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Tuesday 15 March 2011
Letters: Nuclear power
Nuclear power is insanely risky
The potentially catastrophic state of Japan's nuclear power stations screams a message of terrible urgency. Our present system of powerful lobbying groups and corporate vested interests with funds rivalling the budgets of states results in government actions backing big money and the insatiable greed of corporations. This is at the expense of good sense and the well-being of citizens.
Thus the Government backs nuclear power at the expense of sustainable energy; nuclear weapons instead of nuclear abolition; wars rather than reconciliation and peaceful co-existence; weapons manufacture and sales instead of arms control.
As with the nuclear power stations and the financial meltdown, our Government waits until disaster strikes before acting in the best interests of citizens. But we, the citizens, see what is happening and draw the obvious conclusion: nuclear power stations are insanely dangerous.
Your leading article "Japan's disaster must prompt a new look at reactor safety" (14 March) appears to suggest that it is possible to design a nuclear reactor that is "invulnerable to disaster". Such thinking recalls that of nearly a century ago, specifically, that the RMS Titanic was "unsinkable".
The issue here is not whether an "invulnerable" reactor can be designed and built, but instead, whether the reactor and plant design takes into account reasonable risk that is apparent at the time of construction.
Reactor 1 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant was run for 40 years without major incident. The events that led to the current situation involve the failure of a triply redundant cooling system due to a "perfect storm" of events. First, an earthquake that resulted in the shutdown of a significant portion of the country's electricity-generating capacity and the resulting failure of the primary reactor cooling system. Second, the secondary cooling system was destroyed by a tsunami; and finally, the batteries used to operate the tertiary cooling system were depleted by continuous use.
What can the rest of the world learn from these events? The failure of the primary and the secondary cooling systems are directly attributable to seismological activity. Fortunately, most of the world's nuclear reactors are not located in seismologically active regions, so there is little mitigation of seismological risk that needs to be taken at other facilities. Perhaps a better question to ask is: are there sites where multiple levels of safety systems could fail simultaneously? If so, are there additional levels of redundancy that could be implemented that would mitigate those risks?
Even if such studies are undertaken and the findings adopted, industry, government, the public and the media must recognise that there is no way to eliminate all risk from any system. There is risk associated with driving a car, getting on an airplane and yes, nuclear power. But to put these risks in perspective: the world's worst nuclear accident (Chernobyl) resulted in 4,000 deaths over 20 years. By contrast, in 2008, 37,261 people were killed in the US in motor accidents. Safe nuclear power therefore requires rationally assessing the risks, rather than resorting to some mythical reactor that is "invulnerable to disaster".
Dr K Beckwith
Anthropomorphic language about nature can be appropriate for emotional or emotive discourse. But in pragmatic contexts, such as decisions over where to site nuclear power stations, I support Julian Baggini's wish (14 March) that people would regard natural phenomena as "simply what is". But he seriously undermines his own cause by using language such as "the caprice of nature" and "the mess that she thoughtlessly leaves behind".
I recall in my youth, more than 60 years ago, the hydro-power stations being built all over my native Highlands – they are still operating today. Why can this proved system of generating electricity not be used nationwide?
In some areas water to turn the turbines could be pumped from and returned to the sea. Modern non-corrosive materials could be used for the pumps and pipes, making maintenance reasonably trouble-free.
Then we would have no fears of nuclear accidents, at dated plants, in a country which does experience earthquakes, although at present, infrequent.
Bridlington, East Yorkshire
Cruel and absurd to end soup runs
Westminster Council's proposal to introduce a bylaw banning the distribution of food in a large area of the borough, and making it an offence to sleep out, is cruel and absurd (letters, 8 March). It amounts to an intention to criminalise the poor and those who would help them. It is also selfish of public resources for Westminster to expect an already overstretched police and court service to prosecute people who would otherwise not be in the criminal-justice system, and who are participating in an activity they feel is worthy.
The people who distribute food to the poor are by definition well motivated, by Christian or other profoundly held convictions. They are unlikely to be deterred by a bylaw; conflict and bitterness is more likely to be the result.
