Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Politicised science: ministerial mantra is hollow on Coronavirus threat

Six versions of this letter have been sent to The Guardian, which, in its wisdom, has declined to publish it.

I am sure millions across the nation concur with Professor Devi Sridhar’s exasperation over the ministerial mantra that government policies are based on “the science.”(Hannah Devlin, Analysis, 24 April)
 Earlier, your correspondent, Carol Ferguson, (letters, 16 April) asked plaintively: why has the government got this (its response strategy to  the Coronacrisis) so wrong?

The answer is partly given on the facing page by Professor Helen Ward (“We scientists said lock down. No one listened”).

She also pointed out that ministers constantly repeat the mantra “we are following the science” as if the interpretation of scientific data is uncontested. Thankfully it is not.
What Prime Minister Johnson clearly did was follow the non-scientific ideological advice of his chief Policy advisor, Dominic Cummings-  trained at Oxford University as a medievalist - to create conditions for Herd Immunity, despite the fact that the WHO had its own opposite mantra “ test, test, test!”.

Most other governments followed WHO advice.

For as yet unexplained reasons, the chief medical advisor and chief scientific advisor, Johnson’s wingmen at the Downing Street lecterns  in media briefings, agreed with a medieval historian rather than the global experts at the WHO, which incidentally is significantly funded by U.K. taxpayers.

Your series of stories over the weekend on Dom Cummings presence at several key  meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) (“Revealed: Cummings is on secret scientific advisory group for Covid-19,” April 25;www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/24/revealed-dominic-cummings-on-secret-scientific-advisory-group-for-covid-19; and Attendees of Sage meetings worried by presence of Cummings, “on line April 26) further reinforce suspicions over Cummings’ influential  role.

Your correspondents Dr Richard Milne, Dr Mike Gill, Gary Bennett, and Willy McCourt rightly raise the concerns that Cummings presence in SAGE it itself an interference.. He intimidates people with his ever scowling visage.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili (“Our politicians must learn the value of doubt,” 22 April) is right to stress admitting mistakes in science is a “strength, not a weakness.”

The inescapable conclusion is the Johnson-led government has been following “politicised science.”

Monday, 27 April 2020

China's brilliant virology discoveries go unrecognized in the West

Submitted to the Morning Star today
China’s virology research community has been heroic and  innovative in  its extraordinary research done on the coronavirus, as Carlos Martinez explained ("China’s successes in the fight against Covid-19.” Morning Star, 11-12, April)

But in John Wright’s feature “Sorry, facts don’t care about Trump’s feelings,” MS 25-26 April) – in which he argues for primacy of “stubborn facts” - he himself fails to follow his own dictum.

His milestone dates presenting the sequence of development suffers from errors of omission.

For example, while the Chinese Government in Beijing  did inform the  WHO of a viral break out on 31 December, this warning came after the nationalist Government in Taiwan  said they reported this to both International Health Regulations (IHR) -a WHO ‘framework for exchange’  of epidemic prevention and response data between 196 countries, and Chinese health authorities - on December 31.

Taipei said many of its doctors had heard from mainland colleagues that medical staff were getting ill — a sign of human-to-human transmission- during December 2019, weeks before the wet food market in Wuhan had been identified as possible cause of the fugitive viral escape. But the warning was not shared with other countries.

The IHR’s internal website provides a platform for all countries to share information on the epidemic and their response. But none of the information shared by Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control was posted, because the WHO does not recognize the international status of Taiwan as a separate nation.

In 2018, the Chinese state Nanjing Military Research Institute published details research on a new bat virus they had found  near Zhoushan city, in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang.

Building on this, the celebrated female virologist, Dr Zhi Zhengli of the Wuhan Virology  Research Institute (WVRI) did complex research on ‘splitting’  the Sars virus, producing four key papers [published in Western science journals], that looked into the possibility of  developing self-replicating synthetic coronaviruses ( assessing the c so-called “S” protein)

One key paper from WVRI virologists, published in the UK medical journal, The Lancet on  24 January 2020, explains from their micro-analysis of early reported Covid cases, that 14 out of 41 (ie around a third) examined could not be traced at all to the wet food market.

Two days later, the United States’ Government Centers for Diseases Control published a pap on viral transfer from bats. Nature journal followed this up on 3 February with an analysis of the link to bats of the coronavirus  by now spreading widely worldwide

They found the new virus – whose full ‘genome sequence’  had been published by the Chinese Government on 10 January -  was not one  found in the kind of bats sometimes on sale at the Wuhan  wet food market..

Which leaves the unanswered question: what was the original source of the fugitive virus in Wuhan, if not the market?

Sunday, 26 April 2020

UK Government bids to re-launch new exotic reactors using toxic weapons-useable plutonium

The  important article below was written based on [reacted] documents I secured from the UK nuclear regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) after an eight month battle to ensure disclosure, that began last August  (2019)

Westminster bid to re-launch toxic plutonium reactors



The UK government is trying to resurrect plutonium-powered reactors despite abandoning a multi-billion bid to make them work in Scotland.

