Pushing back the tide

February 15, 2014 at 9:18 am (environment, Rosie B)

European and UK policies towards land management increase the likelihood of flooding, according to George Monbiot:-

The story begins with a group of visionary farmers at Pontbren, in the headwaters of Britain’s longest river, the Severn. In the 1990s they realised that the usual hill-farming strategy – loading the land with more and bigger sheep, grubbing up the trees and hedges, digging more drains – wasn’t working. It made no economic sense, the animals had nowhere to shelter, and the farmers were breaking their backs to wreck their own land.

So they devised something beautiful. They began planting shelter belts of trees along the contours. They stopped draining the wettest ground and built ponds to catch the water instead. They cut and chipped some of the wood they grew to make bedding for their animals, which meant that they no longer spent a fortune buying straw. Then they used the composted bedding, in a perfect closed loop, to cultivate more trees.

One day a government consultant was walking over their fields during a rainstorm. He noticed something that fascinated him. The water flashing off the land suddenly disappeared when it reached the belts of trees the farmers had planted. This prompted a major research programme, which produced the following astonishing results: water sinks into the soil under trees at 67 times the rate at which it sinks into the soil under grass. The roots of the trees provide channels down which the water flows, deep into the ground. The soil there becomes a sponge, a reservoir which sucks up water and then releases it slowly. In the pastures, by contrast, the small sharp hooves of the sheep puddle the ground, making it almost impermeable, a hard pan off which the rain gushes.

One of the research papers estimates that – even though only 5% of the Pontbren land has been reforested – if all the farmers in the catchment did the same thing, flooding peaks downstream would be reduced by about 29%. Full reforestation would reduce the peaks by about 50%. For the residents of Shrewsbury, Gloucester and the other towns ravaged by endless Severn floods, that means – more or less – problem solved.

Somerset

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Acting for Active Transport

October 28, 2013 at 9:49 pm (Cycling, environment, Rosie B)

Hundreds of people will gather outside the St Andrews House government offices at  1.00-1.30pm on Weds 30 October to call on Finance Secretary John Swinney MSP, the man in charge of the 2014/15 Scottish budget, to double investment in walking and cycling.  Be there!!

The event is organised by Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, an umbrella body for over 60 Scottish organisations including environment, community, faith and international development groups, trades unions, student unions, and of course transport and cycling groups such as Spokes, Transform and Pedal on Parliament.

FREE PIC- On Your Bike Campaign EM 01_4

A similar SCCS event two years ago marked the turning point in a successful campaign by Spokes and many other organisations to reverse severe active travel cuts which the government had included in the draft 2012/13 budget.

This year the draft budget for 14/15 does include a welcome rise in active travel investment but it is nowhere near adequate to meet the government’s ambition of 10% of all trips in Scotland to be by bike in 2020.  There is growing cycle use in Edinburgh, but, for Scotland as a whole, only 1% of all trips are by bike (around 2% of work trips).  Furthermore, under the draft budget, cycling investment peaks in 14/15 and starts to fall back again in 15/16.

Location:
outside St Andrews House
Regent Road
EH1 3DG Edinburgh
United Kingdom

Date:
Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Time:
1 – 1.30pm

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Nuclear power: yes! This deal: no!

October 21, 2013 at 8:40 pm (economics, environment, green, Jim D, nuclear power, science, strange situations, Tory scum)

The environmentalist George Monbiot tweeted today:

Yes, I support #nuclear power, in general. But the economics of the #Hinkley deal are simply bonkers. Appalling value for money.

nuclear power symbol

Monbiot is right on both points: nuclear power must play a part in any serious UK energy plan, taking account of environmental concerns and climate change. But he’s also correct that this deal is “bonkers” – and not just because of the price guarantee/subsidy being gifted to EDF and the two Chinese companies that will deliver the new reactors: it’s simply bizarre that the privatisation-obsessed Tories are, in effect, handing the UK’s nuclear energy industry over to state-owned concerns in France and China.

The Observer‘s Will Hutton adds a further note of concern:

“This is a breathtaking step in an industry where the sensitivities over operating safety, technical efficiency and waste disposal are so acute. Fukushima, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are remembered around the world. Chinese state-owned companies are a byword, not least in China, for inefficiency, loss-making and politicisation of decision-making. The party has wrestled for a generation with the reality that these companies, designed by Mao to embody the communist dream of uniting economic and social obligations, abolishing worker exploitation and spearheading modernisation, are sclerotic economic duds.”

Nevertheless, the traditional “left” stance against nuclear power (in reality, based upon Stalinist cold war anti-nuclear weapons concerns) is clearly outmoded, and must be dispensed with.

We have, in large part, George Monbiot to thank for forcing at least some in the environmental movement, and on the rational left, to rethink their old prejudices against nuclear power.

Les Hearn, writing for the AWL’s paper Solidarity in 2011, takes a similar position:

Why I support nuclear power as one of a range of alternatives to fossil fuels

Back in the 70s, like many on the left, I was alarmed by what seemed to be the cover-up of the risks of nuclear power in the 50s and 60s. The indiscriminate power of nuclear weapons to kill in large numbers also marked many on the left with a fear of nuclear energy. But, as Maynard Keynes put it, “when the facts change, I change my mind”.

