Mental Health in Research

I struggle to think of many things as inherently self-destructive as someone with mental illness being involved in politics: the unending pressure and scrutiny; the constant public interaction; the sheer unforgiving nature and high stakes; having to go outside all the time. The unpredictability, instability, and general awfulness of modern politics also isn’t conducive to calm and peace of mind for those paying attention. I long since stopped actively being a political activist because it became simply too draining on my health and well-being, instead, somewhat serendipitously, remaining in academia as long as my ability has merited (or at least as long as I could bluff my way through it). I figured I could hide in my comfy wee niche, studying away and making a living off of something I was good at. I was both right and wrong.

Academia is forgiving of eccentric personalities (although social media has perhaps illustrated that politicians are even stranger than the rest of us) and rather tolerant of unorthodox working patterns. So long as you hit your deadlines and keep your supervisors and funders happy, in a lot of cases it isn’t really an issue if you turn up at midday and work until midnight in the same clothes you had on yesterday- which is great if your sleeping pattern is wrecked and you’re too ill to do your laundry or shower.It’s taken as read that you’re going to be a bit socially awkward or verbose – we’re full of ideas and like talking about what we do, it’s why we’re here. You’re surrounded by bright, like-minded people and challenged every day. You get to do what you love (usually) for a living. This is of course a massive double-edged bastard sword.

It can be easy to fall into bad habits and self-destructive behaviour – getting up at a regular time and having a routine is a source of structure and can help with anxiety and depression, but if nobody’s forcing you to get turn up 9-5 every day it can take a level of discipline and willpower simply not available to you to maintain that structure. Working 9-5 also means you’re more likely to be working at the same time as your peers and superiors so you’re not alone and they can keep an eye on you, ensuring you stay on track and don’t fall behind. Conversely, being able to slip into erratic patterns is unhelpful and can exacerbate other problems such as poor diet and social isolation.

While constantly having deadlines to pursue can add structure and purpose to the days, weeks, and months, it’s also easy to become jaded or stressed. It’s hard enough to stay motivated and concentrate on a dissertation for several months, never mind researching on a project for 3 years. We’re driven and passionate but not the best at knowing when to call it a day or give ourselves a break.

This all cruelly combines with imposter syndrome to make research even more draining for a PhD student. The never-ending feeling of inadequacy that, at some point, pursues every researcher, undergrad, or postgrad. It’s the feeling that you’re lying, that you’re not good enough, that your research is useless and derivative. Unfortunately, for those with anxiety or depression, that’s literally every day anyway, so not only do you feel inadequate at home, and in life, you feel inadequate in your work when in most cases you’re among the most talented and passionate people in your field.

In many ways, then, I’ve found a lot of parallels between politics and academia. Both often seem like thankless, daunting, exhausting tasks and both require a potentially self-destructive drive and dedication to something larger than oneself. Madness affects both, just differently.

Madness is like a tumour. It permeates every part of you and eventually it can become impossible to tell where it ends and you begin. Like a tumour it can metastasize beyond your mind and into your body and can easily kill you if untreated. This may be why it can still be so difficult for academics to get help, despite being highly self-aware, bright people – intellectual capability and personality are what allow academics (and to a different extent politicians) to make a living.

As a quick arm is to a quarterback or a left peg is to a striker, our minds are our greatest assets but are conversely also our worst enemies. Unlike treatment for, say, a thigh strain, though, there isn’t the fear that physiotherapy will fundamentally alter who you are in order to cure you.

Perversely, anxiety can be a powerful motivator. The hyper-focus on arbitrary details can help one think through problems and can drive one to obsessively work on something to achieve perfection or find a solution- that is of course when depression hasn’t left you bed-bound obsessing over that stupid thing you accidentally said to someone in the office four days ago or wondering why someone hasn’t responded to a text.

There is an enormous fear that medication or treatment will alter you in some way that affects not just your personality but the very things that make you a good researcher; your dedication, your passion, your focus. Starving yourself or working yourself into the grave isn’t conducive to productive research, either, though.

Whether you’re an activist or a researcher, learn to know your limits, and learn to recognise when you need to get help. Having robust support networks and a good self-care regimen are essential not only to your sanity and your well-being, but also to the quality of your work. The world can wait a day; you still need to eat and sleep to save it.

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Mad Men

This has been an abysmal seven days in what has already been an altogether bleak year. 49 innocent LGBT people murdered at the hands of a violent, homophobic bigot; a principled and inspiring public servant carrying out public service, murdered by a violent fascist. These were lives not “lost”, but taken. Lives brutally taken in the most horrendous and terrifying of circumstances.

The perpetrators may well have been mentally ill – we don’t know yet. That they were hateful and wicked is without question.  But, once again, inevitably, the focus is not just on the bigotry and violent hatred behind their acts, but on what mental state these men may have been in when they committed their respective atrocities in Orlando and West Yorkshire.

Of course it is necessary to understand why these people have committed these heinous acts- be it as a way of preventing similar acts in the future, or simply to try and make sense of what are inconceivably wicked actions – but it is crushingly, depressingly, and exhaustingly repetitive.

A man commits an act of heinous violence – be it Dylann Roof, Omar Mateen, or whomever else – because they have a volcanic hatred and a weapon in their hand with which to unleash it; the papers line up, horrified by this “psycho”; this “quiet, lone wolf”; this “headcase”; this “lunatic madman”.

Dismissing murderers and bigots as simply “mentally unwell” without simultaneously emphasizing the hatred, racism, or homophobia that drove them to act does not hurt murderers and racists. It does nothing to those that spread this hatred or those that suffer because of it. Ignoring the prejudices that drive these men and instead focusing on how “mental” they may have been harms sufferers of mental illness everywhere by association and by reinforcing harmful stigma while absolving those who spread hate of their part in it.

Time and time again, be it on social media and in the press, we see right-on, well-meaning people proselytizing about “mental health awareness”. However, when one of these acts occurs, time and time again, it is easier for (often the same) people to believe that someone acts in an evil way because they are irrational, because they are “ill”, rather than consider that they are acting primarily out of hatred.

Rather than confront homophobia, sexism, and racism – which in turn may force us to look at ourselves and our own behaviours and see that we may, in some way, bear collective responsibility for these atrocities- we dismiss their actions as madness or religious fervour.

It is easier to assume the murderer of Jo Cox was simply insane rather than confront the fact that they were a violent fascist acting during a referendum campaign typified by racist imagery and xenophobic rhetoric. It is far simpler to dismiss Omar Mateen as an insane extremist acting out of Islamist fervour rather than address the homophobia which created not just him but others like him from all backgrounds- Christian and Muslim, religious and secular.

I am sick and tired of seeing “mental health” blamed for the actions of bigots. Fascists exterminated and imprisoned mentally ill people in the past because we were deemed to be burdens on society or demonically possessed- now society tries to scapegoat us rather than examine the true causes of these acts. If you speak of “mental health awareness” but your first instinct is to assume that a murderer is acting out of insanity rather than hatred, you’re part of the problem.

Fascism and homophobia have killed millions of people but we’re still supposed to believe that someone’s more likely to kill because they’re mentally ill than because they’re a fascist or homophobic. Perhaps the reason mentally ill people don’t speak out about our illnesses is because murderous fascists are called mental before they’re called fascist; because it’s easier to believe that someone who’s ill is capable of being a murderer than someone inspired by bigotry and hatred; because we’re afraid that you’re as scared of us as we are of ourselves; because fear and hatred kills.

The Budget is More Bad News for Renewables

Today Chancellor George Osborne announced a series of measures which will, yet again, inflict pain on the renewable energy sector in the UK.

First off, the Government has increased the Climate Change Levy. The Conservatives removed the exemption of renewables from the CCL and so this, in turn, is a tax increase for renewable energy generators who are already seeing their incomes fall due to subsidy cuts. This is mildly tempered insofar as their drive to take onshore wind out of the Renewables Obligation a year early is being held up in the Lords and may yet fail, but is not going to improve investor confidence already shaken by subsidy reforms.

Furthermore, a corporation tax cut to 17% has been announced. This is more indirect but benefits large-scale generators who already enjoy some of the lowest corporation tax rates in the OECD and get access to larger scale subsidy schemes such as Contracts for Difference which small-scale developers do not.This confers further market advantage to centralised generators – the Big Six – at the expense of smaller developers working at distribution level already struggling due to cuts to FiTs.

Tax cuts for oil and gas have a more indirect effect. The North Sea needs support, yes, but only as a step towards transitioning away from it altogether. The North Sea has maybe 25-30 years left, tops, and whether we like it or not the industry needs short-term life support from the state. However, to provide state assistance to oil while cutting Feed-in-Tariffs for solar and cutting support for onshore wind is the complete opposite way to do that, scaring investors whilst sustaining dependence on an industry with declining value and a limited lifetime, particularly given the catastrophic environmental changes currently happening in the arctic hammering home the need to take immediate action to reduce emissions.

