Friday, 20 December 2013

Infrastructure investment boosted as Autumn Review disappoints


A shorter version of this article first appeared o 20 December  on the Sustainable Building web site.

A week before the Autumn Statement, insulation company Rockwool issued an open letter to Mr Cameron pressing him not to abandon the Energy Companies Obligation (ECO) scheme that requires electricity suppliers to fund energy efficiency makeovers for vulnerable households. This followed similar moves by the UK Green Building Council and the Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE) who warned that up to 10,000 jobs could be at risk if the ECO scheme is diluted.

The call coincided with the Office for National Statistics's release of new figures showing cold weather caused an estimated 31,000 additional deaths in England and Wales last year, with people over 75 the most vulnerable. This presents a 29% increase on the previous winter.

The updated Infrastructure UK plan, unveiled on 4 December, also detailed investment for energy, flood defence, waste, water, transport, and communications infrastructure up to 2030 and beyond, the Treasury proclaimed. The Chancellor conceded  next day in Parliament that the Office for Budget Responsibility is “absolutely right today to draw attention to the weakness of housing supply in this country.”

The Chancellor George Osborne told Parliament that “Britain’s economic plan is working, but the job is not done. We need to secure the economy for the long term, and the biggest risk to that comes from those who would abandon the plan.”

He added “There were those who said it was a “fantasy” to believe that businesses could create jobs more quickly than the public sector would have to lose them. What they should have said was that it would be fantastic if it happened. So I have good news for them. Businesses have already created three jobs for every one lost in the public sector, and the OBR report today forecasts that this will continue, with 3.1 million more jobs being created by businesses by 2019, which, in its words, “more than offsets” the million or so reduction in the public sector headcount.”

He told MPs that the autumn statement was “fiscally neutral.” In a subsequent Parliamentary answer on 17 December, junior Treasury minister Nicky Morgan revealed  to Labour MP Paul Flynn that no sustainability assessment of the Autumn Statement had been conducted.

Mr Osborne stressed that ministers “are going to be spending more on capital as a proportion of national income on average over this decade than over the whole period of the last Government,”  adding “ We have to say that we are prepared to push the boundaries of scientific endeavour, including in controversial areas, because Britain has always been a pioneer.” Going green, he stressed, does not have to cost the earth

He asserted that “some of the most important infrastructure for British families is housing and we must confront this simple truth: if we want more people to own a home, we have to build more homes,” claiming “our hard-won planning reforms are delivering a 35% increase in approvals for new homes, but we need to do more.”

To coincide with Autumn Statement the Government announced £1 billion package of loans to unblock large housing developments on sites mainly in Manchester and Leeds. He also announced that Aldermore and Virgin, two challenger banks, were expected to join the Help-to-Buy scheme this month.

Responding, shadow chancellor Ed Balls accused Mr Osborne of “all boasts and breathtaking complacency.” On energy bills, he said “after the Government’s panicked and half-baked attempt to steal Labour’s clothes, we know that they are not only not very good at shooting badgers, but not very good at shooting other people’s foxes either.”

He begged the question: Does he really think he can get away with tinkering at the edges, moving green levies his own party introduced off the bills and on to the taxpayer, and—surprise, surprise—letting the energy companies completely off the hook? Instead, he argued, “they have shown that they are willing to stand up for the interests of the energy companies.”

Lib Dem deputy leader, Simon Hughes ( now a justice minister) asked the Chancellor “when he does his review, promised in the autumn statement, of local councils’ ability to deliver more affordable housing, will he look at some very good examples of housing associations that, by using private sector investment and private sales, have hugely increased their capacity to build social housing—not just at affordable rents, but at social and target rents as well?

Mr Osborne responded that “money should be available on a competitive basis to those councils that are going to work with housing associations, for example, to deliver the sort of innovative schemes that he champions.”


Senior Labour backbencher and former energy minister, Dame Joan Ruddock, asked George Osborne: "Why does the Chancellor think it is appropriate to reduce the number of solid wall insulation tasks for energy companies, thus destroying thousands of newly created jobs, rather than tackling the excessive profits of the greedy energy companies that have their hands in all our pockets?"

Osborne responded: "To compensate for the fact that we are rolling back some of the levies... we have set out schemes today that will reward home owners who use energy efficiency measures to improve the efficiency of their home. Those include an additional bonus for solid wall insulation. There is also extra money for public sector organisations and private landlords to make their buildings more efficient."

