Kingston Peace News - June 2011


Two consecutive items of news from the radio on 10th May

  1. The cost of building the proposed two new aircraft carriers has increased to £7 billion from £5.6 billion, to allow for modifications needed to accommodate the new US warplanes.
  2. Thousands of disabled people will demonstrate in Westminster on Wednesday against cuts to benefits and services.

Nuclear power: not the answer to climate change

This was the title of a talk given by Dr Ian Fairlie at a meeting of Wimbledon CND on 11th May. Dr Fairlie amply justified the title of the evening. He listed the huge carbon costs of building a nuclear power station, the costs of mining and milling the raw uranium material and of the processes of refining needed to produce nuclear fuel, added in the carbon costs of transport to demonstrate that nuclear energy was in fact one of the most carbon-costly forms of energy production. Moreover the costs increase year on year, whilst the cost of alternative, genuinely greener, renewable forms of energy was rapidly declining. To say that nuclear energy was green amounted to trying to fool people with bad science.

There were lots of disadvantages with nuclear power, both ethical and practical: the huge financial and carbon costs, the dangers, the production of plutonium usable in nuclear weapons, the unsolved problems of disposal of radioactive waste, the pollution of the environment with radioactive discharges are all well known to KPN readers. But even if all these disadvantages did not exist, to build nuclear power stations as an answer to global warming was ridiculous. Electricity production caused only 20% of total carbon emissions, the major culprits being vehicles and industry, and only 20% of electricity was produced by nuclear in Britain. When the real carbon cost of going nuclear, outlined above, are taken into account, even if we went 100% nuclear the carbon saving would be negligible.

Nuclear power would not be viable without government backing and subsidy. Dr Fairlie reminded his audience of when the attempted privatisation of the industry in Britain failed, when City analysts rejected the floatation on commercial grounds. Unknowable decommissioning costs, and the risk of impossible liabilities if an accident should occur scared off investors. In France a similar attempt also failed, when the public bought only 11% of the shares on offer, leaving the French government with the rest. In Japan TEPCO, the company running the Fukushima plants, will be ruined by compensation payouts, as the Japanese government will only pay out the first $100 million dollars. The Japanese government, once pro-nuclear, has now understandably made a policy U-turn. [In Britain we have a system that works the other way around. The nuclear power company is liable for only the first £140 million, and the British taxpayers will pay the rest should a Chernobyl-type accident occur.] The fate of the Japanese company will reverberate in the boardrooms of nuclear companies around the world.

In view of all this, the question is: why do governments back nuclear power, and promote it by dubious propaganda concerning the environment? One obvious answer is that governments need the plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Ian Fairlie reminded us of how nuclear power first came about. The first nuclear plants were made to produce plutonium for bombs, and the heat of reaction was an unwanted by-product, until someone had the bright idea of using the heat to make steam to drive turbines. A cumbersome, clumsy and dangerous way to make electricity became the famous ‘atoms for peace’. Einstein said of the process, ‘Nuclear power is one heck of a way to boil water’.

Serious action on global warming had to involve reduction of energy use, fewer and less polluting cars and planes, and immediate action to produce green power, action impossible in the case of nuclear power, the construction of a new nuclear plant typically taking ten years.

He listed the disadvantages of nuclear power, and on the way gave a scary analysis of the present nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plants. The crisis was ongoing, and was played down in the British media. [For information, try the internet.] Fukushima has the potential to be even worse than Chernobyl. The fuel is still burning, and five times more fuel was available to be burnt at Fukushima than was burnt at the Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago. Radioactive debris from Fukushima has been now detected all across Europe, including Britain. It may take years to stop the nuclear fuel burning.

Another disadvantage of nuclear electricity is its inflexibility of production. The plants have to be kept running flat out all the time. This means electricity being produced at times when it cannot be consumed. France sells costly nuclear-made electricity ultra-cheaply to the rest of Europe, to Germany, Spain and Britain. A similar problem occurs in Canada, which makes 50% of its electricity by nuclear. He said that Canada actually pays the United States to take its surplus electricity at off-peak times!