Using the increased revenue from the CCL increase, the Government has opted to abolish the Carbon Reduction Commitment, essentially scrapping what was a carbon tax. Instead of taxing energy intensive polluters, the tax burden has been shifted in-part onto renewable energy generators. The Government has also stated it wants to “reduce dependence on gas” by modifying the rates of the CCL. The problem with this is that it means increasing the dependence on electricity. Electrification of heat is causing minor panic among transmitters and generators because there’s no certain way of knowing at what pace and in what fashion electrification will occur and the exact impact this will have on demand.

The UK Government has signed into law a commitment to net zero emissions, which is an excellent gesture; but without financial backing of renewable energy, energy efficiency, grid flexibility, storage, and EU-wide market reform, it is just that. The Government has increased its ambition for network interconnection to 9GW (about 15% of the UK’s peak demand) which is an excellent move – but given the billions in savings to be made through demand side management and storage (which the Carbon Trust estimates to be up to £2.4bn per year by 2030), investing a paltry £50m over 5 years into demand-side and storage research is little more than gesture politics given the scale of investment in inflexible, must-run nuclear at Hinkley. Given the desire to electrify heating and the limited investment in energy efficiency, the need to invest in demand-side management technologies is even more pressing.

This budget is yet more bad news for renewable generators at a time when the need for clean energy has never been greater.

 

 

The UK’s Energy Policies are a Complete Mess

As a whole, even terrible Governments will have the odd sound policy or good idea. One such idea that’s rumoured to be floating around is that the UK’s fleet of coal plants will be closed down, moved to CCS (carbon capture and sequestration), or moved to alternative fuels. Whilst this itself is an excellent idea, it has significant consequences, because, as of the second quarter of 2015, coal provided about 20% of the UK’s generation in terms of raw TWh. This capacity will need to be replaced, but is likely to be replaced in part by the flagship Hinkley Point C.

HPC is supposed to contribute a capacity equivalent to 7% of the UK’s generation, and a significant amount of the rest of the energy gap will be met by closed-cycle gas turbines. The problems with HPC are numerous and include, but are not limited to; it’s too expensive, the technology is unproven, and the generation technique itself is completely inflexible- not to mention all of the other caveats which surround nuclear generation. The only two other plants of the type Hinkley C will be, the EPR (European Pressurised Reactor), are already running years behind schedule and well over budget.

European nuclear reactors have a load factor (the percentage of generation which is actually generated by plant as a proportion of how much it would generate if it were operational 24/7 365 days a year) of around 78%, but, when operational, nuclear plants have to be operated at a relatively fixed, high level. As renewable penetration increases, this becomes a major problem because increased penetration of renewable energy into the network necessitates the network being more flexible and diverse to cope with fluctuations in weather patterns.

Climate skeptics, and other people who are generally wrong about more things than energy, like to infer that this is an insurmountable obstacle and that wind energy should be curtailed because of it. It isn’t insurmountable; engineers put men on the moon using computers with power comparable to that of a modern calculator- intermittency of energy sources is a relative doddle. If wind power fluctuates, there are a multitude of ways this fluctuation can be met, whether that is varying the output of other generators or, in future, incorporating demand-side control in households or industry to vary consumption or other such “smart” techniques.

The Conservatives, via their reforms of energy markets and subsidies, are effectively making variable sources less attractive to investors and attempting to divert investment towards nuclear and CCGT, whether that be cutting subsidies of wind via the Renewables Obligation or slashing the Feed-in Tariff rates for solar. The problem with this is that CCGT and nuclear are simply not as flexible as other sources of generation. Nuclear can be treated as essentially fixed in output, whereas CCGTs can vary about 10% of their output to help mitigate fluctuations but can take anything up to four hours to come up to speed on the network. The output of wind can fluctuate in a matter of minutes, which makes forecasting supply and demand on 40-year old electricity infrastructure incredibly difficult.

The Government’s justification is that they have essentially invested enough in wind to meet their targets and have no desire to continue to subsidise an industry they claim is capable of standing on its own two feet- many schemes such as the Renewable Heat Incentive are designed not to reward generation but to incentivise new investments in the short term until the subsidy schemes can be shut down.

It may or may not be the case that the wind energy can survive on its own now, but, given the billions of pounds the industry is worth to Scotland and the Highlands and Islands in particular, the decision feels like a way for the Conservatives to appease turbine-averse Green-belters whilst maintaining the visage of being fiscally responsible and cutting back government subsidy of the industry whilst losing few votes over the issue. After all, Scotland will be worst hit by the cuts to wind, but the Tories have but one MP to lose up here.

Of course, when it comes to energy, the UK Government are anything but fiscally responsible. HPC has an agreed strike rate (price per MWh of electricity generated) of around £92 per MWh (nearer £94 now due to inflation), increasing with inflation for the period of operation of the power plant. Total costs for the plant, including capital, loan guarantees, etc, could be as much as £175 per MWh compared to a global average for nuclear of ~£100perMWh. To put that in perspective, the new subsidy scheme to replace the RO is Contracts for Difference and has assigned a strike rate to onshore wind power of £82/MWh.

The Government set a limit for its total subsidy of renewable energy via schemes like the RHI and CfDs of £7.6bn (which it is almost certain to overrun anyway), but the overnight capital cost of Hinkley alone could be over £8.9bn for EACH reactor at Hinkley C. Almost £17.8bn of taxpayer money spent on a reactor type which is relatively untested, unproven, and hideously expensive. Adding to that, if there are any incidents, it isn’t EDF and the Chinese government which will pick up the bill – it’ll be the UK taxpayer and the local people affected. The Conservatives are lumbering the UK taxpayer with a scandalously large bill and a hulking mess of a nuclear reactor that may be entirely incompatible with our future energy network needs.

The inflexibility of nuclear power is almost as much of a problem as the intermittency of wind because it simply cannot react to rapid changes in network stability. Politicians like to talk about the concept of “baseload” because it sounds like they know what they’re talking about, but right now research is heavily geared towards technologies and ideas which would render the concept of “baseload” utterly obsolete in the future, particularly in the area of transmission and control technologies. Energy policy decisions need to be made with the next 20, 30, even 40 years made in mind- but decisions are being made based on concepts reliant on architecture which is as much as 40 years old.

The biggest beneficiaries of HPC will be EDF’s shareholders at the expense of wind and solar projects whose subsidies are being slashed. I don’t begrudge EDF for this, of course- they’re a business and they exist to make money. Electricity is a product and generators want to make electricity so they can sell it to suppliers on the retail market at as low a marginal cost and as high a profit as possible, so there’s little incentive for generators or suppliers to focus on efficiency or demand reduction techniques.

At a fundamental level, state aid for HPC is utterly outrageous. So outrageous, in fact, Austria challenged the project at an EU level. The EC allowed the project to go ahead with the caveat that repayment mechanisms had to be made more stringent, but given the anti-renewables reforms being pursued this could again resurface as an issue if it’s found to bias the market against renewables. The UK Government’s position is indefensible – it claims renewable energy should stand on its own merits, and let the market support it, whilst simultaneously throwing billions of pounds at a single project with little social, environmental, or economic justification because they know the project would not be supported by the market.

The UK’s energy reforms are disproportionately benefiting a single nuclear project at the expense of small-scale renewable electricity generators nationwide. As the Director of Policy of Scottish Renewables stated; “ending the [RO] one year early could have a devastating impact on onshore wind developers and supply chain across the country with around £3bn of investment in Scotland being put at risk. The impact of this decision will be felt more harshly in Scotland because the biggest proportion of projects being developed in the UK is here.”

If one were cynical, the natural reaction to this would be to say “of course you would say that, it’s costing you money”, and to some extent that isn’t an unfair take on the situation. The UK Government is claiming it is cutting subsidies for the sake of, amongst other things, fiscal responsibility. It is in actual fact damaging small-scale private industry in favour of a single, massive project being constructed by massive energy corporations (who effectively exist in an oligopolistic electricity market). This suggests either EDF have among the most effective lobbyists in the world, or that a lot of people in the Conservative Party own shares in EDF.

The HPC fiasco, then, is but symptomatic of completely dysfunctional UK energy policy. To exacerbate this, as environmental protection is a devolved matter to Holyrood, Scotland has its hands tied behind its back when it comes to energy. It can veto developments and offer loans to help scope and develop small projects through CARES, but only up to £150,000. It lacks the power to fundamentally change the energy market using tools such as regulation via Ofgem or larger-scale subsidy programmes.

The SNP and the Conservative Party also have diametrically opposed views on energy, most notably concerning shale gas. Scotland have a moratorium on UGE/fracking and underground coal gasification (UCG) but could still be affected by water pollution from English fracking rigs- and land throughout Scotland has been licensed for UGE and will not be immune from the ensuing socioeconomic effects of currency inflation that normally accompany resource booms.

Having energy and the environment being reserved to different Governments with such conflicting views is unproductive at best and politically incendiary at worst, and in many ways is a microcosm of devolution as a whole; Scotland has some powers devolved, and can do a lot of good with what it has, but at times must operate as though eating soup with a fork.

If the rest of the UK pursue a major fracking industry, a major concern will also be how the UK mitigates the socioeconomic externalities associated with rapid expansion of energy resources, also known as the Natural Resource Curse. Even a cursory examination of the UK economy before and after the North Sea Oil boom highlights the profound socioeconomic changes which ensued during the period.

