Friday, 26 June 2009

Unanswered questions on our nuclear coast

SOMEHOW I hadn’t noticed that Father’s Day was coming up. I don’t really go for all these cynical inventions of the greetings-card industry – Granma’s Day, Uncle’s Day, Cousin-Once-Removed-On-Mum’s-Side Day.
So I was taken completely by surprise to receive the gift of a rather gorgeous book: The Living Coast, an Aerial View of Britain’s Shoreline.
I was immediately absorbed in the photos taken by Adrian Warren and Dae Sasitorn from their trusty Cessna. It seems always to have been evening or early-morning sunshine wherever they flew – lovely for rich, golden tones and long, strong shadows.
I was eager to spot places I knew from this unfamiliar angle – places I have lived, places I have visited, places I have walked, sites I have photographed at ground level. And it’s shown me a few spots I haven’t been – yet.
Unsurprisingly, though it’s presented as a journey right round the coast, the book’s creators have been most drawn to the most beautiful places. So there are a great many shots of Scotland’s northern and western isles, not so many of England’s east coast (where I happen to live).
Flicking through the 360-odd photos one sees plenty of castles, plenty of bridges and harbours, quite a few lighthouses. But one common coastal feature is almost missing.
In fact, I spotted just one example – tiny, distant and unremarked-upon in the text is the distinctive white dome of Sizewell B.
No sign, though, of the reactors at Bradwell, Dungeness, Hinkley, Hartlepool or Sellafield, though there are photos taken quite near all those places.
And there’s no doubt about it, nuclear power plants can be quite attractive. Visually.
The Stromness ferry, from Orkney to the Scottish mainland, takes about as long as the Dover-Calais boat, but there’s much more to look at.
Apart from spotting seabirds – "Is that a puffin, no it's another guillemot" – what draws most attention is the wild, craggy, passing coastline. Everyone on board wants a good look at the famous Old Man of Hoy (of which two fine aerial views naturally appear in The Living Coast).
Fewer travellers look towards the mainland. But as you approach Scotland's north coast two shining white features stand out (ignored by the book).
They are the sails of a dramatic clifftop wind-farm – and behind them the reactor dome at Dounreay.
Once landed, not many take the little road past Dounreay either. Those that do cannot miss the Keep Out signs of the Ministry of Defence.
The research and development that's taken place here for the last 54 years is as much about military matters as power-generation. At least as much. Nuclear development always has been.
For some reason that fact is always to the fore whenever Iran or North Korea is in the news. Not so much when the expansion of our own nuclear industry is under discussion.
We seem to have become blasé about the whole subject. We forget that in "harnessing" atomic energy we are playing with the most powerful force humans have yet unleashed.
The government, the suave white-coated PR consultants of the energy industry – even, heaven help us, some well-meaning "green campaigners" – would have you believe they've got it all sorted now.
That clean, modern, up-to-date nuclear power is both necessary and safe. That there could never be another Windscale. Another Three-Mile Island. Another Chernobyl.
They didn't want us to know about, or notice, the report by the government's chief nuclear inspector, Mike Weightman, which considered 1,767 leaks, breakdowns or other "events" over the past seven years.
Of which around half were considered serious enough to have had "the potential to challenge a nuclear safety system".
At Sellafield they think they've finally stopped a leak that's been going on for 50 years. Since the days it was still known as Windscale.
At Dounreay a manhole was contaminated with plutonium.
On our own coast at Sizewell – one of the sites earmarked for more nuclear development – "the wrong kind of pipe" led to a radioactive leak in 2007.
How bad was it? It depends who you ask.
One side says we were "ten hours from disaster". The other claims it was a minor incident in an industry with "a very good safety record".
You could fairly say of both sides: "They would say that, wouldn't they?"
But anyone who's studied the near-catastrophe at Windscale in 1957 will know how far officialdom will go to whitewash unattractive facts. (If you're interested enough, my aunt, Lorna Arnold, wrote the official history).
And it's a fair question how much either side – protesters or officials – really know the facts.
Do they know, for example, how far sea levels will really rise in the coming decades of global warming? Will the tide seep into Sellafield, Hartlepool, Hinkley and Heysham – or pour in?
The sea will eventually erode away the cliffs under Sizewell and Dounreay. What will happen then?
I don't know the answers to those questions. And I don't believe anyone else does either.

