18 February 2006

Apocalypse Soon?

By Andrew Boswell

Fellow columnist Rupert Read recently raised concerns about a 9/11 type attack on a nuclear power station. However, what about the scenario of a terrorist with a nuclear device in a suitcase entering a Western city to detonate it or hold a government to ransom?

Surprisingly the necessary nuclear material is travelling easily around the world. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed 650 cases of illegal trafficking of nuclear materials worldwide between 1993 and 2004. There is simply already a lot of such material out there.

In his book Nuclear Terrorism, Harvard international relations specialist Graham Allison reports a consensus in the US security community that a 'dirty bomb' attack is "inevitable" and an attack with a nuclear weapon highly likely, if loose nuclear material is not retrieved and secured soon.

As little as four kilograms of plutonium - about the size of an orange - can potentially be enough for a nuclear bomb. Although the Kananaskis G8 summit (2002) pledged up to $20bn to tackle threats posed by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons from the former Soviet Union, such programmes are only addressing the tip of the iceberg.

Beyond weapons, legacy nuclear energy programmes have endowed a huge risk. "The greatest opportunity for would-be nuclear terrorists or countries seeking a quick bomb or two are poorly secured sites that contain significant quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU)", states a paper in this January’s issue of Arms Control Today. Unlike plutonium, HEU can be worked without special protections and can be made into a relatively simple bomb.

Authors, Glaser and Hippel, report 258 nuclear reactors worldwide, many in Russia and not under proper guard, that have not been properly decommissioned and contain enough HEU for 1,000 bombs. "Many … are in urban locations with only modest security, presenting potential targets to would-be nuclear terrorists. … At several sites, there is enough HEU to make more than 10 gun-type weapons."

A recent study into nuclear smuggling by Louise Shelley, director of the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at American University, made some alarming discoveries. "Complex networks of diverse, cooperating groups appear to be smuggling HEU and other materials regularly out of Russia and into Western Europe". These pass along via a cooperative network that makes it difficult to discern an overall organisation, typically transported "thousands of miles" before detection. "There is little understanding of the actors involved or the target destinations" Shelley has said. "There is a market for small amounts of these materials, and different groups are seeking them." The destinations and quantities involved suggest the recipients are Western-based terrorists rather than "rogue states".

If developed, new nuclear energy programmes pose even greater risks. In giving evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee on 9th November last year, Dr Frank Barnaby, indicated that future nuclear programmes, such as that currently being considered by the Blair government, would use mixed-oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel, a mixture of uranium and plutonium dioxides from which plutonium may be more easily separated. Speaking of terrorist groups getting hold of plutonium and fabricating a nuclear weapon, Barnaby said "if we move into the plutonium economy, over time the probability of that happening does become a near certainty".

Although the outlook might appear grim, some commentators, like John Steinbruner, director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, sees potential for a radical improvement in international affairs if "the threat of catastrophic terrorism is taken seriously". He suggests that if "meaningful protection" is accepted as a priority then "security relationships would necessarily elevate interest in protective collaboration over the legacy of confrontation."

That is, a move from the current Bush policy of expanding the US military's offensive missile capability, developing a next generation of 'usable' mini-nukes and the weaponisation of space, to disarmament and cooperation with the other major independent global powers, Russia and China.

Former Kennedy defence secretary Robert McNamara echoes these sentiments and calls the risk of doing otherwise Apocalypse Soon.

Giving up the gargantuan struggle for military supremacy would be immensely beneficial and allow for a huge diversion of resources to humanitarian causes. Steinbruner concedes, this would be "revolutionary in character" but questions whether major governments, the US in particular, are "capable of making such adjustments". He concludes however that "they are being subjected to potentially compelling incentives to do so" as the widely held view is that the alternative could well be "ultimate doom".

In the UK, these issues are hugely pertinent to the Blair government's desire for both new nuclear energy plants and new post-Trident nuclear weapons. Why does no one in parliament seriously raise the spectre of nuclear terrorism?