Table 1 shows how employment by sector changed as the oil industry expanded- particularly the move from labour-intensive manufacturing jobs to service jobs. (data taken from the ONS)

labourstat

Table 1 – Employment by sector in UK and E&W

More strikingly is how the sudden growth in oil exports affected the UK’s export markets and tax policies. Figure 1 shows UK exports over time with data taken from the World Bank.

oilexports

Figure 1 – UK exports by sector over time

One should remain wary of conflating correlation with causation, but studies continue to show links between growth in oil wealth and associated negative effects on socioeconomic indicators. Professor Terry Karl states that “hazardous wastes, site contamination, and the lack of sufficient protection of surface and subsurface waters, biodiversity and air quality have endangered the health of local populations near oil installations  and pipelines and destroyed local livelihoods such as farming and fishing” (Karl 2007) [in developing nations in particular]. The UK has robust environmental protection legislation, in part supported by EU Directives such as the Water Framework Directive, but the “Dash for Gas” and Tory Euroskepticism threatens to undermine this entirely, particularly if the UK decides to leave the EU altogether.

Karl also states that, as rents from oil and gas resources increase, this facilitates the state reducing the tax take from citizens and instead indulging in rent-seeking behaviour. Table 2 shows the UK’s tax rates during the first oil boom, taken from IFS statistics.

tax_rates_UK

Table 2  – Historic UK tax rates

There is no reason whatsoever to assume that the Conservatives will not use growth in natural gas rents from a growing shale industry to cut taxes and shrink the state even further. Stiglitz, in Globalisation and Its Discontents, suggests that the misuse of oil resources is symptomatic of more widespread dysfunctionality associated with market liberalisation, whereas R. Auty found that “variations in economic performance are caused by differences in the quality of governance that are linked through the type of political state and the pattern of structural change to the natural resource endowment”. Further, that “domestic economic policy is more important than natural resources in driving economic growth”.

Now, this may seem like a digression, but it is entirely relevant. The UK used its last energy resource boom to deindustrialise, shrink the state, and fundamentally move the UK towards being a service-intensive, export-light economy. The inflation of currency hurt people on low incomes but house-price growth and a booming financial sector helped turn London into the economic behemoth it now is. As the modern economy continues to change and adapt as technology increasingly automates low-skilled labour jobs, and with such a fiscally conservative Government so keen to see a surplus, it’s entirely feasible that oil and gas rents could help the Conservatives to reduce taxation further and utilise resource rents instead whilst continuing to cut back on public services.

Tina Rosenberg, a journalist writing in the NY Times, made the observation that “if a government can finance itself through the profits on oil, it needn’t collect taxes. Let me suggest that this is not a good thing. Taxes create accountability — citizens want to know how the government is spending their money. Substituting oil revenues decouples government from the people. ” Rosenberg posited that the reason Norway prospered when it found oil was it “had the foresight to become wealthy and democratic before striking oil.” It must be remembered that, when the UK struck oil, it was in the era of the Three Day Week and the Winter of Discontent. Britain was in pretty shoddy shape. It is in a period of relative economic stability today, but with significant welfare cuts and trade union reforms on the horizon there’s no guarantee of continued social and economic stability.

With the UK’s profound renewable energy resources and the industrial skills and research base, throwing money at nuclear power and shunning renewable energy investment in the process is a stunningly regressive move. Further to that, more important than moves to utilise CCS on a major scale should be moves to make fuel itself more environmentally sustainable through development of waste-derived biofuels and utilisation of waste-derived landfill gas which has seen incredible growth in Scotland since reforms of waste management in 2000- as can be seen in table 3.

energySco

Scottish energy generation by source up to 2013

Research is ongiong into the utilisation of kelp-derived biofuels which could be a boon for rural, coastal communities in the Highlands and Islands. Equally as important is reduction of consumption of fuels through schemes such as improved public transportation networks.

Scotland has been relatively savvy with the powers that it has, which I’ll discuss in more detail another time, but remains hamstrung by the utter ineptitude of the UK policy frameworks in which it must operate. Although reforms are forthcoming, there is still little market allowance for flexibility of generation and no regulatory frameworks to make it happen- and I have little faith in the Government to ensure that any reforms in this area would be anything other than cack-handed.

Political friction, funding bias, and unnecessary cuts to subsidies undermine one of the UK’s greatest economic assets (its wind), and a Government pursuing potentially socioeconomically destructive rent-seeking behaviour from shale gas and oil could undermine the competitiveness of renewables whilst encouraging further reliance on CCGT and nuclear electricity plants. A wind turbine can always be dismantled if technology develops and they become obsolete – but a nuclear power plant will take decades to decommission, assuming we ever develop the technology to fully restore the contaminated land on which former nuclear sites sit.

Of course, renewable energy is not without its caveats. Intermittency and variability are technological problems which need addressed, and market reforms are needed to accommodate expansion of distributed generation and the requirements of a more dynamic electricity grid if we are to continue to pursue a private-ownership electricity market. Furthermore, renewable energy is not automatically less socioeconomically harmful than other natural resources if the ownership models and regulation are inadequate, illustrated by a study in Italy which found a connection between high windfarm construction rates and criminal corruption (Gennaioli and Tavoni 2011).

The UK is making the wrong policy choices based on flawed reasoning and is either ignoring, or ignorant of, the socioeconomic, technical, and environmental consequences of their decisions. Cutting feed-in-tariffs for solar will result in private businesses collapsing as they may not be ready yet to survive purely on market support, similarly with cutting the Renewable Obligation early for onshore wind developments which disproportionately harms the Scottish renewable energy industry and undermines financial profitability and feasibility projections for businesses.

Any wholesale move towards nuclear could prove to be a profound waste of taxpayer money and may be incompatible with the needs of a future electricity grid which may in turn lead to stranded assets or underutilised facilities. We may in future be stuck with nuclear plants supported by billions of taxpayer pounds which are utterly useless. For all the Conservatives criticise Labour for their eagerness to utilise PFI, at least they built schools and hospitals, not radioactive millstones like Hinkley.

The UK urgently needs to re-evaluate its energy policies, particularly given the divergence between the incredible potential of the renewables energy industry in Scotland and the desire to expand shale gas and nuclear energy in England and Wales at the expense, in particular, of Scottish wind. The fractured nature of energy/environmental legislation is counterproductive and essentially reduces the Scottish Government to planning officials regarding energy developments who are unable to fundamentally change the energy markets or regulatory apparatus in any way which could reshape the energy networks.

There are two obvious solutions to this – devolve Ofgem and energy policy to Holyrood, or take environmental policy back in-house to Westminster. Given the Conservatives’ record on energy and the environment, the latter doesn’t bear thinking about. The shape of the future network is going to be radically different from what it is today, incorporating artificial intelligence, smart control, and dynamic integration of renewable technologies and interconnectors across borders, requiring continental-level cooperation. That cooperation must stem from organisations like the EU and must be supported by a competent Government.

Yes, we probably need some CCGT, and, yes, maybe nuclear has a role to play in the UK as a whole – but not like HPC, and not without small-scale solar or Scottish wind. The Conservatives act as if they want our energy policy to remain in the 90s and are playing very dangerous games with the EU- which will be essential for modernising the electricity networks- all for electoral populism. Interconnection with Europe may alleviate some of these problems, and some interconnectors are being planned as part of the Government’s response to the EU Supergrid concept, but if the UK pulls out of the EU it could drastically hinder a pan-European energy market.

The Conservatives are not only hindering renewable, sustainable energy developments, they are being capricious and hostile. Because they plan to cancel biomass subsidy early, even Drax, one of the biggest coal plants in the world, have cancelled a planned expansion of CCS. The Energy Policy Group of Exeter Uni were absolutely damning of the Energy Secretary, the esteemed Amber Rudd, making comments about there being no “magic money tree” for renewable subsidies – particularly given the magnitude and longevity of subsidy for the nuclear power industry which, as has been exhaustively described, is still having money thrown at it after almost 60 years.

They state that “the Climate Change Levy, a tax to reflect the carbon content of fossil fuels, will be extended to include renewables, so removing a measure that once rewarded the ‘greenness’ of renewable energy. The result, according to lobby group RenewableUK as reported in the Guardian, will be an additional cost to green energy producers of around £450m in the current financial year, and up to £1bn by 2020-2021.”

“At the time of writing, business fallout had already become evident, with the announcement that two solar PV and energy efficiency firms had gone into administration with the loss of nearly 1000 jobs, their owners citing the government’s policy shifts as a significant factor.”

Energy is a fundamental component of a developed nation’s economy, but the Conservative Party’s handling of it is inept, verging on negligent.

Further Reading

Auty, R. M. 2000. How natural resources affect economic development. Development Policy Review. 18(4): pp.347-364.

Gennaioli, C. and Tavoni, M. 2011. Clean or ‘Dirty’ Energy: Evidence on a Renewable Energy Resource Curse

Karl, T. L. 2007. Oil-led development: social, political, and economic consequences. Encyclopedia of Energy. 4: pp.661-672

Stiglitz, J. E. 2002. Globalization and its Discontents. New York.

What Now?

