Great Power and Great Responsibility: Belgium’s Nuclear Energy Quandaries

I don’t know about you, but every time I start wading into a news story featuring nuclear anything, I start feeling like we, collectively, as humans, have basically been a toddler that somehow unlocked grandpa’s gun cabinet for the last 75 years or so – we’ve found this Shiny Thing that occasionally goes bang in exciting ways and now we want to see what else we can do with it. And we have absolutely no idea what it’s really capable of. Except instead of just killing like, ourselves, or a loved one, it’s capable of destroying the entire earth. So… more like a toddler that’s got into grandpa’s nuclear warhead cabinet, really.

baby mushroom cloud

I’m really good at metaphors.

Nuclear fission, the process that lies at the core of both atomic bombs and nuclear reactors, has fundamentally altered our world in so many ways that it would be a completely unrecognisable place without it. And while it’s made significant advances in science, engineering and medicine possible, when it comes to associations it’s hard to get past the image of a mushroom cloud and the names of places like Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Fukushima.


On the other hand, it gave us radioactive spiders which would eventually lead to this amazing cinematic moment, so it’s not all bad. [x]

It’s probably deeply unfair to associate nuclear warfare with nuclear power station disasters, one being intentional destruction and killing with weapons and the other being the accidental result of unforeseen circumstances in otherwise useful infrastructure, but the connections seem a lot more concrete once one gets into discussions about the security issues surrounding nuclear power stations. Discussions like the ones Belgium is currently facing after the death of a guard at a Belgian nuclear facility two days after the attacks in Brussels on the 22nd of March 2016. The incident sparked fears of sabotage to a nuclear power station despite the local prosecutor ruling out any military link to the guard’s death, and further security measures heightened tensions in the weeks following the attacks. Media reports have stoked fears that nuclear plants in Belgium might be potential targets for terrorists seeking nuclear materials.

Which… is not great news, although it’s wise to consume news media in the days and weeks following a terrorist attack with a healthy grain of salt. Besides which, there’s a much larger and longer-running discussion around Belgium’s nuclear power plants that poses serious logistical and political problems for a sizeable portion of Western Europe: really friggin’ old reactors.


They no longer identify with the music played on the radio, they need sleeping pills at night and they’re starting to worry about osteoporosis. [x]

Both the Doel plant on the Dutch border and the Tihange plant near the German border have experienced maintenance and mechanical issues in the last five years. Both plants have reactors dating back to the mid-1970s. The Netherlands and especially Germany are calling for Belgium to mothball the oldest of the reactors in these plants – which were scheduled to be shut down in 2015 – due to fears they might malfunction enough to cause nuclear meltdowns, also known as the worst possible crisis your neighbours can have, narrowly beating out noisy marital disintegration and acquiring an anxious and overzealous Chihuahua.

Germany has made similar demands to France, which is closing its oldest nuclear power station, the 39-year-old Fessenheim, this year. The Energiewende, or energy transition, launched by Angela Merkel’s government in 2011 has seen plans put in place to close all of Germany’s nuclear power facilities by 2022. Largely spurred on by the disaster in Fukushima in March 2011, the Energiewende policies saw a reversal of the CDU’s plan to extend the lifespan of Germany’s nuclear reactors to 2050, and instead beat a hasty retreat to the timeline originally proposed by its left-wing predecessors in government.


“After careful consideration of recent events, we have decided that nuclear fallout is scary as shit and we out. We ouuuttt.” [x]

It’s a policy that is not without its detractors, five years on. Nuclear power still provides about 18% of Germany’s electricity production at the moment. Finding a balance between the difficulties in creating new renewable energy infrastructure and trying to limit the need for increased reliance on fossil fuels is no small task. They’re getting there – almost a third of Germany’s energy requirements were met by renewable sources last year. But the nature of the European energy landscape means that there is a not insignificant amount of import and export between Germany and its neighbours, and Germany’s neighbours are still big into that sweet, sweet, nuclear buzz. While proponents of the Energiewende policy claim this doesn’t compromise Germany’s political position on nuclear energy, the fact remains that nuclear energy will still be passing through Germany’s grid and coffers as long as its neighbours are producing it, and that nuclear disaster – of the kind it fears will happen in Belgium – doesn’t respect national borders.


