The Future of Trident — British Pugwash Discussion Meeting

The two speakers who introduced this discussion on February 23rd each presented their best case for ensuring that Trident has no future. They also made very clear the obstacles to be overcome; above all, the psychological and emotional mindset of the civil servants and politicians who will take the decisions.

Dr Nick Ritchie (Research Fellow, Bradford Disarmament Research Centre and now Hon. Secretary of the British Pugwash Group) listed technological, political and financial areas of momentum. It is highly likely that building of the first submarine at Barrow will go ahead (bad) but it could carry non-nuclear missiles (mitigating factor). The political situation with the Coalition is somewhat complex, the fact that the Liberal Democrats want to delay irrevocable commitment to Trident renewal being in our favour. It is also possible that the Obama administration would welcome a British choice of Zero Nuclear Weapons to lend support to the President’s stated position. What is most likely to produce a decision not to renew Trident is — as CND leaflets have been asserting for years now — the enormous cost: at least £20 billion. The Secretary for Defence is resolutely pro-Trident. The Chancellor is determined that it be paid for from the Ministry of Defence’s budget, which already faces a 6–7% cut. Remembering Harold Wilson’s saying, “whichever party is in office, the Treasury is in power”, which side would you bet on?

Sir Hugh Beach (after 40 years in the British army which included service in WWII, now on the management committees of four organisations committed to non-nuclear defence including Pugwash) addressed the “symbolic, political and wholly meretricious” reasons for keeping Trident.

Having reminded us that the great majority of the world’s states have no nuclear weapons and feel secure enough without them, he cited instances of tension or conflict where having nuclear weapons gave no advantage to the state in question, including the Falklands War. Our nuclear capacity did not deter General Galtieri. And when you count the ex-Soviet states, more countries have given up nuclear weapons than have acquired them since the NPT was signed. Trident, he concluded, is “a white elephant not worth its keep”.

A Radio 4 documentary recently reminded us of the modernisation of our minimum deterrent in the 1970s. The Cabinet Secretary (Sir John Hunt), the Secretary for Defence (Roy Mason) and the Prime Minister (Harold Wilson) decided not to tell the Chancellor (Dennis Healey) the true cost of the Chevaline system. Interviewed for the programme, Dennis Healey said he had accepted the nuclear deterrent reluctantly, “to reassure the Americans”. Would the Obama administration prefer we ditch it? As for Chevaline, Lord Healey said his greatest mistake as Chancellor had been not to cancel it. “It was a total waste of money; I was a fool not to have done so.”

Let’s hope those now in Whitehall and in Government manage to be wise before the event. There is still time.

Alison Williams

Happy Birthday, Mabel!

On April 13th WDC/CND’s oldest member Mabel Cluer will celebrate her 100th birthday. Mabel, who was still going on marches and standing on the Vigil until well into her nineties, came to the AGM last July and heard Kate Hudson speak in the Mansel Road Centre only last September. Truly a remarkable woman.

She has decided that her best birthday present from us would be a special Vigil for Peace on the Friday following her birthday: Friday April 15th. Mabel will arrive by taxi and we shall present her with a big bunch of flowers. Kate Hudson of CND and Caroline Lucas of the Greens have sent their best wishes and congratulations. We hope the press will be there.

Please make every effort to be at St Mark’s Place (near Wimbledon Library) at 6pm on April 15th even if you are not able to make a regular commitment. Mabel deserves it.

TUC March, March 26th

Figures of between 250,000 and 500,000 are being bandied around, but anything between a quarter and half a million people represents an unarguable body of discontent against the government. It was undoubtedly a huge march, and the CND contingent (towards the back of the march) only reached Hyde Park at about half past four just as the rally was drawing to a close with an impassioned speech about the campaign to save the Forest of Dean from being sold into private ownership. In fact, Kate Hudson had taken a decision to shorten the route of the National CND banner by cutting through Horseguards and up the Duke of York steps to rejoin the main march in Piccadilly, in a vain attempt to get a visible CND presence at the rally!

Our Wimbledon group was split, with Maisie leading an advance guard who moved off from the assembly point at the Embankment at around midday. Having reached Hyde Park, listened to some speeches, and had a cup of coffee these people were back at home by 4pm. Meanwhile Wimbledon banner-carriers Joanna and Harriet got stuck in the press of people between the Embankment and the Strand while attempting to reach the designated CND rendezvous. They spent a useful hour distributing our “Cut Trident not education and health” leaflets among the receptive crowd, and were passing Cleopatra’s Needle at about the time that Maisie was setting off for home.

This gives a measure of the size of the march, but what impressed, apart from sheer numbers, was the breadth of groups represented. There were many families with children, and a lot of young people, probably newly politicised from last year, with their university banners on show. There were trade union traditionalists with their magnificent and historic banners, and the RMT with their brass band. We walked for a while behind an ESOL teacher (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and her class, and the placard of a “Pissed Off Social Worker”. At various times we were surrounded by probation officers, Fire Brigades and teachers. We met a contingent from the Mitcham and Morden Labour Party with several Merton Councillors. It was without a doubt the Big Society standing up to be counted, and nothing could more clearly underline the absurdity of spending billions on a new generation of nuclear weapons that we do not need and could never use.

