Saturday, November 27, 2021

Coronavirus 58 Omicron

"I would always prefer that we take decisive action now and have to scale back if Omicron turns out not to be serious, than that we under-react and it turns out Omicron is as bad as feared. Act early and act decisively. We should have learned this by now." Tweeted by Kit Yates, who knows about this sort of stuff.

This is the 58th blog in my series on Coronavirus. The first was written on the 7th of February 2020 and began with this line:

When it was first suggested that UK nationals should be flown out of Wuhan, I remarked that it might be better if all international flights were grounded.

Had my suggestion then, and my further suggestions over the next 20 months, been acted upon there would never have been a pandemic and millions of lives would not have been lost. Such was Cassandra's fate.

This looks like another moment when humanity generally, and the UK Government in particular, get things wrong again. The new variant, B.1.1.529, renamed Omicron, was identified in South Africa, where it appears to have spread rapidly. There is a diligent programme of sequencing in South Africa, unlike some other African countries where such facilities are lacking, so we don't know for sure where the mutation originated, or even where its prevalence is greatest.

Several countries have, gradually and piecemeal, introduced flight bans from South Africa and various other African countries. This has been too little and too late to stop the spread of Omicron, though any reduction in travel will help to slow that spread.

This is a good moment to remind ourselves of the basic imperatives of infection control. Stop travel, particularly any travel without strict and effective quarantine. Test, track and trace to identify all cases. Isolate all cases providing sufficient support to make that isolation effective. The reproduction number will then remain well below R=1 and the infection outbreak will, inevitably, disappear. There is no need for a pandemic to ever happen. A pandemic is the avoidable failure of good governance.

Even after catastrophic errors, such as have occurred, and have led to millions of avoidable deaths, it is never too late to do the right thing and introduce a zero-covid policy. Indeed, it is the only way in which the disease will be overcome. In an ideal situation, 'lockdown' would mean that nobody met anybody outside their own household for two two reproduction cycle times of the virus, maybe about six weeks. Of course, some people need to meet; food distribution, electricity generation, water and sewage, health care and other vital services need to keep going. But that amount of contact is compatible with keeping R<1 if an effective find and isolate system operates. The disease will be eliminated in short order.

What the world needs to do now is to stock up with the essentials for survival and then stay at home for the rest of 2021. Then we will all be able to get on with our lives, devoting 2022 to addressing that other existential crisis, global heating.

Tragically, I don't think this advice will be adopted, the pandemic will continue to ruin millions of lives and the planet will continue to heat up, eventually ruining billions of lives.

Thursday, November 25, 2021


In May 2018 I curated an art exhibition entitled 'Across the Seas' in which works by two dozen artists, dealing with human migration, were exhibited. The online catalogue shows it all. Among the works was The List, by Banu Cennetoglu, comprising 48 sheets of paper on which were printed the names of 33,293 people who had died trying to reach Europe. You can download it here.

In a quiet moment, I noticed there was just one woman in the gallery, standing in front of The List, quietly weeping, tears on her cheek.

Yesterday we saw the crocodile tears of our Prime Minister and his Home Secretary as they sought to blame the French and the so-called 'criminal gangs' of 'people smugglers'. Anything but admit that the deaths in the English Channel that afternoon were the direct result of their policy.

The blood of these desperate men, women and children, are on our politicians' hands. But not on their hands alone. Blame, responsibility, culpability, is shared by every citizen who has supported Mr Johnson and Ms Patel, their Conservative Party and the UK Government. And more than that, blame, responsibility and culpability must be shared by every citizen who has supported policies of immigration control, even the very concept of borders as barriers to human movement.

The solution to the immediate crisis in the Channel is obvious: give would-be migrants train and ferry tickets. Human lives come first and then we can work out what to do with them.

The UK could be the world's ethical leader rather than a pariah, shaming other countries into action. As it is, we are shamed, having taken far fewer migrants than most of our European neighbours, never mind poorer countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. We could open our borders and welcome the stranger. 

The coming decades are going to see migration forced by climate change on a scale that has not yet entered the consciousness of most people. From North Africa, across the Middle East and through much of South Asia, a vast swathe of land will become effectively uninhabitable within the lifetimes of today's children. The British Isles, its climate tempered by ocean currents, will remain a green and pleasant land.

We need to get used to a very different world. We need, today, to choose between life or genocide.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Nuclear Theddlethorpe 06

I attended one of RWM's events at Theddlethorpe Village Hall a couple of weeks ago and had a long discussion with their geologist and chief policy adviser. A couple of things struck me.

As I've explained in previous blogs, the key reason why Theddlethorpe does does not work as a location for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for nuclear waste is the likely presence of fossil carbon resources, gas, oil and coal, in the rocks underlying the prospective site. A future civilisation may seek to exploit these resources and inadvertently breach the integrity of the GDF. Nowhere in the poster and video displays on show could I find reference to this key issue. It was as if RWM did not want the public to know about this problem.

In my discussion with the RWM geologist I was alarmed to hear that in his view this would not be a problem because such resources could be accessed by drilling sideways under a GDF without disturbing it. He apparently did not appreciate that a future civilisation might not know of the existence of the GDF. He had completely missed the point that was fundamental to the siting of a GDF.

Another point that surprised me was to learn that their preferred target geological horizon was Oxford Clay rather than the deeper and thicker Mercia Mudstone Group. They are going for the shallowest (and cheapest) possible location, ignoring the greater security offered by deeper geology.

Another surprise turned up yesterday with the release, following a freedom of information request, of the daily pay-rate for the 'Independent' chairperson of the 'Working Group' set up by Lincolnshire County Council and RWM. Jon Collins is expected to work for two days per week and be paid...

£1000 per day

That's a lot of public money to be spent chairing a group of people talking about something that is never going to happen. We used to think corruption was what happened in Nigeria.

