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.

A Boot Stamping on a Human Face

The Actors’ Gang’ Production of 1984 @ State Theatre.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” – O’Brian.

For the briefest of seasons, the Actors Gang, a Los Angele’s based theatre group co-founded by Tim Robbins (who directed this production) have brought a play version of 1984 to the arts centre. By the time you read this, you’ll have already missed the all six performances.

It’s plugged on the posters as “George Orwell’s 1984”, which seems redundant – surely most people on earth know of 1984. Which is part of the interest in making a play of this work – the book is so widely read, most members of the audience would know the basics of the story.

The company faced the same problem that faces film directors working from novels: How to fit all that material into a reasonable length time, how to fit say ten hours worth of action into something an audience can sit through.

The adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan solves the problem by cutting directly to the chase. The entire play consists of the interrogation scenes which make up roughly the last third of the book, with all of the rest of the story told through flashback. Winston Smith is on stage with four other “citizens” throughout, who act out his various transgressions, read from his diary, while an off-stage inquisitor asks questions. Peppering them with phrases like “you must be precise.”

This works, to an extent, although the four “citizens” reveal that they are aware that they’re acting out parts, which somehow breaks the illusion. We in the audience could handle the shifts of time and character as given, without redundant explanation that they were part of the interrogation. At one point one of the characters appeals to the offstage interrogator to stop the action before it goes to far. Like an edit in a film, that jumping about was quite clearly and succinctly done, no excuses required.

The interrogation itself proceeds very realistically, as if from a manual – demanding repeated responses from the subject, punishment for the “thought crimes” he is still committing, and working very hard to unbalance the subject. And making of him a blank slate upon which to reimpress the party line.

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

Any translation of a long story to a short one requires the adapter to chose what to emphasise from the story. For 1984, the several major themes are barely touched on – the extensive musings on the nature of power, for example. And of course many well-known lines are missing entirely. This is not to detract, the story that unfolds is still powerful and still faithful to the book.

What was unusual for such a serious subject was the number of times we found ourselves laughing. Never at a healthy, simple joke, but at the deadly irony of some scenes – the way Winston Smith repeats back to the interrogator some of his stock phrases. In another exchange, when one of the citizens says “Ignorance is bliss”, Winston replies “I thought Ignorance was strength.”

Some of the phrasing used also seems to have been contemporised, which emphasises that the age we’re in is not unlike what George Orwell predicted. Pepper the play with the word “Terrorists” and suddenly it’s a play about today. Which is no doubt a major motivation for doing this play at this time.

This troupe have worked hard to bring the pathos of the story to the stage. Some of the pacing was a bit slow, probably a side effect of the main character being restrained throughout the performance. But the final scenes, which pan out exactly as we expect – everyone knows how this is going to end – are still powerful.

Should there be a return season, I recommend you look it up. In the mean time, now is an excellent era in which to re-reading the book. There are too many striking parallels from that vision of a fascist state in a constant state of war with an unseen enemy, to that we seen every day on our telliscreens…

Henry Rollins @ Geelong Performing Arts Centre

[Wrote this back in February soon after seeing the show. Never got around to posting it anywhere. Was reminded of it recently upon the arrival of four Rollins spoken word CDs that I ordered from his publishing company, so here it is.]

Henry Rollins, Geelong Performing Arts Centre, “Twenty Five Years of Bullshit” Tour, Jan. 31st 2006

Henry Rollins is touring Australia and New Zealand doing spoken word as part of the Big Day Out. He was added to the bill late in the piece when several other bands pulled out or, as he put it, when they were really scraping the bottom of the barrel. This is only the second time he’s done spoken word at an actual music festival.

And like many of the BDO bands, he’s doing side shows, but not in the places you’d expect. This time, it’s the regional centres like Geelong and Byron Bay. This guy could fill the Palais or even the Concert hall, but he chose this time around to keep it small. Either that or the other venues were booked!

The Geelong Performing Arts Centre is actually a nice venue, and this evening was almost completely full of people from Melbourne, despite being out of town on a Tuesday night.

Henry Rollins is a person of interest. In these paranoid times, a tattooed man sitting on a plane, highlighting passages from a book called “Jihad” (written by a journalist from the Wall Street Journal, and on the New York Times best seller list for months) is considered suspicious, at least by the idiot sitting next to him on the plane. Thankfully the woman given his case at the Department of Foreign Affairs was a fan, so she wasn’t offended when Henry told her “fuck you, and tell your boss fuck you as well!” But now he’s on the official list as a Person of Interest.

Henry’s been at this a long long time, as the stream of spoken word albums shows, and is a fantastic performer. His shtick is still the same – angry old rock guy yells at you for two hours. And somehow he never seems to repeat himself.

The audience consisted mostly of angry suburban white boys, here to see the Uber Angry suburban white boy. He wraps the mic cord around his hand three times, like he always does, strikes a pose, and starts talking. We were fully transfixed for two hours and twenty minutes. This time around he bagged the Bush administration: “I don’t lie, that’s the vice presidents job”, the destruction of New Orleans, his trips to Wal-Mart in his band’s tour bus, the “Def Leopard Express”. By far the most bizarre anecdote concerned the USO, the group who sends entertainers to war zones to boost the moral of the troops. Apparently wherever they go, the soldiers are asking to see Henry, so they called him up. After explaining that they might want to check him out before hiring him, they called back, called him a potty mouth and sent him on a tour of the Middle East. It defies the imagination to think of Henry Rollins standing in a room “full of armed men” in Baghdad, calling Bush a dummy, and no one getting hurt. He’s also visiting injured soldiers in hospital, which made him understandably even angrier than usual.

Rollins is master of the digression. A story about a trip to a massive hunting supplies store digresses into a story about deer and other “prey animals”, then onto the squirrel which lives in his back yard, and some how back to the hunting store. A story about Wal-Mart diverges into a story about “Cops” and a discussion about the Mullet – Australian versus American mullet – and somehow back to Wal-Mart.

One gets the impression that he goes and does stuff in order to have stories to tell, such as his trip on the Trans Siberia Railroad. He seemed disappointed by the experience, since the only stories he got to tell were about the cranky Russian woman who looked after the passengers on the train, and the amazing barfing he did after some bad Russian fish. Rollins is also allegedly in a band, which no one quite remembers, one wonders if perhaps it also exists mostly as a source of more stories.

Henry Rollins is old. He’ll be 45 on February 13th, 2006, the biceps are still firm, the tattoos still clear, but the hair is getting seriously grey, so that he’s buying clothes to match. And “tourists are living in the lines on my face.” But he’s still king of the angry white boys, after the show a knot of them, none more than 19 years old, gathered out the back of the theatre attempting to catch a glimpse of the Person of Interest. More power to Henry’s Adult Attention Deficit Disorder.

One day in forty years time, they’ll be wheeling an ancient Henry Rollins on stage so he can continue to act like an eighteen year old. We should all grow old this disgracefully.