stewart Brand has this to say:

“We’re engaging in a set of activities which go way beyond the individual life span, way beyond children, grandchildren, way beyond parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, to the whole frame of at least civilizational life. Once you get comfortable with that, then you start to go further out still, to three and a half billion years of life on Earth, and maybe we’ll do another three and a half billion years. That’s kind of interesting to try to hold in your mind. And once you’ve held it in your mind, what do you do on Monday?”

Well, if you’ve got the time here’s a 16 minute film of him summarising the book, or just cut to the nuclear bit from 8:00 onwards:

But this is not all about Stewart Brand, and certainly not about me and my shifting opinions. Other’s opinions on nuclear power are gradually beginning to soften too, after many years of broad acceptance that it was dangerous and bad. The Labour government in the UK set up an ‘Office for Nuclear Development’ in 2008 and there are now thoughts about constructing a new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK, including one at Wylfa, even as this older generation are being decommissioned.

So, prompted by this rather strange ‘Nature Trail’ round a nuclear power station, we began discussing the pros and the cons of all of this. A discussion we’ll continue below, with you too if you’re interested? Sarah was particularly concerned about nuclear waste. She said:

“OK, fair enough, they have this film at the visitor centre, admittedly it’s a bit old, so it’s made before 9/11 and the world is still innocent enough to actually allow people to look round the power station. Not so anymore, because of ‘security’. Anyway, the film outlines how nuclear fission actually works, how clean it is, how our need (or greed?) for electricity continues to grow… and how we need to find ways of meeting that demand. I get all that. And with nuclear electricity we are shown how cleanly and effectively it can meet that demand. Except – and of course, there’s going to be something isn’t there? – except that although it doesn’t contribute to the greenhouse effect, it does have waste to deal with. The different levels of waste are explained to us – low, intermediate and high. And how the waste is currently dealt with is explained, very matter of factly. Which basically means that it’s stored ‘somewhere’ while the half-life expires and the material no longer becomes a danger. The half-life of some of the nuclear waste products range from 9,000 years to 10,000,000,000 years. That’s a long time. But don’t worry, because – here’s the good news – if all the electricity you used in your lifetime was generated by nuclear energy then the amount of waste produced – just for one person – would be a small suitcase of low grade, a briefcase of intermediate grade, and a mere teacup of high grade. But… and here’s the thing, there’s 60 million people in this country, and even I can see that 60 million teacups take up a lot of space… and that’s even if we manage to find somewhere ‘safe’ to put them. Because, as we can see with the reaction for potential wind farm can generate – no-one wants these ‘eyesores’ in front of or near their homes do they? No, the nimbyists hate that. So. Anyone want a nuclear dump next to their home? That’s my concern, the issue of waste.”

So, could we find a way of creating controllable nuclear fission, that would in turn create energy for the future, without in turn creating nuclear waste to potentially poison that future? Only by engaging with science and its possibilities. A final contribution from Stewart Brand’s ‘Afterword’ article:

“I visited the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. There a vast array of lasers aims to focus 500 terawatts of energy for a billionth of a second on a BB-sized target made of hydrogen isotopes and ignite it in a fusion reaction. Impressive early tests suggest that successful ignition could occur by 2011. From that point it might be as short as a decade to a working prototype of a 1-gigawatt fusion power plant.”

The future is out there being worked on, and I think it needs engaging with so it’s done with us and not to us. It may be inconvenient and uncomfortable to change long-held beliefs, but in the face of the climate change we’re experiencing and facing, considering changing our minds might be the most intelligent thing we humans can do.

Or we could choose to stick with old style environmentalism, and just say no.

Like, later on the afternoon of our ‘Nature Trail’ holiday walk we saw this sign, further down the Anglesey coast in neat, nice, settled and therefore full of phones and warm homes Beaumaris. Seeming to say ‘By all means move electricity around…

Just not round here.

Just not round here where we can see it.’

I could keep on writing, about simpler, more locally based lifestyles, changing how much energy we need to generate anyway. And discussions here will continue.

But what do you think?

4 thoughts on “Half-life?

    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      I’ve been thinking over all this for a while, Stan. Then the other day when we were driving past Wylfa, having been to look at a nearish nature reserve, Sarah said ‘Let’s go in’ and we talked about nuclear power for the rest of the day, and this post began to write itself.

      Reply
  1. The Accidental Amazon

    I’ve gone through a very similar thought process about this. It’s a dilemma, isn’t it? It’s also rather eerie that the surrounding landscape is so beautiful. I’ve begun doing some research on getting solar panels installed on my house. I cannot quite believe that more builders aren’t trying to incorporate more green, energy saving elements in new home construction. There’s so much to do, so much more research, care, thought, etc., needed. *sigh* Thanks for this, Ronnie. Thought provoking, to say the least. xo, Kathi

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Thanks Kathi, as I’m typing this there is a humongous rain storm pouring down, close to hailstones and in no way a gentle, sentimental summer shower. To be replying to your comment on a Climate Change post with this happening is so apt and so here.

      I keep hoping we’ve got time. Time to change, to do all the good scientific enquiring and debating I’m writing about. Time for us all to think.

      And I’m glad that over in Rhode Island you’re thinking about it too.

      As for the environment around Wylfa, the natural sparse headland is very beautiful and I’m guessing their ‘Nature Trail’ might be what’s left of the garden of the grand house that was behind those gates, with added neat verges for the public now. A touching effort, I thought, to show how ‘green’ nuclear is, at least in their own eyes.

      It was a rich and strange experience xx

      Reply

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