In a subsequent Parliamentary answer on 17 December, junior Treasury minister Nicky Morgan revealed to Labour MP Paul Flynn that no sustainability assessment of the Autumn Statement had been conducted.

Home Insulation
The consumer watchdog Which? estimates that around 14 million homes - over half the total housing stock - still do not have adequate insulation.

Andrew Warren, director of ACE, said Which? is right to highlight that few homes have been insulated to date, but pointed out that the average British home is now using 25% less energy than it was eight years ago.

"This great improvement is largely down to the measures installed under mandated schemes," he added. "What needs to happen is that these energy saving measures are installed swiftly in the 11 million homes yet to benefit."

Former Green Party leader Dr Caroline Lucas observed: "The Chancellor has turned doublespeak into a new art form today with his mind-boggling claim to be helping the fuel poor by slashing the very programmes they depend on to insulate their homes"

Paul Ellis, chief executive of the Ecology Building Society, said: "It's right that the government should seek to address the shortage of housing in this country, but again, we need to see energy efficiency as an intrinsic consideration of these developments... We need to see a longer perspective from the government, rather than a focus on quick wins."

David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF-UK, asserted: "The prime minister has just come back from China, where this year already more than half of the new power capacity added to the grid has come from renewable energy. Sadly, he returns to find his own chancellor determined to push Britain back to ever more reliance on fossil fuels."

Infrastructure investment
The updated Infrastructure UK Plan, unveiled on 4 December, contained information on over £375bn of planned public and private sector infrastructure investment including flood defence, up to 2030 and beyond. This was bolstered by the announcement that six major insurers plan to collectively invest £25bn in UK infrastructure over the next five years.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, said: "[This announcement] is a massive vote of confidence in the UK economy. It supports the wider £100 billion public investment to rebuild Britain over the next seven years that I announced at the Spending Round 2013. Underground, overground, on shore, offshore, wired or wireless, tarmac or train track. You name it, we're building it right now."

The contracts will be delivered from within the Levy Control Framework, and is consistent with the plans announced this week reducing the average household bill by £50 a year by early 2014.

Moreover, a £1bn package of loans is intended to unblock large housing developments on sites mainly in Manchester and Leeds. Aldermore and Virgin, two challenger banks, are expected to join the Help to Buy scheme this month.

The Autumn Statement also announced the creation of a new specialist planning court to fast-track key strategic decision, that is expected to come into operation in the middle of 2014.


In Parliament, Barry Gardiner, a former special advisor on climate change to Labour leader, and now a shadow environment minister, Ed Miliband, asked “while the Chancellor was speaking, 30-year-high storm surges have been battering the coast of Britain. If he looks at the national infrastructure plan, he will find that the rate of coastal realignment is happening, in the view of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, at only one fifth of the pace necessary to avoid wholesale flooding that will cost billions of pounds to the economy. Will he look at that issue again, and at the funding for flood defences that this year has been reduced from £633 million to £527 million?, to be told by Mr Osborne: “I will certainly look at the report [he] mentions. …On the broader point, we are investing in flood defences. We have recently increased the investment going into flood defences, and that is all part of the long-term infrastructure plan that this country needs.

Otto Thoresen, director general of the Association of British Insurers, said: “Insurers have a key role to play in contributing to the UK’s economic growth, as providers of long-term capital investment. Providing capital for infrastructure projects will help drive a competitive, healthy and resilient UK economy. The future infrastructure pipeline - which only includes projects and programmes worth over £50 million -  shows that planned investment in infrastructure has increased to over £375 billion from £309 billion last year. Of the 646 projects and programmes in the updated pipeline 291 are already under construction.”


The 2014 budget will be on 19 March 2014.


Thursday, 19 December 2013

Nuclear lessons unlearned

Thirty four  years ago yesterday Mrs Thatcher's Conservative  Government made its ill-fated Parliamentary announcement it wanted to build 10 new American-designed PWR  nuclear power plants  in the UK.

The then Energy Secretary David ( now Lord) Howell  - our current Chancellor's father -in-law, no less -  announced to Parliament:

"The Future success of our nuclear programme is of great importance to the prosperity of this country. I ask all concerned to give active support  to the decisions that I have announced. (Official Report, 18 December 1979, columns 287-291)

The Financial Times 34 years ago today editorialized:

"With its nuclear policy statement yesterday the Government hopes to  end a decade of uncertainty within the nuclear firmly believes it has a national asset of great value [in the nuclear industry]."