Nuclear fallout doesn’t even need to show its passport any more! [x]

Is it alarmist to talk about an impending nuclear disaster in Belgium? Maybe not, when you consider that the Belgian government decided three weeks ago in late April to provide iodine pills to its entire population, in case of a nuclear accident. The pills are to prevent the build up of radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland, which is one of the most well recorded hazards of radiation exposure from nuclear accidents. The move doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the government’s decision not to shut down the reactors, but then again it’s worth noting that 60% of Belgium’s electricity comes from nuclear power, so it’s not really a decision they can make lightly.

So how worried should we be? Greenpeace certainly has grave concerns. But nuclear energy proponents point out that the dangers posed by increased fossil fuel usage are a certainty, compared with nuclear power, which only poses the possibility of a threat. There are even arguments that radiation exposure after a nuclear accident isn’t as dangerous as we’ve thought. The problem is that the argument around nuclear energy is deeply polarised, with compelling facts on both sides, but a disturbing lack of scientific certainty or consensus. It often comes down to balancing the benefits of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption with the difficulty of storing and disposing of nuclear waste – both extremely long-term issues with ramifications that will need to be dealt with many generations down the line (assuming we don’t annihilate ourselves in the meantime).

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 11.45.41 PM

If only there was a solution… [x]

Ultimately Belgium is left with the choice between taking drastic action to overhaul its energy infrastructure (either in the form of new reactors, or alternative forms of energy production), or crossing its fingers and hoping for the best. But does it have a responsibility to listen to its neighbours on this matter? Given that the EU is currently seeking to strengthen investment in nuclear energy throughout its member states it might be best served by planning construction of new reactors, despite its pledge to phase out reliance on nuclear power. Who knows, maybe we’ll reached the promised land of nuclear fusion, with its increased safety and efficiency, and less hazardous by-products compared to fission. Unfortunately that technology seems to be perpetually thirty years away from commercial production, and Belgium’s problems can’t wait that long. And if it chooses to continue down the path of fission energy, it’s fairly likely that Germany won’t be too keen to let it borrow a cup of sugar or water its houseplants in the near future.



PS While researching I came across that old 1950s video on what to do in case of nuclear attack, so please enjoy this horrifying jaunt through history:

FEAR #4: Water Security

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? This edition of FEAR looks at how real the thirst is going to get.

As children we learn some important facts about water:

Fact 1: Water is essential to human existence.

This isn’t really up for debate. Life on Earth evolved in an aqueous environment.  Since then some organisms have developed an extremely hands off relationship with water, but humans are not one of them so we have to carry water around inside us all the time and occasionally top ourselves up with Fanta. Why this is the case is not really the focus of this article, but suffice to say that water is an incredibly unique molecule and everyone should be a lot more fascinated by it.

Fact 2: Water covers over 70% of the surface of Earth.

Earth’s blueness has given humanity a sense of aqueous hubris, making us feel like our water supply and (by Fact 1) our survival is secure. Unfortunately, our interpretation of Fact 2 is highly spurious, it tells us the quantity (a hell of a lot), but not the quality of the water available.

earths waterOf the abundance of water that confronts us, 97.4% is saline, making it as good as useless for most requirements such as human consumption, agriculture (it’ll kill the crops and other animals won’t drink it either) and many industrial uses (salt accelerates the corrosion of metals).

The remaining water is freshwater but, more than two-thirds of it is trapped in ice caps, glaciers and permanent snow (for now) and another 30% is groundwater, which is not always accessible. This leaves us with a miniscule percentage of the total we started with, but still what seems like a lot of water until you realise that humanity is capable of this…

aral sea

Satellite images of the Aral Sea show that the thirst is more real than we imagined.

That’s right, people already use an incredible amount of water. According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME), in the past century freshwater use has increased at more than double the rate of population growth to about 3.8 trillion m3 per annum.  The Aral Sea (above) was the fourth largest lake in the world, but began shrinking in the 1960s after the Soviet Union diverted rivers for an irrigation project. Unfortunately, a large percentage of diverted water was wasted, which is a common theme in humanity’s use of water.

On a more personal level, you can estimate your water consumption here or if you’re in a rush here. I did the first one and this is what it spat out:


I am an abomination.

If you look past the fact that they went back in time and used Windows 95 to calculate just how much of a drain I am on the Earth’s resources, you’ll notice that I use roughly 3 m3 or the weight of around 40 men in water per day. Although it isn’t an exact science the numbers seem pretty damning, especially the amount of water required to produce my food.

water fry

In weeks I could raise an army.