Here are the details:

Ref: FOI 3795
Thank you for your information request received on 25 October for the following:

Details of how much the Independent Chair of the Theddlethorpe Working Group is paid and how that amount is broken down, whether per meeting or if it’s paid as a lump sum.
I have treated your request under the Freedom of Information Act. I confirm that RWM holds the information you have requested and this is provided below.

The Independent Chair of the Theddlethorpe Working Group is paid a day rate of £1,000. The amount paid depends on the number of days worked which is estimated at 2 days per week.
Information Commissioner's Office
Wycliffe House
Water Lane
Cheshire SK9 5AF

Friday, November 12, 2021

COP26 In a Cave

A man was injured in a cave and needed to be carried out on a stretcher by a long and tortuous route. The caving clubs far and wide sent delegates to the rescue. Some cave experts continued their work on cave studies.

On the misty hillside a convention of cavers assembled to negotiate how each club would play their part, declaring the importance of the rescue and announcing their Caving Club Determined Contributions (CCDCs). A Finance Committee was set up to agree who would pay for ropes, torches, hard-hats, wet-suits and the stretcher.

They argued long into the night, some claiming they were too poor to contribute and it was not their fault that the accident had happened. There was discussion on timetables; just how quickly should the casualty be carried, some arguing that it would be better to wait till summer when water levels were lower.

On the Friday, children left their schools and gathered at the cave-mouth demanding that the rescue starts immediately, while caving club leaders congratulated each other on their plan to send a packed-lunch down to the victim.

Meanwhile, a man in the pub, declared that the accident was a hoax, the alleged victim had actually found a different path out of the cave and gone home. Somebody in America spread a rumour that caves did not exist but were an imaginary creation by makers of torches and hard-hats.

Picture source

Friday, November 05, 2021

Killing Whales was a Bad Move

The thing is that we killed most of the big Blue Whales. Blue whales eat krill and then whale poo provides fertiliser for the phytoplankton, which photosynthesise, taking carbon from out of the atmosphere. But since we killed the whales there's no fertiliser for the phytoplankton that the krill eat. When the few krill that do live, die of old age instead of being eaten by whales, they just drop to the bottom of the ocean, removing nutrients out of reach of the phytoplankton. So then there's less carbon sequestration and then there's less food for the krill. So there's less krill. That means there's less food for the few whales that we didn't manage to kill, so they don't thrive. So there's less whale poo, which means there's less nutrient recycling for the phytoplankton so there's less carbon sequestration and less food for the krill and so less food for the whales which means.... hang on... I think we've been here before. This is just going round in ever diminishing circles. Except for the carbon dioxide in the air above the ocean, which keeps increasing, that causes global heating and the carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean that causes ocean acidification. That's bad for sea-life that needs a high pH, such as phytoplankton. And we know what happens when the phytoplankton don't do well; it's just one thing on top of another.

We really shouldn't have killed the whales. Bad move.

Gaia Vince and her interviewees do a better job of explaining all this in this week's episode of Inside Science on Radio 4.

Sir David King, former UK Chief Scientist and general good bloke, is on the case.
Here's the latest news.

The plan is to add some fertiliser to the ocean, particularly the iron that phytoplankton are short of, what with living in the ocean instead of soil on land where there's plenty of iron.  The phytoplankton will grow better, sequestering carbon dioxide and so slowing global warming and ocean acidification and the krill will thrive because there's phytoplankton to eat again and then the whales will thrive because there's krill to eat and the the whales will do their poos and recycle the nutrients to the phytoplankton and... well you can guess the rest.

We really ought to support Sir David King and his friends at the Climate Crisis Advisory Group. They are coming up with answers.

Here's a picture of a Blue Whale and here's some things to know.

This is a painting of Sir David King, when he was looking sad, perhaps thinking about the whales.

Monday, November 01, 2021

Biscathorpe Eight Years On

Over eight years ago I wrote this piece on my blog, the first of many about oil and Biscathorpe: How to Make Money from Fracking

In it I described how one could make money out of not finding oil but convincing people that you would find oil in the future. Egdon's executives and employees have managed to do just that for eight years at Biscathorpe, a particularly idyllic hamlet in the Lincolnshire Wolds.

Today, with a majority of seven to four and two abstentions, the planning committee of Lincolnshire County Council refused a planning application from Egdon Resources to drill another well. They had already drilled one earlier but it had not struck oil. The first full day of COP26 was an auspicious day to hold this planning meeting, but whether this was what changed the minds of some councillors, or whether it was the opposition of the local MP, or an article in The Times, or the petition they had just received from their electorate, or the tireless campaigning of so many people over recent years, we cannot know. Perhaps some of them have actually realised that the black stuff needs to be kept in the ground. When all the people with money to invest realise that the oil industry will lead to their assets being stranded, and hence worthless, then the industry will collapse and the planet can breathe a little sigh of relief. And when all the people with money to spend on stuff that the oil industry has produced, realise that we must stop burning fossil carbon, then we will once again have a planet worth breathing on. But for tonight, we can celebrate a small victory. Well done all who made this possible.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

COP26 Too Many Numbers

What is 3?

Mathematician: The third positive integer.
Physicist: A value between 2.5 and 3.5.
Engineer: Three’s three but let’s call it ten to be on the safe side.

Charles Darwin included no numbers whatsoever in his The Origin of Species. Good science does not have to include numbers. Today one would have difficulty finding a piece of writing about climate science that is not peppered with numbers. If it is a scientific paper the numbers will usually be accompanied by measures of error and probability ranges, but these are usually ignored by journalists reporting for a lay audience, often leaving values with too many significant figures, giving a spurious degree of precision.

