Olkiluoto, Flamanville, and Hinkley

Both on this site and in academic work, I have done a lot of research and writing on nuclear energy: specifically, it’s desirability as a low-carbon energy option and climate change solution, and perspectives on nuclear energy within the environmental and climate change activist movements.

The European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) was designed by Framatome (now Areva NP) and Électricité de France (EDF), largely with the intention of being safer than previous designs through the presence of additional redundant safety systems and with the intention of being cheaper to build, in part by standardizing power plant designs to a greater extent than in previous projects, and in part by being larger than earlier designs.

Three EPRs are under construction in Europe: a third unit at the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant in Finland, a third unit at the Flamanville site in France, and two reactors at Hinkley Point C in the United Kingdom.

All three projects have encountered major difficulties. All three are seriously over budget and behind schedule. €10.5bn has been spent on the Flamanville facility since 2007. In Finland, the project is a decade behind schedule and three times over budget. Hinkley is expected to cost £18 billion, and back in 2013 the U.K. government agreed to pay £92.50 per megawatt-hour for electricity from the reactor, which was twice the going rate for electricity at the time.

Furthermore, there are concerns about construction quality. In France, they have “found weaknesses in the reactor’s steel“, specifically flaws in the reactor pressure vessel. Many issues have been identified with the Finnish facility, including by their domestic nuclear regulator. There is also concern about the pressure vessels for Hinkley.

All this looks bad for the future of large nuclear power stations in Europe and North America. It’s possible new Russian and Chinese designs will be more successful. Indeed, China is the world’s most active site of nuclear construction. They had 32 operating reactors as of April 2016, and they had 20 reactors under construction. These include an American design (the world’s first Westinghouse AP1000 pressurized water reactor (PWR)) and domestically developed designs like the Hualong One CPR-1000 PWR and the CAP1400 PWR which is being developed from the AP1000. China is also building two EPRs, which are also behind schedule. Russia is also promoting the the VVER PWR for domestic construction and export.

Working on managing hatred toward drivers

I think perhaps I need to undertake a befriending exercise with drivers.

My universal doctrine is not to hate anybody, but I do hate people who drive cars, pickup trucks, military vehicles rebranded as family transport, motorcycles, and taxis (I would prefer an all-taxi world to one where people have private cars, but taxi drivers are the most impatient and reckless drivers in many circumstances).

I hate drivers for smashing their way around the world in their smog-producing, climate-wrecking machines, routinely killing pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers. I hate them for feeling entitled to do these things because it’s normal and because they pay something toward the costs their cars impose on people and nature.

I love cycling and it was a major part of my life from childhood until I moved to Toronto, but the combination of snow and ice, terrible bike infrastructure, and a desire to keep my skull intact made me give my bike away when I moved here, cursing drivers for making the city a death factory.

These feelings may be morally justified, but they are probably also unhealthy. I see and hear cars every hour of every day and walking around filled with resentment doesn’t contribute to any dream scenario where people stop speeding around with insufficient care and attention in toxic smashing machines.

If I could, I would undo every car ever made and turn it back into iron-bearing rock which we didn’t need to mine and oil which we didn’t need to dig up.

I have tried to follow my father’s example and use hitchhiking as a means of befriending drivers, but nobody in Toronto ever ever picks me up, unlike in Vancouver, Ottawa, and Oxford.

Hence this Litany for Enemies, derived with respect from mindfulness meditation proponents who have done credible research:

“No matter how we appear on the outside, all of us can feel fearful, sad, or lonely on the inside…

May they be safe, and free from suffering.

May they be as happy and healthy as it is possible for them to be.

May they have ease of being.”

I don’t know who narrated this particular meditation, but it has helped me a great deal.

Every single time, however, it is also an uncomfortable confrontation of reflexes which suggest that anyone who is in conflict with me is necessarily wrong. That’s probably the main reason why I esteem it so highly as a spoken word performance.

Greenpeace causing harm by opposing GMOs?

When making decisions about technology, both false positive and false negative errors are possible. By that, I mean it’s possible for us to miss or ignore how a technology has unacceptable consequences for people and the rest of nature. DDT or the drug thalidomide were such false negatives: wrongly considered to be acceptable for use until shown to be otherwise. A false positive, by contrast, would be a case where unjustified fears have limited the use of a technology unnecessarily. Silly examples include the idea that women couldn’t ride trains over 50 miles per hour and many other such misapprehensions about the consequences of technology. People who tend to support new technologies emphasize the times when critics have been wrong, and the benefits technology has brought, while those who favour caution tend to emphasize cases where serious consequences have only emerged after time, as with substances that deplete the ozone layer and those that change the climate.

All this can be tough to reconcile with the notion of the precautionary principle. Expressed weakly, the principle can be seen as simply an appeal to caution: even if there is no evidence about whether a technology is safe or dangerous, we should err on the side of treating new technologies with skepticism. In the strongest expression, the principle may call for any new technology to be restricted to research only until ‘proved’ safe.

Along with opposition to nuclear power – which may also be a false positive where the benefits of a technology are under-stated while risks are over-stated – groups like Greenpeace have strongly resisted the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture, claiming that they will harm human health, harm natural ecosystems, or have other potentially unknown risks.

Recently, 107 Nobel laureates (about 1/3 of all those alive) signed a public letter criticizing Greenpeace for its stance. The Nobel winners say:

There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.


WE CALL UPON GOVERNMENTS OF THE WORLD to reject Greenpeace’s campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general; and to do everything in their power to oppose Greenpeace’s actions and accelerate the access of farmers to all the tools of modern biology, especially seeds improved through biotechnology. Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped.

They strongly emphasize the potential of genetically modified crops including “golden rice” to combat vitamin A deficiency, which they say causes “a total of one to two million preventable deaths occur annually”.

This is a highly visible development in a long-running debate in which it seems clear that the tangible benefits associated with GMOs seem to outweigh risks which have not been convincingly demonstrated. That said, I would personally feel more comfortable if genetic modification of organisms for agriculture was undertaken by public institutions which are subject to appropriate scrutiny rather than profit-maximizing corporations.

In my experience, Greenpeace tends to be stronger on spectacle than on research, and environmental groups in general have a worrisome tendency to maintain opposition to certain technologies as dogma, specifically nuclear energy and genetic modification. Whenever I find that a Greenpeace website or report is the source of a scientific claim, I search to find a credible source that agrees. They seem especially vulnerable to the general human tendency (ask Tony Blair) to apply less scrutiny to information that supports pre-existing positions and thus use weak or questionable evidence to support strongly-held beliefs.

People may be bad at remembering it (or simply unwilling to tell the truth about it to themselves), but humanity has placed itself precariously. We are running vast uncontrolled simultaneous global experiments: destroying habitat, changing the climate, depleting the seas of life, and changing the chemistry of everything. Only the most optimistic or naive think all these problems will resolve favourably for human beings without active intervention. At the same time, we are left contemplating how to use tools which we don’t fully understand (from genetic modification to geoengineering) to further intervene in physical and biological systems which we also don’t understand. When you factor in questions of distributive justice (Do GMOs currently favour developed over developing countries? If so, is such bias inevitable, or a consequence of the specific modifications we have made?), the appropriate approach to managing risk becomes even more obscure.