As the 26th of September is the International Day for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, and with an upcoming UN vote on nuclear disarmament, I thought now would be a good time to post some reflections on all things nuclear.
I have never agreed with T S Eliot's proclamation (in The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock) that 'April is the cruelest month'. But then Eliot was writing in 1915, before the awesome splitting of the atom and all that nuclear fission has subsequently bestowed upon mankind, good and bad. To my mind, August overtook April on the day that Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima 71 years ago on August 6th, killing upwards of 140,000 people and consigning millions more to a life of ill-health, health anxieties and PTSD, not to mention all the genetic mutations (both animal and vegetable) that came to light in the generations that followed. August is now dubbed Nuclear Free Month by indomitable anti-nuclear campaigners. So when summer was over I thought I would do some reflecting on all things nuclearahead of a landmark UN General Assembly vote on a new initiative for multilateral nuclear disarmament, due to take place this November.
I represent the north west of England in the European Parliament which includes the nuclear power stations of Heysham and Sellafield, the proposed nuclear waste dump at Moorside, the shipyards at Barrow-in Furness, home of Trident submarines, and the progressive, peace-loving, radical city of Manchester, one of 5,551 cities and towns around the world that has joined together to form Mayors For Peace. This global initiative has spawned civic exchanges, joint actions, education projects, arts activities, peace trails, and even a Peace Boat which stopped off at 30 ports in 2014 on a pilgrimage from Yokohama to Kobe in Japan and around the world.
In the first few months of my mandate I accompanied a Mayors for Peace visit to the town of Ors in Northern France where Wilfred Owen met his untimely death just a few days short of the 1918 Armistice, aged 25. My fellow Labour MEP, Afzal Khan, had the privilege of serving as a Manchester Mayor for Peace before becoming elected to represent the NW of England along with me and Theresa Griffin in May 2014. Last year's Manchester Mayor, Councillor Paul Murphy, was equally committed to the peace movement and on Hiroshima Day we shared stories of youthful activism at a moving ceremony in Manchester Museum's Living Worlds Gallery where children's poems and artwork were on display along with seedling Gingko trees donated by the city of Hiroshima.
Manchester City Council is also a founder member of Nuclear Free Local Authorities, a U.K. initiative established more than 35 years ago that aims to campaign against military and civil use of nuclear technology, making a link between nuclear weapons and nuclear power, something that not all so-called 'non-nuclear' states are prepared to do, believing that civil use of nuclear technology is a form of 'green' energy, comparatively cheap and safe, or at least worth the risk, perhaps overly confident in the light if the recent BBC Panorama report.
I work with Parliamentarians and civil society organisations across Europe promoting nuclear disarmament and nuclear security and there have been fresh initiatives on the nuclear issue in diplomatic circles despite conflicts and crises around the world.
Focusing on the catastrophic humanitarian impact of a nuclear explosion, non-nuclear weapons states and civil society decided to make the case that any use of nuclear weapons would be indefensible and a gross violation of humanitarian law ipso facto, under any circumstance. This approach anticipates that if non-nuclear weapon states establish an international consensus on the total unacceptability of nuclear weapons, nuclear powers would eventually respond, and eventually move to get on board.
Following the failure of the April 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) Review Conference to produce meaningful results fresh initiatives around the humanitarian paradigm picked up momentum.
Led by the Austrian government, 127 nations have formally endorsed the "Humanitarian Pledge", while 159 states have joined the "Humanitarian Initiative". Both initiatives reiterate the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and seek a new international framework for achieving this. To date 847 individual legislators in 41 nations, have also signed the Global Parliamentary Appeal for a Nuclear Weapons Ban including myself and fellow CND member, Jeremy Corbyn.
In December 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on ‘Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations’, as part of a series of new resolutions. The resolutions reiterated commitments to a world without nuclear weapons, and established an Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) to formulate recommendations on the negotiation of an international legal instrument to move towards that outcome. These recommendations will be presented to the UN General Assembly, this November and December.
The European Parliament has historically adopted resolutions on the NPT process, calling for multilateral disarmament, providing the EU’s High Representative with a mandate to engage in the process. Disappointingly, there was no resolution ahead of the 2015 NPT conference. In the meantime, concerned MEPs have worked to put the item back on the agenda, so that the EU can engage in the ongoing international debate, and play its historic role as a promoter of peace.
While the UK government holds onto Trident it refuses to engage in this process, or acknowledge the need for it. Unfortunately, the British Parliament voted to renew Trident in July 2016, but we all know that the struggle is one that requires a long-term outlook.
The current global, geo-political and security climate, together with emerging technological developments make the case for nuclear disarmament, nuclear security and transparency increasingly compelling.
Russia is reportedly developing a fleet of sophisticated underwater drones that could intercept and destroy our Trident submarines, which are supposed to be undetectable. China is said to be close behind. Our deterrent technology is becoming obsolete, while a new and dangerous arms race looms.
Cyber-attacks and cyber-terrorism pose a threat to nuclear installations that could trigger a nuclear attack by non-state actors. Experts believe Stuxnet virus, allegedly an Israeli-America development, which damaged Iranian nuclear installations was the first of a new generation of malware that could be used by hackers to cause untold catastrophic damage.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama and security experts have warned that a nuclear attack from Daesh is a significant risk, as the group has prioritised the acquisition of nuclear material or nuclear weapon.
