E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
2022 closure for Hunterston B nuclear power station after core cracks
I never knew that people could be so chill about hundreds of cracks appearing in the core of a nuclear power plant. The Hunterston B facility in Scotland has been running since the early 1970s and was supposed to be retired in 2011.
It really started showing its age in 2014, three years after decommissioning was supposed to commence, when cracks started appearing in the graphite bricks housing the reactor. The problem got worse until it was eventually closed in 2018 for around a year while its operators conducted some measures designed to improve safety.
Plant owners EDF ultimately needed to convince the nuclear regulators to raise the operational limit for the number of cracks after more fractures were found than was originally considered safe.
Hunterston B is a good example of how nuclear power may seem like a solid option for generating carbon-free electricity, but ultimately the price is paid several-fold due to the extreme safety concerns. The decommissioning process, which typically runs into the hundreds of millions of pounds, can last for over 50 years. In this case that’s around the operational lifespan of the plant itself, and if anything goes wrong, the environmental damage done is immense.
Nevertheless, we’re running out of time to save the planet, and currently nuclear is one of the easiest options to develop consistent baseload electricity without exacerbating climate change. But it comes with a heavy price and I hope we abandon it as soon as cleaner technologies mature.
Ben Heubl, associate editor
Tech firms given deadline to meet new child privacy protection rules
Although I largely agree with this move by the UK’s Information Commissioner, I also foresee a few big problems. What the ICO urges tech companies to do makes sense in a wider context. Protecting children gets you votes and generates headlines. It also helps in cleansing the reputation of the ICO, which constantly faces pressure from the public – often for good reasons.
The problem is that it isn’t clear what online platforms should do. Elizabeth Denham doesn’t ask for specific action to be taken and this ambiguity could backfire if left unaddressed. It’s hard to apply a blanket statement to all tech platforms that tells them to just ‘make things safer’. This is an example of how privacy-related concerns go far beyond the realm of just online trackers.
Kids – as well as we adults – leave digital traces everywhere online. Take the example of a photo that shows someone with friends, posted on Twitter. A person with a bit of open source intelligence training could easily identify where the photo was taken from its background and in some cases even the people pictured. My first point here is that if we adults fail to adhere to rules, how can we teach our children to refrain from privacy-harming action?
I also doubt the ICO will request tech companies to ban kids from joining or posting. It would be too far reaching and will hurt business models. Some of the most successful online platforms, including Tik Tok, started out as a platform for kids.
My point here is that online privacy is so much more than just cookies and online trackers. If the ICO wants to curb the problem, it will need to get its hands dirty and come up with concrete suggestions – something it isn’t really known for.
The Information Commissioner also wants children to be “online, learning, and playing and experiencing the world”. I totally get that. But why does everything have to be online in the first place? And here I feel I am getting old when I say that in the good old days technology-based experiences were purely offline. It had its benefits. In short, there is a strong argument for taking children’s learning and experimenting offline. It will guarantee privacy and safety. Once parents understand that, there will be a market for firms to sell it. The ICO should help to make this business line viable.
Also, since when do parents agree that their children can freely ‘learn and experience’ using the still largely porn- and violence-invested online world in the first place? Something is seriously going wrong here and it can’t be resolved by making tech companies remove their online cookies.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Driverless cars shown to ease traffic congestion among human-driven vehicles
In 30 years of driving I’ve never seen any convincing evidence that tailgating or swerving from lane to lane actually achieves anything other than causing accidents, but if not why do a small minority of motorists persist with it? If anything, having someone sitting on my bumper when I’m already close to the speed limit and there’s nowhere to move to makes me slow down rather than speed up.
And for me, getting back on the road after lockdown has highlighted how the habits of just a few people can cause problems and exacerbate the infuriating delays caused by big projects like implementation of ‘smart’ motorways.
This work by a team of Israeli researchers suggests even a little peer pressure might help, in the shape of putting a few vehicles on the road, that by virtue of being driverless, aren’t tempted to bend the rules, let alone break them. Making less than 5 per cent of traffic autonomous, they reckon, can help break it into controllable clusters within minutes that break down congestion and smooth up everyone’s journey.
The key is that AVs operate cooperatively rather than imagining that journeys pit them against every other road user in a massive Formula 1 race. Sad, really, that it implies the only way to get us all to drive in a thoughtful way which benefits everyone is to get robots to lead the way, simply because they’re the only ones who can be relied on to follow the rules.
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