The "Programme" managed to build one reactor: Sizewell B.

Fast forward 34 years, and what have we learned?

One  thing not learned is to make a decision to build a fleet of new  nuclear reactors in the wake of a major nuclear accident  -- Three Mile Island in 1979, Fukushima in 2011-- with all the uncertainties, safety and economic they create, is imprudent!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Avoiding Atomic Armageddon:Why Britain should not export nuclear technology

The esteemed nuclear guru, the late Dr Alvin Weinberg, wrote in Science magazine four decades ago:


We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand, we offer -- in the catalytic nuclear burner (breeder reactor) -- an inexhaustable source of energy. Even in the short range, when we use ordinary reactors, we offer energy that is cheaper than energy from fossil fuel. Moreover, this source of energy, when properly handled, is almost nonpolluting. . . .


But the price that we demand of society for this magical energy source is both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions that we are quite unaccustomed to. In a way, all of this was anticipated during the old debates over nuclear weapons. . . . . In a sense, we have established a military priesthood which guards against inadvertent use of nuclear weapons, which maintains what a priori seems to be a precarious balance between readiness to go to war and vigilance against human errors that would precipitate war . . .


It seems to me (and in this I repeat some views expressed very well by Atomic Energy Commissioner Wilfred Johnson) that peaceful nuclear energy probably will make demands of the same sort on our society, and possibly of even longer duration.”

[Weinberg, Alvin; "Social Institutions and Nuclear Energy", Science, 7 July 1972, p33]


Yesterday in Parliament, MPs discussed the latest mad action by the North Korean leadership, the execution by machine gun of Jang Sung-taek, the second most senior  politician in North Korea, who was also the uncle of the President, Kim Jong-un.


(Hansard, 16 December 2013 : Column 477-84;


But Britain's role in providing the basis for the North Korean nuclear programme got no airing It should have




Britain’s early unintended export of nuclear proliferation

In the same year the IAEA was founded, the UK made one of its first forays into international nuclear trade, with Iraq, and [with] the opening Baghdad Pact Nuclear Centre on 31 March 1957. It was part of the UK’s own Atoms for Peace efforts.

According to a Parliamentary reply by Michel Heseltine in December 1992, “Iraq ceased to participate in the activities of the training centre when it was transferred to Tehran following the revolution in Iraq in 1959.”

In light of subsequent geo-political history in the region, that was out of the atomic frying pan, into the nuclear fire!

Around this time Britain also sold a single Magnox nuclear plant each to Japan and to Italy respectively.

It is also arguable that the British Magnox nuclear plant design – which after all was primarily built as a military plutonium production factory – provided the blueprint for the North Korean military plutonium production programme too!

Here is what a Conservative minister, Douglas Hogg – later infamous for his moat – told former Labour MP, Llew Smith, in a written parliamentary reply on  25 May 1994:

“We do not know whether North Korea has drawn on plans of British reactors in the production of its own reactors. North Korea possesses a graphite moderated reactor which, while much smaller, has generic similarities to the reactors operated by British Nuclear Fuels plc. However, design information of these British reactors is not classified and has appeared in technical journals.”

North Korea’s other method of producing its enriched uranium nuclear explosives, via its uranium enrichment plant, also originated from the UK. The blueprints were stolen by Pakistani scientist, Dr A.Q.Khan, from the URENCO enrichment plant  (one third owned by the UK) in Holland in the early 1970s. Pakistan subsequently sold the technology to Iran, who later exchanged  for North Korean Nodong missiles.

A technical delegation from the A Q Khan Research Labs visited Pyongyang in  the summer of 1996. The secret enrichment plant was said to be based in caves near Kumch’ang-ni, 100 miles north of Pyonyang, some thirty miles north west of the plutonium production reactor at Yongbon. Defectors have located the plant at Yongjo-ri, Taechon, Mount Chonma or Ha’gap 20 miles northeast of Yongbon-kun, where US satellite photos showed tunnel entrances  being built

Hwang Jang-yop, a former aid to President Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current North Korean President, who became the highest ranking North Korean official to defect when he fled in 1997, revealed details  to Western intelligence investigators. ( source p.281 of  “Deception: Pakistan, The United States, and the Global Weapons Conspiracy, Atlantic Books, 2007, by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark).

