COMMENT: Dirty Bomb, Our Legacy

This month’s Comment, sent to us by Jim Lindsay, is extracted from an article published in New Scientist, a middle-of-the-road popular science magazine with no hidden political agenda. It seems that the nuclear facts are at last getting the wider publicity so essential to our campaign.

The most notorious places are often the most dismal. Aldermaston, the secretive citadel that gave Britain its nuclear weapons, is not a sight to lift the heart. As far as the eye can see there are drab buildings and bunkers, set in a sea of mud and grass. A huge, ancient heating pipe snakes around them, leaking steam. Beyond lie rank after rank of imposing barbed-wire fences. The sense is one of decay and glories past.

Aldermaston’s real problems, however, cannot be seen. The site has been making and maintaining nuclear bombs for the past 52 years. Driven by the ruthless logic of the cold war and unencumbered by today’s safety regulations, this has left a daunting legacy of pollution and waste whose scale is only just starting to be understood. Large areas of soil and groundwater are contaminated, thousands of drums of plutonium left-overs are piling up, and an ancient underground pipeline to the river Thames is lined with radioactive scale. It is estimated that cleaning up Aldermaston and the neighbouring weapons assembly plant at Burghfield will take 70 years and cost around £2 billion of public money.

Huge though that figure is, Aldermaston is only a small part of a much bigger problem. To clean up its entire nuclear weapons programme, Britain will have to treat and store thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste and decontaminate up to 50 military sites. And on top of the nuclear weapons, some way will have to be found to deal with the nuclear reactors from 27 obsolete sub-marines. The government estimates the total cost at £30 billion, all of which will have to come from the public purse. It’s a figure that puts the dirty legacy of Britain’s nuclear weapons on a par with that of its nuclear energy programme, which has accumulated £34 billion worth of civil liabilities.

But in reality, things may even be worse. The cost estimates for Aldermaston are tentative at best, and the clean-up programme there has got off to a shaky start, dogged by delays, hampered by a dearth of documentary evidence and criticised by regulators. If the entire operation suffers the same level of uncertainty, then Britain’s weapons legacy will end up costing even more than its nuclear energy clean-up.

The article goes on to give details of a AWE survey showing nine separate areas of contamination covering about 200 acres. In some of these areas sediment is contaminated with plutonium and groundwater and soil are contaminated with tritium. Elsewhere soil and groundwater have been poisoned with hazardous solvents, oil and mercury.

Perhaps the site’s most awkward legacy is its waste pipeline. Since the early 1950s, millions of litres of liquid radioactive waste have been pumped through a pair of 18-kilometre underground pipes to the village of Pangbourne where it discharges into the River Thames. The pipeline, buried an average of 1·8 metres below ground, goes under a canal, a river, two railway lines, and numerous roads including the A4 and the M4 motorway. In the 1950s and 1960s, says AWE, it was spewing out a hundred times as much radioactivity as it does now.

Over the years a crust of radioactive scale has built up on the inside of the pipe, much as limescale accumulates in a kettle. This now leaches into liquids in the pipe. As a result, the waste that reaches the Thames is 15 to 20 per cent more radioactive than it was when it left Aldermaston.

AWE estimates that the whole pipeline contains about 300 megabecquerels of radioactivity, five times the amount Aldermaston is authorised to discharge from the pipe every year. AWE has been told by the Environment Agency, another regulator, that the pipeline must close by 1 April 2005. AWE is planning to remove some of the radioactivity by pumping through a liquid scourer that would expel much of the radioactive scale. The resulting waste would be pumped back to Aldermaston and stored in tanks. It then wants to seal off the entrances and exits, and leave the pipeline buried where it is, hidden beneath the English countryside. It is far from certain, however, that this will prove acceptable.

New Scientist, 25/5/2002

Wimbledon Village Fair

The rain held off, and we took a very pleasing £78, selling bric-à-brac and books. We also received a lot of goodwill: altogether a day well spent. Thanks to all who donated goods, and to helpers Ann, Joanna, Helen, Dorothy, Sarah. Linda, Sharmila and Brian.

Summer Games with Nuclear Bombs

Extracts from an essay by Arundhati Roy published in ‘The Nation’ and e-mailed from the USA.

“When India and Pakistan conducted their nuclear tests in 1998, even those of us who condemned them balked at the hypocrisy of Western nuclear powers. Implicit in their denunciation of the tests was the notion that blacks cannot be trusted with the Bomb. Now we are presented with the spectacle of our govemments competing to confirm that belief.

“A dear friend, who’s an activist in the anti-dam movement in the Narmada valley, is on indefinite hunger strike. Today is the fourteenth day of her fast. She and the others fasting with her are weakening quickly. They’re protesting because the MP government is bulldozing schools, clear-felling forests, uprooting hand-pumps, forcing people from their villages to make way for the dam. The people have nowhere to go. And so, the hunger strike.

“What an act of faith and hope! How brave it is to believe that in today’s world, reasoned, closely argued, nonviolent protest will register, will matter. But will it? To governments that are comfortable with the notion of a wasted world, what’s a wasted valley?

“The threshold of horror has been ratcheted up so high that nothing short of genocide or the prospect of nuclear war merits mention. Peaceful resistance is treated with contempt. Terrorism’s the real thing. The underlying principle of the War Against Terror, the very notion that war is an acceptable solution to terrorism, has insured that terrorists in the subcontinent now have the power to trigger a nuclear war.