I have never felt the need to go to Westminster to distribute food (my charity is busy enough in our own borough). The only thing which would compel me to go to Westminster to distribute food is if Westminster succeeds in making it illegal. I would then consider it a civic duty to defy an unjust law, and encourage others to do the same.
A better way forward for Westminster would be to establish an area where food distribution can take place, and welcome people to participate in an ordered way.
The debate about soup runs has become tangled in a mix of emotion, good intention and experience. No one is suggesting that homeless people should be left to starve. Neither is anyone suggesting that rough sleepers must be forced to accept services of any kind. The central issue is whether we think it acceptable to deny people the opportunity to regain dignity, security and hope when they've reached rock-bottom in their lives.
The organisations which say that soup runs are an inappropriate response to rough sleeping are the very ones who work full-time with rough sleepers and vulnerable people at risk of homelessness. They provide routes back to security, self-respect and fulfilling lives through skilled outreach, rescue, accommodation, advice, support, access to specialist services, training, and work experience.
Their work over decades has produced changes in services and outcomes for individuals undreamt of at the time when those very organisations were also providing soup runs. These changes are a direct result of working with homeless and vulnerable people, not as mere recipients of goodwill but as partners in re-shaping their lives.
Now, instead of offering soup, many are employing people they once rescued from the street. They speak out because they care so much about the people they help.
We must act against Gaddafi
In 1936, the Spanish Civil War commenced. The democratically elected left-wing government appealed to Britain and France for assistance and was turned down. Franco, on the other hand, received bountiful help from Hitler and his Luftwaffe. Franco, of course, won and Hitler got the message that Britain and France would not interfere with his military programme.
Now, in Libya, we have a similar situation. The democratically inspired rebels are appealing for help to the West and again we refuse. Much as I personally hate the idea of war, we need to think of the possible outcome of our inaction, particularly if Gaddafi wins. This will send a clear message to other dictators that the West will not interfere, regardless of what they do to their people.
However, this is a North African problem. Surely their fellow Arabs in Egypt and Tunisia should be the first ones to send in support; as I understand it, Egypt has an excellent air force that could combat the Libyan one. And then there is nothing to stop us sending arms to Egypt and Tunisia.
This situation is clearly different from Iraq and Afghanistan – the people of Libya are crying out for our help, something that never happened in either of our other two recent wars, both of which were motivated by selfish and highly dubious motives.
Port Solent, Hampshire
So our great leaders, who were cheering the end of Gaddafi as boldly as they dared (which wasn't very), are going to have to welcome him back into the community of nations! Or have they the guts to support the people of Libya at this late hour? Surely they can still get useful weapons to Benghazi without more spineless talk of legalities?
The UK, US, EU, Russia and all the rest break any international law when it suits them. It's Gaddafi or the people; is that a difficult choice?
I was born and bred in London (I think "Londoner" might suffice as my ethnic origin for the Census: much of humankind is here) and have always believed I was part of the Western world. I am rather puzzled, therefore, that the popular uprisings in North Africa, including Libya, are described as Middle Eastern. On my globe Libya is due south of Italy and Scandinavia. When the Mediterranean was deemed to be the centre of the world, Libya would have been to the south. When did it move?
If I handed a loaded machine gun to a madman in a crowd of civilians and he killed 100 men, women and children, how would you apportion the blame: 50-50? 80-20?
I don't hear the arms dealers getting a mention as we criticise Gaddafi for using planes and tanks against civilians. It is too late to try to take the machine gun back – but we could resolve not to sell any more weapons.
Pension penalty for women
I was surprised that among the letters about public-sector pensions (14 March) there were none highlighting the problems for women which would result from Lord Hutton's proposed changes.
Even today, many women eschew promotion prospects or work part-time while they bring up children, as I did myself. In the existing system I managed to run up the full-time equivalent of only 25 years' work, which reduced my retirement income dramatically, though I taught for almost 40 years before I took my pension. However, by gaining modest promotions in my last 10 years of working I was able to retire on a small but tolerable pension.
The pensions crisis can't be ignored of course, but if the average pay were to be assessed on the basis of, say, the last 15 years of working, the penalty for being female would be much reduced.