Forecasting, especially the future, is always difficult and models are always wrong, though some can be useful. The ‘Butterfly Effect’, whereby small changes in initial conditions can produce large changes in outcomes, is well known. Less well known, but more dangerous, is the ‘Hawkmoth Effect’, caused by unknown errors in the model that result in unknowable errors in model output. Wisdom must be applied when dealing with any numbers derived from modelling, as Erica Thompson explained in her Escape from Model-Land.

Unfortunately, in climate science errors are not evenly distributed between good news and bad. If tomorrow’s weather forecast is for 1mm of rain, there is little scope for error on the sunny side, just 1mm. But on the wet side the possibility range of error is boundless.

The most frequently mentioned number is 2.0 (1.5 is already for the birds), the number of degrees centigrade of global heating that the Paris Agreement said we should not exceed. It is an arbitrary number, no more special than 1.9 or 2.1, plucked from the air as thought, by some, at the time, to be a danger threshold. It is a rise since an arbitrary date, and one over which there is disagreement, some favouring the beginning of the industrial age and others favouring 1880, which hides the earliest anthropogenic heating. The global temperature is not a number that can be read from any thermometer. Rather it is an average of thousands of measurements from instruments distributed across the planet, calculated after weighting for local factors and known errors. It does not well reflect actual temperature change experienced by people. Land temperatures have risen faster than over the oceans, the Arctic heats faster than the tropics. Changes in the frequency of extreme weather events are not reflected in this average, yet it is extremes that kill. There is no way to relate that 2.0 figure to actual detriments. We don’t have any direct quantitative link between the average global heating number and storms, floods, droughts, plagues and wars. We just have a qualitative idea that the hotter it gets the worse it will be.

COP26 is very much a numbers based exercise, with countries declaring what steps they intend to take and when they might take them. We know it will all be too little and too late to avert disaster for many, yet it will be built on a great edifice of meticulously calculated ‘carbon budgets’ that imply perfect knowledge of the link between emissions, temperature rise and harm. We do not possess that knowledge.

We have only a very hazy appreciation of the effects of the many potentially big feedbacks in the climate system and some have not been factored into the COP26 discourse at all. Take, for example, greenhouse gas emissions from thawing of Arctic permafrost. It is happening today, with a mere 1.2 degrees of global heating and will continue for centuries. The rate of thawing and consequent emissions will increase as global heating proceeds. If all the nations achieve what they promise and more, and the temperature rise is constrained, the permafrost will still keep thawing, adding more greenhouse gases, undermining the best laid plans and making nonsense of all those calculations that contributed to the Nationally Determined Contributions. The scale of this problem may be equivalent to the emissions of a major economy, USA, China or the EU, and continuing far into the future. Big numbers but not counted.

So what to do? Put the numbers aside. Tell our governments to stop negotiating on the basis of numbers but instead put all their efforts into avoiding burning any more fossil carbon. Each has to do everything they can without looking over their shoulders to check they are not doing more than others. Lead, don’t follow.

If there’s one thing to read next it’s the State of Cryosphere 2021 report, particularly chapter 4, Permafrost. There are some numbers, but not so many that it becomes unreadable.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

COP26 Has Failed

Failed? But it hasn't even begun yet! And anyway, what does success of failure mean?

The object is to prevent global heating and the way to do that is to stop emitting greenhouse gases. A big part of what happens at COP26 is that governments present their 'Nationally Determined Contributions' (NDCs). And this is where the failure sets in. The whole panjandrum is wrongly framed. Almost 200 countries will be saying what they hope to do to reduce their emissions and when they hope to do this. It is all too little, too late, and too slowly.

The new climate denialism, rife wherever one turns, is the idea that limiting heating to 1.5 degrees is achievable. It isn't. And yet Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK's Chief Scientist, said it was still achievable though we will have to "fly a bit less". That's about as much use as saying that singing Happy Birthday while washing one's hands will prevent a pandemic.

Here is the nonsense that Vallance and his international colleagues have come up with: Statement by International Senior Scientific Advisers ahead of COP26

The best meme doing the rounds of social media is this:

We're not even reaching for a mop. What we have is almost 200 countries each with their own tap and plughole. They are coming to Glasgow to tell us at what speed they are going to turn the tap off and whether they intend to ease the plug a little bit to let some water seep out.

What the climate crisis requires is that all countries turn off their taps immediately and pull their plug out. 413ppm CO2 needs to be pushed back below 350. But next year it will be 415 and the year after it will be 417. That's why COP26 has failed.

Unfortunately there are bad consequences if we all stop burning fossil carbon by Day 1 of the COP. Machines in hospitals will stop working and lorries won't deliver food. People will die.

So what COP26 should be doing is having nations determine and declare the maximum possible rate of emission reduction that is commensurate with their citizens not actually dying. The taps need to be turned off almost completely and the plugs fully pulled out straight away. Then we can can watch the water go down to a safe level.

When we see the Keeling Curve turn downwards we can start measuring success, but while it continues to rise we can be certain we are failing.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Nuclear Theddlethorpe 05

In Part 03 of this blog series about the proposal for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for high and intermediate level nuclear waste at Theddlethorpe or some other location in eastern Lincolnshire, I outlined the geology.

Let's have a quick recap and reminder to help people make their arguments. The purpose of a GDF is to ensure that the waste and any radioactive particles that eventually escape the containers do not reach the biosphere at the surface for a long time, 100,000 years or more, despite climate change, sea level rises, glaciations or earthquakes.

Rock suitable to store nuclear waste must be impervious. That means that water must not be able to flow through it. Chalk, limestone and sandstone are as much use as a wet sponge but clay, shale and mudstone are good. It's not that water can't flow through such rock, given enough time, but the rate is measured in millimetres per year so a few hundred metres of such rock does the job.