We have always been aware of the dubious nature of nuclear power, but Ian Fairlie’s erudite analysis filled in many gaps and left the audience amazed that people all over the world have allowed themselves to be led down this dangerous blind ally. H.D.

The Heavy Cost of Military Defence

Readers will be aware of the huge sums being spent annually on military defence worldwide. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that 2010 global military expenditure was $1630 billion, an increase of 1.3 percent from 2009, a sum that has obvious implications for prosperity and for the environment.

One small instance that gives an indication of the sheer waste of resources involved is the cost to Britain of the Typhoon warplane, once named the Eurofighter. The warplane was designed for dogfights with MIGs, though now the Cold War has ended it is hard to imagine a role in today’s world. It has been used to knock out tanks in Libya, an action that the comparatively low-tech planes of Second World War vintage accomplished routinely.

The cost of Typhoons has increased so dramatically that the RAF has had to cancel half the original order of 232. According to Richard Norton-Taylor of the Guardian (15th April), the cost of Typhoons to the British taxpayer is to be £20,200,000,000. It gets worse. In 2019, 50 Typhoons will be scrapped that became operational only three years ago at a cost of £4.5 billion, because RAF cannot afford to update them. Norton-Taylor lists other heavy costs that make dismal reading.

Modern weapons are ferociously expensive, compared with those of yesteryear. The cost for each Typhoon is £126 million (and counting). The cost of the Spitfire, a famous fighter plane of WW2, was £12,500, which converts to £750,000 of today’s money. So that if values had remained constant, for the cost of one Typhoon the RAF could have 168 front-rank fighter planes. Preparations for war have spiraled out of control, with predictable effects on the economy and on our ability to pay for defence of the environment.

One Typhoon equals 168 Spitfires

GUILT BY WRISTWATCH: The Plight of Shaker Aamer in Guantanamo

Recent Wikileaks revelations in the Guardian tell part of the story of the machinations of the Guantanamo process. For those of us who’ve followed the story via the volumes of print and publicity there are few surprises but it now seems that ‘interrogators’, possibly working for Lockheed Martin who have the government contract to collate our Census statistics, have concluded that wearing a Casio wristwatch is an indication of terrorist involvement. I haven’t heard an official Casio response. It can’t be good for sales.

Those of us who have been campaigning for the release of Battersea resident Shaker Aamer believed we were making progress. The Coalition government openly supports our cause and has publicly intervened at the highest level to try to give effect to the release agreed in 2007. Now Wikileaks reveals confidential US government information claiming our man was in cahoots with Bin Laden and masterminded a British Al Qua’ida cell, all believed based on the ‘testimony’ of the most notorious fantasist informant and serial liar, Mohamed Basardah, who ‘bought’ his release and freedom through alleged ‘cooperation’ with interrogators. Others may have been ‘persuaded’ to collude.

For those of us who know the family and Moazzam Begg, and who have been campaigning for Shaker’s release for years, the Wikileaks revelations are another minor setback. The truth is that Shaker felt he was destined to help others less fortunate than himself to have a better life. War-torn and devastated Afghanistan was, and probably remains, one of the poorest places on the planet and Shaker persuaded Moazzam Begg to join him in charitable work there, both with their wives and children, digging wells and building schools. After the attacks in New York and the imminent threats of retribution against Afghanistan the wives and children were sent home to safety while the men finished packing up. They were intercepted by Afghan villagers and the Northern Alliance who captured foreigners and turned them over to US authorities for a bounty of $5000 – a fortune for Afghanis – no questions asked. That such misfortune should befall a man of such virtue is a devastating blow to his family and friends and we can only imagine their pain and suffering. There is considerable concern for Shaker’s health too. The injustice infuriates me. The madness of the process is frustrating. The deliberate and calculated cruelty spurs me on to at least try to do something for the innocent victims.