“Displacement, dispossession, starvation, poverty, disease — these are now just the funnies, the comic-strip items. Our home minister says that Amartya Sen has it all wrong — the key to India’s development is not education and health but defense (and don’t forget the kickbacks, O Best Beloved).

“Perhaps what he really meant was that war is the key to distracting the world’s attention from fascism and genocide. To avoid dealing with any single issue of real governance that urgently needs to be addressed. For the governments of India and Pakistan, Kashmir is not a problem, it’s their perennial and spectacularly successful solution. Kashmir is the rabbit they pull out of their hats every time they need a rabbit. Unfortunately, it’s a radioactive rabbit now, and it’s careering out of control.

“Meanwhile, the International Coalition Against Terror makes war and preaches restraint. While India and Pakistan bay for each others blood the coalition is quietly laying gas pipelines, selling us weapons and pushing through their business deals. (Buy now, pay later.) Britain, for example, is busy arming both sides. Tony Blairs ‘peace’ mission a few months ago was actually a business trip to discuss a one billion pound deal (and don’t forget the kickbacks, O Best Beloved) to sell Hawk fighter-bombers to India. Roughly, for the price of a single Hawk bomber, the government could provide 1·5 million people with clean drinking water for life.

“‘Why isn’t there a peace movement?’ Westem journalists ask me ingenuously. How can there be a peace movement when, for most people in India, peace means a daily battle for food, for water, for shelter, for dignity? War, on the other hand, is something professional soldiers fight far away on the border. And nuclear war — well, that’s completely outside the realm of most people’s comprehension. No one knows what a nuclear war is. No one cares to explain. As the home minister said, education is not a pressing priority. Part of me feels grateful that most people here don’t have any notion of the horrors of nuclear war. Why should they, on top of everything else they go through, have to suffer the terror of anticipating a nuclear holocaust? And yet, it is this ignorance that makes nuclear weapons so much more dangerous here. It is this ignorance that makes ‘deterrence’ seem like a terrible joke.

“The last question every visiting journalist always asks me is: Are you writing another book? The question mocks me. Another book? Right now? When it looks as though all the music, the art, the architecture, the literature — the whole of human civilization — means nothing to the fiends who run the world? What kind of book should I write?

“It’s not just the one million soldiers on the border who are living on hairtrigger alert. It’s all of us. That’s what nuclear bombs do. Whether they’re used or not, they violate everything that is humane. They alter the meaning of life itself. Why do we tolerate them? Why do we tolerate these men who use nuclear weapons to blackmail the entire human race?”

[full text from Maisie Carter]

Pentecost Embassies Walk

Our newsletter last month carried a brief account of the sponsored walk round the embassies of the ‘New Agenda’ and nuclear weapons states. The walk was split into two, and Sharmila (who represented us) has now sent us the comprehensive report prepared by Christian CND. Two embassies were of especial interest:

South Africa

“The whole group was invited in. South Africa is a member of the New Agenda Coalition and the only country to date to get rid of their nuclear weapons. By example and persuasion they are encouraging African nations to use resources for peaceful purposes and development. They are seeking more development aid for Africa from G8 nations. They are interested in exchange of information on peaceful uses of atomic energy but they are concentrating on development of renewable-friendly sources of power — hydro schemes and solar. SA will not allow nuclear powered vessels or nuclear cargo ships within its territorial waters. We asked if renouncing its nuclear status had diminished its diplomatic status. The answer was that if anything it had contributed to their peace initiatives — eg in Burundi — and their standing with other nations in Africa.”


“The official came out to meet us as promised, all smiles and handshakes and how pleased he was to meet us all and thank you so much for coming. And yes he did know all about CCND and why we were there. However he obviously wasn’t going to spend too much time talking about the NPT which, as far as Israel is concerned, is irrelevant. Instead he explained to us the theory of nuclear deterrence (which of course we’re all familiar with as that’s one main reason the NWS all give for having nuclear weapons). Of course having nuclear weapons protects Israel, for whilst he was a diplomat in Egypt in the 1980s, an Egyptian friend of his (he happily acknowledges individual friendships with Arabs) told him as much.

“The argument seems to be that Israel is a ‘special case’ and has a particular need to keep nuclear weapons and therefore Israel won’t be signing up to any NPT. I was anxious to ask what it would take but it was difficult to get a word in and then he seemed to answer the question before I asked it. The main contention seems to be the acknowledgement of the right of Israel to exist. Whether this must be acknowledged by those in authority in the Palestinian community or whether it must be by each and every individual is not clear. This is the first time any of us have heard an Israeli government representative freely admit to the country having nuclear weapons, and he said it as if it really was common knowledge, which of course it is. However, it apparently was acknowledged by someone in authority last year.”

Claire Poyner, Campaigns worker, Christian CND 162 Holloway Rd N7 8DQ

Hiroshima Day

We will be floating candles on Rushmere as usual on August 6th. This is a beautiful and moving ceremony. We would be glad to see as many members and friends as possible, and hope for a fine evening. We have a plentiful supply of candles but please bring suitable containers to use as ‘boats’!

Assemble 8·30pm, Rushmere, Wimbledon Common, near the war memorial.

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