Such rocks do occur under the Lincolnshire Marsh and in the inshore area off the coast. There's the Jurassic age Oxford Clay. This is the layer that the French propose to use, but it is much thicker in France. More usefully there is the older and lower Mercia Mudstone Group of Triassic age. This would be the most likely target for a depository here. Just off the coast of Cumbria this same rock is much thicker and so better suited there. It is close to Sellafield, as it conveniently happens.

The most important aspect of Lincolnshire's geology is the existence of oil and gas at various horizons in the Jurassic, Triassic and underlying Carboniferous rock, which also contain the Coal Measures. In some places it occurs in high enough concentrations to be exploited in today's commercial situation and with today's technology. In the far distant future, under unforeseeable economic conditions and with technologies that we have no knowledge of, a future civilisation may seek to exploit these fossil carbon resources and in so doing inadvertently breach the waste depository's barriers that were designed to stay unpenetrated for hundreds of thousands of years.

That's why a GDF must not be built at Theddlethorpe or anywhere else on the Lincolnshire Marsh. It is our duty to place our dangerous waste where there is the least likelihood of it posing a danger to our far descendants. All other arguments are secondary.


Some people argue that since a GDF can never be 100% secure, it should not be built anywhere. But don't let the perfect be the enemy of the possible. The nuclear waste is currently in temporary storage and in various states of security. Some of it may be an accident waiting to happen. Delay in permanent burial only adds to the risk of a near-term accident. Delay also pushes the problem on to the next generation, who did not agree to the creation of the waste n the first place and should bear no responsibility for it's care. We must deal with our problem, now, and in the best way we can conceive. 

There is little reason for delay. A good enough site has been identified (the Mercia Mudstone Group rocks of the Irish Sea Basin, inshore south-west Cumbria). The whole process that RWM are engaged in just creates a ten or more year delay in spending the billions of pounds required to construct a GDF, and is, of course, the Treasury's preferred option as it makes the spending somebody else's problem, while their backs are covered in case of accident by appearing to be addressing the matter now.

An often stated argument is that the GDF should be sited somewhere remote. This is a poor argument. It implies acceptance of the idea that a GDF might not be safe. If it isn't safe it cannot be built. Anywhere. Nowhere remote enough for an unsafe facility exists. Even somewhere that looks remote today may not always be so.

There are good geological reasons why the Outer Hebrides would be a suitable place. The Lewisian Gneiss is our oldest, hardest, most stable, most impermeable rock. It is similar, geologically, to the sites chosen by Finland and Sweden for their depositories, unlike the soft-rock options available in England and apparently favoured by RWM.

People may consider the Outer Hebrides to be remote (the good folk of Stornoway probably have a different perspective) but it may not always remain so. If global heating continues on its current trajectory (and there's precious little evidence that it won't) then we may see a rise in average global temperatures of 3 to 5 degrees. The west coast of Scotland may become the 22nd century's New Riviera, the most densely populated part of the world, with the EU Parliament relocating to Stornoway once the re-United Kingdom's membership application has been accepted.

Thailand Today, Tobermory Tomorrow

See also previous part to this series:


Thursday, October 21, 2021

Gas and Heat Pumps

First, let's quickly dispel the myth that heat pumps only work on well insulated buildings. Of course all our homes should be well insulated and then we'd hardly need any heating at all but this is not peculiar to heat pumps.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), which operated in a somewhat haphazard fashion and particularly benefitted wealthy people who already owned large houses, ends in March 2022. The Government has announced a new scheme to subsidise, to the tune of £5000 grants, the installation of heat pumps. It appears that the funding so far allocated would only reach some 30,000 homes but it is claimed to 'pump-prime' the industry. 

The Government demonstrates, almost daily, its ability to do the wrong thing or, when it does do the right thing does it too little and too late. The transition away from methane (aka 'natural' gas) to a fossil carbon free future is today's prime example.

Heat pumps do make sense. They allow us to gain three or more times the heat than one would get with an electric heater, but the issue is how best to deploy the technology at scale across our housing stock.

A significant, but largely ignored, issue is what happens to the gas distribution network. What reduction in total demand would make the system uneconomic to maintain?

That problem could be delayed a while if the government's grant scheme were first to be targeted at properties that are not connected to the mains gas grid. That's a large proportion of rural homes. This has the additional benefit of targeting mostly homes currently heated by oil, which is more carbon intensive than gas.

New builds should not be connected to the gas grid. Adding to the future problem makes little sense.

Then the roll-out of gas to heat-pump conversion should be conducted street by street, area by area. It would require 100% grants but the efficiencies of scale would be considerable and the gas grid could then be shut down one section at a time, reducing the running cost as the industry contracted.

The key ideas in this piece were sparked by comments by C
hris Vernon

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Nuclear Theddlethorpe 04

In Part 02 of this mini-series on the proposal to site a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for nuclear waste at Theddlethorpe, I explained why the policy of Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) precludes the use of this location.

Nonetheless RWM and Lincolnshire County Council have agreed to set up a 'Working Group' to pursue the proposal. This begs the question, why would they pursue something which cannot happen?

Unlike the geological information I outlined in the previous blog, which can all be independently verified as reliably factual, what follows is largely my conjecture, and may be wrong. I look forward to being shown why these conjectures are false, but until then they remain my best guess as to where the truth lies.

It is easy to see the position of Lincolnshire County Council. They are as squeezed for revenues as any local authority, following the closure of the Theddlethorpe Gas Terminal the business rates have recently been lost, and the Council risks criticism if they do not actively pursue opportunities for economic development, particularly in an area of multiple social deprivation. The costs of pursuing the proposal will be met by RWM and there is a further incentive of 'up to one million pounds' for the local community if a 'Community Partnership' is set up, rising to £2.5m if investigations go beyond the desk-top stage. LCC have been told they can withdraw at any stage and that eventually the GDF can only be built if there is community support. They must think there is nothing to be lost and a chance of substantial gain to be made by going along with the process. Of course the idea that councillors would cynically take the money now whilst intending to withdraw from the scheme later must be ruled out as unconscionably unethical.