We only have one planet and it is overwhelmingly likely that “we” (or greedy capitalists, if you like) are altering its climate for the worse by returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere a million times faster than it was originally locked away in fossil fuels. And, despite attempts to reduce carbon emissions, these are actually rising … by over 5% last year, from 29.0 to 30.6 gigatonnes (Gt or billion tonnes).

And, of the 13.7 Gt released by electricity generation, 11.2 Gt is “fixed” for the foreseeable future, since it will come from existing or planned fossil fuel power stations that will be operating in 2020.

The closure or cancellation of nuclear power stations makes this much worse, since these are the main proven alternative source of electricity. Countries which have reacted to recent scares, rather than evidence, include Japan, Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, Italy and Switzerland.

Truthfully, the potential risks of radiation are massively exaggerated by anti-nuclear groups in comparison with the actual risks of the fossil fuel industry to workers and the public. In particular, the environmental risks of radiation are minimal — wildlife is flourishing in the exclusion zone round Chernobyl and, as James Lovelock has pointed out, in the atom bomb test sites in the Pacific.

Furthermore, the difficulties of replacing nuclear power, let alone the whole fossil fuel industry, with renewables are minimised (see my article in Solidarity 203, 11 May).

It is said (by Theo Simon, Letters, Solidarity 204, 18 May —http://bit.ly/k8WOD9) that “nuclear power demands high security and central control”, as if these were necessarily bad.

Central control would anyway be needed to construct tens of thousands of wind turbines, on- and offshore, and the new supergrid of thousands of kilometres which would be needed to get the electricity to the cities. Already, proposals to introduce new systems of pylons have provoked mass protests in Wales, Scotland, Somerset and the West Midlands. And putting cables underground would be ten times more expensive.

Apparently, I fail “to question the projected ‘energy gap’ which is being used to justify nuclear power expansion”. The argument goes that, if the most wide-ranging programme of insulation and energy conservation is undertaken world-wide (the like of which has never been seen), then the electricity generated by nuclear power would not be needed. As the Spartans once said in a different context, if!

Once again, let’s look at the reality of nuclear power. The worst accident of all time, Chernobyl, has killed 43 people. This was due to the criminal negligence of the USSR police state. 28 workers were fatally irradiated while bringing the reactor under control. 15 young people died of thyroid cancer, entirely avoidable had the bureaucrats issued potassium iodide tablets (as was done promptly in Japan recently). Other estimates of potential deaths range from 9,000 to 900,000 but even the lowest of these seems to be way too high. So far, no other deaths have been proved to be due to the Chernobyl disaster.

As Wade Allison (author of Radiation and Reason) states, the ability of living tissue to repair radiation damage has been wildly underestimated. In radiation treatment of cancers, healthy tissues receive up to five times the fatal dose of radiation but spread over several weeks, during which time they efficiently repair the damage.

Many accidents have occurred in nuclear power plants. In those resulting in radiation leaks, there have been … no deaths or even injuries among the public. A few workers have died, usually because they were close to the incident. Otherwise, nuclear workers are healthier than the general population. A 2% increased risk of cancers linked to radiation is dwarfed by a 24% decreased risk of death from other cancers, according to a Canadian study. It also found that nuclear workers lived longer than average. And this under capitalism!

I am accused of listing the objections to nuclear power but not attempting to answer many of them. In particular, in the areas of waste disposal, plant safety and cost, I fail to “see the reality of nuclear power within the context of a global capitalist economy”. Trading content-free accusations, I might accuse others of failing to see the reality of renewable energy within the context etc. etc.

Of course, I did deal with plant safety and waste disposal. A recent Physics World (May 2011) shows that more modern designs would have survived both the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. These include better back-up generators and containment for molten fuel in case of a meltdown, and passive (i.e. not depending on a power supply) emergency cooling operated by gas pressure or gravity. In fact, modifications to the Fukushima model to reduce radiation leaks in case of an accident were proposed by scientists 30 years ago but rejected as too expensive. Meanwhile, other similar power plants survived the earthquake and tsunami undamaged.

On radioactive waste, I said that deep storage in stable strata was perfectly plausible. Reprocessing would reduce the amount and feed back fuel to nuclear plants. The relevance of the “global capitalist economy” to this is not clear, except that they won’t pay for it. In any case, the danger of waste has been greatly overstated. Five metres of concrete would absorb all the radiation from anything. Wade Allison “would be perfectly happy” to have high-level waste buried 100 metres below his house, while James Lovelock has “offered to take the full output of a nuclear power station in my back yard.”

Alternatives to fossil fuels consist of two proven technologies, nuclear and hydroelectric power (HEP), a host of promising but unproven ones, and the mirage (at present) of a vast reduction in energy demand.

All have environmental and/or health implications. HEP requires vast dams flooding arable land and wildlife habitats, disrupting river ecosystems, destroying estuarine fisheries, reducing the fertility of flood plains, and endangering lives in case of collapse.

