Races against time- Chapter 1

Nearly 40 years ago, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and I was preparing to stand as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in a ‘safe’ conservative seat, I published 6 essays in a booklet entitled ‘Races Against Time’. The sad truth is that much of what I was warning about at that time, when ‘climate change’ wasn’t even a term, is still crying out for action.  I still stand by the words written in my thirties but am desperately disappointed that so little has changed in spite of the millions of good people, including my grand children, who have expressed the urgency to act.  

Let’s act now – or it really will be too late.

  1. The Power of Plutonium: Written 3 years before the Chernobyl disaster.
  2. Burning It Up: Addressing scandalous energy inequality and waste.
  3. Transport of Delight: Domination of the car and loss of our rail network.
  4. Economy & Equity: Conservation, population, food, and the Third World.
  5. Raping the Benefits: Global control of the commodity markets. 
  6. Breach of the Peace: Russia and the existential threat of nuclear war.


“If you are in a minority of one, the truth is the truth.” (Gandhi).

Liberals know what it is like to be in a minority, but we persist in the belief that one day, whether it be at the coming election or the next, we will succeed in breaking through those barriers that stand in our way. My overwhelming conviction is that governments have pulled and lured the population in the wrong direction for so long that their massive deceit has become institutionalised. The politicians have made the course and we are all supposed to run around it. We have a choice of pursuing the blinkered race or stopping to think where we are racing to and what for.

In this series of six essays, for they are no more than that, I try to give emphasis to some of the matters that concern me most. They are not the standard economic and social issues that dominate our politics, but they have a fundamental effect on our lives, on our welfare and work, and on our continued existence. I give priority to those areas that I see as a threat to our existence and hope to alert as many people as possible. I ask that these chapters are read with an open mind and that it is seen as a document of hope and not despair – hope that if we all do a little we can win these races against time.

“No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Those were Bristol M.P. Edmund Burke’s words 200 years ago and this pamphlet is my small contribution to that sentiment.

George Ferguson

Bristol 1st May 1983

The Power of Plutonium

If the Ancient Egyptians had had nuclear power, if the pyramids had contained nuclear reactors, the radioactive plutonium waste would now only be a fraction less dangerous than at the time of building these monuments. It would still take tens of thousands of years for that waste to be rendered ‘safe’. Would we have thanked Tutankhamen for leaving us with this inheritance? Would we be here?

The great pyramids have lasted more than 4000 years, yet in the development of the world it is only yesterday. The expected operational life of our nuclear reactors is only about 30 years, and with the problems that have been encountered so far it would seem that this could be optimistic. The cost of each nuclear power station is on a similar scale to the cost of the Falklands War.

30 years ago Eisenhower decided to export nuclear technology ‘for peaceful purposes’. Here was a chance for him to demonstrate that this deadly technology could provide a clean, reliable and cheap energy source for the rest of the world. I remember in the 60’s being told that nuclear power was going to produce virtually free electricity – it seemed magic. The CEGB is still preaching to children the virtues and necessity of nuclear power. It is left to organisations like Friends of the Earth, with their very limited resources, to reveal the true costs and risks and to try to counterbalance the heavily weighted arguments and glossy presentations. The fact is we have taken off in a wonderful new flying machine before learning exactly how to land, but the crew are confident that they will solve the problems and the passengers should not panic!

The nuclear scientists will say that these are emotional arguments being used to counter a high technology of which I only have limited understanding. “It is a complicated technology that should be left to the scientists and we should believe their assurances.” The CEGB, we are told, have an exemplary safety record, one that is respected throughout the world. These assurances give me the sort of comfort I would receive at the prospect of being run over by an ambulance. But the argument is not between the scientists and the rest of us. Many eminent physicists are now questioning the assumption that nuclear energy is necessary and that the risks are acceptable. Some are in the forefront of the active opposition to an increasing reliance on the generation of electricity by nuclear power.

The two main questions that we must ask are:

1) Are these fears real or imaginary?

2) If real, is the need so great that we must regard it as a necessary risk?