Trying to campaign about Guantanamo is like grappling with jelly. The accusations, the ‘evidence’, and the basis for the official torrid stories of crazed, fanatical, bloodthirsty terrorists motivated by frenzied doctrinal religious perversion, restrained from slaughtering our fellow citizens only by the dedication and steadfast heroic determination of the Guantanamo authorities, are mostly the product of smoke and mirrors trickery.

The Guantanamo trick is to put innocent human beings under such pressure through deprivations, intolerable conditions of light, noise, temperature, starvation, physical restraint, violence, intimidation, disorientation and torture (otherwise known as “torture light”) that they crave release from it so badly that they cooperate in agreeing to anything suggested by their tormentors. Often incentives to cooperate could be offers of regular meals and sleep, an actual mattress to lie on instead of cold steel, or perhaps an upgrade in accommodation, even release. So, with these means all that is required are some more or less malleable victims. Perhaps they could be persuaded to incriminate themselves – maybe they could agree to ‘inform’ on others. Many of the stories that emerged from the Guantanamo process have been demonstrably and laughably false such as the idea of someone conspiring with Bin Laden to destroy the world when their employment records showed they were stacking washing machines in Walsall.

With all its faults and criticism of its costs and long-windedness there are very good sound reasons for modern justice systems and a firm rejection of Medieval ad-hoc ‘justice’ akin to legendary witch hunts – “if she drowns in the ice cold water then she is innocent but if she doesn’t then she is a witch and must be burned alive”. Tony Blair’s attempts to do away with trial by jury were repulsed by Parliament; quite rightly. But the Guantanamo system has plumbed new depths in civilisation’s history.

The fact that the allegations against Shaker were ‘confidential’ and that there have been no plans to try him in nearly ten years, offers a tiny chink of light suggesting the ‘authorities’ really don’t have confidence in their own fables. A massive public campaign resulted in the largest ever Foreign Office postbag and we now dare to have rather tentative hope that diplomatic contacts initiated by current government ministers might show results and strike a blow for sanity and reason. Sadly the nightmare isn’t yet over. Thanks to all the decent people who helped and supported the campaign. Don’t go just yet. Help is still needed.

Noel Hamel


The UN-authorised intervention in Libya has aroused much controversy. In order to avert a threatened massacre of anti-Gaddafi rebels in Benghazi and elsewhere, the Security Council decided by 10 votes to nil, with 5 abstentions, to create a no-fly zone and impose other measures (a freezing of Libyan authorities’ assets, an arms embargo), but ruling out an invasion (Resolution 1973). The hope was that the genocide prevented, the embargos remaining in place, the mission would be accomplished, leaving space for the Libyans to determine their own future by their own efforts. They have the support of the international community, and the example of their brothers in Tunisia and Egypt before them.

At first the no-fly zone was implemented by US and UK warplanes, until NATO was authorised to take charge of the operation. For many, this awoke memories of Kosovo, where NATO was given command by politicians, but in that case without authorisation by the UN. The military pact promptly escalated the violence by bombing Belgrade. That action was arguably illegal, but this time NATO had a UN mandate, which NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen promised to stick to rigidly, ‘nothing more, nothing less’.

Old imperial habits die hard. As if it was his business, UK foreign secretary William Hague called loudly for regime change. French and Italian foreign ministers were equally belligerent. This imperial blathering was not supported by the United States. This time the US was careful to back away from direct involvement, insisting that this was a matter for the international community (the United Nations), though Obama did put his name to a joint statement demanding regime change.

Understandably, given the track record set by Vietnam, Afghanistan and two Iraq wars, the peace movement was distrustful of the motives for this interference in Libya. Even in the event that there was no hidden (oil) agenda, it seemed that peace could never come from bombs.