Friday, 19 June 2009

The story of the decade

I OVERHEARD a couple of journalists the other day discussing “the biggest story of the decade”.
Experienced, respected journalists on a national paper – and not the Daily Telegraph, either.
Even so, they reckoned the big one was the ongoing revelations of MPs’ expenses claims.
Well, yes, it’s a talking-point certainly. And it’s shaken Britain’s already shaky political scene a little further.
But bigger than 9/11? Bigger than the Iraq war? Bigger than the Jordan-Peter Andre divorce?
Well, all right, I only threw that last one in for readers of the Daily Star.
But let’s consider Iraq.
The prime minister spreads lies to justify an unjustifiable act of war.
Among the results are 179 British service personnel killed – and something between 100,000 and a million civilian deaths.
(If those two figures seem a long way apart, it’s because no one has bothered to make an official count, so one has to rely on estimates. And estimates vary. Wildly.)
The war and its unplanned aftermath have destabilised the entire region, probably for decades to come.
It confirmed in the minds of Muslims everywhere that “the West” is against them, thereby increasing the dangerous polarisation of the world.
It flouted, and therefore weakened, international law.
It shattered British faith in our own government – and increased anti-American feeling here as well as in the rest of the world.
It was, in the words of an Iranian TV reporter this week: “The worst and most controversial decision ever taken by a British Labour government.”
All this we know. As we know about Blair’s “dodgy dossier” and much more besides.
If an inquiry was needed, it’s a bit late now. It’ll be even later when it finally reports in at least a year’s time – conveniently after all the players have (presumably) been voted out of office.
Whatever conclusions it reaches, I don’t suppose they’ll include any indictments for war crimes. Or an authoritative tally of the dead.
As for the fuss over whether it’s held privately or in public, does it really matter?
Well, it does make you wonder who still has what to keep secret.
And I don’t just mean a cleaning bill, a hired porn film or a paid-off mortgage either.

Left or right, they’re still just as nasty

IT was an interesting letter. And for a while there I thought the writer had a point. Well, half a point anyway.
And then I saw the signature: “Tebbit, House of Lords”.
If I find myself even half-agreeing with anything Norman Tebbit has to say then it’s surely time to take another look.
What the one-time bovver-boy of Thatcherism was upset by was the use of the term “far right” to describe the BNP.
According to Norman, the BNP is “a hard-left party which supports nationalisation and trade-union power, and opposes free trade.”
He goes on, in his letter to The Spectator, to insist there is nothing right-wing about racism.
“As with nationalism,” he says, “racism’s greatest supporters – Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin – were hard leftists, as is Mugabe today. And Hitler was the leader of the National Socialist German Workers party.”
That assessment rather overlooks the white supremacists who brought apartheid to South Africa – right-wingers if there ever were any.
And as for the “left-wing” Hitler, he was a socialist in the same way that Stalin was a democrat. Or that Mugabe is either, in anything but parody.
Tebbit objects to “the line that anything nasty, corrupt or vicious has to be labelled ‘right-wing’”. Which is where I’d give him his half-point.
Neither right wing nor left has any monopoly on nastiness or corruption.
Indeed, if this argument proves anything it is how archaic, clumsy and frankly useless the terms “left” and “right” are in any discussion of real politics.
As opposed to the bone-headed simplistic kind. Which is all Tebbit has ever seemed to consider – and all the BNP are equipped to understand.

Friday, 12 June 2009

The party I no longer love

MY friend Ira stunned me this week.
Not when he said even he now wanted Gordon Brown to quit as PM and Labour leader. Surely nobody outside the Westminster village and Brown’s close associates actually wants him to stay.
No, it was when he used the phrase “the party I love”, meaning the Labour Party. Without irony.
The truth is, I once loved the party. Not in the way you fall in love with a new person, a new idea – but the way you love your family. Right or wrong, they are your people. You grew up with them. You belong.
Ira, clearly, still feels he belongs. It’s been so long since I felt that, I’d almost forgotten it was possible.
I fell out of love with Labour a long time ago. Round about the time a new leader called Blair set about demolishing everything that had kept it in touch with its roots and true to its principles.
There are still principled people in the Labour Party. My sister is one, Ira is another.
They may even still make up a majority of the party. But they certainly don’t form a majority of those in Parliament – still less in government.
I once thought Brown was one of the few at the top who still had principles. It seems now that his only principle is clinging on to power. For the little time that’s left him. And for all the good it can do anyone.
Of course, those of us who wish he’d go now – or that he’d already gone – do so in the hope that under another leader Labour might suddenly transform itself back into what it once was. Some hope.
It would, in truth, be a miracle. Even if the new leader was one of the good guys – Alan Johnson, say, or one of the Miliband brothers.
It would be a still greater miracle if the reborn party were to win the next election.
Which may be why nobody seems prepared to stand against Brown for the leadership right now.
Because all the conceivable candidates know that whoever leads Labour into the election will be a loser, their future chances blighted forever.
Perhaps they are all hoping for a one-term David Cameron government. A short, sharp disaster after which a re-fashioned Labour Party can ride back triumphantly to pick up the pieces.
The trouble with that long game is that it fails to take account of what Cameron and his crew might do. And how long they might stick around.
There must also be a question-mark over whether Labour can recover at all from the depths they are now in.
When they trail in behind UKIP in the European poll, and even the British Nasty Party gets a couple of members in to Strasbourg, you know things have got pretty dire. (Although you can blame the relative success of those parties on the fact none of the others seemed to take the Euro poll as seriously as they should.)
I heard the Lib Dems’ Simon Hughes at the weekend describing Labour as a party which no longer had a reason for being. And in a way he’s right.
Not for the reason he gave, which was frankly bonkers. There was, he claimed, no place for a working-class party any more because there was no longer a working class.
On the contrary, as capitalism hits the buffers hard, ordinary folk worldwide are facing hard times. The need for an old-fashioned party of labour is as great as ever.
That party should be Labour. But that was the party Blair and his confederates killed.
It’s hard to say just what the Labour Party, at parliamentary level, stands for now. Almost as hard as it is to spot a principle, or a real policy, on the Tory side of the House.