They are questions to which we all have a right to an answer, and are not the preserve of a nuclear elite. Our government wants to build ten or more large nuclear power stations before the end of the century, only 17 years away. The International Atomic Energy Agency envisages a vast increase in the number of nuclear power stations throughout the world and has all eyes on Britain’s decision. Our Prime Minister and her Energy Minister have revealed an unswerving devotion to these plans and a determination not to be thrown off course by the findings of the Sizewell Inquiry. The ‘resolute approach’ is yet again taking precedent over democratic procedure and any proper analysis.

There have been no dramatic deaths as a result of nuclear power station accidents. The coal and oil industries have had their fair share of tragedies: dramatic headline-hitting tragedies such as Aberfan and the collapse of the Norwegian oilrig. For some, this is the end of the argument on safety. But it ignores much. There have been hundreds of deaths in the uranium mines, but they have mainly been black Namibian miners under white South African control. We hear little of these deaths, which are never included in any statistics on the safety record of the nuclear industry.

There has been a remarkably casual attitude by the industry in the monitoring of the health and causes of death of its own workers. There is now overwhelming evidence that hundreds of people have contracted cancer as a result of radiation leaks.

A recent study by the National Radiological Protection Board, not the most radical of organisations, finds that the 1957 Windscale fire may have caused up to 260 cases of thyroid cancer and 13 deaths. The most vulnerable groups were young children in the surrounding area, whose milk was found to contain radioactive iodine. We have added about 50% to the natural background radiation level through the testing of nuclear weapons, medical use and other radiation leaks. Some of these leaks are deliberate and considered permissible throughout the process of generating nuclear power from the mining to the generation, processing and storage.

Plutonium 239, which remains dangerous for at least 100,000 years, affects the liver and sex organs, causing cancer in the victims and hereditary damage to their children. Plutonium 239 is only produced by the generation of nuclear power and we are producing it without knowing how to dispose of it. The level of concentration of radioactive elements is not only increasing in the air but in plants and land animals, and in water and fish. An American scientist, Rosalie Bertell, has found that low levels of radiation lead to a breakdown of our bodies’ defences and that increased incidence of child asthma, eczema and other allergies are the result of parents being exposed to low-level radiation around the time of conception. She also finds that many of the ‘old-age’ diseases are increasingly being contracted by the young. The American nuclear industry has attempted to restrict her activities as if she were some dangerous radical. Like others who have crossed their path, she has received the sort of treatment to be expected in a police state. Unlike Karen Silkwood, an employee of the largest plutonium reactor fuel producer in the United States, who dared to speak out against her employer’s safety record, Rosalie Bertell is still alive and the results of her research exist.

The evidence, which with every study seems to become more frightening, is that we are playing with a technology that has damaging side effects far beyond those that can possibly have been imagined in the 1950’s, but that too many reputations and fortunes have been made on the back of the nuclear power boom for a voluntary retreat to be made. The big corporations will not surrender a lucrative market without a fight. If we actually came to a complete halt now and decommissioned our nuclear power station stations we would still be left with the problem of disposing of waste that will be dangerous for thousands of years. This is no argument for adding to that waste which may already be at a level that will cause catastrophic damage in generations to come. Solutions ranging from the basic to the fantastic, from burial to rocketing straight into the sun have been mooted. What happens when the rocket explodes on take off is beyond imagination. What happens when the waste is ‘disposed of’ beneath the ground or the sea is an eventual pollution of the ground water and the seabed with inevitable effects on future generations? The National Radiological Protection Board suggests the guarding of the less dangerous waste from PWR reactors and their burial grounds for 150 years. It is not only the technical difficulties of disposal that remain unsolved but also the political problems of maintaining stability in this country and throughout the world. A necessary assumption in the promotion of nuclear power is political stability and sanity on a level and for a time that greatly exceeds anything that has been achieved in the history of civilisation.