Yet this military intervention is no Vietnam, no Afghanistan. If successful, it could have important implications for conflict resolution in the future, with the uniquely trusted authority of United Nations at the centre of decision-making. No more ‘coalitions of the willing’. No more ‘shock and awe’. The UN interventions in Libya and the Ivory Coast may herald the beginnings of genuine cooperative security, as envisaged with the formation of the League of Nations after the first world war, and of the United Nations after the second world war.

It is a shame that NATO, and not the UN, was given the handling of the resolution. Chapter 7 of the Charter makes provision for the UN to oversee its own military operations, and, going by the guidelines set out for UN peacekeeping actions, the UN would have been more cautious, not adversarial, and the killing of Gaddafi’s son and his children would certainly have been avoided.

But this has never been allowed. The ambitious founding purpose of the United Nations, to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, was immediately thwarted by the rivalries of the Cold War. The Security Council was hamstrung. It became impossible to get the necessary unanimous agreement on any action, when the adversaries were armed with a veto. The UN involvement in Korea (1950) was made possible only by the accident of Russia’s absence at a critical time, in protest at the exclusion of China. In that case the US took command of the force raised by the UN. In matters of international security, the UN was once little more than a talking shop. Today, with ideological confrontation removed, there is a chance for it to do the job for which it was created.

The UN has hitherto been restricted largely to peacekeeping operations. These have proved immensely valuable. A chronicle of the failures and successes of UN peacekeeping operations is best left for another time, in a future issue of KPN.

H. D.

Just War

In considering the transition from the world red in tooth and claw, the primitive world of Herodotus and beyond, the world where Julius Caesar’s veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) was a boast and not a confession, towards a more mature and stable situation, where does the idea of Just War fit in? Thinkers from Cicero to Thomas Aquinas to modern times have tried to answer the question: what is the case when an elective war, one not a result of defending one’s homeland, can be legitimate?

The consensus has resulted in setting out a set of principles. To be considered just, a war must be a last resort, used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted. A contemporary view of just cause was expressed in 1993 when the US Catholic Conference said: "Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations."

The acts of war should be directed towards enemy combatants, and not towards non-combatants caught in circumstances they did not create; civilians casualties must be avoided as much as possible; only minimum force must be used; and the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. Failure to adhere to these rules would give the particular war a bad name amongst Just War advocates.

Though these criteria do show a concern for the horrors inflicted by war and a desire to mitigate their worst effects, it is hard to find any practical use for them. At any rate, they appear not to have influenced recent decisions to go to war. If the task of deciding on war were to be the remit of a panel of judges, whose guidelines were the Just War criteria, the system might well work to eliminate blatantly unjust wars. But in the real world where the decisions are made, Just War criteria apparently have little influence. Because the decision was made and then simply announced, we cannot know the decision-making process involved, but it does seem unlikely that proportionality was considered when president Bush was deciding on war with Afghanistan over the terrorist strikes in New York.

No one can know for certain, but it also seems likely that the corridors of power did not resonate with earnest discussions about Just Cause when the decisions that led to the First World War were being forged, but only about whether the Anglo-Franco-Russian military pact was getting ready to attack (this is a long story, for another time). Nor most likely when American presidents were in conference with their advisers over Vietnam, did the idea of Jus in Bello come up, but rather whether a small South East Asian country was getting ready to fall to the communists in the manner of a domino amongst other dominos.

Just War theorists would regard the bombing of civilian cities such as Tokyo, London and Dresden as war crimes. The use of modern weapons of mass destruction, the atom bombing of the civilian cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would certainly have been so classified.

The power of modern means of destruction has made the Just War criteria appear out of date – no war now started can be guaranteed not to finish in uncontrollable destruction: a war that may appear justified in the beginning may well end in a holocaust. It appears that the only way forward is elimination of war, rather than seeking to classify and legitimise particular wars.

H. D.

Reply to Energy Policy of the Future by Jasper Tomlinson

Jasper Tomlinson’s article about Green energy is completely misinformed. Very few Greens believe his quote, ‘the poor and vulnerable to remain poor and vulnerable in order to preserve the planet’. Green energy strategies, with emphasis on insulation, solar, wind and tidal technologies, would benefit the poor, cutting energy costs.