I am grateful to Liam Carroll for collaborating in writing and researching this column.

11 February 2006

Radiating confidence – or caution?

By Marguerite Finn

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it's the only thing that ever has."

(Margaret Mead 1901-1978)

I thought of Margaret Mead's words recently when I met a small group of dedicated volunteers monitoring the radiation emissions from Sizewell nuclear power stations. They are members of CURIE - Coastal Unit Recording Irradiation of the Environment - an independent, voluntary organisation carrying out gamma radiation measurements at selected sites around the two nuclear power stations: Sizewell A (two magnox reactors) and Sizewell B (pressurised water reactor) on the Suffolk coast.

What drives them out in all weathers to perform this thankless task? They want to know what the radiation levels really are, rather than relying on official reassurances. They know that CURIE. results are 'spin free'! Their measurements serve two purposes:
  1. To monitor any long term changes in radiation intensity, and to provide a base-line value in the event of a nuclear contamination incident;
  2. To alert local authorities in the event of any significant rise in radiation levels.
The paradoxes surrounding ionising radiation are bewildering. It is the gift bestowed by the sun upon earth at its creation, inexorably leading to the organic mutations, which are the keys upon which the tune of life has evolved in all its variations. Yet just a fraction too much of it – and a cancer thrives. Today, some advocate a new nuclear energy programme as the planet’s saving grace from the ravages of climate change, while others worry about the intergenerational inequity of bequeathing huge problems of nuclear waste to our descendents.

On 23rd January this year, the Government launched its Energy Review Consultation. Malcolm Wicks, the Energy Minister, is charged with undertaking an "extensive public and stakeholder consultation" over the next few months, leading to the formulation of a sound, sustainable energy policy. We welcome the Government's new-found transparency in throwing its current energy review open to public consultation. Barely 20 years ago, the Government of the day was not so honest. It chose not to tell the public – until long after it should have done - that a nuclear plume from Chernobyl was overhead and falling on our crops, our cows and our children.

Faced with this level of official irresponsibility, a small group of Suffolk residents formed CURIE around the nuclear reactors at Sizewell. Taking expert advice on the sort of scientific protocol needed, they decided they would in future monitor the ambient radiation, to ensure they knew as soon as possible if an undue release had occurred. It took them three years to raise the cash to buy a sufficiently sophisticated 6-80 monitor, robust enough to be passed from one to the other of them day by day and week by week, in their two circles of monitoring stations, one close to the feared source and the other curving from Southwold through Framlingham, Woodbridge and Sutton Heath.

The benefits were immediate. While trying out the monitor on Sizewell beach, they discovered that there was a sharp gradient of radiation dose from the water’s edge, reaching ten times the normal background levels at the station fence. They had been spotted though, and at that month's Local Liaison Committee Meeting, the station manager laconically mentioned (for the first time that anyone had heard) that there was indeed a "shine" from the station onto the beach – but said "you would have to stay by the fence all day to receive a dose equivalent to one chest x-ray" - which the committee happily accepted.

But CURIE was not deterred. Quite apart from it not being x-rays but gamma radiation, the members wondered how it affected the insects, rabbits, gorse and brambles that were there all the time.

For 17 of the 20 years since Chernobyl, CURIE has been keeping a check on Sizewell. It shares its Annual Report with local parish and town councils. These Reports are a valuable source of data on local radiation levels. CURIE's monitoring will become increasingly relevant to the local community during the de-commissioning of Sizewell A. The first phase, due to start after December 2006, involves dismantling radioactive structures with the potential for radioactive releases, if not done very carefully.

CURIE continues to be vigilant, but funding is always a problem. The monitor is professionally checked and recalibrated but it is undeniably getting old, like the reactors it watches, and CURIE members themselves, who wish they could stop, but dare not do so.

To help, contact: CURIE, 7 Moorfield Road, Woodbridge, IP12 4JN. E-mail: curie@onetel.com.