The Three Gorges dam in China necessitated flooding 1000 towns and villages, and “removing” 1.4 million people. Since completion in 2006, the reservoir has been plagued by pollution and algae. The dam is silting up, while the extra weight of water is causing geological problems. Downstream, the reduction in flow has led to a drought affecting 300,000 people, with drinking water reservoirs containing only “dead water”. Shipping can no longer use large stretches of the river. It is worrying that Switzerland is phasing out the nuclear power that provides 40% of its electricity, replacing it with HEP.

It is also worrying that Germany, the sixth biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, is phasing out nuclear power, increasing carbon emissions by 3%. If it can afford to do without the electricity from its nuclear plants, it should keep them open while closing down an equivalent number of fossil fuel plants, cutting CO2 emissions proportionately.

In Japan, phasing out nuclear power will cause massive shortfalls in energy. The optimistic scenarios of Energy-Rich Japan (ERJ — http://www.energyrichjapan.info) all involve substantial reductions in demand (so far untested), while some involve reductions in population — by up to 20%! Since an increase will be needed in order to care for the ageing population, this seems particularly unrealistic.

In particular, ERJ claims that transport energy can be reduced by 70% with hydrogen-powered vehicles. They don’t mention the following problems. Hydrogen is inefficiently produced from fossil fuels; solar-powered electrolysis of water is even more expensive. Highly flammable hydrogen must be stored in pressurised tanks, no doubt to be released in traffic accidents. A new infra-structure for hydrogen supply would have to be built, “a matter for policy decisions and market forces” (ERJ) (!?). Fuel cells to “burn” the hydrogen use costly platinum catalysts which can be poisoned by impurities in the hydrogen or air, which is also needed; their reliability over long periods is unknown; they would easily freeze in cold weather; they would be a magnet for thieves. Incidentally, ERJ assumes that much of the hydrogen would be imported (from where?).

Other aspects of ERJ’s schemes are equally vague. Much geothermal energy would be needed, though this technology is notoriously unreliable. Curiously, nowhere in 250-plus pages is there a mention of earthquakes or tsunamis!

It is difficult to avoid James Lovelock’s conclusion that “only nuclear power can now [my emphasis] halt global warming” — but this is not to accept nuclear power as it is. The possibility of fail-safe thorium-powered reactors is ignored not only by the (capitalist) industry which will not or cannot afford the research costs but by the Left and environmentalists. Supported by eminent scientists such as Carlo Rubbia of CERN, thorium reactors do not have a chain reaction to go out of control. They rely on a stream of neutrons from a particle accelerator which could be instantly switched off. Using plentiful thorium, they can also “burn” other radioactive materials, including surplus bombs … and high level radioactive waste. Radioactive material decays into stable isotopes, usually lead. Plutonium takes about 100,000 years to reduce to 1/20 of its original amount. Thorium reactors accelerate this process greatly (Accelerated Transmutation of Waste), reducing the volume of waste and the time for which it would have to be kept safe.

A final point: Theo accuses me of ignoring the “proliferation argument”, which he seems to equate with the simple possession of nuclear power. There are many difficult steps to building nuclear weapons and it is clear that these have not proliferated anything like as fast as civil nuclear power. More of a problem is terrorism and here too it is not clear that nuclear power plants are uniquely vulnerable and dangerous targets. More importantly, many conflicts are, and will be increasingly, over resources, particularly as the climate changes. Nuclear bombs won’t be much use in these!

Yet more deaths in the UK fossil fuel industry (four workers killed in a Welsh oil refinery explosion in March; five coal miners killed in Wales and Yorkshire in September) should help put the supposed dangers of nuclear power in perspective. Multiply these figures by at least 1,000 worldwide. According to Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy (www.ecolo.org), environmental opposition to nuclear energy is the “greatest misunderstanding and mistake of the century”. We should be demanding that nuclear power be expanded and improved, rather than phased out.

But let’s demand the safest forms of nuclear power, as well as support for renewable energy research.

Excellent piece by Monbiot: ‘The farce of Hinkley c’

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Sanity begins to prevail on GM crops

June 20, 2013 at 7:06 pm (conspiracy theories, environment, green, Jim D, science)

Environmental secretary Owen Paterson made a speech today in favour of GM crops.

He said that his speech was “quite long” and that it would contain “quite a lot of detail”. He’s right. You can read it here and, unusually for a speech posted on a government website, it makes very good use of links. If you read the speech online, you will find plenty of links to source material justifying the claims that Paterson was making. Paterson made some of his arguments on the Today programme this morning (9.45) , but in that interview did not include the attack on the European Union’s regulatory regime that is at the heart of the speech.

Paterson’s decision to come out in favour of GM follows years of pusillanimous evasion by British politicians of all stripes, terrified of antagonising the anti-science lobby and being portrayed as friends of “Frankenfoods.”   In large part this is due to a significant shift in public opinion: in a poll commissioned by the Independent last year, 64 per cent of respondents were in favour of experiments on GM crops, with 27 against and 9 per cent undecided. This represents a major shift from the 1990′s when public opinion in Britain was overwhelmingly opposed.