Is it purely coincidental that the type of reactor that is proposed at Sizewell, the notorious Three Mile Island PWR, is designed to produce the right grade of plutonium for the manufacture of nuclear bombs? The government and CEGB deny any connection. Assuming they are not practising the same level of deceit that has become one of the more remarkable features of the nuclear power industry, how can we guarantee that less scrupulous governments or even terrorists will not make use of this deadly material in the future? Enough weapons-grade plutonium was produced in the civil Magnox reactors (Calderhill and Chapelcross are military reactors) between 1962 and 1972 to manufacture about 500 bombs. This probably went to the United States for the production of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear states, including our own, seem particularly interested in fast breed reactors and our government is continuing to spend millions a year on this technology. They breed the highest quality weapons grade plutonium, much of which is produced in this country and is unaccounted for. Answers to questions in Parliament have produced more confusion than clarity. In these circumstances it is impossible to convince the public that there are adequate safeguards. Like the snake in ‘The Jungle Book’ that says to Mowgli, “Trust in me,” while hypnotising him into submission, the government hopes that we will be as submissive to their assurances.

The United States has earned more through reactor exports, especially to the Third World, than through any other export. This increases the developing countries’ dependence on the Western World, is totally inappropriate to their actual needs and has a striking contribution to the widening of the poverty gap within their countries. Many of these countries have notorious records of the violation of human rights. Developing countries, often without the benefits of the stringent safety regulations for which this country is renowned, may have been saddled with the means of their own destruction. The release of radioactivity from a large reactor as the result of an attack or a meltdown could make a whole country uninhabitable for centuries. The combination of human and technical errors that nearly led to a catastrophe at Three Mile Island in the most sophisticated country in the world must be more likely in developing countries that have just made a huge technological leap without a proper understanding of the full consequences.

Even if we assume that all these horrors are imaginary, the product of scare-mongers, radicals, communists, feminists or hairy loonies and that we have the technology to render nuclear power completely safe, it is becoming increasingly clear that nuclear power and democracy, real democracy, are incompatible. The liberties of those within the industry are greatly restricted, preventing the many who oppose the proposed Sizewell reactor from speaking out. More personal information is required of them than most of us would contemplate tolerating. They are truly under State control and bound by the Official Secrets Act. The armed police force employed by the Atomic Energy Authority is not answerable to the Home Secretary or to any local authority. More sites and more land are becoming out of bounds and the necessary central government control of nuclear installations kills the possibility of more local autonomy. The likelihood of government, industrial or terrorist blackmail is increased as energy sources become more centralised. We can have nuclear power stations only in exchange for restrictions of freedom.

To fly in the face of all these warnings, there must be a vast cost advantage and the creation of many jobs on this mammoth capital building programme. Unfortunately the truth is that nuclear power creates fewer jobs than any other form of energy investment, except in the bureaucracy that has grown to defend its existence. Many more jobs are created in the harnessing of renewable energy sources or in conservation programmes. In that case you might think that at least it must be efficient and cheap. Unfortunately that is not the case either. For years the CEGB’s tactics have been to fudge the figures by the use of very selective costings. It is only recently as a result of pressure from the Green Movement that they have produced something representing a true analysis of generation costs. In this, suddenly, the cost of nuclear power is shown to be more than that of coal-fired generation with its much higher level of employment. Previously the politicians and the public had been told that it was considerably cheaper, by the omission of the full cost of the capital investment and interest charges. The actual fuel cost has been seriously underestimated, as had the cost of research and development, repairs, the costs of the decommissioning of nuclear power stations and the disposal of waste. Faced with the reality of the high capital cost of nuclear power stations, the CEGB had to reverse the inevitable consequences of inflation and assume a falling nuclear fuel cost to make it seem competitive! It was a fiddle.

The most thorough cost analysis is in ‘The Cost of Nuclear Power’ by Colin Sweet in which he concludes, “there is nothing advantageous in the nuclear programme from the point of view of the economy as a whole. It represents high cost and low growth”.

The detailed arguments of the Sizewell Inquiry, about such things as the development of robotic equipment to reduce risks in radioactive areas, pale into insignificance when considered against the wider implications of continuing to build nuclear power stations. Any technology that requires such fantastic safeguards is a basically unsound technology and will forever hang like a sword of Damocles over mankind.

The only possible justification would be that without it we could not survive. Thank God the ancient Egyptians did not have nuclear power!

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