So the UK’s proud nuclear export record involves provision of support to both Iraq and Iran, and indirectly to North Korea.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Atomic achievements need factual basis‏

I sent this  letter to the Daily Telegraph, but they have chosen to let the very contentious article by Keith Cochrane remain unchallenged, so I have decided to publish my riposte here instead.
The business comment by Weir Group ceo Keith Cochrane (“We need to move quickly if Britain is to regain its leadership role in the nuclear power industry,” 9 Dec.)  is one of the most factually inaccurate and frankly hypocritical articles I have ever read on energy  issues, a business sector on which I have researched and written for 35 years.
Firstly, the factual inaccuracy: the article asserts “This country was home to the world’s first commercial nuclear power station at Calder Hall in 1956.” This is untrue in two ways. Calder Hall was not a ‘commercial’ nuclear power plant, but a plutonium production plant run by the UK Atomic Energy Authority for the Ministry of Defence to provide nuclear explosive materials for nuclear warheads.
In fact it was clearly stated at the time of the plant’s opening, in a remarkable little book entitled Calder Hall: The Story of Britain’s First Atomic Power Station, written by Kenneth Jay, and published by the Government’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell to mark Calder’s commissioning in October 1956.  Mr Jay wrote:
Major plants built for military purposes such as Calder Hall are being used as prototypes for civil plants . . . the plant has been designed as a dual-purpose plant to produce plutonium for military purposes as well as electric power . . . it would be wrong to pretend that the civil programme has not benefitted from, and is not to some extent dependent upon, the military programme."
As a key  company in the supply chain, surely Weir Group should have known what they were supplying.
In fact, the first nuclear plant to deliver electricity to the grid was the Russian reactor AM-1, at Obninsk, near Moscow, on opened on 27 June 1954. It was also used as a research reactor for the Soviet nuclear navy. The first nuclear reactor devoted purely to civil power generation was the Shippingport Atomic Power plant, in Pennsylvania close to Pittsburgh, which opened on 2 December 1957.
As for Mr Cochrane’s almost Panglossian hope for huge British job creation as a result of new nuclear build, he should consult the report commissioned last March from Oxford Economics by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which found that domestic suppliers would be able to win a maximim of 44% of the supply chain contracts. The main beneficiaries are foreign companies, mainly French.
And his argument is hypocritical, as new nuclear will not be a commercial venture, but  a programme  bolstered by  massive  taxpayer-funded subsidies and guarantees for construction, radioactive  waste management and insurance cover, to name just three  aspects.
I am all for Weir Group gaining new energy sector  contracts, but Mr Cochrane should  get his facts right before going into print  backing a technological loser like  nuclear power.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Mandela, Obama, tolerating dissent and the fate of 2 US whistleblowers

I  note the splendid speech made by US President Barack Obama at the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela ("Madiba"), today, and agree with his assertion that  Mr Mandela showed us the power of action and "of taking risks on behalf of our ideals.”  I also note President Obama’s  observation that  “here are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.” And I wonder  whether  resident Obama has reflected on this sentiment as it applies to United States dissenting citizens Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.


The White House
Office of the Press Secretary

Remarks by President Obama at Memorial Service for Former South African President Nelson Mandela