The campaign is over – the Tories are back. Scottish Labour is a ghost.  It’s fair to say even the most wildly optimistic Tory couldn’t have anticipated the utter meltdown of Labour in Scotland and their total failure to connect with their voters in England in even the most marginal seats. Totemic figures of UK Labour have been washed away – Ed Balls, Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander- all gone.

Above all, it was utterly imperative that we got rid of the Conservatives. Not just for the sake of the sick, the disabled, and the working poor, but because I don’t want independence to happen just because the Conservatives made life so miserable for people it became their only choice. Nor do I want it to happen because the Tories stoked so intensely the flames of English nationalism and anti-Scots sentiment that the Union fell apart at the seams because of hatred. If independence ever is to happen I want it to happen amicably and such that it is in the interests of working class people across these Isles. If that is not the case, I will not support it.

I wasn’t prepared to countenance five more years of the Tories on the hopes of winning a second referendum Yes vote. I wasn’t willing to hope England veered to the right so far that centre-left civic Scotland could stand smugly by as Virgin Ambulance Service sends bills to cancer patients in Bradford as we enjoy free prescriptions and use that to justify independence from our “backwards right-wing neighbours”. That isn’t what my politics is about.

Allow me to elaborate. In 2010 I joined Unite the Union, shortly after the Coalition came to power. My first political march was with fellow trade unionists in Edinburgh against cuts, where I got the only saltire I’ve ever owned- long lost (along with a St George’s flag and Yorkshire Lily) to a flat in Morrison St in Edinburgh. I joined in with Occupy Edinburgh in a moment of early-20s madness. I was even (very briefly) in the Scottish Socialist Party in 2010. In 2013, as austerity began to bite, I decided to join the Scottish National Party as a means to oppose those cuts which Labour were so feebly opposing. In all those years I flirted with independence (as you may have noticed), and, to this day, my relationship with the idea is still contingent. With all things in life, I am open to being proven wrong. When the facts and circumstances change, a man has to change with them.

Over the years I’ve gradually realised that what my opposition to is not simply “Westminster” as an amalgamated beast of right wing badness, but to the Conservatives, to unscrupulous employers, to tax avoiders, to unelected privilege, and to antidemocratic institutions. I did not want Labour in Scotland to be “destroyed”.  I do not hate the “Red Tories”. I am not religiously dedicated to the hatred of the party that is supposed to represent the will of the trade unions- I just didn’t want them to have an overall majority in the House of Commons. The reason I voted SNP is because I want to keep the Conservatives out of the Downing street, but I don’t want Labour to govern unchecked. Minority Government and consensus democracy is not something to be feared, but something to be embraced.

Talk of Scotland “letting in the Tories” by not meekly and habitually voting Labour betrayed a stark sense of entitlement and reveals exactly why Labour suffered utter devastation in Scotland. Scotland is less than 10% of the UK’s population – Labour failed to muster enough support in the rest of the UK to prevent the Tories returning to Downing St. They cannot solely blame the SNP, but their own failure to win the backing of the rest of the United Kingdom despite one of the most brutal Tory Governments in decades. Of course, if nobody could form a Government and democratic reform was forced upon Westminster, that’s a whole new ball game.

Instead, the worst of all possible scenarios played out. The Tories won an outright majority. The Human Rights Act, labour rights, democratic reform, our membership of the EU – all now fully at the whim of the most right wing Government in a generation. The Tories stoked the flames of anti-SNP sentiment and fears of Scots coming south to steal all their money and it worked – oh how it worked. Scotland voted for anti-austerity, anti-Tory, centre-leftism. England voted for anti-SNP, right wing, austerity politics. You can lay the blame at the feet on an utterly incompetent Labour campaign, or on fears of suburban England of the SNP pulling the pursestrings of a weak Labour Government, on a weak leader, or just credit the sheer brutal efficiency of the Tory campaign machine.

English Liberal Democrat votes, fearing weak governance from Ed Milliband, and perhaps the influence of the SNP, fled to the Tories in droves. It is not simply the Tory victory itself which has placed the Union in jeopardy, but the manner. Because Scotland was going to choose to vote one way, the legitimacy of any Government was called into question should that manifest as “Scottish” influence on the UK Government itself. England went Tory, Scotland went SNP. There can be no denial of the divergence in how people North and South of the border manifest their political choices, even by the most ardent of Unionists.

Labour faces an identity crisis that has implications for the very existence of the United Kingdom. Do they veer back to the centre-right to win power, or go further left? Do Labour stay the course and hope to find a strong leader who can more ably articulate their vision for the United Kingdom? Any veer right may well fracture the strained ties between Labour and the Unions and vindicate the Yes-voters’ rhetoric of “they’re all the same”. Labour figures will fear that a veer left will make them even more unelectable.

In Scotland, we should do well to remember that the threat to the poor, the vulnerable and to working people does not come from the rump Labour Party, but from Cameron’s government. There lies the battle. The Conservatives, whose Scottish party boasts the word ‘Unionist’ in its name, may be the ones to destroy the Union. This is a Pyrrhic victory and the cost may be the very existence of the state they wish to govern.

Barriers in University Classes

A recurring line of argument from the centre and centre-right in Scotland (and even from some on the left) is that, somehow, the SNP’s policy of free higher education, and other Universalism based policy, is in some way a “middle class bribe”. This is ostensibly based on the the assertion that the demographics of individuals who are actually in University means that it only really benefits them.

It should come as a surprise to nobody that higher education is still a middle-class dominated environment. Working class students are under-represented at University level, and there are a diverse range of socioeconomic reasons for this — but the fact there are no tuition fees is, obviously, not one of them.

There are layers of sneering inferences that can be drawn from the assertion that, somehow, Government funded higher education is of benefit only to the middle classes. Firstly, that working class students do not also benefit from being able to attend University without having to pay fees. Secondly, it underhandedly suggests that working class students are not equally capable of attending University compared to middle-class students.

There is also the underhanded suggestion that working class people only go to college but middle class people go to University. This is insulting both to colleges and to working class students. It suggests that somehow college is less valuable than University; that its attendees are less intelligent than University students, and that it is all that working class students are capable of. To put it bluntly- they think we’re too stupid for Uni and are only able to go to college at best, because, after all, only stupid people go to college, right?

I, and many of my peers, simply couldn’t afford to go to Uni without state and familial assistance. Despite a generous funding scheme from the Scottish Government through SAAS, there’s a limit to how much money the Scottish Government can actually dedicate to fund living costs under the devolved settlement, and how much good this will do for students. The Scottish Government has, where it can, increased the amount of money working class students have got to actually live on while they are doing their degree, but it isn’t a viable solution to keep pouring money down what is essentially a bath without a plug in it.

This is another area where devolution or an increase of the minimum wage would directly benefit thousands of working class people. If Holyrood had the power to set a living wage they could make life immeasurably better for students. For instance, despite having to take a gap year to fundraise for University, I still found myself short after the initial upfront costs associated with renting in Edinburgh, despite working throughout the year before. What little savings I had were wiped out within a week of starting at University because Halls demanded I paid up front for the semester’s accommodation.

In order to have a comfortable standard of living I still had to work in various jobs, of various standards, while at University. At one point I was at University in Riccarton, Edinburgh Monday to Friday, commuting back to North Perthshire to work Saturday 12–8, Sunday 10–4, then coming back Sunday evening to do 5 days of Uni again — on top of coursework. As I was in the 18–21 bracket, I was being paid £4.85ph, which meant that I was ultimately making ~£50 a week for 14 hours of work.

Because I was also very good at my job (I was a Kitchen Porter who got thrown about doing various other jobs like waiting), I ended up doing the work of at least two people every shift. It was often the case that, as I was on a zero-hour contract, I would ask for days off that I couldn’t get because they didn’t have the staff to cover me. Adding to this, I also did not receive any external funding from my extended family when I was actually at Uni.

Although my employer could not overtly threaten me over missing shifts to, say, take the weekend off to do coursework, there is always an underhanded inference that “if you don’t work this shift, you’ll pay for it later”. The scales of power are weighted by the employer’s hand and the threat of reduced income. Precarity of income and working conditions traps workers in hostile jobs without overt contractual arrangements- being able to deny shifts is the only threat employers need to keep workers in line.

While many of my friends and peers were off on skiing trips with the Snowsports society or on foreign trips, I was working until 1am on Hogmanay because I literally had to work to eat that month, or working 11 or 12 days in a row in a kitchen so that I could work less during term time. At one point I kept an awful job in a George Street restaurant because I got free food and needed to save money any way I could. When I was in a low-hours month, I cut back on socialising. When I was in a really low-hours month, I cut back on eating.

In short- on top of the stress of studying, being thrown into a social group you may not have a lot in common with, and coming from a working class background with not much money to use on socialising, knowing you’re going to accrue debt due to living costs; University is, to many, simply unattainable regardless of their ability.

If you’re a working class student and you hear the media decrying the value of degrees and the state of the job market, why go through all that? The mocking of degrees as being “worthless” seems to be a distinctly modern phenomenon, and I can’t help but feel it’s because it’s so empowering to those of us from less fortunate backgrounds who suddenly have access to higher education in never before seen numbers.

