The past few months have shown a definite stirring of media interest in the future of civil nuclear power. Tony Blair has made it obvious that he personally is in favour of a government U-turn (in comparison with his acceptance only a few years ago of a report which advised against nuclear power on the grounds that it was both expensive and environmentally unsound). One wonders what has changed, and immediately assumes that political rather than environmental factors are now uppermost in the Prime Minister’s mind.
It no longer seems advisable for the UK to be so heavily dependent on supplies of fossil fuels from an unstable Middle East and Russia (rather ironic given that the unspoken motivation for the Iraq war was the desire to establish a Western influence in a prime oil-producing region). It is possible that lobbying by the powerful nuclear industry has played a part, the Prime Minister being notoriously willing to lend an ear to Big Business. He doesn’t seem to see that his personal enthusiasm for the prospect of a new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK sits very oddly with his outright condemnation of the modest nuclear aspirations of Iran.
It must never be forgotten that civil and military nuclear power are inextricably intertwined. The first UK nuclear reactor was built to provide plutonium for the UK nuclear bomb; any electricity produced being a by-product and public relations exercise. A nuclear-weapons-free world requires a non-nuclear energy policy.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been bedevilled since the very beginning by its attempt to separate the fundamentally inseparable, the non-nuclear signatories retaining an absolute right under the treaty to develop civil nuclear power. It is conveniently forgotten that the nuclear signatories equally have an absolute duty under Article VI to work towards nuclear disarmament with the greatest possible speed.
Climate change is a prime example of a threat to the security of the world which can only be resolved globally. In the face of such a real and imminent danger, the false security provided by national nuclear weapons is exposed for the political posturing it is. Nuclear weapons give status, buy a seat on the Security Council and are Britain’s ticket to the Top Table. If we set such store by these things, is it surprising that other countries with national aspirations want to join the club?
Of course, although the link between nuclear power and the proliferation of nuclear weapons is the aspect of primary concern to ourselves, there are many other arguments against any government attempt to present nuclear power as a ‘green’ solution to climate change. Nuclear power is both dirty and dangerous, and more details of the long-term threats posed by low-level radiation can be read later on in this Newsletter [see article on talk by Chris Busby]. It can only be described as ‘carbon emission free’ if the electricity generating process is detached from the rest of the nuclear cycle; when the whole cycle from uranium mining onwards is taken into account it has been calculated that more greenhouse gases are produced than by most renewable energy sources, and up to 50% more emissions than wind power.
Nuclear power carries the risk of terrible accidents (a serious leak in the Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield was discovered as recently as April 2005), and there is an ever-present threat of nuclear terrorism. There is still no solution in sight to the inevitable by-product of nuclear power: carcinogenic toxic nuclear waste, some of which is dangerous for thousands of years.
Over the decades the nuclear industry has been massively subsidised by the British public, and decommissioning just the current generation of nuclear power stations will cost an estimated £56 billion. One suspects that there is an element of ‘good money after bad’ here. Because money has been spent already, there is an urge to spend more, rather than to admit that this money might have been better invested in renewables.
In my view, the most powerful arguments against the expansion of the nuclear industry are that nuclear power stations take many years to build (10 years on average in the past) while climate change is happening now. And the electricity industry only accounts for between 25–30% of all carbon emissions, so doubling nuclear power in the UK would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8%!
We need a safe, sustainable global and green solution to our energy needs. We need to be less greedy and less wasteful. This means working towards a combination of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures.
Shortly after Christmas, I had a useful introductory interview with the new Wimbledon M.P., Stephen Hammond, at his regular constituency surgery. Mr Hammond listened courteously to what I had to say about my concerns about the government’s nuclear weapons policy.
I explained that I felt that nuclear weapons were irrelevant to the real future security of this country, and that replacement of the current Trident system by a new generation of nuclear weapons would be in flagrant disregard of UK obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Mr Hammond agreed that the world had changed since the days of the Cold War and that just because a defence system of a particular nature had seemed appropriate in the past didn’t mean that such a system would necessarily be appropriate to modern needs. He also agreed that whatever decision is taken about the future of UK nuclear weapons should only be taken in the context of informed and widespread debate.
This seemed a good basis for future discussion between us and we have agreed to meet again in a few weeks’ time, when Mr Hammond has had time to research the subject more thoroughly. I have supplied him with background information including the Executive Summary of several substantial papers†, the text of the NPT Treaty and the 13 Practical Steps from the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review. He is certainly prepared to do his homework!
† An End to UK Nuclear Weapons, British Pugwash Group 2002, Report of the Enquiry into the Legality of Nuclear Weapons, Peacerights March 2005, The future of the British bomb, WMD Awareness Programme Oct 2005.
Members of the public are invited to submit written evidence to the Parliamentary Defence Committee’s investigation into the replacement of Trident. This is easily done via e-mail <HELMEP@parliament.uk> or by post to Philippa Helme, Clerk of the Defence Committee, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA. The Committee is still debating the precise terms of reference of the enquiry. The more people who show an interest in the matter the better!
