25 April 2009

No need for new nuclear power at Sizewell

By Liam Carroll

People will gather today at the site of the two Sizewell nuclear reactors on the Suffolk coast, to mark the tragic nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl, and to demonstrate their opposition to the possibility of two further reactors being built.

Two themes will be taken up by the speakers; the risks of nuclear power on the one hand, and the benefits of an alternative energy grid, most frequently referred to as decentralised energy (DE), on the other.

While the health and safety risks of nuclear power are oft repeated, the less well known risks involve project failure and bankruptcy. It should be recalled that British Energy, the major nuclear plant operator in the UK had to be bailed out by the taxpayer in 2002 due to the simple fact that when electricity prices fall, nuclear power can't compete.

This could be equally said of decentralisation which will depend on expensive technologies like solar photo-voltaic (PV) panels and combined heat and power (CHP) units to create local electricity. The advantage that decentralisation has over nuclear is that you don't need a national transmission system, as represented by those unsightly pylons everywhere, to distribute the power; PV and CHP systems deliver electricity straight to the building where they are located, and any excess goes on to the local grid.

One of the barriers to decentralisation, or local generation, has been the notion that the only way to produce electricity is in large remote power stations. After Allan Jones, who got knighted for his efforts, proved that you could supply the 100,000 residents of the Borough of Woking with local generation, at a cheaper price and with a 77% reduction of CO2 emissions, the government had to sit up and take notice.

Unfortunately the regulatory arrangements around electricity markets make it nigh on impossible for the small local producer to get a fair price for any electricity they produce. This is a major disincentive for private and local producers to enter the market. Allan Jones was able to circumvent the arrangements through determination, expertise and by working on a sufficiently large scale.

Having incorporated Allan Jones into a government-industry working group however, Ofgem, the electricity regulator, has agreed that it needs to remove these barriers because they recognize that DE can "make an important contribution to reducing carbon emissions, increasing security of supply and alleviating fuel poverty."

The last Ofgem press release on the topic, from December 2008, says that they are "proposing radical reforms to the regulatory framework for Britain's electricity transmission network to speed up the connection of renewable and other low-carbon electricity generation." These proposals should start to make decentralisation a somewhat more widespread reality.

In the meantime Finland has been busy building the first new nuclear power station in Europe for over twenty years. It has not gone well. Currently the project is estimated to be running 1.5 billion Euros over budget and three years behind schedule, and the constructor and the buyer are now in court fighting over who compensates whom.

Steve Thomas, a nuclear economist has identified the problems as twofold; a major skills shortage in an industry that hasn't built a reactor for over twenty years, and a shortage of trained personnel amongst the inspectors who likewise suffer from a lack of experience. Both these problems will translate to this country where the Health and Safety Executive has long been flagging up its shortage of nuclear expertise to the government, and nuclear construction has been dormant for 23 years.

Nuclear power is an old model with which the problems are well known and many. Decentralisation is only just starting to take off as a new model of how to generate and distribute electricity and it offers much, but the promise will not be fulfilled without effort.

18 April 2009

Pirates or corporate gangsters off the Somali coast?

By Juliette Harkin

When I was working in Sana'a, the world heritage site and capital of Yemen, I read stories about a protest by Somali refugees in the city who were demanding more support. In 2007 Yemen was hosting 110,600 Somali refugees thus fulfilling its role as signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocols. The UNHCR is active in Yemen and has an annual budget of $7 million which helps to run refugee camps along Yemen's coast line and the main refugee camp in Kharaz. But Yemen is a poor country and as refugees try to travel on to cities the support system is stretched to breaking point and the UN budget inadequate.