In fact, 70% of the water used by humans is consumed by agriculture, so any issues with water supply will likely lead to food insecurity too. The massive loss of water via evaporation due to prevalent farming techniques such as spray and open-ditch irrigation only serves to exacerbate this problem.

The UN predicts that the global population will swell from 7.3 billion in 2015 to 9.7 billion by 2050, which means there will be 2.4 billion more mouths to feed. A dietary shift from starch to meat and dairy, which occurs as people become wealthier, will further amplify the demand for water, as shown in the graph below. Indeed, the IME predicts that the food production may require 10–13 trillion m3 of water annually by 2050.

water for food

As always with food, what goes in, must come out and this is the origin of another demand on the water supply, sanitation (seamless). Despite the United Nations recognising the human right to water and sanitation, over 700 million drink water that is inadequately protected from contamination by their own faeces and a third of the world’s population does not have access to sanitation that hygienically removes their excreta.

The number of people living in urban areas without these basic facilities grew by 20% between 2000 and 2008. Given that the population increase over the next 35 years is expected to be focused on cities in less developed regions, where urban planning is less rigorous, the growth of slums will pose a major challenge to attempts to supply urban populations with clean water and adequate sanitation. Fast growing urban areas are known to struggle with implementing sufficient waste-water infrastructure. A good example is Varanasi, a city on the Ganges, where untreated sewage, industrial pollutants and large numbers of human corpses are dumped into the river daily. Implementation of action plans, such as the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) have received mixed reviews at the very best.

tom sellick

Apparently that moustache can hold 1,000 litres of whatever liquid you want.

Even in developed nations, the water supply is used poorly. The UK has massive losses in its water piping systems. This wasteful attitude towards water (epitomised excellently by Tom Selleck, who stole water during a drought to grow avocados… which he hates) has led to an increased use of aquifers (essentially ancient groundwater stores) which may take thousands of years to replenish. Seriously, have we learnt nothing from the whole fossil fuel thing?! This is why we end up with mega-rich companies, who don’t believe in water as a human right, trying to sell the equivalent of my daily water footprint to L.A. for $960!

Going back to the estimate of how much water I personally consume, second to food production is industry, which accounts for roughly one-third. This data isn’t broken down into different industries, but the demand has a variety of origins from clothes manufacturing to the cooling of nuclear reactors. The energy industry is a particularly interesting example, one of the major complaints about the controversial process of fracking (excellent impartial video here) is that as well as using a vast amount water, the fracking fluid, containing various organic compounds, is pumped back into the ground potentially contaminating the water supply of nearby towns and cities.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s this thing called climate change, which will (can’t emphasise that enough) cause significant variations in rainfall, snowmelt, river flows and groundwater. Rising sea levels are also predicted to cause salinization of river deltas and groundwater, upon which populations are dependent. According to the UN, water supplies are already under stress in developing countries and while there is enough water for all, its uneven distribution means water scarcity is already a real concern affecting billions across large regions.

Even “greener” forms of energy place a large burden on water supplies. Biofuels, which are tipped for increasing use in the transport industry, still require the use of a vast amount of water for their production. If 5% of road transport is powered by biofuels by 2030, there could be a 20% increase in water demand in agriculture as well as an increase in water pollution from fertilisers and agricultural chemicals.

three gorges

The impressive bit.

Hydroelectric power generation may not poison the air, but it also has its downsides. Damming rivers prevents migrations of fish to breeding grounds and the flow of sediment downstream, essentially putting food security and ecosystem services at risk. An extreme example is the Three Gorges Dam in China, undoubtedly an amazing feat of engineering, but one that displaced over a million people and has a major effect on life downstream.

Regardless of the application, our desperate need for water also makes it a potential source of conflict between nations because inanimate molecules don’t respect political boundaries. We’ve already seen how oil’s blasé attitude to invisible lines contributed to the First Gulf War (an example of how prequels can be better) and even before that water was a major issue in the run up to the Six-Day War. Given the geopolitical importance water will take on in a post-fossil fuel world perhaps we should worry a little more that 90% of the world’s population live in countries that share river and lake basins and if living in the UK makes you less concerned just remember our enthusiasm for foreign wars and the potential for Scottish independence.