As WDC members will I hope be already aware, CND is now incorporated as a company limited by guarantee. This means that in order to vote at Conference, etc. delegates must be individual company members. The only thing individual company members are committed to is to agree to pay a maximum of £1 in the event of CND being wound up, but incorporation protects the national officers from unlimited liability in this event.
Groups such as ourselves receive 1 vote at Conference for each 5 company members up to a maximum of five votes. We have just received notice from CND headquarters that they currently have a record of only 13 company members for WDC/CND which entitles us to only 2 votes and 3 delegates at Conference. So please will you get in touch and sign the company membership form, or check if you think you have already done so. This is a boring but necessary bit of bureaucracy under company law.
The date of this, our major annual fund-raising event, has been fixed for Saturday May 13th. Please put the date in your diaries now! This year several of the long-standing stalwart members of the plant stall team will no longer be with us, due to infirmity or relocation to other parts of the country. We are therefore urgently in search of a new generation of volunteers who would be willing to bring on small seedlings to saleable size. All that is essential is adequately-lit window-sill or greenhouse space and a willingness to supply the necessary TLC. (Expert knowledge is not required.) Please get in touch if you can help.
Kingston Peace Council/CND hosted an excellent meeting in Kingston on November 21st at which the speaker was Dr Chris Busby (University of Liverpool), Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radioactive Risk and author of the minority CERRIE† report. Michael Meacher as Minister for the Environment set up a working group to consider evidence and make recommendations about safety standards on low-level radiation, but the committee could not agree, Dr Busby disagreeing with the Nuclear Industry and ‘Establishment’ representatives.
† Committee Examining Radiation Risks from Internal Emitters
Dr Busby proved a riveting speaker with an encyclopædic knowledge of his subject. Scientific technicalities were occasionally hard to grasp, given the mass of data and the speed of delivery. But of his academic expertise and intellectual conviction there was no doubt.
Crudely put, in calculating the theoretical degree of radiation damage on the basis of whole-body calculations (as opposed to Dr Busby’s thesis that radioactive particles cause enormous local damage when ingested and becoming internally lodged), the reassuring ‘Establishment’ line makes about as much sense as confusing the comfortable warmth of a coal fire with the dangers of ingesting a single red-hot coal. (“The amount of heat transferred to the body would be the same...”)
There is increasing documentary evidence that the US Army and the UK Ministry of Defence and Atomic Energy Authority have long been perfectly well aware of the toxic and radioactive threat to human health posed by Depleted Uranium (DU) dust. As early as 1943 DU dust was advocated by the Manhattan Project as a battlefield weapon “which would behave like a radioactive gas”. In 1990 a US Science Applications International Co-operation report (SAIC, contractor to the US Army) stated clearly that DU aerosols posed a serious health risk when inhaled or ingested: “There is no dose so low that the probability of effect is zero”. All this was known before the First Gulf War, but did nothing to deter the allied powers from using DU weapons on the battlefield and subsequently in Bosnia (1995), the Balkans war (1999) and most recently in 2003 in Iraq, in far larger quantities than ever before.
Former Pentagon scientist Doug Rokke (a former US Army Colonel) who was given the job of organising the DU clean-up of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after the First Gulf War, briefed the Commons Defence Select Committee on the risks of DU in 1999: “I can confirm that medical and tactical commanders know all the hazards. DU is the stuff of nightmares. It is toxic, radioactive and pollutes for 4,500 million years. It causes lymphoma, neuro-psychotic disorders and short-term memory damage... it causes birth defects and trashes the immune system.... I and my colleagues warned the US and British officials that this would occur. They disregarded our warnings because to admit any correlation between exposure and health effects would make them liable for their actions wherever these weapons have been used.” Out of Rokke’s primary DU clean-up team, 21 members are now dead — a fifth of the staff — and Rokke himself is now ill with 5,000 times the permissible level of radiation in his body.
Conditions in Iraq are now so dangerous that there is very little in the way of hard data about environmental contamination and the health of the population, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of a massive increase in cancers and neonatal mortality. Measurements show that there is currently more radiation in battlefield areas of Iraq than within the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Meanwhile Dr Busby has collected data from air filter units in Southern England (set up to reassure the public about the absence of significant atmospheric emissions from AWE Aldermaston!) and by plotting emissions against time showed increases in the atmospheric concentration of uranium coinciding with the Balkans, Afghanistan and (most spectacularly) the 2003 Gulf War. People in Reading at the time of the Gulf War were each inhaling 500,000 particles of uranium oxide of 1 micron diameter every day. And we are surprised at the modern cancer epidemic.
It seems that the huge vested interests of the military and the nuclear industry are colluding in a massive cover-up of the real risks of DU and other ‘low-level’ radiation. Write to your MP!