Windmill aesthetics

Buildings don’t get much more attractive than traditional windmills. More or less anyone will agree on that. It even comes as a bit of a shock to remember that windmills were industrial structures, not landscape beautification projects.

So, what is it about modern wind turbines that sends some people into a rage? In the Times, Charles Bremner claimed that the French countryside was becoming ugly because of the spread of wind turbines.

Windpower blights “la belle France”

His argument is basically that France doesn’t need the “ugly” windturbines because it has loads of nuclear power. What? Has he ever seen a nuclear power station?

The UK’s only remotely attractive one, as a building, was Trawfyndd – of which the architecture bit of the Guardian showed a flattering photograph a couple of months ago. The photo doesn’t come with the online story but here’s an extract from the text.

The tradition continued into the early nuclear age with the appointment of Basil Spence, architect of Coventry cathedral, to design Trawsfynydd in Wales. Like Scott, Spence went down the route of unabashed monumentality to reflect the awesome technology at work within. Never mind that his 20-storey monoliths in the middle of Snowdonia stuck out like a pair of sore thumbs. At the time of Trawsfynydd’s construction, in 1959, this treatment was entirely appropriate: symbolically, nuclear power was one of the few things that told Britain it was still Great. That triumphalism would soon fade, as the implications of the Windscale fire in 1957 became apparent, and environmental and peace movements started to campaign against nuclear.
One need only look at the industrial-looking nuclear eyesores built in the 1970s and 80s, such as Hartlepool or Dungeness, to see the change. Having furnished Britain with some of the ugliest buildings ever seen, British Energy took a renewed concern in the appearance of Sizewell B in the 90s.

Note, “Ugliest buikdings ever seen.”

You can see a selection of postcard views of nuclear carbon-friendly power plants on an odd site that google found, and you’d have to admit that, despite the stunning landscapes they are set in, the kindest description of them would be “darkly foreboding.”

OK, the concepts of beauty and ugliness are relative and individual. Let’s assume that those elegant wind turbine blades are uglier as huge concrete slab monolithic powerplants in the eyes of some beholders.

Pretend that a miraculous new way of generating energy (from fusion or electrolytic transformation or any star-trekky energy source you can imagine) has been discovered. So, the working life of a wind turbine is over. What happens to it? You just take it down. I think that’s it. (You might cause some localised pollution by dropping it in landfill. Pretty small beer compared to what we dump every day, but still, I’m trying to be fair.)

Not quite as easy to take down all the carbon-neutral new nuclear power plants is it? You need a decade or more for decommissioning. You’d still have to protect it to within an inch of its life (from accidents and terrorists) for that time. Then you’d just have to store and guard the materials for, oh I don’t know, a few thousand years.

Or, let’s assume that the star-trek energy breakthrough doesn’t happen. The turbines just spin around, collecting energy that – as far as I can tell, on recent form – is increasing, if anything. They break and can get replaced. The land, sea and air around them are as clean, or otherwise, as they would be in the absence of a turbine.

There is no reason, except aesthetics, for not siting them in the centre of big cities. If they break, they just break. They don’t go critical.

A really unlucky person might find that a broken one landed on their head. This doesn’t quite compare with Chernobyl.

(There’s a REALLY ugly power generator picture – of the post-explosion Chernobyl plant – on the Wikipedia page. I didn’t pasted it here because I’m baffled by the fair use clause.)

Imagining for one minute that you share the aesthetic sensibilities of Charles Bremner and the couple of French aristocrats he reported, it’s still a very small price to pay.

Pope turns out to be Catholic

Chernobyl not a wildlife haven is one of the most bizarre headlines you could come across.

Were people really suggesting that massive irradiation was an ecological plus?

It does appear so. Apparently, a paper in American Scientist had suggested that

“the benefits for wildlife from the lack of human activity outweighed the risks of low-level radiation….. It can be said that the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster is not as destructive to wildlife populations as are normal human activities.”

(Well, the BBC said this research was in American Scientist but I couldn’t find it, although the researcher, Robert Baker reports his findings on his website.)

Well, that suggests that nature can repair even the most extreme damage if we just butt out and leave it to it. (Although, sterilising large swathes of farmland may not be to everyone’s taste as sensible use of land.) Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case, according to the research by A.P. Møller and T.A. Mousseau.

In fact their study, published today in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters suggests that the reverse is the case and that the ecological effects are actually even more damaging than expected.

The paper’s abstract says

Recent conclusions from the UN Chernobyl forum and reports in the popular media concerning the effects of radiation from Chernobyl on animals have left the impression that the Chernobyl exclusion zone is a thriving ecosystem, filled with an increasing number of rare species…. We conducted standardized point counts of breeding birds at forest sites around Chernobyl differing in level of background radiation by over three orders of magnitude. Species richness, abundance and population density of breeding birds decreased with increasing level of radiation, even after controlling statistically for the effects of potentially confounding factors such as soil type, habitat and height of the vegetation. ……These results imply that the ecological effects of Chernobyl on animals are considerably greater than previously assumed.

Given that there is an increasing push to present nuclear power as the carbon-friendlier alternative to fossil fuels, it’s salutary to be reminded that nuclear radiation is not a healthy and natural boost to species diversity. The fallout (lame pun intended) from any accident will be poisoning the land for many generations.

This result was pretty predictable from what has long been known about radiation. So why is it a surprise? Will this research be as widely reported as the “good news”?