We’re told as students we need to embrace the “student experience” —to  go out, get drunk, socialise, join societies, go on trips — but if you can’t afford that, where does that leave you? It’s yet another barrier to those who can’t afford it. The “student experience” we’ve created is false and pretends the very real poverty many students experience doesn’t exist, hiding it behind smiling faces from nightclub photoshoots shared on social media.

Working class students who can’t afford to go out every weekend are left feeling ashamed of their lack of disposable income and inability to participate in the “student experience”. In reality this is just an extension of the hidden poverty they and millions of others already face throughout Scotland – having just enough income to exist, but not enough to live. Having food on the table, but praying the fridge won’t break. Living from paycheck to paycheck despite working 40 hours a week.

Add into this the increased likelihood of those from poor backgrounds having an increased tendency to suffer from mental health issues, and it becomes a near insurmountable mountain to scale in progressing from a state comprehensive to having letters at the end of your name.

So how do we get more working class students into higher education? Pay a living wage so if we must work, it makes our lives better; improve public transport so we lose less income getting to and from work and university; tackle the cost of energy and improve the condition of student accommodation so less money is wasted on fuel and electricity bills; make sure students don’t end up in flats with electricity meters which cost drastically than traditional bills; build more social housing to help control the cost of rent for those most vulnerable. Finally, keep it free.

The problem is, the Scottish Government just doesn’t have the power to tackle many of these issues and the local authorities in the most deprived areas have been utterly failed by generations of Labour governance, which is why in the most deprived areas Labour’s poll numbers are flatlining.

The minimum wage is a reserved issue. Welfare is a reserved issue. Energy is a reserved issue. The Scottish Government has made some headway where it can :  increasing living cost funding for students; ensuring working class students aren’t burdened in later life with fee debt with the added effects on their economic power in adult life; building thousands more social houses than Labour achieved (Labour built 6 in all their years in power at Holyrood).

If we want more working class students in University, we need to address the issues they face growing up and stop erecting barriers. Adopting a living wage instead of a minimum wage would be a simple but excellent way to start. Powers over work relations, or simply repealing Thatcherite trade union laws, could also help us to empower our trade unions to win better deals for workers and improve collective bargaining in the medium term which would ensure better conditions for workers who aren’t unionised — especially groups like students and those on zero hour contracts. Rent controls are also an area that needs serious consideration.

Children that go to school hungry because their parents can’t afford to feed them; students that have to work too many hours on the side because their wages are insufficient; children growing up unhappy and stressed because of poverty at home: these will affect the life chances of children throughout the United Kingdom, but they are issues about which the Scottish Government has its hands tied behind its back addressing without powers over welfare, trade union relations, and the minimum wage.

Tackle these, and you won’t just improve the lives of students and make higher education more accessible, you’ll improve the lives of millions of other people as well.

In Hospitality

At the end of 2009, I signed on as unemployed for eight weeks. I was trying to save up money so I could afford to go to University and had taken a gap year after secondary to relax for a bit before getting a job after a fairly hellish few years of education. I had no driving license, and was consistently rejected for being “overqualified” for jobs I applied for, if I even got an explanation. I stayed 9 miles away from the nearest city, and looked barely a day over 15, so job hunting was a fairly bleak affair. As it coincided with a fairly brutal winter in 09/10, I was also forced to miss a couple of signing-on appointments due to the precarious nature of rural public transportation when the snow arrived, much to the ire of those supposed to assist me in the job of finding work.

Apart from hours of standing in town waiting for buses to turn up so I could get home, my prevailing memories of the whole experience involved being sat in a waiting room, overhearing bleak stories of people being unable to afford to make phone calls to prospective employers or being too poor to buy food. When eventually I talked to an “advisor”, I was berated for my failure to get a job and made to feel like a parasite because I’d the gall to claim £50 a week for a little independence whilst I tried to find a job to save for University. Again, this was in late 2009, the last months of Gordon Brown’s Labour Government.

Eventually, after weeks of phonecalls and growing desperation, I stumbled into my first job. A mere 15 minute walk from my house, the role was a mixture of kitchen porter (pot scrubber, dish washer, call it what you will), sales assistant, and waiting staff. I couldn’t have asked for a more convenient job to start with in terms of “transferable skills”. I worked there for around two years, earning just above minimum wage, frequently working 50+ hour weeks as is par for the course in hospitality. I was provided with free food for lunch and dinner, and, unlike many in hospitality, got paid breaks of 10 minutes every four hours, or half an hour for shifts longer than 9 hours. I somehow balanced working there with my University education.

As far as kitchen jobs go, I was well treated and worked with a great bunch of people (although of course I still have a few horror stories)- my experience was overwhelmingly positive. Tips were shared amongst restaurant staff based on hours worked and I had a sound, understanding boss. I enjoyed the work to such an extent I kept it even when I left to study in Edinburgh, resulting in a frankly ludicrous schedule whereby I would be in University Monday-Friday, and would commute back to Perth Friday nights. I’d then work 18 hours over the weekend, before going back to Edinburgh to be in Uni again on Monday. I did this for the best part of a year before reverting to just working on holidays due to sheer exhaustion. I had to work because what savings I had were wiped out within one week as an entire semester’s rent had to be paid up front when we got to University Halls.

Out of necessity, in second year I found a minimum-wage job at a restaurant in Edinburgh and found out just how lucky I’d previously been in the idyllic setting of a rural Perthshire restaurant. In the bowels of a city centre Edinburgh eatery, everything changed. Everything that could go wrong, at some point went wrong. The company I worked for failed to sort out my tax, despite me repeatedly requesting they do so, and so I had to wait for my P46 until I could sort out my tax myself. This meant I was left with about £30 a week to live off of, deducting Edinburgh city centre rents and bills. The company waited until literally the last legal day permissible before handing out P46es, meanwhile, at one point, I had to borrow £20 from my father – who had recently been made redundant-  to cover rent and racked up credit card debt while hundreds of pounds sat in overpaid tax that I couldn’t touch because of the management’s incompetence. I had to rely on Heriot-Watt’s discretionary fund after SAAS stopped for the summer or I wouldn’t make rent.

In my first week, my cover for the evening shift never turned up, resulting in me working a fifteen-and-a-half-hour shift with no breaks (from 08:00AM to 11:30PM, in case you were wondering). I wasn’t paid for breaks – because I didn’t get any – and I don’t smoke, so I never got any chance to even sit down. If I slowed down I would get disciplined and risk the ire of the head chef which, being on a zero-hour contract, I couldn’t afford to risk. Tips were taken as a percentage of what the serving staff got, then allocated ad hoc by the head chef. In a month, they could get in the scale of hundreds of pounds, whereas the kitchen porters would get about £20 if the chefs were feeling generous. It was a running joke and the chefs would laugh at us behind our backs over it. Getting fed was entirely at the head chef/sous chef’s discretion, and if it was busy you would have to wait for the end of the shift and pray there were leftovers.

For much of the time I worked there, the company didn’t keep track of the hours the KPs worked after closing and so there would be occasions where, after a busy night, one would have to work until around 01:00 clearing up the kitchen, only to be paid until 23:00. Eventually the company introduced key fobs for the staff to sign in and out, but even then there were instances of staff being underpaid. Zero-hour contracts were used as a tool of discipline – fall out with the manager, or let performance slip, and you lost hours. Take a day off ill and you simply lost the day’s wage, and probably some hours in the future in retribution.

In my second year, I was literally in a “work to eat” situation, so consider this when next you eat at a restaurant – there’s every chance a member of staff is working whilst ill because they cannot afford not to work that day. This once culminated in me coming out of Haymarket station and something in my foot “tearing” due to working on it after an injury. I had to get a taxi to Edinburgh Western so it could get x-rayed and the injury caused me to miss two shifts and a week of university. I had to work at about 16 hours a week at the time to top up SAAS, all while doing a full time degree, just to survive. I had almost zero disposable income after bills, so an injury cost me dearly -not just physically but financially.

One particularly awful day was the Sunday before I was due to return to University after summer; two staff had called in sick, and so we were short-staffed. The restaurant had a promotion on so the place was rammed when I got in. As well as dish washing, cleaning, and running for supplies from a local supermarket when resources were low, the KPs were expected to make and serve desserts. Over the course of the day, we ran out of just about everything resulting in a panicked dash to find meringue nests at 9PM as the final tables were sitting down to eat. Serving was chaotic, with the same orders being sent “away” multiple times, resulting in confusion and aggravation between sections of the restaurant. Food was served late, or poorly cooked and presented. At closing, me and one other KP (with the odd helping hand from a solitary chef now and again), had produced over 330 desserts between us. A Saturday night (assuming a full compliment of staff and KPs) would serve about 120. My fellow KP had requested to go home early as he had college the next day, and so got to leave at 23:00. I was left on my own until after 2:30AM to clear up the night before I was supposed to resume my studies at 10AM.

A particular low point was seeing in the bells on Hogmanay 12/13 cleaning up after a 5 course Hogmanay dinner I’d been promised would be finished in time for us to get out for midnight. I had no choice in any of this because we were told that, if the kitchen was anything but immaculate in the morning, we’d both be sacked and replaced with agency staff. Staff regularly worked until after midnight and were expected in to work at 8AM the next day.

