Another Dying Dictator

One time dictator, sometime friend of the US, sometime great Satan, Saddam Hussein, has been sentenced in an Iraqi court to die for his crimes against humanity.

No one can deny that he is a nasty piece of work, someone guilty many times over of crimes against “his” people. Even the most vehement lefty will endorse that view. No one doubts his guilt for a moment.


Leaving aside the huge problems with the death penalty, and the almost overwhelming issues with the judicial taking of life, this has all the makings of yet another celebrated death. Yet another moment when seemingly right thinking people cheer the snuffing out of a life. Not unlike when the Bali bombers were given a similar sentence a few years ago.

Lets make this one thing clear: no one’s death should be celebrated. No death should be cheered, no matter whom it befalls. No matter how evil a murderer or dictator, no matter what they have done in life to make their name vilified across the world, their death should still not be a moment of joy for anyone.

They should be punished, heavily punished – lock them in the darkest cell for the rest of their lives, show them photos of their victims, try and get it through their arrogant skulls that they have done evil against other human beings. But don’t kill them. A corpse in the ground feels no guilt, a corpse in the ground feels no remorse. Let him stew for his many crimes in a dark corner somewhere. Perhaps outside Iraq so no one need be concerned that he’ll escape and take over again. Stick him in the cell next to Noriega, perhaps.

Now, on a related note, could it be have been made any clearer who’s agenda is given priority in Iraq? That’s right, as usual the US administration is playing politics with the whole world. Lets spell it out:

Saturday – The evil dictator everyone loves to hate is sentenced to the harshest penalty known.

The following Tuesday – The Republican party, which prides itself on running a “tough” foreign policy, faces mid-term congressional and senate elections it is widely expected to lose. While, I might add, dealing with a large number of distracting scandals of it’s own making.

Hmmm. Could there possibly be a connection? I can hear the denials being drafted right now.

By the way, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this and your in the US – go out and vote. I don’t care who for, just go and vote because you can and you never know, it might end with Emperor Cheney behaving himself a bit better.

Have a nice election.

A Nuclear Power Plant Is Just Another Machine

Like it or not, the long dormant nuclear power debate has come to the boil again.

Leaving aside the curious way this has become an active “debate” – one wonders which powerful interests and lobbies are behind it, one wonders what inspired them of late to hire spin doctors and light a fire under conservative politicians. Conservative politicians who insult us by pretending this is a “Green” technology. Leaving that speculation behind, there are a lot of technical issues that make nuclear power problematic.

First, let us consider Uranium and Plutonium, the two fuels used by (two different kinds of) nuclear power reactors. These two metals are inherently dangerous. Inhaling a speck – literally speck – of plutonium, is fatal. Storing nuclear fuels, mining it, processing it, requires extraordinary precautions. Layers of lead shielding, impenetrable vessels, steel and cement structures. And everything it touches then becomes contaminated and some form of low or high level nuclear waste.

Compare this to a couple of other common fuels. Say aviation fuel and coal.

Both these substances are somewhat dangerous, and prone to ignition. And potentially explosive, if exposed to a flame or spark. However, the procedures for storing this stuff is simple – you shouldn’t feel particularly nervous standing next to a tank of avgas or a pile of coal. Left to themselves, they are relatively harmless.

The same is not true of nuclear fuel. It’s always emitting something, always there needing to be shielded – the precautions required aren’t just passive (avoiding naked flames) but active.

Now, say you had three containers, each about a litre in volume, one filled with chunks of coal, one with avgas and one with plutonium. If you pour the coal out of the container, it might leave some dust. If you pour the avgas, the container would be slick, still with the a layer of fuel, but could be cleaned and used again for something else. Remove the plutonium, and forever afterwards the container it was in will remember, it will still be radioactive, it will need special treatment to dispose of it. Not to mention that that volume of plutonium could be enough to achieve critical mass, either melting under it’s own heat or exploding. This stuff can also only be stored in small quantities, not too close to each other.

Now, consider two accidentally events, one involving coal the other nuclear fuel. A coal fire might be devastating and dangerous – but once the flames are out, the net result is local and temporary. There might be some burnt buildings and some smoke in the air. Now, compare to a nuclear accident. The results are impossible to predict, not locally confined, and very long lasting. To this day, some farms in Scotland are still being tested for radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Extensive, long range, long lasting effects are inherent with this stuff. It is not a neutral, benign substance.

Turning to nuclear power plants.

A nuclear power plant is a machine, a large and immensely complicated machine, and at the same time a very specialised container for an inherently dangerous substance. A reactor is a complex machine which could be compared to other complex machines – say modern transport jets or indeed the Space Shuttle. The comparison is also apt because all these systems are extremely heavily regulated and have extremely stringent safety standards.