It suits the LCC to ignore the geological realities that I outlined in Part 02 or to pretend not to understand them. Or perhaps they actually don't understand them, but ignorance is a poor excuse.

The position of RWM may be more complex. It is hard to know just where in the hierarchy of governance any particular decision is made, 10 Downing Street, The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) or RWM. What we do know is that RWM know that Theddlethorpe is unsuitable. The British Geological Survey told them. And so did I!

My first conjecture is that somewhere down the hierarchy RWM have been told to pursue some number of sites that are sub-optimal and have little chance of becoming the final choice. The advantage to the Government of such an approach is that demonstrates that communities are being listened to. At each rejected site the Government will be able to show that the case was made but that the community did not want it and therefore the proposal was withdrawn. It is democracy in action, championed by the caring, listening Government.

My second conjecture is that the Treasury has a role. Dealing with our nuclear waste legacy is a fabulously expensive task, almost all of the public not appreciating just how expensive. A notable feature of the whole GDF process is how long it is forecast to take. It took me less than half an hour of reading, refreshing my knowledge of Lincolnshire geology, to realise that a GDF could not be constructed here, yet RWM are talking in terms of many years, perhaps a decade, before a decision on Theddlethorpe is finalised.

As we know, 70 years worth of nuclear waste is in temporary storage, mostly at Sellafield with about 20% of it at some three dozen sites scattered over the country. Some of the temporary storage is in a parlous state, in some people's opinion best described as an accident waiting to happen. Permanent safe disposal in a GDF is a matter of some urgency. So why take the decisions in such a slow, drawn out manner?

The current work of RWM has two distinct advantages for Government. It shows that something is being done, the authorities are on the case, actively addressing the issue of nuclear waste that is our common concern. Secondly, it does not involve spending much money for quite a long time.

RWM's work, investigating a handful of potential GDF locations, only costs a few million pounds a year. From the Treasury's point of view the money that flows through the 'Community Partnerships' would largely need to be spent anyway, through local government, and will be mostly worthwhile investments, so hardly counts as a cost at all. But once a final decision on GDF locations is made and the go-ahead is given, then spending quickly ramps up by at least two orders of magnitude.  Headline figures will now be given in fractions and multiples of billions, not millions.

The choice presented by the Chancellor to the Prime Minister is this: either we take ten years going through the motions of careful and thorough search for the best way to deal with the nuclear waste, spending a few million pounds per year. or we actually get on with the actual job of dealing with the waste now at a cost of a billion pounds per year. Just now, what with other things going on in the economy, it is easy to see why kicking this particular can down the road to a time when the current Chancellor and Prime Minister are retired, must look the more attractive option.

Of course all the good folk who work at NDA and RWM, whose salaries depend on believing this is the best course of action, will believe that this is the best course of action.

I borrowed this picture from the RWM website. It shows the former Conoco Theddlethorpe Gas Terminal and when it was closed I was much relieved at the loss of light glare spoiling the night sky. Long may we view the stars.



Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Nuclear Theddlethorpe 03

Geology is what counts.

Useful summaries of the Theddlethorpe area’s geology are to be found in RWM’s own reports, commissioned from the British Geological Survey, ‘Eastern England Regional Geology’ (EERG)

and ‘Eastern England Subregion 2’ (EES2).

It’s worth noting that we do know quite a lot about the geology of the region. This from page 3 of EERG:

There are more than 690 boreholes drilled to more than 1,000m depth in search of coal, oil and gas, water and mineral salts (evaporites). This information is also supplemented by extensive geophysical investigations including studies of the Earth’s gravity and magnetic fields and seismic surveys. The distribution of rocks in this region is therefore reasonably well known at the national scale. There are a number of shallower boreholes that provide information on groundwater above 200m, but very little information within and deeper than the depth range of interest for a GDF, 200 to 1,000m below NGS datum.”

The sequence of rocks is summarised in Figure 2, page 8 of EERG. The sedimentary rocks comprise various layers of pervious rocks such as sandstones and impervious clays and mudstones. Nuclear waste would need to be stored within a sufficiently thick layer of impervious rock and even if too thin to hold a depository, thinner impervious layers higher in the sequence might help seal lower layers from groundwater movement.
There are various possibilities but the mudstones of the Triassic, such as the Mercia Mudstone Group, are probably the most obvious target for a GDF.

It is one thing finding a rock layer that is sufficiently impervious to movement of water (and hence radionucleotides) and might therefore provide a safe location for a GDF, but the issue in our area is what else is present. If there is a likelihood that material useful to a future civilisation is present, such as oil, gas or coal, the location will be unsuitable, as a future search for these resources could inadvertently breach the integrity of a nuclear waste depository.

There are hydrocarbons in rocks at a number of horizons right down to the underlying Carboniferous rocks where we find the Coal Measures. Gas has been found in commercially exploitable quantities at Saltfleetby, 7km from the old Theddlethorpe Gas Terminal, and oil at Keddington. Coal underlies the whole area and although too deep to be mined by conventional means, underground coal gasification has been seriously considered. There is currently no commercial interest in exploiting this resource and the climate crisis demands an end to burning fossil carbon but we cannot know what the people in future centuries may do and what technologies they may have. It is not enough to say that while there is gas at Saltfleetby, the gas field does not extend to Theddlethorpe. A future civilisation may have technologies that make our enhanced recovery methods appear primitive. They may exploit resources that we would consider worthless.

The existence of fossil carbon in the rocks below Theddlethorpe must mean that this is rejected as a location for a GDF.