In order to avoid a future where our water security is threatened, unilaterally pissing in the shower every day to avoid flushing the toilet is not going to cut it and neither is the realisation that bottled water is bullshit. What’s required, as always with these things, is innovation, implementation and sustained political cooperation. The innovation, though difficult, is something humans generally succeed at; newer more efficient irrigation methods and waterless dyeing of fabrics are just the beginning.

The tough bit will be maintaining the political will to cooperate in a world dealing with the impact of climate change and the uncertainty that it brings, when on a national scale the UN believes water resource management plans are “unsatisfactory and well behind targets”.

FEAR RATING 8/10 – We’re a long way from a victory sip on this one.


Das Auto Fraud: How Does Volkwagen’s Apology Compare?

Like the Libor of your lungs or the Enron of the environment, the car manufacturers Volkswagen Group (VW) have been caught with their dicks plugging the exhaust. Last week the California Air Resources Board and the Environment Protection Agency revealed that VW have been circumventing the Clean Air Act by poisoning us even more than usual.

DAS AUTO FRAUDThe deception was achieved using a “defeat device”, in this case software that recognised when the car was being tested and took action to reduce the volume of nitrogen oxides the car produced. Under normal driving conditions the car would produce 10- 40 times the test level of nitrogen oxides. Pollution from nitrogen oxides is attributed to public health problems across the world and is a major contributing factor to air pollution that causes tens-of-thousands of premature deaths in the UK even year.

The software was installed in approximately 482,000 diesel cars (Jetta, Beetle, Audi A3, Golf and Passat) across the US and 11 million vehicles worldwide. You could be forgiven for saying that VW have blood on their hands and that Europe, with its high proportion of diesel vehicles, is likely to have suffered the most.

Yesterday, the CEO of VW apologised and promised to investigate quickly, thoroughly and as transparently as possible… ironic given that it took 5 whole days to apologise after years of fraud. We’re guessing he only became sincere when he saw the share price plummet along with his job security.

To put things into perspective we’ve put together some other limp and insincere apologies from other scoundrels, how do you think VW compares?

Nick Clegg, 2012 – “I’m Sorry” ft. Tuition Fees

To start out we need a classic of the genre and if you live in the UK it doesn’t really take much looking. This is a story of broken promises, eventual apologies and autotune remixes of said apologies. Let’s refresh our memories; in their 2010 election campaign the Lib Dems, led by Nick Clegg, famously promised not to raise tuition fees for university students under any circumstances and all 57 Lib Dem MPs elected in 2010 signed the following pledge:

“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.”

By the end of the year this pledge clearly meant fuck all as only 21 of them voted against trebling fees. This betrayal led to an open hatred of Clegg, who, after a solid two years of thinking decided to apologise.

While the apology seemed sincere, what really sets it apart as being so bad is that, much like the promise they broke, it was ill-advised and effectively set the Lib Dems up as the fall guy for the coalition government. It also alienated the student vote, a major factor in their many crushing election defeats since.

There have also been reports that Clegg was much more willing to hike the fees than he’s ever let on and that all his remorse was false. Whether he was deliberately deceitful, or just naïve, a lot of young people are going to be paying a hefty price for his decisions for many years to come.

There was an upside though, Clegg gave permission for the autotune remix to be released as a single and it raised money for the Children’s Hospital Charity in Sheffield, which it probably needed given the nature of the NHS reforms he help enact since.

Barack Obama, 2014 – “We tortured some folks”


It’s pretty obvious that this apology was a long time coming. As early as 2003 there was open criticism of Guantanamo Bay detention camp in an annual report by Human Rights Watch and the extent to which “folks” were tortured was laid bare by the exposure of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib  and Bagram Air Base. The torture of detainees cemented itself as one of the USA’s worst kept secrets with reports of extraordinary rendition of prisoners through so called CIA black sites (because good capitalists outsource their evil).

What makes this apology seem so hollow is that Obama himself stated his intention to shut Guantanamo in his 2008 presidential campaign, however, the fact that he had to reiterate this at the 2015 state of the union address tells you just how successful he was and how unrepentant the US establishment is.  Couple this with drone strikes that kill innocent civilians and make children afraid of blue skies and I’m sure Barack won’t mind if we call bullshit on his “apology”. At least he didn’t get remixed.

ISIS, 2013 – We beheaded the wrong guy


Unsatisfied with healthy, able-bodied victims and run of the mill war crimes, two members of ISIS (which for some reason has been allowed to choose its own nickname!!!) decided to scour a hospital. Being typical ignorant “muslamic infidels”, upon hearing a man utter the names of two important Shiites they were convinced he was an Iraqi Shia militant on the side of President Assad. Here is where we get our lesson in ISIS style justice; it was decided that the only course of action was to behead him immediately and have the trial later.