Let have a quick closer look at a jet aircraft – say, a Boeing 737. Each individual aircraft has a stringent maintenance regime, laid down by regulators and the manufacturer, from the moment it rolls out of the factory. After x number of flying hours, these check shall be performed, after x more hours, this maintenance will be required, and so on up to and including striping older aircraft back to the bare metal and looking for hairline fatigue cracks in the airframe. Every part in every aircraft is tracked. Almost weekly there are new additions made to the maintenance manual. After every accident, there are more maintenance tasks added to the list. A plane isn’t allowed off the ground or into the airspace of a given country unless it can be proved to have passed all these checks.

All this is necessary because flying is inherently dangerous. So as far as possible – regardless of the economic consequences to the airlines – all the planes in the sky are taking a known and minimised risk, from a mechanical point of view.

Now, despite all of this, it is impossible to swear that no aircraft will ever fall out of the sky unexpectedly. This is not a guarantee which can be given. Despite the manuals and the engineers crawling all over the planes.

Aircraft occasionally fail for unexpected reasons, like any machine. They have fallen out of the sky because of a single metal filing falling into a screw hole. They have fallen out of the sky because of a mis-applied piece of duct tape. The more complex the machine, the more points of failure. The more complex the machine, the more likely some unknown will one day cause an accident. Look at the space shuttle. No amount of diligent maintenance can reduce this possibility to zero. All moving parts will fail, sooner or later.

A nuclear power plant is also a complex machine.

A nuclear power plant is a complex machine with many complicated sub-systems, several of which – the cooling system for example – are so vital that a failure would guarantee an accident of some sort.

Therefore, it is also impossible to swear than no power plant will ever fail. It cannot be guaranteed, complex systems can and will fail.

A plane crashes into the ground. People in it and on the ground are killed. The houses are rebuilt, the wreckage is cleared up. Devastating for those involved. Devastating for the place where it happened. But you can visit the runway at Tenerife where the worse plane crash every occurred. And find no evidence, at no consequence to yourself.

A reactor explodes. Radiation enters the atmosphere and spread thousands of kilometres on the prevailing winds. The site is off limits (effectively) forever. People exposed at a great distance from the event – in both time and space – are effected. Can we see the difference?

Most modern reactors – outside the old Soviet Union at least – are surrounded by a containment vessel. These are the domed cement shapes one sees in photos of reactors. The idea being that any accident or leakage will be contained inside this structure. This has not been tested in any serious way, although the reactor accident at Three Mile Island (aka Harrisberg) was contained in such a building. This just has the effect of localising the accident, making the building permanently – literally for thousands of years – off-limits. And other lower-level accidents at other similar plants around the world have still managed to release radioactivity into the environment.

Think about the machines around you. Think about how much you trust them. We all take calculated risks, stepping into a car, getting on to a plane, taking the lift. The nuclear power industry and, to a similar extent the (still active) nuclear weapons industry are all taking these risks for us. However, the consequences are so far reaching and so unpredictable, it’s a wonder that they are allowed at all.

At that other notable accident, Chernobyl, during the reactor fire, a vivid blue glow lit up the sky above the reactor as charged particles and x-rays ionised the air above it. People in the town stood on bridges watching this beautiful sight – exposing themselves to dangerous levels of radiation. The fire fighters and other rescue crew on site lived or died simply because they did or didn’t step around a certain corner, they did or didn’t stand in a direct line of sight to the burning reactor.

It is literally only a matter of time and random chance before this happens to one of the existing reactors. Do we really want to increase their number?

No new reactor has been ordered in the US since 1978, none has been completed since 1995. There is talk of “new, safer reactor designs.” These exist exclusively on paper. Would you fly in the very first of a brand new model of plane which has never taken off before?

And regardless of the safety of the reactor, it’s inputs and outputs are all inherently dangerous, for extraordinarily long periods. It will be generations before the city of Chernobyl will be inhabitable again. The US Department of Energy is burying thousands of tons of high-level nuclear waste in a salt deposit in New Mexico. They’re about to spend billions and billions of dollars marking a location as off limits and unsafe – for at least 10,000 years. Why on earth would we want to be expanding this industry?

Cut through the crap. Nuclear power is an answer looking for a question. Nuclear power would be swapping one bad pollution source for one far far worse.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary Delahunty, sometime newsreader, sometime member for the Victorian lower house seat of Northcote, has packed her bags and left parliament. Only some six weeks before the next state election.