First National Bank Stadium
Johannesburg, South Africa
1:31 P.M. SAST
PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Thank you so much.  Thank you.  To Graça Machel and the Mandela family; to President Zuma and members of the government; to heads of states and government, past and present; distinguished guests -- it is a singular honor to be with you today, to celebrate a life like no other.  To the people of South Africa -- (applause) -- people of every race and walk of life -- the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us.  His struggle was your struggle.  His triumph was your triumph.  Your dignity and your hope found expression in his life.  And your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.
It is hard to eulogize any man -- to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person -- their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul.  How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.
Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by the elders of his Thembu tribe, Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century.  Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement -- a movement that at its start had little prospect for success.  Like Dr. King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice.  He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War.  Emerging from prison, without the force of arms, he would -- like Abraham Lincoln -- hold his country together when it threatened to break apart.  And like America’s Founding Fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations -- a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power after only one term.
Given the sweep of his life, the scope of his accomplishments, the adoration that he so rightly earned, it’s tempting I think to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men.  But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait.  (Applause.)  Instead, Madiba insisted on sharing with us his doubts and his fears; his miscalculations along with his victories.  “I am not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection -- because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried -- that we loved him so.  He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood -- a son and a husband, a father and a friend.  And that’s why we learned so much from him, and that’s why we can learn from him still.  For nothing he achieved was inevitable.  In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness, and persistence and faith.  He tells us what is possible not just in the pages of history books, but in our own lives as well.
Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals.  Perhaps Madiba was right that he inherited, “a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness” from his father.  And we know he shared with millions of black and colored South Africans the anger born of, “a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments…a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people,” he said.
But like other early giants of the ANC -- the Sisulus and Tambos -- Madiba disciplined his anger and channeled his desire to fight into organization, and platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand up for their God-given dignity.  Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price.  “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination.  I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and [with] equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”  (Applause.)
Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with.  He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet.  He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and his passion, but also because of his training as an advocate.  He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement.  And he learned the language and the customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depend upon his.  (Applause.)
Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough.  No matter how right, they must be chiseled into law and institutions.  He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history.  On core principles he was unyielding, which is why he could rebuff offers of unconditional release, reminding the Apartheid regime that “prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”
 But as he showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws, he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal.  And because he was not only a leader of a movement but a skillful politician, the Constitution that emerged was worthy of this multiracial democracy, true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African.
And finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit.  There is a word in South Africa -- Ubuntu -- (applause) -- a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift:  his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.
We can never know how much of this sense was innate in him, or how much was shaped in a dark and solitary cell.  But we remember the gestures, large and small -- introducing his jailers as honored guests at his inauguration; taking a pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family’s heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS -- that revealed the depth of his empathy and his understanding.  He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.
It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well -- (applause) -- to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion and generosity and truth.  He changed laws, but he also changed hearts.
For the people of South Africa, for those he inspired around the globe, Madiba’s passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate a heroic life.  But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection.  With honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask:  How well have I applied his lessons in my own life?  It’s a question I ask myself, as a man and as a President.
We know that, like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation.  As was true here, it took sacrifice -- the sacrifice of countless people, known and unknown, to see the dawn of a new day.  Michelle and I are beneficiaries of that struggle.  (Applause.)  But in America, and in South Africa, and in countries all around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done.
The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality or universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important.  For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease.  We still see run-down schools.  We still see young people without prospects for the future.  Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship, and who they love.  That is happening today.  (Applause.)
And so we, too, must act on behalf of justice.  We, too, must act on behalf of peace.  There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality.  There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.  (Applause.)  And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.
The questions we face today -- how to promote equality and justice; how to uphold freedom and human rights; how to end conflict and sectarian war -- these things do not have easy answers.  But there were no easy answers in front of that child born in World War I.  Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done.  South Africa shows that is true.  South Africa shows we can change, that we can choose a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes.  We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.
We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again.  But let me say to the young people of Africa and the young people around the world -- you, too, can make his life’s work your own.  Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land, and it stirred something in me.  It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.  And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man.  (Applause.)  He speaks to what’s best inside us.
After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength.  Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves.  And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell:  “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
What a magnificent soul it was.  We will miss him deeply.  May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela.  May God bless the people of South Africa.  (Applause.)

Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Atomic Bizarre

The Atomic Bizarre: Nuclear security and proliferation – key issues of concern

Dr David Lowry

Environmental policy and research consultant, member Nuclear Waste Advisory Associates,  and former director, European Proliferation Information Centre (EPIC)


Nuclear security, nuclear weapons and nuclear new build – key issues for consideration by the NFLA


Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) Annual Policy Seminar

Friday 6th December 2013, Committee Room 4, County Hall,

Atlantic Wharf, Cardiff, CF10 4UW 1.30am – 3.30pm


Twenty one years ago this month, a Conservative minister said in a written reply to a Labour MP:

“It is my understanding from the limited information available that Iraq ceased to participate in the activities of the Baghdad pact nuclear training centre when it was transferred to Tehran following the revolution in Iraq in 1959.”

HC Deb 14 December 1992 vol 216 cc23-4W

This reveals that a British government was responsible for supplying both Iraq and Iran with basis for their nuclear programmes. And therein lies a long-standing problem


The minister was Michael Heseltine; the MP, Paul Flynn

This goes to show that Parliament has a long history in overseeing nuclear activities- and nuclear activities, including British exports, go back a very long way

A year ago the Independent newspaper reported:

“Britain today issued a renewed appeal for countries to come together and combat the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack. Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said the number of incidents involving the loss or theft of nuclear materials around the world was growing and nations needed to show the "utmost vigilance…."Nuclear terrorism is a real and global threat. A successful attack, no matter where in the world it came, would be catastrophic…..Catastrophic for the immediate devastation and terrible loss of life, and for the far-reaching consequences - psychological, economic, political and environmental. Such an attack was unthinkable just a generation ago. But it is now a possibility we need to confront with the utmost vigilance."