After a year of Hell, I tendered my resignation after weeks of being bullied by a particularly unpleasant colleague who would go on racist rants and frequently joked about assaulting me, as well as once literally biting me on the shoulder. I was assured management would talk to him and we eventually came to an agreement that I would work until I found another job, then I would leave. A couple months later I escaped and released a breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding since the day I started. I shudder to think where I’d be today had I not gotten out of that job, and shudder still thinking of those still in such awful conditions.

Hospitality can be a thoroughly enjoyable industry to work in – the camaraderie and shared hardship of the work can forge iron-clad friendships, and I know of former teachers who still work as waiting staff because they earn over £100 in tips on a Saturday night alone. However, it also offers a toxic mix of poor working conditions, high staff turnover, and precarious contractual situations. In some sense I believe everyone should have to work at some point in the back-of-house of a restaurant to understand the suffering that goes into giving diners an “experience”, but I would not want to inflict my experiences on my worst enemy.

It’s no coincidence that I only met one other person in a trade union in the entire time I worked in hospitality, and it’s just taken for granted that it’s going to be a terrible job that we can delegate to migrant workers or poor students. Workers are trapped by zero-hour contracts, poor pay, and an environment where they are made to compete with each other for hours and to appease management because it is so easy to find other workers to replace them. This is part of a wider culture of poor pay and high unemployment which pervades the UK economy, trapping thousands in jobs like poorly treated KPs in expensive Edinburgh restaurants.

We need to look seriously at how poorly staff in hospitality (not just KPs, but bar staff, waiters, cleaners etc) are treated, because my story is far from unique and nobody should have to endure such working conditions. The increased student loan I could claim in third/fourth year was life-changing because I could afford to work less and still have a comfortable standard of living, and couldn’t be held to ransom in atrocious working conditions. We need reform of zero hours contracts because of how easy it is for workers on zero hour contracts to be held to ransom by unscrupulous employers, and to find ways to empower workers in these workplaces and ensure they’re adequately informed of and protected by the law. An increased minimum wage would also mean less pressure to take every available hour, and less scrapping between staff to snatch up any available shifts.

I now work in retail, and although working with the general public is as unpredictable as one assumes, it’s still the best job I’ve had and I’m eternally grateful to the sound staff I work with and the excellent company I work for. Mostly, however, I’m just grateful I’ll never have to suffer working a Christmas service on sweets and dishes again, and that I actually get breaks now and again. Tip your waiters. Be nice to your sales assistants. A nice word and being treated like a human by a customer can save a day, so be that person that brightens up some SA or waiter’s shift.

What Future for the North East Oil Industry?

This article was originally published at http://nationalcollective.com/2015/01/04/renewable-energy-black-black-oil/ for National Collective and is reposted in its entirety here


The North Sea oil industry played a central role in the debate on Scotland’s future. It is a key aspect of the Scottish economy and a source of significant income to the Treasury. The collapse in the price of oil is a significant development, and while the Scottish economy is perfectly viable and healthy without the industry (even without oil and gas the Scottish GDPPC is still 99% that of the UK’s), we should not underestimate the challenges that currently face the industry.

As the price of oil plummets, the industry is put under intense pressure as the profitability of exploration and extraction is undermined, and it is likely this pressure will eventually come to bear with job losses. Whether it is in 20, 30, or more years, Scotland has to wean itself off of North Sea Oil and prepare itself for the post fossil-fuel age. After all, the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.

First, we need to understand that Scotland is riding the tides of international geopolitics, and that it would likely have had to face these issues whether or not we had voted Yes or No- in the last six months XCite alone has seen its share price nearly half, from 62.5p to 38p. Secondly, the same amount of oil is under the North Sea whether we voted Yes or voted No. Thirdly, the impact of the progression of technology on an industry should not be underestimated.

One example is of gargantuan seaborne gas extraction platforms such as the Prelude [1]. This is a 600,000 tonne vessel designed to operate at sea for 25 years before requiring dry-dock maintenance and designed to extract gas from “stranded” fields too awkward to harvest using traditional methods. Advances like this make harvesting smaller, more remote, fields possible where building a rig may not be viable or profitable, potentially reducing long term running and decommissioning costs and increasing the profitability of the industry. It could create hundreds of jobs in shipbuilding creating these vessels as well as all of the staff that will be needed to crew the vessels themselves.

One explanation for the the price of oil remaining low after its initial collapse is OPEC’s desperation to prevent fracking from gaining prevalence at the expense of conventional oil production. OPEC’s raison d’etre is to control oil production and thus prices and its refusal to cut production (which would increase prices and ease pressure on extraction companies by increasing the price) is entirely deliberate.

It’s also noteworthy that there is a balancing act between fuel prices, tax take, energy bills, and economic activity. Whilst the price at the pump and on the meter isn’t directly related to the wholesale value of a barrel sucked out of the ground, some downward adjustment should be expected as production costs decrease for electricity plants. This is the positive side of lower oil prices – in a time of stagnant wages and high fuel bills a drop in retail costs for fuel or household energy could alleviate a lot of pressure for struggling people. Because working class people tend to actually spend their money, any drop in household bills could help support other economic activity.

Therefore, it is a far more complicated scenario in which we find ourselves than what triumphalist No campaigners would paint it as. North Sea oil revenue, through corporation tax, is a reserved issue, so it falls to Westminster to mitigate the consequences- the “broad shoulders” and “pooling of resources” about which we heard so much. None of this, however, addresses the fundamental issue which is the long term energy and economic security of the North East. Yes, we could move towards a model which utilises mobile extraction platforms rather than rigs, but that is not sustainable in the long-term. We need Scotland to wean itself off of oil and gas altogether and progress to more sustainable alternatives. One way to do this is an oil fund, but if oil prices remain low (which is unlikely, granted, but entirely possible), then this becomes more difficult. A mammoth issue like this requires complex and ambitious solutions.

Unlike renewable resources, fossil fuels are entirely susceptible to geopolitical events. The wind can’t go on strike and force a Three Day Week, nor can a war in the Middle East hike the price of the waves. It is not impossible that a conflict could arise that causes the price of oil to rise sharply as it did at the start of the millennium. Increasing economic growth could also increase demand, and hence the value of oil as a commodity. Investors looking to make an easy profit could buy up large amounts of oil, reducing supply, and increasing its value. Then, when commodity traders begin to sell up again, this could have the opposite effect.

The reason oil projections vary so wildly is because it is so difficult to anticipate the future of such a volatile resource. That the No campaign chose the most pessimistic forecasts and they happened to turn out to be accurate is almost certainly more attributable to sheer luck than economic acumen. Plenty of other forecasters anticipated increasing prices, and they were no less unlikely. For the price of oil to remain at its current low in the medium to long-term then supply would need to stay high or demand would need to stay consistently low. Neither of these are particularly likely. If the growth in fracking output was to continue, which is far from certain, there would presumably be a point in which traditional oil producers became willing to sacrifice market share and cut production in order to push prices up. As for demand, while the economies of Europe and North America may not be imminently heading towards growth, it is hard to imagine that demand for energy and fuel in China, India, South America and Africa will not continue to increase.

The Scottish Government has recently made fairly ambitious moves in the energy field. By acquiring the assets of Pelamis, the Scottish Government has stuck a marker in the ground and made a statement of intent. This was the Government securing renewable energy technology and bringing it into public ownership – two things absolutely essential as a step towards diversifying and securing our energy supplies. Yell’s community tidal scheme, partially funded by CARES (the Scottish Government scheme to support community renewables [2]) is a benchmark worldwide for how to facilitate communities developing clean energy from which they can all benefit.

Scotland’s huge food and drink industry also makes it a potential hotbed for the development of biofuels. In Brazil, sugar cane is used in massive plants called biorefineries which power entire cities and provide a majority of their transportation fuel through ethanol fermented from sugar cane and bagasse. Transportation accounts for about a third of greenhouse emissions, so by increasing our capacity of biofuel production we not only reduce demand for oil, but we reduce waste and CO2 emissions while creating highly skilled jobs. Biofuels can be produced by re-using food waste, by-products from food production, and other non-food waste (such as sewage) and cleanly converting it to transportation fuel or methane for domestic or industrial use. The Scottish Biofuel Programme [3] from the Scottish Government is helping support this industry through grants, which in rural areas could provide a way for brewers or farmers to get additional income streams from converting their waste to fuel alcohol. As many of these processes produce by-products that can also be used as animal feed, it offers a comprehensive set of solutions to a global problem.

By shifting emphasis from refining of oil and gas to production of biofuels and engineering of renewable energy technology we can revolutionise the industry of Scotland. The skill sets and knowledge already exist, especially in the North East of Scotland. We can’t afford to sit on our hands and complain about lack of control of our destiny over oil – especially if we can start moving away from it and start growing the industries that will be their replacement for the next generation.


[1](http://www.newscientist.com/future-of-gas/gas-giants.html?utm_source=NSNS&utm_medium=SOC&utm_campaign=hoot&cmpid=SOC|NSNS|2014-GLOBAL-hoot)

[2] http://www.localenergyscotland.org/about/

[3] http://biofuels-scotland.co.uk/about

Is Nuclear Power Safe?