Much of the credit for this must go to Mark Lynas, an anti-GM protester from the 1990′s who studied the science and changed his mind, braving the wrath of erstwhile friends and colleagues, some of whom can turn very nasty. Lynas told the Guardian:

“I think there are several reasons why GM is making a comeback. First, the blanket opposition to GM per se as a technology is obviously untenable in any scientific sense – there is no reason why it should present any new dangers in food, and, indeed, may well be safer than conventional breeding in crops…

“With the passage of more than a decade since the widespread commercialisation of GM crops in North America, Brazil and elsewhere, hundreds of millions of people have eaten GM-originated food without a single substantiated case of any harm done whatsoever.”

Alongside Lynas, credit is due to Professor John Pickett and his team of scientists at the publicly funded Rothamsted Research Institute. Here four of the Rothamsted scientists make their case, pleading with protesters who had threatened to destroy their GM trial in May of last year:

Now, at last, it looks as though those voices of reason are winning the day.

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EDF are suing our daughter

February 27, 2013 at 6:51 pm (Civil liberties, climate change, environment, Free Speech, Human rights, law, profiteers, protest, science)

Above: EDF’s attempt to look lovable…

Our daughter Claire was one of 21 activists who spent a week up a chimney at West Burton power station to protest against the use of gas-fired power stations.

It was a peaceful protest to draw attention to the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels for power. No one was hurt but now EDF Energy are suing our daughter and her fellow activists for £5 million.

We believe this is totally unfair and unprecedented. That’s why we have started a petition to call on EDF to drop the suit against our daughter and her friends, the West Burton activists. Click here to sign our petition.

Our daughter and her friends protested peacefully. They knew they would be arrested but were brave enough to accept this possibility. Peaceful protest has never before been followed by an injunction for costs like this. If EDF are successful in this suit it will set a dangerous precedent for the right to peaceful protest in this country.

We are proud of what Claire and her friends are trying to do. It’s heartbreaking to think that they are being punished for putting themselves at risk for the good of humanity. If EDF pursue this suit they will put my daughter and her friends in debt — possibly for the rest of their lives. For EDF it is a mere drop in the ocean, but for them it is a lifetime’s income.

EDF might think it can silence 21 activists but it has to listen to consumers. If enough consumers show they are outraged by EDF’s actions, the impact to the company’s brand will be worth more than £5 million and the suit will be dropped.

Please sign our petition asking EDF to drop this unprecedented legal assault.

Thank you,
Russ and Barbara Fauset

NB: ‘Will EDF become the Barbra Streisand of climate protest?’ – George Monbiot in the Guardian

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Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power: Fukushima one year on

March 11, 2012 at 10:30 am (climate change, environment, green, Jim D, nuclear power, science)

The first anniversary of the tragedy resulting from the Japanese earthquake may seem an inappropriate time to suggest a reappraisal of the left’s traditional hositlility to nuclear power. But, paradoxically, the Japanese events and their aftermath suggest that our worst fears are not justified.

The only rational conclusion, as a result of the ” Fukushima test,”  must be that the benefits massively outweigh the risks.

Les Hearn wrote the following shortly after the earthquake, and I think his analysis has, so far, been vindicated:

The terrible events recently in Japan have resulted in at least 15,000 deaths, of which those attributable to the overheating cores and hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant amount to… zero.

However, the situation at the power plant is potentially more serious if it is not controlled. What has been happening?

Some time ago, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) decided to build nuclear power plants in an earthquake zone. They judged that their design was robust enough to withstand a powerful earthquake. They judged that safety measures were adequate in the case of interruption of the electricity supply to the coolant pumps. They hadn’t considered the possibility of a large tsunami.

The plants are Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) — sort of giant nuclear kettles. The core contains fuel rods of uranium-235 (235U) and plutonium-239 (239Pu) which undergo fission (atom-splitting) reactions, releasing neutrons, radiation, heat and fission products. The neutrons are fed back into the fuel rods in carefully controlled amounts to sustain a chain reaction, releasing heat which is continuously removed by superheated water under 70 times atmospheric pressure. This is allowed to boil, high pressure steam being used to drive electricity generators.

The radiation is absorbed by the core and cannot escape. It eventually contributes to the heat of the core.

The fission products are smaller atoms, usually radioactive. Most dangerous are caesium-137 (137Cs) and iodine-131 (131I). They are contained within the fuel rods, paradoxically making these more radioactive for a while than the original U or Pu.

So what are the safety features of the Japanese BWRs? If the electricity to the pumps cuts out, the chain reaction must be stopped to prevent the release of more heat. This is done by inserting boron control rods into the core. These absorb neutrons so that new fissions cannot occur. Then residual heat must be removed from the rods. The fact that the coolant water is at about 300 ºC shows that the core heat is considerable. If current is cut to the electric pumps, back-up diesel pumps come into operation. If these fail, batteries operate the pumps electrically. Before these run out, TEPCO assumes the main or diesel pumps will be working again.