AS the leaflet flopped onto the doormat its message looked like a case of mistaken identity – or maybe libel.
“People like you,” it said, “voting BNP.”
People like me don’t vote BNP. Never have. Never will.
Then after their relative success in getting two MEPs elected – the same number as the Green Party and the Scottish Nationalists – BNP leader Nick Griffin tried again to play that “people like us” card.
And again got it utterly, nastily, wrong.
The vote for him, he said, showed that people were sick of discrimination.
There is, he claimed, racism “against people who look like me”.
By which, presumably, he meant paunchy middle-class white males.
A group so discriminated against they run the government, occupy most seats in Parliament and in company boardrooms, take home most pay and drive most of the big cars. Poor souls.

IT’S long been remarked that big international companies – like AIG, for instance, or General Motors – are as powerful as many countries.
Twenty years ago the world watched stunned as big countries collapsed and flew apart, their rulers shamed and discarded.
As the Soviet Union, Poland and Romania in 1989, so perhaps GM, LDV and Setanta in 2009.
As Communism then, capitalism now?

Monday, 1 June 2009

Conspiracy? Or is that what they want us to think?

I ONCE met a man who was in regular contact with aliens from outer space.
Or so he said. And being a callow young reporter at the time, I believed him. Or at least I thought I might have hit on a decent story.
It certainly seemed interesting enough until he showed me the evidence.
In the top corner of his TV screen would appear from time to time little squares of strangely moving lines. This, he insisted, was how the aliens transmitted their messages.
But hadn’t he noticed, I asked, that they always appeared just before a commercial break? Perhaps they were indeed messages – not to him, but to help the broadcasters get their timings right?
He found that unbelievable and duly wrote me off either as gullible or as part of the great conspiracy.
Which goes to show several things:
• That some people will believe almost anything – except what seems most obvious.
• That people like to think they know things other people don’t.
• That we are surrounded by conspiracies – or at least by conspiracy theories.
Who killed Marilyn Monroe, and why? Ditto John F Kennedy – and what was the connection between their deaths? If any?
Where do Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto fit into the picture? Or is it not all the same picture?
And what about Princess Diana?
Was her death the result of an evil conspiracy masterminded by Prince Philip, as Mohamed al Fayed seems to believe?
Was she the sacrificial victim of some weird satanic cult?
Had she got too close to revealing the truth about the leaders of the world’s great nations – that they are all extra-terrestrial lizards in disguise?
Or was it just that her driver was drunk and driving too fast and she wasn’t wearing a seat-belt?
For many people that last explanation is just too mundane, too messy to fit in with their image of an iconic woman.
And of course her early death and the questions surrounding it all feed into the loop that inflates the icon.
The real flesh-and-blood woman has disappeared from the myth as surely as she has gone from life.
The same feedback loop, exponentially inflating the icon, applies equally to Monroe and JFK.
And – dare I say it? – to a once obscure Jewish preacher and reformer from the Galilee region of Roman-era Palestine.
In every case the death became not just part of the legend, but the core of the legend.
And just look how many question-marks litter this column. They all imply at root the same question, the question that intrigues and motivates the human race more than any other. The question: Why?
The mundane fact is that most of us, most of the time, don’t know the answer to that vital question. Which is why people have to keep making up answers.
And for some people, the wilder and wackier those answers are, the better they like them.
Were the towers of the World Trade Centre really felled by missiles surrounded by holograms made to look like planes?
I doubt very much whether the technology exists to make that possible – and even if it did, why bother when it would be so much easier just to send in the planes?
But that is only the wildest of an astonishing array of conspiracy theories surrounding the 9/11 attacks.
Even Time magazine was prepared to give credence, just weeks after the event, to a theory that George W Bush’s government deliberately ignored warnings that the attacks were coming.
Personally, I’d be prepared to believe almost any wickedness of the Bush administration.
But perhaps that’s the point.
A good conspiracy theory has to be just believable enough to make you wonder.
It should give its believers a nice feeling of superiority over everyone else.
And it should provide the illusion of meaning and sense to things that otherwise seem senseless and meaningless.
And, of course, the biggie – the essentially meaningless thing in all our lives – is death. It’s the thing we all want, and lack, a big answer to.
Which is why all the great conspiracy theories revolve around death. As, incidentally, do those most tenacious of all wild, unprovable theories, religions.
Religious groups of various kinds, from American fundamentalists to Hamas, figure largely as both believers and subjects of conspiracy theories.
They figure too in David Aaronovitch’s new book, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History.
Aaronovitch has plenty of theory about theories. After debunking myth after myth he comes down clearly on the side of cock-up over conspiracy to explain the ways of the world.
Which is probably fair enough. Most of the time.
But why did Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald? What really happened in Rendlesham Forest on Boxing Day, 1980? Who did roll away the stone? And what is the real connection between the Bush and Bin Laden families?