Independent, 1 November 2012

Britain urges countries to join forces in combating nuclear threat

Grounds for concern

In March 1962 a 10-year-old boy discovered a  cobalt-60 industrial radiography source, which  not in its shielded container. The boy carried the source in a pocket for several days, then it was placed in a kitchen cabinet in his home. Four family members died of resulting radiation sickness: the boy died 29 April (day 38), his mother on 19 July, his 2-year-old sister on 18 August, and his grandmother on 15 October. Radiation exposure was not identified as the cause of the deaths until July-August. The father survived with lesser symptoms.  Five other individuals also received significant overdoses of radiation.

A similar incident happened occurred on 13 September 1987, at Goiânia, in the Brazilian state of Goiás (Gojas), after an old  radioatherapy source was stolen from an abandoned hospital site in the city. It was subsequently handled by many people, resulting in four deaths. About 112,000 people were examined for radioactive contamination and 249 were found to have significant levels of radioactive material in or on their body

Back in Mexico, sometime in November, 1983, Sotelo and Ricardo Hernandez removed a Picker C-3000 teletherapy unit from a hospital warehouse in Juarez, near Mexico’s border with US,  and loaded it onto their pickup. For one reason or another, the source capsule was perforated and approximately 1,000 pellets of Cobalt-60  fell into the bed of the truck. They then took the teletherapy unit to a local scrapyard and sold it for $10. 

At the scrapyard, many of the cobalt pellets that had remained in the source capsule were scattered around when the teletherapy unit was dropped by a magnetic crane. The rest of the pellets stuck to the magnet and became mixed with steel leaving the scrapyard. Most of the latter went to two local foundries. One foundry melted down the steel to produce the pedestal-style table legs used in fast food restaurants. The other produced steel rods (re-bar) for reinforcing concrete.  

The problem was discovered when a truck carrying the reinforcing rods made a wrong turn – ironically at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons complex in New Mexico-  and set off a radiation alarm. Within three days the two foundries had been identified as the source of the contaminated table legs and re-bar, and the scrapyard and contaminated pick-up truck had been located.  

The issue of radioactively-contaminated recycled metals is something I know the NFLAs has rightly taken up.

Earlier this week, another worrying radiological incident took place, once again in Mexico. Reuters reported:

“Thieves have made off with a truck in Mexico carrying a dangerous radioactive source used in medical treatments, a material that could also provide an ingredient for a so-called "dirty bomb".

The U.N. nuclear agency said it had been informed by Mexican authorities that the truck, which was taking cobalt-60 from a hospital in the northern city of Tijuana to a radioactive waste-storage centre, was stolen near Mexico City on Monday.”

Truck with "dangerous" radioactive material stolen in Mexico

Reuters, 2 December 2013




Nuclear Security arrangements in the UK

Paul Flynn was told by the energy minister in a written Parliamentary answer in October three years ago:

“Under the Nuclear Industries Security Regulations 2003, the civil nuclear industry is required to have in place a range of security measures to protect nuclear sites, materials, transports and information. The cost of these security measures and the costs of their regulation by the Office of Civil Nuclear Security are met by the civil nuclear industry in accordance with the Nuclear Industries Security (Fees) Regulations 2005 and the Energy Act 2004”

The minister added:

“In addition to this, my Department has provided some capital funding to the Civil Nuclear Police Authority (CNPA) for the procurement of large items of equipment to enable the Civil Nuclear Constabulary to operate effectively. The CNPA then recovers the cost of these items from the civil nuclear industry. In 2009-10, £2.7million was provided to the CNPA by the Department.”

(Hansard, 18 October 2010: Column 481W)


Hinkley Point C’s new security issues

In October this year, Paul wondered about the changed security arrangements that might now exist as the French companies, EDF Energy and Areva, plus Chinese companies China General Nuclear Corporation and China National Nuclear Corporation plan to collaborate on the planned new  nuclear  power plant at Hinkley Point C; in particular, would the top executives of these foreign companies require to be security vetted?

Energy minister Michael Fallon told him:

In the UK, all employees in the civil nuclear industry and contractors must be vetted to a level of clearance commensurate with their access to nuclear material and/or sensitive nuclear information or technology in accordance with the Nuclear Industries Security Regulations 2003. Agreed standards and processes are applied in accordance with the UK's national security vetting policies and all vetting costs are recoverable from industry.”