But don’t just take my word for it. These two passages are from EES2:

Page 1. "There are known gas resources at Saltfleetby north of Mablethorpe. In this area the drilling is likely to have affected the way in which water moves through the rock. Also possible exploration in the future in this area means that it is more likely that future generations may disturb a facility. Parts of this subregion have Petroleum Exploration & Development Licences to allow companies to explore for oil and gas. This exploration is currently at an early stage and it is not known whether oil or gas in these licence areas will be exploited. RWM will continue to monitor how this exploration programme progresses. Parts of this area, immediately off the coast and in the Humber estuary, are Coal Authority Licence Areas allowing companies to explore for coal. It is not known whether coal in these licence areas will be exploited. RWM will also continue to monitor how this exploration programme progresses."

Page 4. "Resources There is a small gas field at Saltfleetby, just north of Mablethorpe (Figure 4a). It is less likely that this area would be suitable to host a GDF because borehole drilling associated with oil and gas exploration affects the way in which water moves through the rocks. It also presents a higher likelihood of inadvertent human intrusion in the future. These known resources would be taken into account in the siting of a GDF. Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences3 are currently held for much of the onshore part of this subregion and a small part of the inshore are (Figure 4a). There are also Coal Authority Licence Areas, in 2 inshore parts of this subregion off Hornsea and Mablethorpe (Figure 4b) and the Humber estuary between Kingston upon Hull and Grimsby. It is not known whether coal, oil or gas in these licence areas will be exploited, but they would need to be considered in the siting of a GDF."

It is clear that RWM have a policy of rejecting a site where there is a likelihood of fossil carbon resources. It is also clear that RWM know that there are fossil carbon resources beneath Theddlethorpe. Which begs the question why are they even bothering here?

Part One of this topic.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Coronavirus 57 Is It Over?

First thing I heard on the radio this morning was that the London Metal Exchange was going back to open-outcry trading. First email I opened was from my granddaughter's school explaining that 'bubbles', staggered arrival times and spaced out seating were no longer required. It seems that the nation's hive-mind of popular opinion now holds that the pandemic is over and everything is getting back to nearly the old normal.

Later we learned that 41,192 new cases were reported today, covid related hospital admissions are averaging almost a thousand per day and deaths are averaging over a hundred per day.

The pandemic, despite any wishful thinking by a great many people, is very much not over.

Vaccination is a bonus, of course, reducing the death rate dramatically, though infection, transmission and long-term disease, while reduced, are not prevented. JCVI argued against covid vaccination for children because they are not directly very much at risk. Rubella causes only a mild illness in children yet we vaccinate them all to protect pregnant women and their babies from what is often a disastrous illness. The vaccination reluctance of some members of the JCVI is inexplicable. 

As I've been saying to anyone who would listen (not many) since February 2020, if nobody met anybody else outside their own household for about a month the pandemic would be over.

Of course that's hard to achieve; folk like to eat and have the light on. We do need a very strict lockdown, with every security and mitigation measure we can think of for the few who do have to meet others. That will drive R down well below 1, and prevalence will soon drop to the level at which an effective track, trace, isolate and support system can work. Then the pandemic will be over and the virus eliminated in short order.

All of that is as true now as it was in early 2020, before 150,000 avoidable deaths occurred. (To date Covid-19 has been named on the death certificate of 156,119 people.) Politically it is now harder to achieve than first time round.

Tragically, our government has not the slightest intention of doing what is required to eliminate the virus and end the pandemic. Instead it will muddle along, avoiding the complete collapse of the NHS as its primary goal, and, as the Prime Minister indicated, taking it on the chin and letting the bodies pile high.

The stark choice before us is between:

1. A few weeks of very strict lockdown and other appropriate measures that will end the pandemic in weeks, or

2. Allowing the pandemic to continue indefinitely, with repeated cycles of new variants, booster jabs and the inevitable extra death, disease and suffering it will cause.

Tragically, our government will again make the wrong choice. Because popular opinion trumps science.

At least the men (yes, all men) of the LME will be able to shout at each other to fix the day's prices for copper and aluminium. So that's all right.


Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Quantum Mechanics and the Penrose Rose

The illustration in my previous article was not just to look pretty. It's an oil painting I did a few years ago inspired by Roger Penrose, physicist and creator of aperiodic 'Penrose Tilings'. 

Creating the picture involved cutting out a lot of pieces of card in three shapes of rhombus, with point angles of either 18, 36 or 72 degrees. The cards were then arranged to make a tiling, no gaps or overlaps, to create the design. The pattern has five-fold rotational symmetry (ignoring the colours) but is aperiodic in that the pattern will never repeat itself going outwards, not to the ends of the Universe. It would never work for printing a roll of wallpaper.

But laying out the little pieces of card is no simple matter. It's easy enough to begin with, starting at the centre and adding tiles round the circle to grow the pattern, but one soon finds something going wrong. Add a ring of tiles and the last one turns out not to fit without gap or overlap. One has to undo recent work and start with a tile oriented in a different direction. There is a choice of orientation at each step but it is impossible to know which is the 'correct' way round until one has worked all the way around the growing pattern and discovered whether or not it fits. There's a long process of trial and error involved.

To create the pattern quickly and efficiently one would need to lay tiles on opposite sides of the pattern simultaneously, each 'knowing' the orientation of the other since they are interdependent. There needs to be instant communication. And that's spooky action at a distance, as Einstein may have said.

With a bit of imagination one might conceive a three dimensional version, with each rhombus a rhomboid to fill the space. The pattern then forms a solid, which, if the rhomboids were arrangements of atoms, would form a sort of crystal. For such a crystal to grow, however, there would need to be that spooky action at a distance. Before a new atom settles into position, with the correct orientation, on a growing crystal face it would have to know the orientation of an atom settling down on the opposite side.

Roger Penrose postulated that such things could exist. And then it was found that they do. Read about quasicrystals here.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Quantum Mechanics.

Why is it so hard to understand quantum weirdness?

