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Sizewell bill, tracing app fears, E&T Awards and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: EDF

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.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

EDF submits plans to build Sizewell C nuclear power plant in Suffolk

Environmentalists always baulk at nuclear energy. So do economists. Electricity generated from nuclear is about six times as expensive as the cheapest form of electricity generation – combined-cycle gas turbine. While broadly costing the same as offshore wind, it is also much more expensive than other renewable options like onshore wind, solar and hydro and the price of all renewable energy is decreasing as the technology evolves. Nuclear power station build costs are also eye-watering. The starting price for Sizewell C is in the order of £14bn, but then every time you look at the cost of Hinkley Point C, its costs seem to have crept up by another billion or so. Current estimates are about £22.5bn. Such costs are then ultimately met by the taxpayer as we are committed to paying overpriced unit cost for our electricity when it comes into operation.

Having said that, I’m not against nuclear power generation. Unless we consciously stem the tide of technological evolution - and there are those who do think this is the best way forward - then we need more energy and this energy has to be clean. We have to take fossil fuels out of the equation. If every day was like yesterday, with the sun blazing and the lovely fresh breeze in the south of England, our wind and solar-generation options would probably be good enough, but obviously if there’s one thing we can rely on in this country it’s that we can’t rely on the weather. Other options could, and should, come into the mix, such as the entirely dependable tidal and inexhaustible wave technologies.

Such technologies need further development and until they come on stream, or perhaps nuclear fission fulfils its potential, we have perhaps a decade or two at least when we need to take up the base load. From an environmental point of view, I think it’s nuclear that fits the bill and I wonder if the development of a geological disposal facility makes this more palatable to environmentalists. The legacy and cost of nuclear energy generation is phenomenal and hasn’t been properly addressed before, but now Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) - the government agency looking after such matters - seems serious about having a long-term plan for safely disposing of nuclear waste.

I wrote about this at the beginning of the year and it occurred to me then that this could overcome one of the major obstacles to acceptance of nuclear energy investment – the notion that the full life-cycle of plant and fuel is being taken into consideration. Perhaps this will allay at least some of the fears of those unconvinced by the plans for Sizewell C.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Britons uneasy about Covid-19 tracing app data usage

This is a very disturbing piece of news. The intended nationwide introduction of the much-hyped Covid-19 NHS tracking app promises to become yet another erroneous Government decision in its so far largely futile attempts to contain the pandemic. Yes, the number of new infections is slowly declining, but it is unclear whether this is happening because of or despite its chaotic handling by our powers that be.

To begin with, while all the talk about the new tracing app might suggest that it’s already widely in use in the UK, it’s so far available only on the Isle of Wight, and, according to some reports, is not that popular even there. When it finally comes to the rest of the UK (hopefully, next month), it’s likely to encounter a lot of well-grounded scepticism – not just from those who will be worried about their own privacy breaches and won’t be willing to reveal the details of their daily movements and locations, but also from those who are not techno-savvy enough to upload and use it (which is not that simple) and those who are (understandably) concerned about hacking attacks, the sheer number of which keeps growing.

If you ask me, the above categories would probably amount to well over half of the nation’s mobile phone users, who would staunchly refuse to have anything to do with the tracing app. If so, the data gleaned from the phones of the remaining fifty per cent of the population would certainly be insufficient for any effective virus tracking on the national scale.

A similar app seemed to have worked in South Korea, you may object. Yes, but don’t forget that in their majority, South Koreans are much more technologically astute and, being extremely social creatures, are somewhat less worried about their privacy (I spent some time in South Korea not so long ago and saw many examples of this). Besides, the latest news I heard on the radio this morning is that schools in South Korea have had to be closed again, after reopening briefly, due to the new spike of the pandemic in the country which the new tracing app was clearly unable to prevent.

As for the UK, not a single contact of mine questioned about whether they would be willing to upload the app on their phones has so far answered in the affirmative.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

AI future-proofs power network

This month, we opened our Innovation Awards for entries, but this year's event will look and feel different for several reasons and I’m involved more closely than ever before. First up, this year it will be billed as the 'E&T Innovation Awards'. We'll have many of the great awards for innovation that have proved so successful in previous years, but we're also adding some with a more 'human' and indeed 'humane' angle. We're hoping to highlight engineering's amazing response to the coronavirus pandemic, with entries for innovations technologies to help counter Covid-19 and to help people deal with the lockdowns and indeed the return to work under preventative measures.