4 February 2006

Your waste is my waste

By Jacqui McCarney

Some thirty years ago independent scientist James Lovelock scrambled over the mountain of western knowledge to proclaim that the earth was a self-regulating, interdependent system which continually adjusted to maintain conditions fit for life. He named his theory of a living planet after the Greek Goddess of the earth; Gaia.

What Mr Lovelock, the scientific community and the media failed to notice was that sitting on the other side of the mountain having waited for the last two and a half thousand years was the Buddha along with most indigenous peoples.

Despite the revolutionary feel to Lovelock's theory, it was not new, for at the heart of the wisdom traditions is a profound belief in the interconnectness and interdependence of all life, expressed in Buddhism (Dharma) as the "dependent co-arising of all phenomenon". The Buddhist precept to "do no harm" is a call for compassion but also a call for enlightened self-interest because in an interconnected world harming others is harming ourselves, poisoning the environment is poisoning ourselves and our children.

Acknowledging this interconnection with the earth is primary to the cultures of indigenous people of the past and those few surviving today. Through art, ritual, festival and ceremony kinship and reverence is expressed for mother earth. Remembering their interconnection with life around them their choices tend to be in harmony with their environment and the good of the whole.

Modern industrial society has made a virtue out of forgetting this relationship. Lovelock's work, now largely accepted by the scientific community, remains in practice a mere theory. Yet environmentalists who took Lovelock’s work seriously and have spent the last thirty years campaigning for the planet have largely been ignored.

A large part of the scientific world with the help of large corporations have spent the last thirty years on what can only be described as throw away trivia - DVDs, iPods, personal computers, ever newer mobile phones - or technological indulgences - GMs, cloning, plastic surgery. Why are scientists not focusing on saving the planet?

In James Lovelock's new book Revenge of Gaia, he paints a damming picture of runaway global warming and argues that climate change may have gone beyond the point of no return. His solution is little more than extraordinary - as an exponent of a living systems theory, he is advocating that we build more nuclear power stations.

If ever there was a technology that ignored the interconnectedness of life on this planet, it must be the nuclear industry. Chernobyl exploded a cloud of radiation over most of Europe and killed many Ukrainians. Britain already has 2.3 million cubic metres of stored nuclear waste which can kill an adult within two minutes in its most potent form. It remains lethal for one million years and will cost £85 billion to deal with. Rising sea levels makes all our nuclear sites, largely built on the coast, vulnerable with the catastrophic risk of polluting all the worlds' seas.

Unfortunately, our government wants to expand nuclear power and to triple mass burn incineration, despite strong environmental arguments against both.

The planned Costessey incinerator compared to Norwich CathedralThis mocked-up photograph shows just how big the planned Costessey incinerator is when placed alongside Norwich Cathedral.

Locally, we have seen an excellent example of 'enlightened self interest' working and people empowerment in the debate over the incinerator at Costessey. Residents have turned up in their hundreds to debate this issue, well informed and determined to prevent harm to their children, and grandchildren. They are now painfully aware of the need for less packaging, more recycling and the treatment of waste in the most environmentally sensitive way.

Any new nuclear programme, like incineration, will bring people out to protect their environment and community. In doing so, their action benefits all of us and Gaia, aiming to protect us from nuclear and incineration toxins entering our atmosphere, waterways and food supply.

These technologies flourish in a growth based industrial society which assumes the earth is not alive, nature is reducible to its individual parts, we are all separate and independent of each other, and that we can pollute here and not affect there.

There is another approach and that is to work with Gaia using models for society that are sympathetic to a living Systems. A vital part of this approach is de-centralising power so that decisions are not based on riches for the few but for the good of all.

Ancient wisdom tells us it is time to listen and act now with principle and truth. Lovelock may be right and it may be too late, but either way we must leave a planet as clean as possible for the handful of descendents who do manage to survive. To bestow on them even more waste, nuclear or toxic incineration residue, as well as global warming would be sheer irresponsibility.