A potato has limited intelligence so understands less than we do. It has sensitivity to gravity and light and can process the information to organize the directions of growth of roots and shoots. But that’s about as far as it goes. A potato is unaware of its place in the cosmos and can’t even make a cup of tea. The important point is that potatoes have not evolved complex sensory systems or the brains to process and act on more sensory inputs than they possess.

Human senses are more complex; we have eyes, ears, noses and skin that send information to a brain that has evolved the capability to interpret the signals and to construct a model of the Universe. Our brains are even capable of dealing with the enhanced sensory signals delivered by some of the instruments we invent, such as telescopes and microscopes. We can understand the aspects of reality that these instruments reveal and add them to our Universe model.

There are, however, limitations to our understanding of reality. Our model of the Universe is constructed from what we are able to sense and understand. There may be phenomena that exist but are undetected, not understood and therefore not included in the model, a model that may represent only part of the Universe. Remember that the potato ‘thinks’ that gravity and light are all there is. The potato’s model of the Universe is pretty limited. Perhaps ours is also pretty limited, but, like the potato, we don’t realise it, not missing what we don’t know about.

Perhaps the Universe is vastly more complex, literally unimaginably more complex, than we realise. Like the potato, we live in ignorance, limited by how far our senses and our brain have evolved. But there may be a fuzzy zone, a liminal region, between what we can observe and make sense of and what is utterly unknowable.

We can hold a piece of glass over a candle flame to deposit a layer of soot from the smoke, cut two very thin, closely space slits with a pair of razor blades, shine a light through them and observe the strange pattern projected on a white sheet behind. It’s quantum weirdness in action. We have constructed mathematical tools can deal with quantum mechanics to help in practical tasks, such as designing electronics, but they have not got us far in helping us actually understand the quantum world.

Our brains evolved to deal with the large scale phenomena described by classical physics, and there was little evolutionary advantage in understanding the quantum world. So we can no more understand it than a potato can understand what Newton demonstrated. Our grasp of reality may be just limited to an infinitesimal part of the whole Universe.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t keep trying, shouldn’t keep pushing at the fuzzy boundaries in the liminal zone beyond comprehension. We may not have quite reached the limits of our brains’ capacities and there may be fascinating, even useful, insights to be gained that fall far short of understanding quantum phenomena.

Quantum weirdness will just have to stay weird.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Afghanistan and the Uyghurs

The most surprising thing about the speed of regime change in Afghanistan is that so many people were surprised at the speed.

Another, perhaps less surprising thing, is how many people mention that the Afghanistan debacle has cost a trillion dollars, but omit the other side of the ledger. It has earned a trillion dollars; much of it by the owners of the armaments industry, that old military-industrial complex. War is profitable for the few.

Not so surprisingly is that few people look east of Afghanistan to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to see if there are any lessons to be learnt.

Western politicians and commentators are pretty much united in their condemnation of the Chinese government's treatment of the Uyghur people. Much of the criticism is doubtless deserved and I have no wish to stand as an apologist for China. Let us, however, pause for deep thought.

There have been elements within the Uyghur people who have called for independence from China and the establishment of an Islamic state. It is always hard to be sure just how much is truth and how much is politically motivated exaggeration but there have clearly been some acts of violence by some people who support such aims.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government seeks to do all it can to avoid secession of Xinjiang and the creation of an Islamic state. It will not have escaped the notice of the Chinese leadership that the Western approach towards Islamist violence has been an abject failure. Across many countries in northern and sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, Islam has brought anything but the harmony that the Chinese see as a goal for its people. They have seen the armies of the USA, the UK and other nations move in. They have seen the killing of uncounted hundreds of thousands of people and unconscionable suffering of the survivors.

The current tragedy of Afghanistan is just the latest testimony to the failure of the West to deal effectively with ruthless theocracy based on medieval scripture. The Chinese will have been looking to their western provinces and deciding to have none of that. There must surely be a better way to establish harmony between citizens than by allowing destructive religions to flourish and then by dropping bombs on people when events get out of hand.

By all means let us hold the perpetrators of atrocities to account, but when criticising China, let us do it with some humility, recognising that the West has failed utterly to deal with violent Islamism, and that China, in contrast, has not sought to be the world's policeman, has not invaded foreign countries and has not bombed countries back to the Middle Ages.

Some further reading about the Turkistan Islamic Party.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Nuclear Theddlethorpe 02

If the proposal to create a Deep Geological Facility (GDF) for high level nuclear waste at the former gas terminal at Theddlethorpe is to be opposed effectively then one must concentrate of arguments that will sway the opinions of Radioactive Waste Management, planning inspectors and politicians, locally and nationally.

Concerns about safety, however natural, heartfelt and understandable, are unlikely to influence decision makers because the industry will be able to assure government that the project can be completed safely.

Which leaves the two issues that could determine the future of the project:

1. the suitability of the site for a major industrial development, and

2. the suitability of the geology for a nuclear depository.

1. Industrial Development

The gas terminal was built on a greenfield site in a rural area on agricultural land with the assumption that, on decommissioning, it would be returned to its former state. It must, therefore, now be regarded as if the gas terminal had never existed, a greenfield site. In such an area, and lacking major road and any rail connection, the site would never normally be considered for a major industrial project. Such development would more likely be directed to a large brownfield site such as an ex-steelworks. Scunthorpe comes to mind as having a large redundant site with a railway running through it, nearby motorway links and a large, skilled potential labour force. I mention Scunthorpe as the underlying geology is similar to Theddlethorpe's. If any decision maker should balk at locating the facility in an urban area it might suggest that they do not have confidence in the safety of their project.

The scale of the project is, perhaps, under appreciated by many. It is doubtful whether the footprint of the Conoco gas terminal is large enough to accommodate the GDF and the timescale has not been much talked about. It would probably take more than a decade to develop the facility and then the work of emplacing waste might continue for a hundred years before it is finally sealed and the surface ground returned to its previous state.