I have lived in Sheffield for just over 22 years. In this time I have seen the numbers of sparrows first decline in the 1990s and then steadily increase to their current high (letters, 7 March). This winter we even have what seems to be a small breakaway flock of four visiting our very wildlife- friendly garden. Despite being England's greenest city we have as much traffic as anyone else and many of the flocks are well established on busy main roads, as is our garden. Michael McCarthy should visit Sheffield, especially the Netheredge area, if he wishes to see city sparrows just 10 minutes from a city centre, although we do have a few in the city centre itself too, right next to the town hall! Incidentally local ecology researchers refer to Sheffield as a "mosaic wetland", and we have more trees than all the London parks put together.
It's not red tape
The Business Secretary announced on 4 March that small firms will no longer have to produce independently audited accounts in a measure that he believes will save 42,000 businesses £40m per year. I've always respected Vince Cable, but such a move demonstrates a naivety that verges on madness. The ICM supports the reduction of red tape, but please can we understand that producing accounts is not "administration" and neither is it unnecessary red tape.
Far from helping small businesses, the move is more likely to damage a company's access to credit by restricting growth and in fact adding to their costs. Businesses extend credit to one another based on the trust that comes from knowing that the company is financially viable, and one of the essential proof points is a set of audited accounts. Banks, too, look to lend on the basis of sound financial data, so limiting the amount of financial information available will do more harm than good.
The Government must stop sending mixed messages. If they want small businesses to drive the economy, this is not the way to do it.
Chief Executive, Institute of Credit Management, Oakham, Leicestershire
Perspectives on the alternative vote
A sensible solution to a real problem
I was interested in Eddy Hunt's letter (9 March) about the French electoral system. The experience of a left-leaning friend of mine illustrates the power and the problems of the French electoral system, involving a second round run-off. She did not bother to vote in the first round of the 2002 Presidential election, confidently expecting that the second round would be between M Chirac and M Jospin. In the event, so many others did not bother with the first round that M Jean-Marie le Pen, an extremist, beat M Jospin into second place in the first round. My friend told me that in the second round she voted for M Chirac, with a metaphorical clothes peg on her nose. Chirac was elected by 82 per cent of the second-round vote.
In the 1966 General Election I failed to get elected to the House of Commons by a margin of less than 600 votes, running as a Labour candidate under the leadership of Harold Wilson. At the time I was sad about this; those were the days of Wilson's "White heat of scientific revolution" and I was the only working scientist who came even close to election. About a year later, I received a letter out of the blue from the former Liberal candidate who had run against me and had gotten around 3,500 votes. He wrote that he thought that he and I were of a single mind about most things, and that he was sorry that by splitting the left-of-centre vote he had facilitated the election of the Conservative candidate.
On Election Day last May I voted tactically in Oxford West and Abingdon for the Liberal Democrat candidate, Dr Evan Harris. He was beaten by 176 votes, but there were 5,999 Labour votes in the constituency and most of them, I feel sure, would have preferred him to the Conservative who was elected.
A sensible Alternative Vote system, used by a thinking electorate, will avoid such problems. After much prevarication by professional politicians, finally we, the people, are to be given a chance to vote directly for such a system.
Professor Gerald Elliott
It won't get us any closer to PR
It is wishful thinking to think that AV is a stepping stone to proportional representation. Australia has had AV for 90 years and currently has a hung parliament, yet is no closer than the UK to achieving PR. No country has ever moved from AV to PR. Most AV campaigners really want PR and are not genuine supporters of AV. There is a serious danger that if AV is adopted in the UK, we will be stuck with an electoral system for decades that satisfies neither traditionalists nor reformers and that nobody really wants. AV has many of the same problems as First Past The Post and makes some of them worse.
Mind your language
I have been puzzling over the advert you carried in 12 March paper from the "No to AV" group. It quotes Roy Jenkins's Independent Commission on the Voting System: "Far from doing much to relieve disproportionately...". I'm no top linguist, but either the word "disproportionately" is correct but should be preceded by a noun (but I can't think of an appropriate one!) or it is wrong and should be the noun "disproportionality"?
This group really needs to sort out its advertising technique if it wants to be taken seriously!
St Albans, Hertfordshire
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