What actually happened on 11 March and after was as follows. The buildings withstood one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history and the control rods were automatically inserted into the core. However, the electrically powered pumps were disabled when the earthquake felled power lines. Diesel pumps kicked in but were then swamped by an unexpectedly large tsunami. Then the shed-load of batteries took over for a few hours but, when they ran down, neither had the electricity had been restored nor the diesel pumps restarted. The core started to overheat.

This risked damage to the fuel rods, resulting in emission of caesium-137 and iodine-131. The risk of damage was increased as the heat of the core made it difficult to cool it with the seawater that the plant workers and emergency services were trying to dump on the reactors. The water was instantly boiling and being driven off as steam. The danger of the fuel rods melting and emitting even more radioactive substances was growing. It is not clear that this would lead to a more catastrophic breach of the steel containment: this would require temperatures exceeding 1500 ºC. But it would increase the danger to the workers of excessive radiation, and risk spreading radioactive caesium and iodine in the surroundings.

The problem of these substances is two-fold. Caesium compounds are very soluble and chemically similar to compounds of sodium and potassium. Caesium rapidly spreads through the environment and is absorbed by plants and animals which may be part of the human diet. Its half-life is about 30 years, meaning that it takes about 100 years to decay to 10% of its original level. However, except locally, it is unlikely to be particularly hazardous. Iodine is more problematic. It is absorbed easily and passed on to humans in food. The body then concentrates it in the thyroid gland, converting a low general dose of radiation to a much higher specific dose to one tissue. It has a half-life of eight days, making it more radioactive atom for atom than caesium-137 but dropping to less than 1% in two months. Preventative measures can easily be taken, minimising the risks.

It is not clear whether the reactors will be brought under control without substantial emission of radiation. It is clear that TEPCO should have sited the back-up pumps higher to avoid inundation by tsunamis. It is less clear but arguable that an earthquake zone was not a wise choice.

Nevertheless, the minimal injuries and absence of deaths compared with the effect of the earthquake and tsunami should help to put nuclear power’s risks in perspective. And we’re not talking about another Chernobyl.
Update on Chernobyl

According to the UNSCEAR report 20 years after the Chernobyl accident, 134 people got acute radiation syndrome. Of these, 28 died soon after the accident, and 19 subsequently, mostly from illnesses that are unconnected to their exposure.

More than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer have occurred among people, predominantly children, exposed to radioactive iodine (131I). Not all but the vast majority of these are thought due to this exposure. This resulted from contamination of milk but was not an inevitable result of the Chernobyl accident. As the UNSCEAR report notes drily, “prompt countermeasures were lacking [which] resulted in large doses to the thyroids of members of the general public”.

Iodine is needed to synthesise the hormone thyroxine, which controls metabolism in adults and, crucially, growth in children. It is efficiently extracted from food and concentrated in the thyroid gland. Grazing cows would have eaten grass on which radioactive iodine had fallen and incorporated it into their milk which, of course, would have been drunk fresh largely by… children.

The countermeasures are simple: flood the system with ordinary iodine (127I, since you ask) by giving people tablets containing iodine salts. This was not done by the incompetent bureaucrats of the former Soviet Union and the result was that low whole body doses of 131I were converted into high doses in the thyroid.

The good (or, rather, less bad) news is that thyroid cancer responds well to treatment and only 15 of the 6000+ cases have died. There is also little evidence of more than a slight increase in other cancers. Thus the total of deaths proven to be caused by the worst accident in the history of nuclear power is not many more than 43.

* United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, Vol II Annex D Health Effects due to radiation from the Chernobyl accident, 2008 (downloaded from the IAEA website).

NB: George Monbiot changed his position on nuclear power some time ago.

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Monbiot backs science against superstition on nuclear power

December 6, 2011 at 1:55 pm (climate change, environment, Green Party, Guardian, Jim D, nuclear power, science)

“Anti-nuclear campaigners have generated as much mumbo jumbo as creationists, anti-vaccine scaremongers, homeopaths and climate change deniers. In all cases, the scientific process has been thrown into reverse: people have begun with their conclusions, then frantically sought evidence to support them” - George Monbiot, The Guardian 6 Dec 20112

The outspoken environmentalist George Monbiot, in his regular Graun columns and elsewhere, has for some time now, been writing a lot of sense about nuclear power. Unlike most Greens (including the British Green Party and its overrated leader Ms Lucas) he is willing to examine the evidence and not fall back upon anti-nuclear superstition. In fact, he starts his column today with a startling admission:

“It’s a devastating admission to have to make, especially during the climate talks in Durban. But there would be no point in writing this column if I were not prepared to confront harsh truths. This year, the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.

“As a result of shutting down its nuclear programme in response to green demands, Germany will produce an extra 300m tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020. That’s almost as much as all the European savings resulting from the energy efficiency directive. Other countries are now heading the same way. These decisions are the result of an almost medievel misrepresentation of science and technology. For while the greens are right about most things, our views on nuclear power have been shaped by weapons-grade woo.”

His comments about the potential of integral fast reactors (IFRs) are particularly important and must be taken very seriously by all rational people.