Nuclear power has a terrible reputation among environmentalists, and not without justification. I’ve already written about the economic and policy consequentials of nuclear power here https://medium.com/@Magnus_Jamieson/costing-the-future-552a9740ef23, but I’ve not yet addressed the safety of nuclear reactors themselves.

Three major incidents in previous years have turned what was once enthusiasm into fear and apprehension. The Chernobyl Disaster, Three-Mile Island, and the ongoing Fukushima disaster each represent different failures of risk prevention within the industry, and the issues concerning how to dispose of waste have never been adequately addressed. However, it is worth objectively analysing what actually happened during these incidents to understand why it is we hold these apprehensions and whether or not they are truly justified.

Nuclear Power in the World: As it Stands

As part of a global effort to reduce carbon emissions, as well as secure non fossil-fuel energy supply for the future, nuclear-fission powered electricity generation has recently been attracting significant investment in the United Kingdom. The recent approval given to development of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant is the first new nuclear power station approved in the UK for nearly twenty years (Department of Energy & Climate Change 21 October, 2013). Nuclear power has been growing worldwide since the sixties as a reliable, low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels.

Out of a total electricity generation capacity of 356.65TWh (Terawatt hours), nuclear stations provided 70.61TWh of the UK’s consumption (19.80%) in 2013, an increase of 366.38% from 15.14TWh in 1965 when records began. Globally, nuclear power provided 10.76% of the world’s consumption in 2013 (British Petroleum Company June, 2014). According to the World Nuclear Association, there are currently 435 civil nuclear reactors in operation around the world, with a further 71 under construction (World Nuclear Association 2014).

Nuclear Power Generation

Nuclear power generation is actually a fairly straightforward process, and the science behind it has been well understood since the Second World War- this is because the processes which govern it are the same processes through which nuclear bombs function. To understand how safety failures occur, it is important to have a rudimentary understanding of the physical processes involved.

Nuclear fission works in three stages;

  • Radioactive particles are emitted from a highly radioactive source, usually Uranium-235-doped Uranium-238, contained in pellet form in metal cased fuel rods (often a hard, unreactive metal such as zirconium)
  • The incident radiation is “slowed” by “Control Rods” which regulate the nuclear reactions within the reactor by interacting with “fast” radiation from the fuel rods and “slowing” it down by expending energy as heat
  • The “slowed” radiation is re-absorbed in the fuel rods, splitting the fuel atom into two separate atoms (nuclear fission), releasing energy as heat

In an LWR (light water reactor), the heat generated from nuclear fission is used to superheat water- which in turn becomes high-pressured steam and is used to power a turbine and hence generate electricity. The water within the reactor is heated and condensed in cycle, ensuring it does not return to the environment, and the reactor is stored in a containment building, as shown below (Gómez Cadenas 2012).

LWR_Cadenas

This method of generating electricity is well understood and the risks well known and understood. The most glaring health and safety issues concern managing the nuclear reaction itself, nuclear waste, and containment of the reactor.

The nuclear reactions within the reactor need to be strictly monitored and regulated at all times. If the reaction rate is too low, not enough fissile reactions will occur, causing the reactor to stop working. If the reaction carries on unregulated, a chain reaction will occur leading either to a catastrophic nuclear reaction and nuclear explosion (i.e. the reactor becomes a nuclear bomb), or overheating of the moderators and an explosion which breaches the reactor containment, releasing radioactive materials into the environment.

Another issue from nuclear power generation is how to deal with the, highly radioactive, and often incredibly toxic, waste products of nuclear fission. Nuclear waste can be carcinogenic, toxic, and extremely damaging to organisms or wildlife that come in contact with it, and so its storage, transport, and disposal are major issues for the industry.

Poorly designed containment for the reactor may also result in radioactive water being returned to the water cycle, or radiation leaking from the reactor itself into the environment.

Risk Management in the Industry

To understand how failures occur and why they happen we have to look at the procedures in place surrounding nuclear safety and how they actually function. Risk management such as Environmental Impact Assessment and Risk Assessments are carried out before the construction of any nuclear power plant, and are designed to mitigate risk pre-emptively or find ways of avoiding it altogether. Risk Assessment is then used to improve procedures over the lifetime of any nuclear power plant to ensure procedures are continually improved and maintain relevance. In the context of nuclear power generation, this means ensuring the reactors are built safely, in appropriate locations, and managed safely in accordance with protocols.

Nuclear power operates on the basis of Defence in Depth. That is, there are different “layers” to risk prevention, be they human or mechanical features of design. The following table illustrates this concept and shows a description of each “layer”. (Slugeň 2011)

defenseindepth

This approach is useful because it compartmentalises safety procedure and helps describe the different aspects and responsibilities associated with health and safety; illustrates overlaps of responsibility; as well as the difference between mitigation and prevention. This allows each “layer” to be optimised to ensure best practise. Weaknesses can be assessed and mitigated efficiently and responsibilities assigned appropriately.

This modular approach, and the fact it illustrates the overlap between mitigation and prevention, reinforces the idea that there is still a very human responsibility in accident prevention – mechanical safeguards and preventative measures are still reliant on human oversight, as they are in any industry. The scale and magnitude (both in human life and environmental damage) of nuclear incidents makes it imperative that there is effective oversight in ensuring protocol is followed, and, if they fail, ensuring disaster mitigation is effective.

Nuclear power generation companies, as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility, have a moral, ethical, and legal duty to ensure their workplace is safe for their staff, and their power plants do not cause damage to their environment. This requires not only mechanical and procedural safeguards to be in place to prevent accidents happening in the first place – such as reactor containment, maintenance procedures, and emergency shut-offs – but protocols to allow staff to react to events if and when they happen. Failure of management to ensure protocol is followed- whether it is during Environmental Impact Assessment or Risk Assessment, during the running of the plant, or in the aftermath of an incident- can have devastating consequences.The strength of this model can be understood by analysing its most notable failures.

The Chernobyl Disaster

In 1986, an explosion breached the containment of Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant in Ukraine, exposing the fuel rods and throwing highly radioactive material into the atmosphere. Due to the nature of the accident, the highly radioactive nature of the site, and the relatively primitive nuclear technology of the time, it is hard to know exactly what happened, however, in (Beresford and Smith 2005), the major factors behind the disaster are outlined, as well as a comprehensive account of the environmental and socioeconomic consequences.The following image shows the power plant after the explosion and is from (Beresford and Smith 2005).

CHERNOBYL_Beresford

The incident was caused by an experiment involving Reactor 4, to see what would happen to the electrical supply of the station should its primary supply fail, and was due to a series of failures (both systematic and mechanical), and human error.

  • Poor reactor design – as the temperature of the reactor increased, this would cause the output of the reactor to increase, causing a destructive positive feedback loop. Most reactors of the time had systems which would reduce power to stabilise temperature
  • The specifications of the experiment were altered at the last minute – the reactor’s output was reduced in preparation for the experiment at 13:00 but a last minute request for them to continue generation meant they had to increase the output of the reactor from 14:00 until 23:10
  • The reactor began to act erratically – the power output had dropped from 720MW to 30MW by 23:40 due to a problem with the automatic control rods. The experiment went ahead anyway.
  • Control rods were removed to increase the output, meaning they would have had less control over the reactor and any emergency shutdown would be hindered
  • The water coolant flow to the reactor was variable and unstable, meaning the temperature of the reactor was fluctuating unsafely prior to the explosion
  • Fundamental emergency safety systems had been shut down in order to perform the experiment
  • When the experiment started, the power output of the reactor was below the criteria of the experiment

The experiment went ahead despite this, and (Beresford and Smith 2005) describes the seconds leading up to the explosion:

“Thirty seconds after the experiment began, the reactor power began to increase rapidly and ten seconds later the operators attempted a full emergency shut down by re-inserting the control rods. The reactor power was now increasing exponentially leading to a failure in the pressurised cooling water system. Eight seconds later, the reactor exploded (an explosion of steam, not a nuclear explosion) scattering burning core debris over the surrounding area.”

There were then more failures following the accident, in the mitigation stages;

  • There were no effective automated or remote fire prevention systems in place to put out the fires caused by the reactor explosion, meaning humans had to physically expose themselves to high radiation levels to contain the reactor fires and prevent a more catastrophic nuclear explosion
  • Anti-radiation medication was issued, but ad hoc, as opposed to in a systematic way
  • The firefighters were not adequately trained in dealing with radioactive material fires
  • Radiation exposure in fire fighters was not monitored
  • Nearby towns such as Pripyat were not alerted to leave their homes until the next day and people were still outside of their homes the morning after the explosion having not been warned to stay indoors

To summarise, there were risk management failings on every conceivable level.

  • The power plant was built next to a densely populated area, putting thousands of lives at risk
  • Despite repeated safety warnings, the experiment went ahead
  • Fundamental safety mechanisms were undermined
  • The emergency response and mitigation was poorly organised and desperate
  • The experiment itself was poorly organised and despite last minute changes was unjustifiably allowed to proceed
  • Because containment had been breached, lives had to be put at risk containing the radioactive material

In short, on every level, the principle of “Defence in Depth” was undermined. Physical safeguards must be allowed to do their jobs; effective leadership requires organisation and recognising of dangers, and when to know when to stop a hazardous activity; safety procedure must be designed to minimise the risk of harm to people, whether it is at the planning stages or during crisis periods and damage limitation.

