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30 August 2006

Nuclear Luggage

What does the current hand-luggage furore at UK airports have in common with the UK government's agenda for nuclear power?

Absolutely nothing as it happens. They are poles apart in the way the government expects the 'general public'* to react. (*I hate that word - it creates distracting data - and am unable to use it without quotation marks.)

Item no. 1 - Nuclear power

Nuclear power regularly pops up on the UK government's agenda, and usually gets smacked down by the media arguing that nobody wants to live near a nuclear power plant (somewhat difficult to avoid on a densely-populated small island). Citing its safety record and benefits compared to coal- and oil-based alternatives has little impact, because safety records are irrelevant. It isn't the level of risk that concerns people, it's the fear of the consequences from just one single failure and Chernobyl serves up pictures to remind everyone.

Is the fear irrational? Absolutely. Is it reasonable? Yes, but it's also quite pointless. Let me demonstrate.

Should the UK population be persuaded to accept nuclear power, it would likely be on the condition that plants be located as far away from cities as possible, i.e. Scotland (always gets the short straw). Let's look at the distances involved:

Placing London at the centre of the red circle, the distance to Scotland also covers a fair portion of France. France already generates most of their electricity from nuclear power. And where do you suppose the nuclear power plants are located? Image courtesy of the BBC web site:

:-) At most, only three are further away from London than the Outer Hebrides. I rest my case. At the risk of having my passport revoked and replaced by a one-way ticket on the EuroStar, I wonder why the UK government hasn't tried using France as an example to argue their case.

Item no. 2 - Hand luggage on planes

You may have noticed that UK air travel went a little bit chaotic a couple of weeks ago. A plot to blow up planes was uncovered, the intention apparently being to construct the bomb in-flight by carrying household liquids and electronic items in hand luggage that, when combined together, can become explosive.

To prevent planes being blown up, the government immediately banned all hand luggage on all flights in to and out of the UK. Now who's being irrational? Out of all the people on all of the flights, how many were even remotely likely to be terrorists completely unknown to the government and likely to board a plane undetected. The argument for all the disruption? "If just one person managed to bypass the security..." Hmmm, that sounds just like the 'general public' reaction to nuclear power plants.

It's going to be hard for the government to tell its population to stop being irrational about potential nuclear threats when the government decides to be irrational about potential terrorist threats.

Fear versus Disruption

Irrational fears are forgotten or sidelined when the fear becomes too disruptive for every day life to continue. If the UK starts suffering regular black-outs due to insufficient electricity, and exorbitant oil prices push fuel costs beyond an as-yet unknown tipping point, people will start demanding alternatives. They may want other options explored first (wind, solar, hydro) but nuclear power will soon be considered acceptable if it becomes too inconvenient to not have it.

After September 11th, fear initially stopped people from flying. But the inconvenience caused by not flying eventually outweighed fear and the inconvenience caused by increased security checks for flights to/from/within the US. The difference this time is in the level of security checks. With hand luggage now being so restrictive and security checks applied to all UK flights, how many regular business travellers will consider the disruption to be on the wrong side of the tipping point and choose alternatives. This time it isn't fear that will stop people flying (you may end up on a plane that is blown up but it is unlikely). It is the process of flying that has become the problem (you will be disrupted every time you go to the airport) - that's a whole different equation. I think the travel industry is right to be concerned.

So what's all this go to do with people, information and technology (i.e. is this on- or off-topic)?

Irrational arguments that delay new technologies being adopted soon disappear when not using them becomes disruptive to daily activities. Similarly, technologies that are too disruptive compared to alternatives are unlikely to ever succeed in a mainstream market (there's good reason why the paperless office remains a myth). It's back to the chasm and the tipping point. For example, when will IM come of age? When it becomes a disadvantage to not use it and/or the current alternatives (email, phone) become too disruptive to use (spam, spam) - then arguments against adoption, especially irrational and unproven ones, will be sidelined or ignored.

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