Documents released by the UK Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) under freedom of information law reveal that fast reactors, which can burn and breed plutonium, are among “advanced nuclear technologies” being backed by UK ministers.

Two experimental fast reactors were built and tested at a cost of £4 billion over four decades at Dounreay in Caithness. But the programme was closed in 1994 as uneconomic after a series of accidents and leaks.


Now ONR has been funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in London to boost its capacity to regulate new designs of fast reactors, along with other advanced nuclear technologies.

Campaigners have condemned the moves to rehabilitate plutonium as a nuclear fuel as “astronomically expensive”, “disastrous” and “mind-boggling”. They point out that it can be made into nuclear bombs and is highly toxic – and the UK has 140 tonnes of it.

But the nuclear industry says that plutonium-fuelled fast reactors can produce “safe, low-carbon power”. UK government nuclear scientists support the idea, arguing that plutonium reactors can “minimise waste volumes”.

ONR released 23 documents about advanced nuclear technologies in response to a freedom of information request by Dr David Lowry, a London-based research fellow at the US Institute for Resource and Security Studies. They include redacted minutes and notes of meetings from 2019 discussing fast reactors, and are being published by The Ferret.

One note of a meeting in November 2019 shows that ONR attempted to access a huge database on fast reactors maintained by the UK government’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) in Warrington, Cheshire.

NNL completed a “fast reactor knowledge capture” project in January 2019, including “a series of reports on Dounreay Fast Reactor and Prototype Fast Reactor for BEIS”. The whole archive is said to contain “around 40,000 documents”.

But when ONR asked to access the documents, it was told there were problems. “NNL explained that there may be some challenges associated with accessing some of these documents due to historic security classifications and export controls,” the ONR note said.

In September 2019 ONR talked to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the US about regulating fast reactors, which can be cooled by sodium. ONR asked about the risks of containment being breached by “sodium fires”.

The commission responded by talking about its “risk informed approach to determine internal hazards such as a fire scenario”. Further details, however, have been blacked out.

In May 2019 ONR met with the Environment Agency, which covers England. One of the items discussed was a proposal “to develop an international benchmark for severe accident analysis for lead fast reactors”.

In another meeting with the agency in November 2019 it was mentioned that BEIS had given ONR £353,000 to continue work on advanced nuclear technologies. ONR also had a telephone conference with the Environment Agency in November 2019 which discussed “potential showstoppers” on radioactive waste disposal.

As well as helping ONR increase its understanding of fast reactors, BEIS has promised investments of up to £44 million to help nuclear companies research and develop a range of new small, new “modular”reactors.

Two companies have so far won funding under this heading to help develop fast reactors that can burn plutonium. The US power company, Westinghouse, is proposing lead-cooled fast reactors, while another US company called Advanced Reactor Concepts wants to build sodium-cooled fast reactors.

In November 2019 BEIS also announced an £18 million grant to a consortium led by reactor manufacturer, Rolls Royce, to develop a “small modular reactor designed and manufactured in the UK capable of producing cost effective electricity”.

According to Dr Lowry, fast reactors would require building a plutonium fuel fabrication plant. Such plants are “astronomically expensive” and have proved “technical and financial disasters” in the past, he said.

“Any such fabrication plant would be an inevitable target for terrorists wanting to create spectacular iconic disruption of such a high profile plutonium plant, with devastating human health and environmental hazards.”

Lowry was originally told by ONR that it held no documents on advanced nuclear technologies. As well as redacting the 23 documents that have now been released, the nuclear safety regulator is withholding a further 13 documents as commercially confidential – a claim that Lowry dismissed as “fatuous nonsense”.

I remain perpetually gobsmacked at the lobbying power of the nuclear obsessives. Walt Patterson, nuclear critic

The veteran nuclear critic and respected author, Walt Patterson, argued that no fast reactor programme in the world had worked since the 1950s. Even if it did, it would take “centuries” to burn the UK’s 140 tonne plutonium stockpile, and create more radioactive waste with nowhere to go, he said.

“Extraordinary – they never learn, do they? I remain perpetually gobsmacked at the lobbying power of the nuclear obsessives,” he told The Ferret. “The mind continue to boggle.”

The Edinburgh-based nuclear consultant, Pete Roche, suggested that renewable energy was the cheapest and most sustainable solution to climate change. “The UK government seems to be planning some kind of low carbon dystopia with nuclear reactors getting smaller, some of which at least will be fuelled by plutonium,” he said.

“The idea of weapons-useable plutonium fuel being transported on our roads should send shivers down the spine of security experts and emergency planners.”