Read the full article here ; The ignorant, hysterical comments that follow on CiF and Monbiot’s replies are also most instructive.

Another voice of reason: Les Hearn at Workers Liberty.

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Pete Carter, RIP

October 26, 2011 at 12:04 am (environment, good people, Jim D, solidarity, unions, workers)

Pete Carter

Above: Pete Carter, trade unionist, orator and environmentalist, born 8 July 1938; died 11 October 2011

From the UCATT website:

It is with deep regret I have to advise you of the death of Peter Carter, a former UCATT activist and full time official.

Peter was one of the leading lights in the Building Workers strike in 1972. He was also instrumental with another UCATT activist Phil Beyer in organising on Bryant sites and, by February 1972, had abolished the lump and won a 50 per cent rise in the basic rate. The Construction News magazine called the agreement with Bryant “a watershed in industrial relations in the building industry.” Those who knew him believe he was one of the best orators the trade union movement has ever had.

The details of his funeral are as follows:

Friday 28th October 2011 at 12.15

The Sandwell Crematorium

West Midlands

Guardian obituary here

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25 years after Chernobyl: time to review our attitude to nuclear power?

April 26, 2011 at 3:47 pm (climate change, environment, Green Party, history, Jim D, Russia, science)

“Closer to home the energy secretary Chris Huhne is mulling over the collapse of the ‘couldn’t happen here’ argument. It may have washed with Chernobyl in Soviet Ukraine but will not survive if the worst-case scenario plays out in high-tech Japan. That may still not happen, and if even the mix of an 9.0 magnitude earthquake, an accompanying tsunami and a hydrogen explosion does not cause lethal melt-down, then the balance of the rational argument could conceivably be more in favour of nuclear in a month’s time than it is today.” - Guardian editorial 15/03/2011

“All over the world, from China to Germany, governments are halting their nuclear power station programmes because of Fukushima.. But what is that supposed to ‘put right’? Whatever went wrong in Japan must have something to do with laying a chain of obsolete reactors precisely along a famous tectonic fault. But the German reactors at Unterweser or Neckarwestheim are nowhere near an earthquake zone, so why has chancellor Merkel shut them down for three months? It’s about as rational as the grand Chinese salt panic: hoarders have snatched it off every shelf in China, after a rumour that Fukushima had turned the salt of all the oceans radioactive.” - Neal Ascherson in The Observer 20/03/2011

Five-year-old Alec Zhloba, who suffers from leukemia, is held by his doctor in the children's cancer ward of the Gomel Regional Hospital, Belarus. His head has tracks from medical procedures, March 19, 1996
Chernobyl: never forget the human cost

Today may not seem an auspicious date upon which to suggest a favourable re-assessment of nuclear power. Twenty five years ago the world’s worst ever civil nuclear accident happened, and the people of Chernobyl are still suffering the effects. Children are still being born with genetic abnormalities and dying of thyroid cancer due to exposure to radioactive iodine contained in contaminated milk. As we discuss nuclear power, we must never forget this: it’s the single strongest argument against.

And now, of course, there’s Fukushima, which appears to have given the Greens and other anti-nuclear power campaigners another powerful argument. But has it? Just as the obsolete Soviet-era design and lax (to the point of non-existent) safety factors at Chernobyl make that disaster something that simply could not happen in an advanced capitalist democracy, so the poor design and siting (in an earthquake zone) of the TEPCO Fukushima plant is n ot something that would happen in Western Europe.

As the Guardian editorial (above) speculated a month ago,  “if even the mix of an 9.0 magnitude earthquake, an accompanying tsunami and a hydrogen explosion does not cause lethal melt-down“…then maybe the Japanese earthquake, far from destroying the case for nuclear power, has actually vindicated it.

Certainly, a number of environmentalists and green-leftists seem to be coming round to that viewpoint, including George Monbiot, in a brave article that enraged a number of his erstwhile friends in the green movement. And Les Hearn, in a recent edition of  the AWL’s newspaper Solidarity argued that we should…

Get nuclear power’s risks in perspective

The terrible events recently in Japan have resulted in at least 15,000 deaths, of which those attributable to the overheating cores and hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant amount to… zero.

However, the situation at the power plant is potentially more serious if it is not controlled. What has been happening?

Some time ago, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) decided to build nuclear power plants in an earthquake zone. They judged that their design was robust enough to withstand a powerful earthquake. They judged that safety measures were adequate in the case of interruption of the electricity supply to the coolant pumps. They hadn’t considered the possibility of a large tsunami.

The plants are Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) — sort of giant nuclear kettles. The core contains fuel rods of uranium-235 (235U) and plutonium-239 (239Pu) which undergo fission (atom-splitting) reactions, releasing neutrons, radiation, heat and fission products. The neutrons are fed back into the fuel rods in carefully controlled amounts to sustain a chain reaction, releasing heat which is continuously removed by superheated water under 70 times atmospheric pressure. This is allowed to boil, high pressure steam being used to drive electricity generators.

The radiation is absorbed by the core and cannot escape. It eventually contributes to the heat of the core.