One resource poor countries, many in the global south, possess is sunlight. If we had a global energy strategy which was run for the benefit of people and planet combined, with a new economic order that puts need before profit, we would not need to use potentially expensive, dangerous technologies.

I hear much on neo-Malthusian emphasis on population, but the poor of the world are not responsible for climate change: it is the rich who waste energy. In the developed world, consumer capitalism, with its built-in profit-driven obsolescence is the real cause of environmental destruction, not the population of the underdeveloped world. I am not opposing technological research, but let’s have research that is based on the needs of the vast majority, while not wrecking the planet. Most research unfortunately benefits corporate capitalism, not ordinary people.

John P. Johnson

Depleted Uranium, Facts and Conjectures.

Depleted uranium (DU), mainly the uranium isotope 238, exists in two physical forms, one quite harmless and the other that an accumulating body of evidence indicates is dangerous to life. In solid form, in the form of a shell tip before it is fired, or in the form of a sheet used to protect medical staff from ambient X-Rays, it may be safely handled. But once vaporised, as occurs when the DU shell hits an object and burns, DU becomes a fine dust that can be swallowed or inhaled.

DU breaks down, immensely slowly, to the metal lead by alpha radioactive decay. The alpha particle ejected by the decaying uranium atom is heavy, a helium nucleus, which has however such a short range of penetration that it can be stopped by a thin sheet of paper. It cannot penetrate skin, which accounts for DU’s safe handling. But once in a form that can be breathed in to the lungs or swallowed as a vapour, the uranium atom becomes adjacent to delicate body cells, and the heavy alpha particle may become a microscopic sledgehammer. This is conjecture, and the more important effect of DU intake into the body is thought to be due to its chemical toxicity.

DU tends to become concentrated in kidneys, the brain, bones and the reproductive system.

A study by Craft et al in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health (2004) states: Although the effects of DU on human health are not easily discerned, they may be produced by both its chemical and radiological properties. DU can be toxic to many bodily systems, as presented in this review. Most importantly, normal functioning of the kidney, brain, liver, and heart can be affected by DU exposure.

The MoD has recognised the possible health hazard, and has offered soldiers returning from the Gulf tests to check the level of DU in their bodies (Guardian 25/4/03).

It is perhaps a measure of how militarised our society has become, when the military use of DU has been permitted before the health hazards of its use are known. (c.f. the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.)

H. D.

A National Anthem for our time.

National anthems are by nature stridently nationalistic. The Germans sing of their country being above all others, the French anthem is a frank call to arms, while the United States is ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’. The odd one out is the British, who have plenty of warlike songs, but who have chosen for the national anthem a song republicans must find hard to sing with any fervour, in praise of their monarch instead.

The 2010 summer edition of the MANA newsletter notes that back in 1836 one William Hickson proposed new words for the old tune, which were ‘very popular in Socialist Sunday Schools’ at the time. The alternative national anthem has extraordinary, stirring words. More truly loving of country than fervid, blind nationalism, it invokes God’s blessing on the land, but, uniquely for national anthems, calls for improvements to England’s green and pleasant land. It is as if Jerusalem were chosen for the national anthem. Try singing the following to the tune of God save the queen:

God bless our native land
May heaven’s protecting hand
Still guard our shore.
May Peace her power extend
Foe be transformed to friend
And Britain’s rights depend
On war no more.

May just and righteous laws
Uphold the public cause,
And bless our isle:
Home of the brave and free,
Thou land of Liberty,
We pray that still on thee
Kind Heaven may smile.

Not on this land alone,
But be God’s mercies known
From shore to shore:
Lord make the nations see
That men should brothers be,
And form one family
The wide world o’er.

Newsletter Editor for this issue was Harry Davis.

Disclaimer: It is the nature of a newsletter like KPN that views cannot be sought on everything that appears herein, so views expressed are almost never the agreed opinion of the group.