Another nuclear expert and critic, Dr Ian Fairlie, described BEIS’s renewed interest in fast reactors as problematic. “Experience with them over many years in the US, Russia, France and the UK has shown them to be disastrous and a waste of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

This is not the view taken by the UK Nuclear Industry Association, which brings together nuclear companies. It wants to see the UK’s plutonium being used in reactors rather than disposed of as waste.

“Fast reactor development is about producing safe, reliable, low carbon power,” said the association’s head of communications, Hartley Butler George.

“They can be used to close the fuel cycle, by recycling its spent fuel and minimising waste volumes. They will produce exactly the type of clean, safe and reliable electricity which we sorely need to meet climate change targets.”

Asked whether new reactors could breed as well as burn plutonium, Butler George added: “This depends on the kind of fast reactor in which the plutonium is used. Some designs focus on a closed fuel cycle, which creates waste with a much shorter half-life, meaning it is safer sooner.”

The UK government’s National Nuclear Laboratory thought ministers were right to investigate advanced nuclear technologies as a way of help to cut climate pollution. “The rationale for fast reactor development is certainly about producing safe, reliable, low-carbon power,” said a laboratory spokesperson.

“Fast reactor designs have the potential to utilise plutonium as a fuel. They can also be used to close the fuel cycle, by recycling its spent fuel and minimising waste volumes.”

The Office for Nuclear Regulation confirmed that it had been funded by the UK government along with the Environment Agency “to further develop the capability and capacity of the nuclear regulators to regulate the development of advanced nuclear technologies.”

An ONR spokesperson said: “Any proposed reactor design would need to meet the UK’s high standards for safety, security and environmental protection.

“Using the government funding, we continue to resource and enhance ONR’s corporate and technical knowledge of advanced nuclear technologies to ensure expertise is gained and retained in the long-term so we can regulate effectively in the future, if we are required to do so.”

The Scottish Government has frequently insisted that it is against building new nuclear stations in Scotland. But in 2017 it added a rider, saying that its policy was “opposition to new nuclear stations, under current technologies”.

Critics point out that this could leave the door open to advanced nuclear technologies such as plutonium-burning fast reactors. When asked whether this was the case, the government didn’t directly respond.

“The Scottish Government remains opposed to new nuclear power plants in Scotland,” a spokesperson told The Ferret. “The Scottish Government believes our long term energy needs can be met without the need for new nuclear capacity.”

The UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy did not respond to repeated requests to comment.


The plutonium experiment started at Dounreay

Plutonium is created when uranium is burnt in nuclear reactors. It is highly toxic and can be used to make nuclear bombs, or to fuel reactors to generate power.

Plutonium has been extracted from UK and other reactors since the 1950s. Some 140 tonnes of it is now stored in high security vaults at the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria, awaiting decisions on its fate.

An article by three German scientists in the international Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on 17 April, pointed out that the store will cost UK taxpayers £73 million every year for the next century. The plutonium is “highly toxic and poses a permanent risk of proliferation,” they said.

“It is enough material to build tens of thousands of nuclear weapons…But after decades of public and private consultation, there is still no accepted plan for its disposition.”

plutoniumThe plutonium store at Sellafield

Photo thanks to Nuclear Decommissioning Authority

The UK’s plutonium experiment began at Dounreay on the north coast of mainland Scotland in 1955. It was deliberately sited as far away from population centres as possible because scientists at the time feared “a minor nuclear explosion”.

Fast reactors were then seen as the holy grail of nuclear power, because their potential for breeding as well as burning plutonium could hugely increase the amount of power that could be extracted from finite uranium resources. But forty years on perceptions changed.

After building and running a small Dounreay Fast Reactor from 1959 to 1977 and a larger Prototype Fast Reactor from 1974 to 1994, the £4 billion programme was cancelled. The technology, and the economics, had proved more difficult than expected.

There had also been a series of accidents and leaks – including an explosion in a waste shaft – which were often initially covered up. The shoreline and the sea near Dounreay have been contaminated by tens of thousands of radioactive particles that escaped from the plant between 1963 and 1984 – and which will never be completely cleaned up.

Today the array of old reactors and waste facilities at Dounreay are being decommissioned. The task was originally expected to cost £4 billion, but is now reckoned by the UK government’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to amount to £2.8 billion, with the aim of finishing in the 2030s.

A spokesperson for Dounreay said: “We keep decommissioning plans under constant review to reflect developments with such a unique and complex programme and to take account of opportunities, including advancing technology and best practice from around the world.”

According to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, a decision on what to do with the UK’s plutonium in the long term was a matter for government. “Until a decision is made, the continued safe storage of the material is our priority,” said an authority spokesperson.

23 documents on advanced nuclear
















































23-documents-on-advanced-nuclear-technologies-released-by-the-office-for-nuclear-regulationPhotos of Dounreay thanks to iStock/SteveAllenPhoto and iStock/deemac1. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.