The fission products are smaller atoms, usually radioactive. Most dangerous are caesium-137 (137Cs) and iodine-131 (131I). They are contained within the fuel rods, paradoxically making these more radioactive for a while than the original U or Pu.

So what are the safety features of the Japanese BWRs? If the electricity to the pumps cuts out, the chain reaction must be stopped to prevent the release of more heat. This is done by inserting boron control rods into the core. These absorb neutrons so that new fissions cannot occur. Then residual heat must be removed from the rods. The fact that the coolant water is at about 300 ºC shows that the core heat is considerable. If current is cut to the electric pumps, back-up diesel pumps come into operation. If these fail, batteries operate the pumps electrically. Before these run out, TEPCO assumes the main or diesel pumps will be working again.

What actually happened on 11 March and after was as follows. The buildings withstood one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history and the control rods were automatically inserted into the core. However, the electrically powered pumps were disabled when the earthquake felled power lines. Diesel pumps kicked in but were then swamped by an unexpectedly large tsunami. Then the shed-load of batteries took over for a few hours but, when they ran down, neither had the electricity had been restored nor the diesel pumps restarted. The core started to overheat.

This risked damage to the fuel rods, resulting in emission of caesium-137 and iodine-131. The risk of damage was increased as the heat of the core made it difficult to cool it with the seawater that the plant workers and emergency services were trying to dump on the reactors. The water was instantly boiling and being driven off as steam. The danger of the fuel rods melting and emitting even more radioactive substances was growing. It is not clear that this would lead to a more catastrophic breach of the steel containment: this would require temperatures exceeding 1500 ºC. But it would increase the danger to the workers of excessive radiation, and risk spreading radioactive caesium and iodine in the surroundings.

The problem of these substances is two-fold. Caesium compounds are very soluble and chemically similar to compounds of sodium and potassium. Caesium rapidly spreads through the environment and is absorbed by plants and animals which may be part of the human diet. Its half-life is about 30 years, meaning that it takes about 100 years to decay to 10% of its original level. However, except locally, it is unlikely to be particularly hazardous. Iodine is more problematic. It is absorbed easily and passed on to humans in food. The body then concentrates it in the thyroid gland, converting a low general dose of radiation to a much higher specific dose to one tissue. It has a half-life of eight days, making it more radioactive atom for atom than caesium-137 but dropping to less than 1% in two months. Preventative measures can easily be taken, minimising the risks.

It is not clear whether the reactors will be brought under control without substantial emission of radiation. It is clear that TEPCO should have sited the back-up pumps higher to avoid inundation by tsunamis. It is less clear but arguable that an earthquake zone was not a wise choice.

Nevertheless, the minimal injuries and absence of deaths compared with the effect of the earthquake and tsunami should help to put nuclear power’s risks in perspective. And we’re not talking about another Chernobyl.

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Derek Wall’s book: Green Stalinism, fit only for the recycling bin of history

October 30, 2010 at 10:35 pm (AWL, capitalism, environment, Green Party, Jim D, stalinism)

Paul Hampton reviews Derek Wall’s The Rise of the Green Left: Inside the Worldwide Ecosocialist Movement (Pluto Press, 2010)

Ecosocialism is a fudge. It is a swamp with little coherence and even less ground. This book is impressionistic, superficial and politically flawed. Despite a reputation for ecumenicalism, Derek Wall manages to manufacture a ‘common sense’ imbued with the worst elements of Stalinist necromancy. It is a work fit only for the recycling bin of history.

First, Wall has a fundamentally flawed conception of capitalism. For him, capitalism is centrally about growth. It is growth that he believes is the root of ecological degradation. This is not a Marxist conception of capitalism – i.e. one that is rooted in the exploitation of wage labour by capital. Readers who want a more rigorous Marxist political economy of ecological degradation will not find it in this book. And in fact a socialist economy would grow, to produce for human need, even as it would use resources more ecologically.

Second, Wall’s big idea is that ecosocialism rests on a conception of “the commons”, which he associates especially with indigenous communities. He appears to promote a vegetarian future of composted toilets, fustian smocks and cheerfully living off the land – not something that is likely to appeal to the bulk of urbanised humanity. Yet his existing models are no better. He believes that Chavez’s Venezuela is cultivating a “participatory form of socialism” (p.112); in fact Chavez presides over an oil-fuelled Bonapartist state capitalism. Evo Morales is “explicitly advocating ecosocialism” (p.109), despite running a bourgeois government. Cuba has passed “the most radical ecological reforms in the world” (p.113), despite refusing to allow independent unions and environment movements to organise. Laughably, he cites the John Lewis partnership (p.60) as an example of worker ownership, despite the complete absence of unions and the active hostility of management to unions in that firm. In short the alternative to capitalism he promotes is impoverished, miserable and unattractive.

The third area of confusion is over the social forces for socialism, though in a rare moment of candour, Wall admits that, “Green political theory has often been weak when it comes to the question of ‘agency’ and that for many Greens, “species interest replaces specific class interest” (p.134). The basic problem is his elevation of indigenous struggles, over and above those of workers.