2. Geology

Underlying a few metres of superficial marine and glacial deposits is some 200 metres of the Chalk. This is a very permeable rock, about as much use as a wet sponge for sealing nuclear waste. Below the Cretaceous rocks lies the Jurassic, of which the Ancholme Group is probably the rocks of interest. The objective would be to find a thick and homogenous layer of clay, sufficiently impervious to radionucleotide migration to prevent leakage for hundreds of thousands of years after the initial protection of the copper containment vessels has broken down after many millennia.

The Ancholme Group is a complex series of mostly clays but with sandstone and other more permeable horizons. A sufficiently thick clay layer needs to be found.
The Ampthill Clay Formation is the shallowest such layer and is just over 100 metres thick here. Below this lies the 20m thick West Walton Formation and below that the Oxford Clay Formation. This is the same layer as the Callovo-Oxfordian in which the French plan to deposit their high level nuclear waste in the CIGEO facility. But in our area the Oxford Clay is only about 30 metres thick.

The underlying Lias Group of the Lower Jurassic is a rather mixed bag of rocks and probably does not present a good location for nuclear waste disposal but below this in the Upper Triassic is the Mercia Mudstone Group. This is a sequence some 250 to 300 metres thick and may be the most likely location for a waste facility. (Some folk will recall the 1980s and Fulbeck site that targeted these rocks.)

That's a brief and sketchy summary of Theddlethorpe geology. For a much more detailed account, and the one that will be used as the introduction to the topic by decision makers, see the British Geological Survey's National Geological Screening:
Eastern England region, Minerals and Waste Programme, Commissioned Report CR/17/092

If the UK Government chooses a soft-rock Geological Disposal Facility, such as Theddlethorpe's geology allows, the closest exemplar is the French CIGEO facility but note that French law currently requires that the disposal remains potentially reversible, allowing the material to be retrieved by a future generation. This is in contrast to the approach in Finland where the policy is to seal the waste permanently. Theirs is a hard rock solution with the waste buried in caverns dug some 500 metres down into granite. 

In the UK we have not yet had the important debate about whether to adopt the French or the Finnish philosophy. They are fundamentally different. The choice is still to be made between soft rock, in which case Theddlethorpe is in the frame, and hard rock, where we have to turn to Cumbria, or better still, Scotland, for a site.

One further aspect, which has been acknowledged by Radioactive Waste Management, is that the sedimentary rocks of Lincolnshire contain hydrocarbons, oil and gas. While our current civilisation, wary of climate change, may choose to leave them in the ground, a future civilisation, say 1000 years hence, might be tempted to extract this valuable resource. Do we have an ethical duty to keep it free from nuclear contamination?

Further reading: Deep Time Reckoning by Vincent Ialenti.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Nuclear Theddlethorpe 01

On Friday 23rd of July 2021 news was reported on the local BBC radio and TV stations that Lincolnshire County Council has been in discussion with the Government owned firm Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) about locating a deep Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for high level nuclear waste at Theddlethorpe on the Lincolnshire coast. It is as yet unclear how far any talks have gone between RWM and Conservative Party councillors but Labour councillors and the local MP, Victoria Atkins, had not been informed.

To facilitate public discussion I set up a Facebook group, which within 48 hours had been joined by about 2000 people and had received comments from over 200. All of the comments appear to be hostile to the proposal.

The proposed location at Theddlethorpe is on the site of the former Conoco-Phillips gas terminal, where North Sea gas came ashore and, after some processing, fed into the gas pipeline grid. It closed a couple of years ago and the site mostly cleared, in compliance with the original planning consent requirement for reinstatement to agricultural land. Today an office block is about all that remains, so it should be regarded as a greenfield site in a rural setting, surrounded by a National Nature Reserve to one side and agricultural land to the other. It is not a brownfield site.

Theddlethorpe is poorly served by transport links; the nearest railways come to Cleethorpes, some 30 kilometres to the north and Skegness, a similar distance to the south. There are no motorways in Lincolnshire and not even a dual carriageway to the east of Lincoln, almost 50 km away.

In common with some other coastal towns, nearby Mablethorpe is an area of considerable social deprivation and a major industrial investment in the area will bring some jobs and economic prosperity to the area. This must surely weigh on the minds of local councillors and may have led to the discussions, but no information has been released as yet.

There is an undoubted need for the ultimate disposal of high level nuclear waste, somewhere, and we do need to find the least bad place to put what we have created. The question is where. Understandably, many people are fearful of having a nuclear dump near their homes and are concerned about accidents, leaks and the risks to health from radioactive contamination. Personally, I'm not so worried about this. The purpose of a deep geological repository is to keep the waste away from people for tens of thousands of years, effectively forever, immune to sea level rise, to earthquakes and future glaciations and to the passing and re-emergence of civilisations. Once completed the repository can be forgotten about, lost from human consciousness. 

Since creating the repository must not create any radiological hazard there is no reason why it should be located in a remote area with a low populations density. A rural location has little advantage over an urban site. The overriding factor must be the geological suitability. When that has been determined other factors that affect any large scale industrial development come into play. Preference should be given to brownfield sites with good transport infrastructure links. A place such as the steelworks at Scunthorpe comes to mind. Acres of abandoned industrial land with a railway running through the site, excellent road links and a large local pool of skilled labour. 

We should allay our fears about radiation and concentrate on the factors that will determine any planning inquiry. Is Theddlethorpe a suitable location for a major industrial development with activity lasting decades?

But the overriding factor must be the geological suitability. 

And before going further I suggest reading Michael Stodhard's piece in the Financial Times from five years ago.

And watch the Michael Madsen's 2010 film about the Onkalo in Finland, Into Eternity.