This seems to have been genuinely a sudden decision, since her campaign was actively organizing and raising money as of a fortnight ago, and she also contested a trivial pre-selection battle a few months back. At a personal level, Mary Delahunty has a had a rough trot – losing her mother a few weeks ago, and her husband a few years before that. And she’s been diagnosed with an undisclosed illness recently.

But the threat of being sent to the back bench must also have been on her mind.

So let the games begin.

Northcote is a plum seat, a safe labor seat for generations. Or it least it was, at the last poll, the Greens were nipping at the heals of the ALP. Which is completely consistent with the demographic of the area. Lesbians, young professionals, latte sipping lefties, students (those who can still afford it), the Greens core constituency. Which is saddening, since barely ten years ago they would have been Labor’s core constituents. That is another story.

What the place needs is a strong local candidate, who hasn’t just been parachuted in as part of some cross factional deal. A strong local candidate who knows the area and the people, might actually be recognizable, and might actually share some of the beliefs of the local population.

Chances of this happening? Diddly.

Safe seats are a prize, they are in relatively short supply and hence much cherished, to be haggled over and presented as rewards to “loyal” members of the party. So they can keep a seat warm for a few years, then get a nice shiny pension. Then there is the “celebrity candidate”, recruited with invaluable built-in recognition. Find them another of the safe seats, displacing the locally chosen candidate if any, and hope some of their magic rubs off on the party.

We the people of Northcote have been subjected to both. As a reward for working hard and being loyal party members, as a reward for professing for year after year the values the party (kinda) stands for, we get… Used as a reward in some factional deal.

Pity us who live in the safe seats. The roads are crumbling, the local infrastructure gets older and older. There are no swinging voters here to impress, so no motivation to throw money at us.

Pre-selections for Mary’s old seat opened and closed very soon afterwards. Two names were put forward – a party functionary, already on an upper house ticket, and an ex-Mayor of Darebin. Guess who has got the seat?

The deal was simple really: Northcote, for obscure reasons, was “awarded” to the right of the party. Fiona Richardson, who was first on the ticket for the Western upper house district will get our seat. Justin Madden, who was shifting to the lower house over in Bundoora, takes her spot at the top of the upper house ticket. And the guy who came second to Justin for the Bundoora seat will now contest it instead.

Get it?

The stupidest part about this deal: two out of three of the people involved already had safe positions in the parliament. It would have been skin off no-one’s nose to allow someone from Northcote to contest the seat of Northcote, no one would have to be shoved aside or go unrewarded.

Perhaps Fiona Richardson will make an effort to get to know the locals. Perhaps she really is from nearby, as she claims. Perhaps her electoral office will be open decent hours, with someone in it so the people of Northcote can talk to their local member. Perhaps she will work hard for the area, talk us up in the seat of government, pipe up for us in debates. Perhaps the loyalty of the local members will be rewarded. Perhaps she will regularly attend branch meetings, and not take on too many ministerial responsibilities. Perhaps she will take on issues close to the heart of the local Lesbian community. And the Kooris. Not to mention the groups fighting to rescue Merri Creek. Perhaps. We shall wait and see.

Howard’s Mental Health Day

It might be a hard concept to get your head around, but… Our prime minister did something this week we can only applaud.

Starting from next month, the services of psychologists and other mental health professionals will finally be claimable on Medicare. I believe everyone would be entitled to ten or twelve counseling sessions per year, plus they’re giving more resources GPs to help with people’s brains.

Our prime minister came out with this long-overdue change on the first day of Mental Health Week. Although of course it would have been initiated by the health department, who in turn have probably been prompted by literally years of reports telling them this was the way to go. As often happens, he’s probably taking the credit for policy made elsewhere. But if his presence increases the number of cameras and the attention when the announcement is made…

Until now, only psychiatrists have been claimable. Some psychologists take a dim view of psychiatrists and no doubt vice-versa. What ever your preference, you can now chose the discipline of your choice to help sort you out. The figures are pretty scary – over a lifetime, one in five of the people reading this will need the help of a professional. And now finally it won’t be a matter of the kind of care you can afford.

Now, all we need is for trips to the Dentists to be claimable.

And, perhaps more interestingly, could this be the first sign of a miniscule amount of compassion in the federal coalition? Could we be seeing Tony Abbott and Mr. Prime Minister developing a soft side? I’m not holding my breath, these guys are interested first and foremost in gaining and maintaining power, showing a soft side is no doubt part of that larger strategy. And strangely, sometimes the right things happen for the wrong reasons.

Make yourself an appointment now.

Mental Health Week (Victoria)