The disaster could have been prevented at several stages by effective leadership recognising the untenable risks that were emerging, or by allowing the inbuilt safety mechanisms to do their jobs. Performing such an experiment on what was a fundamentally dangerously designed reactor was an intolerable risk which, in the end, resulted in environmental disaster and the needless loss of human life and ecological integrity.

Safety procedure is only effective when it is followed, and, in the case of Chernobyl, it was undermined at every stage. Chernobyl was entirely avoidable and is more of a reflection of human failure than the inherent danger that is present in nuclear power. It is noteworthy that, despite the scale of the destruction, there was still no nuclear explosion- the worst case scenario of any nuclear power plant- despite the repeated breaches of safety protocol.

Three Mile Island

On 28th March 1979, at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, USA, a plume of radioactive gas was released due to a cooling fault. Misinterpretation of data from the TMI-2 reactor of the plant resulted in water being super-heated, with the result that the cooling system failed and the reactor melted. The fault was due to a valve becoming stuck open, resulting in cooling water leaking from the system. This resulted in the boiling of the water into steam and the eventual melting of the reactor, and due to chemical reactions with the zirconium fuel cases, the production of hydrogen.

A full technical report of the failings leading to the incident is outlined in a report produced at the time (Cummings 1980), as well as a summary of the event produced by the World Nuclear Association (World Nuclear Association January, 2012), but the event can be summarised thus;

  • A malfunction in the secondary coolant system caused the primary coolant circuit to overheat
  • This caused the reactor to automatically shut down
  • One of the valves failed to close as it should have
  • Coolant drained out of the system, leaving an insufficient amount to dissipate the residual heat
  • The reactor overheated and melted
  • Radioactive gas built up in the reactor containment chamber
  • While the radioactive gas was being extracted, the compressors leaked, releasing radioactive gas into atmosphere

The main cause of the incident in this case was mechanical failure of the primary relief valve exacerbated by a poorly designed reactor monitoring system which, in the case of the relief valve, indicated only that a signal to close the valve had been sent – not the actual status of the valve itself. Unlike Chernobyl, however, there was no explosion. The reactor containment was not compromised – the leak happened due to external equipment, not the reactor itself – and there was no loss of life, nor any adverse health effects to anyone in surrounding areas (Tilyou 1989).

The incident was attributable to three main causes-

  • Mechanical failure
  • Misinterpretation of data
  • Poorly designed measurement systems

However, unlike Chernobyl, the safety mechanisms were allowed to perform their tasks. The reactor shut itself down within a second; the containment of the reactor was not breached, and in fact the other reactor on Three Mile Island, TMI-1, continues to perform exceptionally to this day. The release of gas happened because of the failure of equipment they used when clearing that radioactive material out, and even then, the most hazardous material was filtered out. So, as far as Three Mile Island concerned, the inbuilt safety mechanisms performed adequately. However, the whole reason gas built up in the first place was due to poorly designed measurement systems and incorrect emergency response due to inaccurate training – however these issues can easily be remedied and lessons learned from them, and it is worth noting the staff performed exactly how they had been trained to do.

It is also worth noting that this event preceded Chernobyl by some 7 years, which makes the disastrous inadequacy of Chernobyl’s disaster management all the more surprising. The emergency safety measures of Three Mile Island had been shown to work (at least to the extent that there was no explosion and the containment was not breached), which could perhaps have made the Chernobyl supervisors complacent about their own safety procedures. Therefore, adaptation of training procedures and improvement of measurement equipment could easily have prevented another Three Mile Island type incident occurring again.

Fukushima

In March 2011, the Fukushima Daichii nuclear power plant was struck by a tsunami, inundating the site and disabling the backup reactors. The containment and cleanup operation is still underway at the time of writing. A concise account of the events surrounding the plant can be found in (Tsuruda 2013), but to summarise:

  • In March 2011, a series of earthquakes and Tsunamis struck Japan
  • Seismic activity disabled cooling and control of the 3 nuclear reactors at the site
  • A tsunami struck the site, disabling the backup diesel generators
  • Reactors 1 and 3 overheated, causing explosions
  • Reactor 4 exploded later
  • Workers flooded reactors with seawater to cool them
  • Hundreds of tonnes of radioactive water leaked from site
bestfukushima

(Best, J. 2013) – Fukushima power plant

As the incident is still ongoing and studies are still being performed as to its effects, it is not possible to offer a thorough analysis of the effects of the incident, as it could yet get worse. However, it is still worthwhile to examine the circumstances surrounding the disaster.

  • Fukushima was built in a coastal region of a country which suffers significant tectonic activity
  • The plant was struck both by an earthquake and a tsunami
  • The backup reactors were inundated and failed, leading to the meltdown of three reactors

It is difficult to account for such extreme conditions and events as Fukushima suffered, however, it seems difficult to justify placing such a dangerous site

  • On the coastline, where accidental discharges could have the most devastating ecological impact
  • In a region which suffers high levels of tectonic activity

The failure of the backup generators in such a vital site is also a damning indictment of its design. Backups and emergency systems are redundant if they can be disabled by the same event which affects the nuclear power plant.

Fukushima’s plight can be attributed to poor risk assessment and inadequate disaster mitigation, which has resulted in a containment operation costing millions of dollars and which has released hundreds of tonnes of highly radioactive material into the environment.

In Conclusion – Are Nuclear Power Plants Safe?

It bears repeating that there are over 400 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide, operating completely safely. Nuclear incidents are exceptionally rare due to the methodology of risk prevention which is, more often than not, more than adequate.

In the case of Chernobyl, the safeguards designed to prevent disaster were intentionally undermined, jeopardising the first three layers of Defense in Depth. This resulted in the displacement of thousands of people and unprecedented ecological harm. In order for safety protocol to be effective, it actually has to be followed.

Three Mile Island illustrated the cost of inadequate measurement systems. Although the safeguards and containment operated as they were designed to once the incident was in progress, effective measurement systems which were indicative of the status of the system, as well as more effective training, could have prevented the incident.

Fukushima is an exceptional case – it is hard to prepare any system for being simultaneously hit by an earthquake and a tsunami. However, the location of the site, and the susceptibility of the safeguards to be disabled by the same event as disabled the main reactor, is poor design and poor risk assessment, and what is an ongoing incident could still get worse.

Effective implementation of risk management – be it at risk assessment, procedural risk control, or at the design stages of the reactors themselves, could have prevented all of these incidents. I haven’t even begun to address the issues surrounding Uranium mining and waste transport.

If risk management protocol is followed adequately, nuclear reactors are entirely safe – but, the nature of risk management is as much to do with mitigation as prevention. When nuclear accidents happen, the results are so devastating because of the nature of nuclear waste and radioactive materials. When making decisions on energy policy, these factors have to be considered with great caution, especially compared to emergent renewable energy technologies. We must replace fossil fuel generation – but is it justifiable to replace CO2-emitting fossil fuel based technology with radiation-emitting Uranium or Thorium based technology?

In Scotland, we simply don’t need nuclear power, and this needs to be recognised by Westminster. We have a target of 100% of nuclear generation via renewables by 2020- ambitious, but achievable if issues like transmission (mentioned in my previous blog) are addressed. Westminster has just thrown billions of pounds at a privatised nuclear power reactor which will be built and operated by Chinese and French state power companies. Energy needs to be devolved to Scotland where our comprehensively different ambitions can be recognised in policy making, because having the environment devolved without energy policy is like trying to eat soup with a fork.

Further Reading

Beresford, N. A. and Smith, J. 2005. Chernobyl: Catastrophe, consequences and solutions. Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Best, J. 2013. Fukushima: Japan declares toxic water leak at nuclear plant a level 3 “serious incident”. Mirror. [online]. 21/08/2013.

British Petroleum Company June, 2014. BP Statistical Review of World Energy. [online]. Available from: http://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/about-bp/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy.html.

Cummings, G. E. 1980. Operator/Instrumentation Interactions during the Three Mile Island Incident. IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science. 27(1): pp.931-934.

Department of Energy & Climate Change 21 October, 2013. Initial agreement reached on new nuclear power station at Hinkley. [online]. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/initial-agreement-reached-on-new-nuclear-power-station-at-hinkley.

Slugeň, V.Nuclear safety. In: Anon. London: Springer London. 2011, pp. 3-4.

Tilyou, S. 1989. Three Mile Island–ten years later. No health consequences seen, but studies continue to assess potential effects. Journal of Nuclear Medicine : Official Publication, Society of Nuclear Medicine. 30(4): pp.427.

Tsuruda, T. 2013. Nuclear Power Plant Explosions at Fukushima-Daiichi. Procedia Engineering. 62: pp.71-77.

World Nuclear Association 2014. Number of nuclear reactors operable and under construction. [online]. Available from: http://www.world-nuclear.org/Nuclear-Basics/Global-number-of-nuclear-reactors/.

World Nuclear Association January, 2012.  Three Mile Island Accident. [online]. Available from: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Safety-and-Security/Safety-of-Plants/Three-Mile-Island-accident/.