We're still planning for a live event and confident that can go forward in November, but there will be an E&T Innovation Awards night this year and entries are open now. It's free to enter, too, so what are you waiting for? Read about last year's winner of the E&T Award and see the categories for this year’s E&T awards here.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

AI could help drones detect dangerous landmines

It now seems like a very long time ago that Princess Diana and the Daily Telegraph’s William Deedes were warning us of the carnage that landmines wreaked among civilians, often children, many years after the conflicts that led to their deployment had ended. Not much has changed. As recently as April 2019 the United Nations Security Council was told that the leading cause of death of children in Ukraine is from landmines.

The good news is that there are organisations all over the world trying to clear up this scourge, and a lot of effort is going into producing technology to help in that task - just type ‘landmines’ into the search box on the E&T website. This latest work by researchers at Binghamton University in New York will contribute to that, but it would be better by far if the world banned the use of any explosive that didn’t degrade to a safe state within a suitable period of time.

Polystyrene-digesting worm could help solve plastic pollution problem

Don’t be put off by the picture that goes with this story. Some scientists in South Korea have discovered that ‘superworms’ (actually beetle larvae) can digest polystyrene. Expanded polystyrene is that stuff used in packaging that, when you break it up for the dustbin, sends little bobbles flying around and sticking to everything. Nowadays, with greater public awareness of plastic pollution, it’s less widely used than it was, but it’s been around for several decades at least, so anything that helps to get rid of the waste has to be useful.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Polystyrene-digesting worm could help solve plastic pollution problem

The presence of micro-particles of plastic in the world’s oceans is a massive problem. It is partly there where plastic enters our food chain. First, through fish that consume it. Later, it’s in the fish we consume. The rest of the plastic is also a problem.

Ninety-one per cent of plastic waste isn’t recycled and researchers think that around 8 million tonnes enters the oceans each year. How much is that? Let’s imagine we wanted to cover the ocean surface with floating empty water bottles. I tried to visualise it in the following experiment.

Think about a standard plastic water bottle. It’s a 0.5 litre single-serve PET bottle with a weight of around 10 grams on average. Eight million tonnes of plastic waste equal 800,000,000,000 empty water bottles (if they’re all made of the same plastic; it's not realistic, but it will help us to image the size of the problem. Also, there aren’t just empty plastic water bottles in the ocean).

Let’s look at a standard PET bottle which has a diameter of 83.6mm and is around 225mm tall. That’s 18,810 square millimetres in area or 0.01881 square metres. 800,000,000,000 bottles times 0.01881 square metres equals 15,048,000,000 square metres or 15,048 square kilometres, the area that an ocean water bottle carpet would occupy (figuratively speaking). It's being to added every year. To give you a comparison of what 15,048 square kilometres is, it's about the size of the Asian country Timor-Leste. It would also cover a good part of England.

Ocean plastic map

Image credit: Ben Heubl/E&T

Think about that next time you buy a PET water bottle or cheap clothing.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Uber scraps thousands of e-bikes following Lime deal

From my observations of social media, I’m confident that the phenomenon of boxes appearing outside people’s houses with a 'help yourself' sign isn’t restricted to my local area. It’s been going on throughout the recent lockdown as families confined to home finally get round to sorting out all the clutter they’ve been meaning to get rid of for years. Books, toys, jigsaws, DVDs – with recycling centres closed and charity shops warning they won’t be able to cope with the anticipated deluge of donations when they open again, there are plenty of opportunities for a canny and suitably protected wanderer to supplement their own collection while taking their daily exercise.

Maybe Uber could have followed suit before deciding to consign the fleet of electric bikes carrying the branding of previous owner Lime to a crusher for recycling. The reason for this apparent massive waste of resources, it says, is concern about liability and ongoing maintenance. You’d think anyone accepting a free bike could sign a waiver saying they accepted responsibility for any problems it later caused them, but the second issue is harder to negotiate. These fleet cycles were made to charge from specialist docks that few if any home will have. It’s all too easy to imagine someone impulsively saying “Free electric bikes? I’ll have two please,” then discarding them when they can’t get them to work.

At least by keeping the recycling centralised Uber is making sure it’s optimal and bikes aren’t left gathering dust in garages or at the end of drives. It’s nevertheless a terrible example of valuable resources going to waste as the result of a purely business-related decision.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Arson investigation launched after 5G phone mast torched

People are still doing this?!

Robot barista deployed to aid social distancing in café

I’ll take my flat white to go, please, little machine on wheels.

SpaceX will be first private firm to launch humans into space tomorrow

Well, looks like space-launch enthusiasts have to wait for this to happen until Saturday now. Spoiler alert!

Trump threatens social media companies over fact-checked tweets

Oh, he did not like that at all.

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