I was just watching a programme on al-Jazeera English about the 'Kind Sheikh' in a coastal village in Yemen which showed how they receive refugees into their country. The Sheikh provided food and water and shelter to Somalis who had survived a perilous and terrifying journey crammed in sub-standard vessels so they could escape for a new life in Yemen. Destitute in Yemen these Somali refugees were the lucky ones; family and loved ones who didn't make the journey wash up on the shore everyday. The Yemeni Sheikh makes it his business to work with local volunteers to ensure that the dead receive a proper Islamic burial. The kindness of the villagers in receiving a stream of refugees, and burying their dead, is deeply moving, especially when it is clear that the locals themselves are poor.

But, why on earth would Somalis risk uncertain death and pay money to make the journey to a country which itself suffers from high rates of poverty and unemployment? It seems the situation is so bad that families take to the sea in search of a better life. Somalis are seeking to escape from life under a dysfunctional transitional government. Taking advantage of the lawlessness, the Somali pirates are not the only lawless operators at sea.

Luckily Johann Hari has bothered to look behind the headlines we see and publish what he found on the Guardian website – commentisfree. He accuses European ships of continuing to dump nuclear waste off the coast of Somalia. This is sadly not something new and has been monitored by the United Nations Enivornmental Programme, Johann writes that: "after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died."

Satellite channel al-Jazeera English also picked up on this story quoting Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, as confirming that the UN has "reliable information" that European and Asian companies are still dumping toxic waste, including nuclear waste, off the Somali coastline.

Johann Hari says that this is the context in which the "pirates" have emerged and there have equally been cases of Somalian fishermen in speedboats trying to dissuade not only the dumpers but also the foreign trawlers that are fast consuming Somali fish stocks. We only see the Somali opportunists seeking financial rewards and not the western private companies that are dumping toxic waste in the Indian ocean. We do not hear about the Somali fishermen, the good pirates, who struggle to earn a living in the waters that have become the world’s dumping ground.

As the US gunboats protect the Gulf of Aden which lets through 20% of the world's oil supply, the US Secretary of State Clinton announced a four point plan to deal with the Somali piracy. She said that "we may be dealing with a 17th-Century crime, but we need to bring 21st-Century assets to bear". Let’s hope that she will also use the 21st Century moral and ethical "assets" to finally stop private companies from dumping our toxic waste off the Somali coast.

11 April 2009

Easter in the Holy Land

By Nicola Pratt

This weekend, the Christian church celebrates one of its most important religious feasts—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In celebration, thousands of Christians are making pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It is well know that Jerusalem is not only holy to Christianity but to Judaism and Islam too. For Jews, the city is their spiritual centre and the original site of the two temples as well as the Western Wall. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islam, being the place of the Haram al-Sharif, consisting of the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from where the Prophet Muhammad made his heavenly ascent. The city has been home to communities of Christians, Jews and Muslims for thousands of years.

Following the 1967 war, Israel captured and annexed East Jerusalem—the location of key religious sites for the three faiths. The international community considers this annexation to be illegal and, according to international law, Israel should not move its civilian population to the annexed area, nor make any permanent changes there. Nevertheless, Israel has used its control over Jerusalem to gradually 'Judaize' the city. Under Israeli military rule, Palestinians have had to prove that Jerusalem constitutes the 'centre of their lives' in order to acquire a permit to live there, resulting in many Palestinians who are originally from Jerusalem being denied Jerusalem IDs because they were temporarily away from the city for reasons of marriage, work or study.

At the end of 2008, a European Union mission wrote that, "Long-standing Israeli plans for Jerusalem, now being implemented at an accelerated rate, are undermining prospects for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and a sustainable two-state solution." According to the report, it is almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits in Jerusalem, resulting in the destruction of over 400 Palestinian homes since 2004. Meanwhile, Israel continues to expand and to build new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. Since the Annapolis peace talks at the end of 2007, almost 5,500 new housing units for Israelis were submitted for public review, almost 3,000 of which have been approved. The majority of these are in large settlement blocs in East Jerusalem but there is also settlement activity in Palestinian areas of the Old City. Israel has almost completed building the 'security barrier', which cuts off East Jerusalem from the West Bank, making it so difficult for Palestinians without Jerusalem IDs to access Jerusalem that it has become almost prohibitive for them to do so. East Jerusalem is the location of important services for Palestinians, as well as being a cultural, religious and commercial centre. This means that Palestinians who do not have Jerusalem residency must apply for permits to go to hospital, to study and to visit holy sites in Jerusalem. During busy periods, it takes approximately an hour for Palestinians to cross the four checkpoints between Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.