Hugo Blanco’s preface states that “the most important task of the ecosocialist is to defend those at the vanguard of the struggle, the indigenous and peasants in general” (p.xiii). Wall states that “indigenous communities are acting as an increasingly self-confident and well-organised vanguard of ecosocialism right across our planet” (p.136). He believes mystically that “indigenous people and peasants have discovered ways of sharing land that are ecologically sustainable and promote real prosperity” (p.16) and “those most concerned to respect other species are often indigenous people” (p.65). Apparently “ecosocialism is the environmentalism not just of indigenous people, peasants and other communities who live directly from the land, but of the poor” (p.129-130). This is a Narodnik position – and a long way from working class self-emancipation.

Wall states that workers “are often dependent on industries that are polluting and destructive (p.132) and “benefit from polluting technology because it provides jobs” and so “will have little interest in environmental issues” (p.136). Ecosocialists must “engage with trade unions” (p.132), though it seems mainly to make links with indigenous people (p.137). Wall supports the Zapatistas, yet their strategy shows the limits of indigenous agency. Mexico has a large and militant working class, with a quarter of its population in Mexico City alone. Rather than build an alliance with auto workers, textile workers, miners and millions of other proletarians, the Zapatistas largely ignored them. They had pretty much nothing to say about the working-class (teacher-led!) uprising in the state of Oaxaca.

Wall cherry-picks his way through the history of the left to find antecedents for his ‘ecosocialism’. It is a partial, selective effort. Marx and Engels get the usual name-check (p.72), as do William Morris and Edward Carpenter (p.75-76). Astonishingly there is nothing about the socialist ecology of the German SPD before 1914, despite the contribution of August Bebel on town and country, energy and deforestation, Karl Kautsky on agriculture and population, and Karl Liebknecht on cars, as well as the social-democratic Friends of Nature organisation. Instead a salutary quote from Rosa Luxemburg waxing about songbirds opens the book.

There’s a nod toward Leninist Russia (p.77), but nothing on wider Russian Marxist contributions of Plekhanov, Bogdanov or Bukharin at the height of the revolution. Instead Trotsky is panned on the basis of a few paragraphs about moving mountains that he wrote in a book about literature. Perniciously, Wall ignores what Trotsky wrote about science and about waste and hyper-industrialisation. And there is no mention of the discussions on nature, geography and materialism among the Comintern (e.g. Wittfogel) in the 1920s.

Wall manages to discuss the Frankfurt school of Western Marxism (p.82) without mentioning Alfred Schmidt, whose book The Concept of Nature in Marx (1962) predated Rachel Carson and the rest of the separate environment movement that emerged in the 1960s. He at least admits that many earlier ‘ecosocialists’ such as Andre Gorz, Alain Lipietz, Rudolf Bahro and Daniel Cohn-Bendit did in fact reject socialism as they embraced ecology (p.88). However Wall simply fails to explain the disjuncture of socialism and ecology from the 1930s, or the central role of Stalinism in creating this schism. It betrays an ignorance of the history of socialism unparalleled for one trying to refound the entire tradition.

For all his apparent chumminess, Wall reserves particular venom for the revolutionary left. Apparently “the far left in many countries” – especially Britain and Argentina – is “isolated from society, divided over esoteric disputes and splintering with almost continuous motion” (p.125). Allegedly there exists a kind of “Leninist gnosticism” – i.e. search for a secret knowledge of transformation. We are allegedly “political sects too fixated on ideological purity to act” (p.127). Instead he prefers just about anybody else to the “arid sectarianism” (p.141) of the far left.

The extent of Wall’s political incoherence is witnessed by three stances. First, his columns for the Stalinist Morning Star, the paper of the Communist Party of Britain. He is happy to help give them the veneer of a paper of the broad left, while they continue to spout pro-Stalinist propaganda. Second, his explicit support for the Respect party, whose political raison d’etre was the uplifting of political Islamists – with disastrous consequences for Asian communities and the left. Third, his love-in with those chameleons Socialist Resistance, who manage to combine theoretical accommodation and bandwagon-jumping with the most passive absence of political drive.

Wall laughably claims that the Green Party of England and Wales has a “strong trade union group” (p.132). The GPTU group is largely without influence in the British trade union movement. In fact it has less influence than almost all the tiniest left groups. It has almost nobody elected to a leading position in a UK trade union body. It never has a political intervention, or a strategy for the winning a trade union struggle, or a rank and file project. Rather, it issues paper press releases, expressing general support for struggles over which it exercises no purchase.

This is well illustrated by the Vestas struggle last year. Wall blandly states that “a wide variety of left and climate activists supported them” (p.132). Despite having hundreds more members than the AWL, the GPEW managed to affect precisely nothing in the struggle. It took a group of revolutionary socialists, principally AWL members – Wall doesn’t mention us in his tour of ecosocialists or those he regards as sectarians, impractical people, hair-splitters etc – to help initiate, sustain and develop the struggle. If Vestas workers had looked to Green Left, they would have found precisely nothing, probably never have occupied their factory, and gone down without a fight

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