‘The Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement,’ Donald Trump said last week. ‘For example, on two separate occasions, they have exceeded the limit of 130 metric tons of heavy water.’ In 1931, the American physical chemist Harold Urey discovered deuterium, the isotope of hydrogen that has a neutron in its nucleus along with a proton. He manufactured some ‘heavy water’ (D2O) and, I think, drank some. Heavy water remained an interesting laboratory phenomenon until the Second World War, when it took on new importance since it plays a role in the production of plutonium, which does not exist naturally on earth.
There are many reasons why China’s involvement in building nuclear power stations in Britain is wrong, yet those who oppose it, or question it, have struggled to articulate their unease without sounding racist, paranoid or Little-English, or getting bogged down in arcane financial minutiae. One obstacle to exposing the British government’s error is language. In the case of China and the nukes, politicians, journalists and finance professionals are complicit in misleading usage of the words investment and tax. George Osborne, a master of such lexical abuse, maintains that Britain needs Chinese investment, and that the planned Chinese-French reactors won’t cost the British taxpayer a penny. Both propositions are false.
On 29 January 2002, George W. Bush designated Iran part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, despite Iranian co-operation in Afghanistan the previous year. In summer 2002, the US told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that two nuclear sites were under construction in Iran, at Natanz and Arak, neither of which had been declared to the IAEA as required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran was a signatory. To defuse the situation, President Khatami offered to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme with the EU3 (France, Germany and the UK). Jack Straw, Joschka Fischer and Dominique de Villepin visited Tehran in October 2003. Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rouhani, agreed to suspend the enrichment facility at Natanz and the construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak, and to sign the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which provides for more intrusive inspections of nuclear sites than the NPT does.
In perhaps the least surprising news of the year, Iran and the P5+1 failed to reach an agreement in Vienna on Monday. The P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) want Iran to scale back its uranium enrichment activities; Iran wants sanctions to be lifted.
David Cameron has signed a piece of paper with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, opening the way for the company that makes the nuclear weapons for the world's biggest Communist state to build and run nuclear power stations in Britain. The deal is morally wrong, a betrayal of the British people, and a damaging blow to democratic principles. Nuclear power in Britain can only be built with the help of large subsidies from citizens. In the past, these subsidies came through general taxation. Since electricity was privatised by Cameron's predecessors, the tax to subsidise new nuclear will be a private tax, hidden in our electricity bills, the collectors of which will be the electricity firms themselves.
Several years ago in Vienna, a senior Iranian diplomat made clear to me the mixture of pride and fear that drives Iran’s nuclear programme. Angry at the ‘insults’ of Western powers, he said that the programme’s success proved Iran was an ‘intelligent’ nation that would never ‘bow’ to pressure. ‘But that’s not to say a deal can’t be done,’ he added. 'Though it won’t be easy.’ He wasn't wrong. A deal has, after more than ten years of negotiations, been agreed between Iran and the P5+1 (the five Security Council powers and Germany) in Geneva. It certainly wasn’t easy, but it has been coming at least since Hassan Rouhani became president in June.
Two canary yellow stratocasters, mounted on stands to face each other and wired into squat black amps, buzz with a tentative open string drone. Next to the guitars hangs the shell of a radiation-proof suit. The stage is set for a band that never arrives: Fuyuki Yamakawa’s Atomic Guitars – recently on display at the Tokyo Art Fair – are played by decaying atoms.
The modernist mantra that form follows function is best suited to industrial buildings. Even the great cooling towers of coal-fired power stations, visible for miles around like the funnels of land-locked ocean liners, can be celebrated as functional architecture. But the inscrutable form of the nuclear power plant gives nothing away. The events at Fukushima are a terrifying reminder of what those innocuous-looking boxes actually contain.
The events unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are already worse than any worst case scenario could have predicted. Three reactors are thought to be damaged, but no one knows how badly, because the tsunami knocked out most of the instruments that would have allowed operators to read, among other things, water levels. With the roofs blown off by hydrogen explosions, there is increasing concern over the spent fuel pools inside the secondary containment shells. The spent fuel, recently discharged from the reactor cores, is hot and extremely radioactive. If the fuel disintegrates (or ‘melts’) because of insufficient cooling, there is a chance that it could reach criticality, either inside the core or in the spent fuel pools. In other words, a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction could start, and fires could spread the radioactivity far and wide – depending on wind and weather conditions, possibly beyond Japan.
The media are giving as much attention to the Fukushima I nuclear power plant as they are to the impact of the tsunami, even though the likelihood of measurable health effects from the former is small, and the number of deaths caused by the latter is certain to be very large. This isn’t surprising: nuclear fear, founded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reinforced by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, is not irrational, though it’s worth noting that many more people have been saved by X-rays and radiotherapy than have been killed by radiation of any kind. What’s happening at Fukushima Dai-ichi Units 1 and 2 is similar to what happened at Three Mile Island Unit 2 in 1979.
I paid my electricity bill today, and spent some time trying to work out how much of my bill goes to the French government to defray the costs of running that large, complex and hexagonal country. I don't live in France. I live in London and, like millions of other Britons, buy my electricity from EDF, aka Electricité de France, which snapped up three of England's privatised electricity minnows in 2002. Privatisation, a policy supposed to liberate us from the burden of allegedly inefficient state-owned industries, has led to more than five million households and businesses in this country buying electricity and gas from a state-owned industry in that country.