The issue of Jerusalem has been a major concern in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital - contrary to international law and its obligations as part of the peace process. If the international community is serious about Middle East peace, it must place serious pressure on Israel, not merely weak expressions of concern, to stop all settlement building in the occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem, and it must allow Palestinians to live their lives in dignity, including having freedom of access to their holy sites and their institutions in East Jerusalem. People like you and me can also make a difference by boycotting Israeli-made goods and Israeli cultural and academic institutions until Israel realises that it cannot continue to ignore international law.

4 April 2009

Last chance for a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict

By Lee Marsden

Apart from the economy Barak Obama's biggest challenge on entering the White House earlier in the year has been to address the seemingly never-ending Arab-Israeli conflict. With the swearing in this week of new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the prospects for a resolution of this conflict have reached an all-time low. Netanyahu, who leads a government of national unity consisting of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, religious parties and Labour, has a track record of supporting settlements in the occupied territories in defiance of international law and opposing Palestinian statehood. He has appointed Avigdor Lieberman, a man who campaigned on a platform of forcing Israeli Arabs to swear an oath of allegiance to the Israeli state and the transfer of Israeli Arab towns to the Palestinian Authority, as foreign minister.

Netanyahu is not averse to peace and stated earlier in the week that peace was an "enduring goal for all Israelis and all Israeli governments – mine included. This means I will negotiate with the Palestinian Authority for peace". The problem is that he wants peace on Israel's terms or not at all. Successive Israeli governments have pursued a policy of peace negotiations based on the Palestinian Authority being responsible for preventing attacks on Israel while simultaneously changing facts on the ground by either actively encouraging or failing to prevent the increase of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

A precondition for any meaningful dialogue with the Palestinians according to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat is the halting of all settlement activity and a public commitment to a two-state solution. A problem compounded by Lieberman and Netanyahu's deal to build 3000 new settlements around east Jerusalem. Facts on the ground with around half a million Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem make a two-state solution ever less likely without significant diplomatic and financial pressure from the US government.

President Obama has been waiting for the outcome of the Israeli elections before engaging with the problem. In his pending tray when he turns to Israel/Palestine is a recent bipartisan report presented to him by the US Middle East Project which considers 2009 as the last chance for a two-state solution. The report is written by leading foreign policy specialists including Paul Volcker, Obama's senior economic advisor.

The report substitutes a land swap taking into account areas heavily populated by Israelis in the West Bank for Palestinian demands for a return to June 4, 1967 borders. There is to be no right of return for Palestinians to Israel but rather financial compensation and resettlement assistance instead. Jerusalem is to be divided into ethnically determined Israeli and Palestinian controlled areas, with special arrangements and unimpeded access for both communities to the holy sites.

The report envisages a non-militarised Palestinian state fully responsible for its own security affairs within fifteen years. In the meantime a UN mandate would authorize NATO peacekeeping force under US leadership and including Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian forces to be responsible for security. Such a solution, it contends, offers the most realistic prospect of a peaceful resolution of conflict that allows for a viable Palestinian state while addressing Israel’s security concerns.

If such a report represents the best US thinking on a two-state solution the prospects look bleak indeed. The Israeli policy of settlement building and partition walls appears to have succeeded in Washington at least. The new Israeli prime minister will have little incentive to change policy unless Obama can be persuaded to use economic and diplomatic pressure to end Israel's settlement building programme now and commit Netanyahu to a two-state solution which removes all Israeli settlements from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Anything less condemns the cycle of violence to continue and puts a political settlement beyond reach.