The mistake, no doubt one of many that these men have made in life, was only realised when someone recognised the head they displayed in their video. The head, and in all likelihood the body, belonged to one Mohammed Fares, a member of Ahrar al-Sham, a group that has fought alongside ISIS against Assad. Another disturbing example of the complexities of the multi-belligerent conflict in Syria and Iraq.

The apology that followed was given for all the wrong reasons and illustrated the ridiculousness of the ISIS ideology better than any outsider ever could. Firstly, they apologised for beheading the wrong guy, not for beheading a guy. Secondly, they used scripture to defend their mistake and in doing so demonstrated how scripture can be used to defend anything if you try hard enough. Finally, in an attempt to smooth things over with other opposition forces they requested “restraint and piety”, thus depleting the world’s stocks of irony.

Now that the apology and embarrassment are over we can relax and marvel at the utopia they have created, safe in the knowledge that they are truly sorry.

Jerry Springer, 1974, 1982, any time he felt he stood to gain from it – Paid for a prostitute… with a cheque


“Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!”, bet you weren’t expecting him to feature. Jerry Springer was not always the TV personality who picked apart people’s personal lives for financial and egotistical gain, he was once a politician (zing!).

In 1974, while a member of the Cincinnati City Council, it was revealed that three years earlier Springer had hired a prostitute in Kentucky. He was caught because he had paid with a cheque, which is like an olden times version of PayPal except it’s made of paper and will sit around in a drawer until your favourite brothel gets raided by the feds. Springer resigned, but was re-elected in a landslide in 1975 following a public confession and even went on to become mayor! Apparently the people of Cincinnati appreciate candour.

The realisation that the apology was bullshit occurred slightly later, when Springer was running for the Democrat nomination for Governor of Ohio. Believing that his candour had won him votes previously, he shamelessly wedged his admission into a campaign ad in an attempt to prove he wasn’t afraid of hard truths. Following the confession, Springer claims he’s “not sure what any of this has to do with being governor”, but a lot of people must have disagreed because his campaign failed spectacularly.

Springer lowered himself further in the TV show that made him world famous. A show that exploited people, by getting them to open up and discuss their personal lives on Jerry’s terms and led to the formation of copycat shows the world over. I’m sorry Jerry, if you publically apologise for a transgression in your personal life, shamelessly use that apology in an attempt to gain public office and then build a “holier-than-thou” career on exposing the faults of others on TV, you’re a charlatan.

Tony Hayward (on behalf of BP) 2010 – For Deepwater Horizon and his apology for Deepwater Horizon


The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will undoubtedly go down as one of the worst environmental disasters of our time. The rig, which was operated by Transocean on a BP oil prospect, suffered a blowout on 20th April 2010 and the resulting explosions caused the deaths of 11 crew members. The rig sank two days later, leaving a gushing oil well at the bottom of the sea, which took 87 days to plug. The result was extensive damage to many ecosystems, the oil and the chemicals used to disperse it affected the hearts of fish, the eggs of migratory birds and the development of eyes and gills in shellfish.

The majority of the blame was apportioned to BP, with some going to Transocean and other minor partners. Transocean (in spite of their increasingly shit safety record) remained unrepentant, as is typical of many companies in this situation (we’re looking at you Union Carbide), but BP did make an apology through their CEO Tony Hayward. Unfortunately, his choice of words to one reporter left a lot to be desired:

“we’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives. There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.”

Yeah, 11 people killed, an environmental disaster across thousands of miles of ocean and the CEO responsible has the gall to say “I’d like my life back.”!!! Two days later, Hayward, showing himself to be social media savvy, issued an apology for his apology on Facebook. The comments section, which I highly recommend, suggests that it was not well received.

BP eventually replaced Hayward and returned to undermining the welfare of the planet. They clearly weren’t that sorry, but what do you expect from a multinational corporation that presses for the release of convicted mass murderers on the basis that it will push up profit?

As for Hayward, he is currently a non-executive chairman for Glencore, a commodity trading and mining company. Since his appointment, Glencore has acquired licences off the shore of the Moroccan occupied territory Western Sahara, a violation of international law. He must sleep comfortably knowing that he got his life back.