(Hansard, 28 October 2013: Column 368W)



Nuclear Security under-regulation

So how is our official nuclear security regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, getting on in making more robust the security of our nuclear facilities and nuclear materials, such as the 111,000 kilogrammes of plutonium, stored at Sellafield?

The most striking thing to note is that on 30 August this year, the official nuclear security and safety regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation explained in an introduction to its new Nuclear Research Needs 2013-14 report:

“In 2012, ONR undertook to publish an integrated statement of Nuclear Research Needs (NRN) to identify the requirements for nuclear related research across the whole of ONR’s regulatory remit. This was partly in response to a review and report on nuclear research and development capabilities produced in 2011 by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, which questioned the limited scope of the NRI.   ONR committed to reviewing the NRN and expanding it to cover our entire regulatory remit: this is the first integrated NRN published to fulfil that commitment.”

It goes on to say:

“This NRN describes the current ONR view on the need for research related to issues that might undermine safe and/or secure operation of UK nuclear facilities if not properly managed.”

And further states:

“This document covers the nuclear research needs of ONR’s six operational programmes, namely:


  • Civil Nuclear Security - regulates security at civil licensed nuclear sites, and all other locations where sensitive nuclear information is held; and the movement by road and rail within the UK, and globally within UK flagged vessels of nuclear and other radioactive material.”
  • Radioactive Materials Transport regulates safety during the transport of radioactive material by road and rail in Great Britain, and advises on its transport by air and sea within the UK territorial waters. 
  • Civil Nuclear Reactor Programme/New Build regulates the safety of operating and defueling nuclear power stations and licensing and permissioning of proposed new build nuclear power stations. 
  • Sellafield Programme regulates the safety of Sellafield and Windscale nuclear licensed sites in Cumbria.
  • Decommissioning, Fuel and Waste Programme regulates safety on a variety of nuclear fuel sites, including fuel cycle, nuclear research, waste management and decommissioning sites.
  • Defence Programme regulates safety at defence sector nuclear sites, including submarine and atomic weapons facilities, working closely with the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR).


All of which is encouraging, until you read on page 2 of the full 165 page document:

“… not all of the above technical areas have detailed research project requirements, therefore: Nuclear Fuel Research, Civil Nuclear Security and the Environment Agencies have not included any research projects within this detailed research needs document.” (My emphasis)

When I read this, I had a double take. It could not really assert that, could it? But actually, it does.

With a prospective new -build power reactor programme, a possible export of  plutonium in MOX fuel, a possible plutonium burner-reactor and a certain decommissioning programme involving  huge quantities of radioactively contaminated  materials being transported nationwide for many years by road, rail - and probably ships too - from protected licensed nuclear sites, in a climate of unresolved security concerns and terrorists threats, it is  incomprehensible that  the UK’s national nuclear security regulator would  have no need to do any research on security issues.

If nothing else, the complexities of how vetting of the huge number of people who will be crossing the thresholds of licensed nuclear installations during transport missions, and others who have access to the huge increase in technical documentation, will be carried out. How will the vetters be trained, and by whom?

Nuclear’s insecurity has been the “elephant in the room” for the nuclear industry from the start of commercialisation of the technology in the early 1950s. Today ministers routinely drop into speeches that safety and security are their number one priority when they sanction any nuclear go-ahead decision.

They will almost certainly genuflect towards Fukushima when addressing safety, but its security failure equivalent, The terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC in on 11 September 2001, is never similarly name checked.

Post 9/11 2001, at a minimum, it is difficult to argue that there is any country with major nuclear facilities where an attack by a small group of well-armed, well-trained terrorists, using at least a lorry/truck bomb and having the assistance of one insider, is not a plausible threat against which security systems should be prepared to defend. National standards and regulations should include regular, realistic, independent testing of the performance of security systems in defeating intelligent, well-trained insider and outsider efforts to overcome them.



I will close with a barely believable tale of the Atomic Bazaar


Among the reasons the Geneva talks on Iran's nuclear programme had to be reconvened last month was that France objected to the deal being closed off earlier.

The French objections were over Tehran's contested plutonium production plant at Arak, but whatever doubts they might have over Arak, they seem to be sanguine about Iran's involvement in uranium enrichment.

Indeed, they are in industrial partnership with the Iranians in this technology and have been for four decades since the agreement was initiated by the Shah in 1975.

