Friday, 29 January 2016

One in thirty four million?

A couple of States deputies have raised questions over why Jersey had not had iodine tablets issued as they had in areas in France near nuclear reactors.  In response CM Gorst is reported to have said he had research  giving the probability of a nuclear accident at Flamanville impacting on Jersey was ‘one in every 34 million years’. 

Without sight of the report or knowing exactly what it was assessing the chances of, I cannot categorically say that is wrong.  Such things are critically dependent on the assumptions  and inputs into the calulation.  I will however state I think that figure is rather unlikely.  My first point would be to call on CM Gorst to release this research.  Of course he won't do that if it is covered by 'commerical confidentiality'  in which case I would imagine it comes from a nuclear industry indsider, possibly even EDF itself.  That would harldy constititute  fair and impartial research.  You might want to ponder why the commerical sensitivity of a business is thought to more important than the safety of the whole Island's population too.

Even without resorting to research I could recall three nuclear incidents that had they happened at Flamanville would have impacted Jersey - Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Sheep controls on farms in Wales and Cumbria were only lifted in 2012, 25 years afer Chernobyl spewed the fallout cloud that caused the problem. In fact out of roughly 400 nuclear plants operating worldwide there have been at least 30 meltdown accidents.  Any one of those if it happend in Normandy would affect us. Arguable eachone of them where ever they happen wil affect us eventually. There were other serious incidents too , but I cannot be sure they would have impacted us.  So in the sixty five years or so of commercial plant operations we have had 30 incidents among 400 plant. 

One of the factors that does make a difference is the age and the designof the plant.  Newer plant very pronbabaly are rather safer tha tthe old ones.  As it happens while I was preparing this piece , a new item apperaed raising concerns over some 1950's plant restarted in Belgium recently. Often the stats are done using the newest plant safety and construction criteria.  The existing reactors at Flammanvile are froom the 1980s, but  new facilites are being constructed.  There have been problems at flammanville on a number of occassion, but none so serious  (yet!) to meet the criterion of affecting us badly (who sets those crieria?) .  There is at least one significant concern that has been raise in repsectof  the plant in Normandy - the Blayais incident in 1999.  Rather as in Fukushima, if an event occurs that is beyond the parameters believed at construction,  then the building is outside of it designn parameters.  We know storms and surges are stronger now than they were in the 1980's and still increasing.

The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) usually gives the odds of a nuclear meltdown anywhere worldwide as one in a million years.  That is a similar ballpark to the figure Sen Gorst gives.  On the other hand the same NRC only requires reactors to be build to a 1 in 10,000 year core damage frequency !  And yet in Japan, where they are rather sensitive to such things they  reckon the probability of a major nuclear accident has reduced from 1 in 40 years post Fukushima to now 1 in 80 years !  That's some discrepancy.  Again it all depends critically on the assumptions you make and what you define as major.

A few other points to bear in mind.  Just because the probability of  some event is low does not mean it won't happen rather soon. A one in a million years may sound safe, but it could still happen tomorrow.  When doing risk assessements, not only should you reckon the probability, but also the impact.  In general I am happier facing a high probability event that isn't fatal, than a low probability of extinction.  The calculation of the probability of nuclear failure  is difficult because there are few incidents.  Estimating and extrapolating from a small data set is fraught with problems.    Attempting to do it by looking at the design and assessing failure modes and risks might be better , but then you have to accept that if you miss a possible black swan event like the size of the earthquake/tsunami that casused the Fukushima situation, you have a problem.

One in 34 million years.  I don't beleive it any more than I believe I will win the UK national lottery.  And just like that lottery my intention is to not buy a ticket at all, and thereby guarantee not losing .

Sunday, 17 January 2016

You dont have to take no as an answer from bureaucracy

A little over a year ago the Jersey Climate Action Network started a small campaign to push the States into divesting from fossil fuel investments.  The price of oil has halved in that time, and many of the associated exploration and production and integrated major companies have fared just as badly.  As far as I can tell, the States never acted on our recommendation to divest, so I tried to get a bit on information to identify what they were invested in.  Since oil and gas producers make a large part by capitalisation of the FTSE 100 and they are big dividend payers it is a fair guess they make a notable part of the portfolio.

This resulted in a FoI request, whose response in part I challenged, with an interesting outcome.  Since my original questions are repeated in the initial response, I'll skip that.

I cannot say I was overly surprised by the response in most respects.  However it raises some questions.  How can the States make statement of the ethical quality of its investments unless it goes into detail of what those investments are in?  And if it does go into that sort of detail, it ought really to be able to give a recent estimate of the amount in fossil fuels, nuclear etc?  Who is on the TAP, how frequently do investment managers present to them, and who sets the ethical criteria?  Is there any public or elected representation?  When was the last time a States members, or PAC or anybody reviewed the ethical criteria?

The one aspect I felt was unsatisfactory was the response about the report.   So I challenged it.

The proper response to a challenge (other than to plead mea culpa and release the info!) is an internal review.

And yes I did get a copy of the report, though it gave no particularly revealing insights relating to the actual ethics of investment policy.

The response tries to argue that everything was right, but clearly it was not.  The initial response was that reports are only shown to addressees, the review does not elaborate or provide a FOI complaint response for withholding the report, not does it refute my contention the report is covered by FoI.  I didn't think there was anything to be gained by pursuing this further - the information I wanted insofar as it existed was forthcoming.  But it might stand as a useful precedent in future should anyone try to gain access to a report denied on the grounds that we on only show them to addressees.

One other pont worth making here; just because a decision is made on ethical grounds doesn't make it a poor financial decision.  Indeed as in this case had the Island puled its fossil fuels investments a year ago as called for, we might now have who knows how many more millions in the Island's funds.

Monday, 11 January 2016 and tax

Since the rains are rather heavy today , I'm getting a pile of paperwork done.  Or I would if I could. Despite the drive to digital everything and  e-gov is the future, I cannot submit a 2015 company tax return, because the States web site still has not been updated from last year!  I jest not.