Still marching, 50 years on

As I came up the steps from the Underground into Trafalgar Square on Budget Day and saw the CND banner with its big symbol, I was taken back 50 years to the Trafalgar Square demos of 1961. As I was handed a placard proclaiming ‘Scrap Trident’ I remarked to the young woman who gave it to me that it was 50 years ago I attended my first demo in that Square and Bertrand Russell was speaking from the plinth. I said I didn’t expect to still be demonstrating on the same issue 50 years later. She said we’ll carry on for another 50 years if necessary. I hope it won’t be.

The small demonstration on March 23rd was organized by an ad-hoc committee, including CND, to protest at the Budget and the cuts to all public services. The nuclear weapons issue is very relevant to the opposition to the cuts, as scrapping Trident replacement alone would make the cuts unnecessary. This weapons system of mass destruction (the bogus ‘justification’ for the war on Iraq) is not only illegal and useless militarily, we simply cannot afford it.

My name is also on an anti-Trident poster in the subway from Westminster Underground station to the Houses of Parliament, next to that of Andrew Papworth, a fellow-campaigner I knew and marched with back in the early 1960s. A few of us olduns are still around, still demonstrating.

I must admit after Tony Blair totally ignored the 2,000,000 strong march against a war in Iraq in 2003 I haven’t seen the point in the many demonstrations against the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now, of course, Libya. It seems that while public services are cut there are endless funds for weapons of mass destruction and wars abroad.

However we mustn’t get despondent. Marches and demonstrations alone may not change governments or their policies, but public pressure can. Nuclear weapons cannot be used, and therefore they cannot deter an aggressor or a terrorist, nor can they prevent or win wars.

I’m still marching against nuclear weapons 50 years on, and I will do so as long as they exist, certainly as long as Britain has them, and as long as I am able to. When I can no longer march, I’ll continue to campaign in other ways. We’ve achieved a lot in 50 years, and a world free of nuclear weapons cannot now be that far away since even military men are now admitting they are totally useless and a complete waste of money.

Tony Papard

“Countdown to Zero”: film review

Lucy Walker cannot tell a good anecdote. I think this is revealed in her new film “Countdown to Zero”, shown at the National Film Theatre on March 16th. The film covers all the necessary facts and history of nuclear fission from the 1940s to the present day (including Oppenheimer’s theoretical and practical work on nuclear physics) which has led to the inevitable creation of nuclear weapons. The history and technical facts will be familiar to anybody actively involved and concerned in the politics and issues that continue to emanate from the consequences of nuclear physics over the past 60 years.

The standard chronological array of VIP talking heads was interspersed with the fictional archive footage of “Dr Strangelove” and news clips of Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. The lineup of living VIPs was impressive: Carter, Gorbachev and Blair. These interviews, at least, displayed the results of successful research and lobbying, yielding frank admissions of failure and incompetence. The most revealing ‘confessions’ were elicited from the invisible technicians and military personnel who operate the nuclear machinery as an everyday banality.

Even though Ms Walker’s successful skewering of such top-notch interviewees was impressive I found the more interesting pull of the story was in a neglected sub-plot. This minor strand was the link between Russian workers and terrorists in need of high-grade plutonium. In this story, Russian workers who had access to this nuclear material are pulled into the world of nuclear espionage and terrorism via their easy ability to acquire/sell it. One of the film’s strengths (using orthodox narrative and visual techniques) was the frightening farce of petty thieves trying to sell this stock on the international market; its depiction of the links between the petty pilfering of nuclear material and attempting to sell it on into the eager hands of international terrorists, and failing, was absurdly entertaining. This story, although briefly threaded through the complicated history, politics and science of the film, was for me the most stimulating and shockingly comic aspect of the ‘entertainment’. Perhaps it could prove to be the most engaging theme to pull in a wider, more philosophically neutral audience?

This minor theme also balances out the film’s obvious bias towards a CND truism: “nuclear weapons are BAD”. I think that for today’s ‘political audience’ this statement is too bland an assertion to provide a strong stimulant for debate in a contemporary political forum. The more devastating punch of the film was the terrible prospect of high-grade plutonium falling into the capable hands of groups committed to world domination and terror through the possession and threat of detonating a nuclear device. It will be curious to see if this film obtains a general release and whether it will appeal to a wider audience.

Jill Beauchamp

Japan, Earthquakes and Nuclear Power

The world has been watching events unfold in Japan, with attention focusing on heroic struggles to contain the stricken Fukushima reactors. At the time of writing it looks as if meltdown has been averted, although a degree of environmental contamination will be a long-term legacy.

There will continue to be debate about whether using nuclear energy to boil the water to generate electricity is worth the risk — for that is what nuclear reactors are, gigantic nuclear-powered kettles. George Monbiot recently published a very provocative article in the Guardian claiming that the fact that disaster had been avoided in Japan had convince him that nuclear energy was safe, and was challenged by Green M.P. Caroline Lucas (Guardian 26/3/2011).

What is rarely discussed is the really long-term consequences of nuclear power stations: they will remain radioactive long after they have ceased to generate electricity. It is useful to remember that if the Romans had built nuclear power stations we should still be dealing with their nuclear waste. Add to this the fact that nuclear power stations have often been built on the coast (as in Japan), which may be useful if you need to flood the reactors with seawater in an emergency but makes them vulnerable to tsunamis (in Asia) or rising sea levels (at Sizewell in Suffolk). And for those of us campaigning against nuclear weapons it is impossible to ignore the fact that the first nuclear power stations were military installations for the production of plutonium (which does not exist in nature) with electricity as a by-product and useful PR cover.

There will be an opportunity to discuss all these questions and more when Dr Ian Fairlie speaks at the Community Centre on May 11th. Put the date in your diary.

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