Oddly, this deal never gets reported in the context of the Iran nuclear negotiations. Is there any good reason why not?

The origins of the deal illustrate the dangers of international nuclear collaboration.
A joint-stock uranium enrichment Eurodif (European gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment) consortium was formed in 1973, with France, Belgium, Spain and Sweden the original shareholders.In 1975 Sweden's 10 per cent share in Eurodif was sold to Iran.

The French government subsidiary company Cogema (now Areva) and the then Iranian government established the spin-out Sofidif (Société Franco-Iranienne pour l'enrichissement de l'uranium par diffusion gazeuse) with 60 per cent and 40 per cent shares, respectively.

In turn, Sofidif acquired a 25 per cent share in Eurodif, which gave Iran its 10 per cent share of Eurodif.

The former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, lent $1 billion (and another $180 million in 1977) for the construction of the Eurodif factory to have the right to buy 10 per cent of the site's production.

Although Iran's active involvement in Eurodif was halted following the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iran has retained its active involvement in Sofidif, headquartered in Rue La Fayette in Paris, to the present day.

Its current annual report is audited by KPMG. Dr Ali Daee of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran was appointed Iran's new permanent representative to Sofidif as recently as September 25 last year.
Iran's stake in Eurodif was exposed in a report written by Paris-based German nuclear expert Mycle Schneider for the Greens and the European Free Alliance in the European Parliament.

Four years ago, on 1st October 2009, an earlier preliminary atomic agreement with Iran was reached involving the UN nuclear watchdog body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), under which it was agreed to transfer three quarters of Iran's low-enriched uranium abroad.

In return, the West agreed to supply Iran with fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which came online in 1967 and which produces medical isotopes for tests for around one million patients in Iran. But when Argentina, which had previously supplied the fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, indicated it was unwilling to do so again, it prompted Iran to ask the IAEA for help.

It turned out that France was to play a critical role in resolving the impasse over enriched uranium fuel for the reactor.

Although in principle Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant - officially declared to the IAEA in February 2003 - could have enriched the low-enriched uranium to the level needed for the reactor to operate, the main "uranium yellowcake" feedstock for enrichment, the uranium conversion facility in Esfahan, had been contaminated.

France had both the know-how and willingness to help clean up the contaminated fuel.
Fast forward to November 2013. France, as a nuclear technology supplier to Iran, ganging up on its customer client with the other self-appointed five permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany, is guilty of breathtaking hypocrisy. It would be funny if it wasn't so serious.

The French links with Iran's nuclear project

Morning Star 29 November 2013


Curious as to why the extraordinary continued role of Sofidif had barely made a mark in the political debate over Iran’s atomic ambitions, Paul posed a question earlier this week to the Foreign Office, asking what discussions he had had with the Iranian and  French delegation during the most recent P5+1 meeting with Iran in Geneva about the joint Iranian-French involvement in the uranium enrichment consortium Sofidif.

New junior foreign minister, Hugh Robertson, responded:

Neither Sofidif nor Eurodif were discussed with either the French or Iranian delegations at the recent nuclear negotiations in Geneva. Discussions focussed solely on securing a first stage agreement between the E3+3 and Iran which addresses our most important concerns about the Iranian nuclear programme.)

(Hansard, 2 December 2013: Column 569W)

How convenient!

Atomic salesman Cameron opens Pandora’s Box

In classical Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on Earth. Zeus ordered Hephaestus, the god of craftsmanship, to create her, so he did—using water and earth  When Prometheus - mytholigically a Titan and trickster-  stole fire from heaven, Zeus took vengeance by presenting Pandora to Epimetheus, Prometheus' brother. With her, Pandora was given a beautiful jar – with instructions not to open it under any circumstance. Impelled by her curiosity (given to her by the gods), Pandora opened it, and all evil contained therein escaped and spread over the earth. She hastened to close the container, but the whole contents had escaped….

It is clear from David Cameron’s trade promotion mission to China earlier this week, that he is hawking British nuclear expertise in exchange for inward investment from China’s State Investment bank.

The BBC reported on Wednesday:

“David Cameron has promised to create a "partnership for growth and reform" as he visits China on a trade mission with more than 100 UK business leaders. The PM, who met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Monday, also pledged to put his "full political weight" behind a proposed EU-China trade agreement

On Monday, Premier Li Keqiang said the pair had agreed in their talks to "push for breakthroughs.. on nuclear power…”


This could indeed open Pandora’s Box.