Of course, these developments do not mean we should live in fear, or allow governments to introduce draconian surveillance laws or start new arms races. We need to take concrete steps on nuclear arms reduction, the safety, security, and transparency of our nuclear installations, and show concerted and real international effort toward the abolition of nuclear weapons, within an international legal framework.
That same thinking applies to nuclear energy too. Just like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fukushima changed everything. In 2011, in the aftermath of the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, the Japanese government shut down all of its nuclear power plants, for maintenance and safety work. Alarmed by the media fallout from such a devastating disaster Germany announced that it would phase out its nuclear power programme in favour of alternative green energy. It shut down eight nuclear power stations immediately, and planed to phase out all nuclear power altogether by 2022. In the meantime, other large European states like Italy, and even the highly nuclear France, have announced they will reduce their nuclear energy output, while the last Belgian nuclear reactor is due to shut down this year. Meanwhile, the British government seems hell-bent on a different track, forging ahead with plans for several next generation new nuclear power plants.
Massive public subsidies have gone into Hinkley Point C, with favours given out to Chinese and French companies for the project. How ironic it is that Theresa May’s interpretation of the fallacious and farcical slogan “take back control”, translates into “handing control over to foreign corporation”.
The debate around nuclear energy is heated, and it provokes widely differing views on the left with the pro-nuclear camp be-dogged by bad publicity from other parts of the world such as failures at Flamanville in France, dodgy Chinese technology, and the re-discovery of Soviet-dumped toxic radioactive material in the Arctic. To top it all the Austrian government, together with a coalition of German companies, and employee representatives of the French energy company in charge, are all mounting various a legal challenges to the state aid being given to Hinckley C and the terms of the contract for the project.
Sadly, last Nuclear Free August in 2015 we saw the Japanese government backtrack on its post-Fukushima decision, something almost unheard of in the country's highly formal and polite political culture where a governmental decision usually stands. Just 5 days after sombre worldwide commemorations to mark the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Fukushima Sendai reactor was duly switched on amidst mass protests and, more worryingly, despite seismic rumblings nearby.
I have a particular interest in the Japanese position as I spent time in the affected area during October 2014, as part of a Green Cross Study Visit to learn about the effects of a nuclear disaster first-hand. As part of this I met with Japanese politicians in Tokyo who openly reported that the majority of their citizens did not want a return to nuclear power, so the government was exploring alternative possibilities. However, the enthusiasm that abounded then seems to have seeped away. Despite mounting evidence from environmental experts as well as economists, the nuclear lobby is a powerful force. New evidence demonstrating nuclear material in polar bears gives rise to fears about the global reach of radioactive pollution. I, for one, cannot bring myself to wholeheartedly support a form of energy production which might saddle future generations with an astronomical clean-up bill not to mention all the health costs that could emanate if the unthinkable happened on my doorstep.
Given that public opinion was clearly in favour of a non-nuclear future the U turn by the Japanese government represents a huge blow to democracy and civil society. Naoto Kan, the Japanese Prime Minister at the time of the Fukushima disaster, was in the UK in February 2015 on a speaking tour of communities threatened by an expansion of the UK's nuclear industry. He resigned in the wake of what happened in Fukushima, saying, "Japan needs to dramatically reduce its dependence on nuclear power."
Kan is a powerful figure in the anti-nuclear debate and an embarrassment to the neo-liberal political class who seem to have been bought off by the big power companies, pursuing a "There is no alternative..." argument. He addressed the Welsh Senned during his visit and also talked to the local authority on Anglesey Island and to local campaigners including a farmer fighting to retain his land.
People Against Wylfa B inaugurated a twinning arrangement with the people of Fukushima during Nuclear Free August in 2015 and I sent a statement of support based on what I had learnt from the Green Cross trip.
I have been to Fukushima Prefecture, to within a few kilometres of the crippled reactor, where cosmetic decontamination exercises result in bags of topsoil lying around in plastic bin bags that are doomed to split and spew their contents in a couple of years. The people who do this painstaking work with hand-trowels are amongst the poorest and most desperate in Japan's society, swept up from the places where unemployment is high with little choice of work options.
Further inland in Fukushima City itself, young mothers try to amuse their children in well-meaning community centres where indoor play has become the norm since radioactive 'hotspots' in the local park mean that public spaces are out of bounds. I also visited a community centre in a trailer park where hundreds of nuclear refugees were living in temporary accommodation, often split up from family members. One woman told me that her husband was in hospital, suffering serious mental illness as a direct result of dislocation from his normal life and home environment. Another wept, wringing her hands, as she told how she felt the guilt and shame of the accident, as if it was her fault for living close by. Now she could no longer visit the graves of her ancestors buried in the village cemetery and she felt as if the threads that bound her and her grandchildren to their identity had been cut. There is nothing that will ever compensate for this deep traumatic loss.
I was thinking about these people a lot during what had been dubbed 'Nuclear Free August' as it was announced that some Fukushima refugees would be allowed to return home if they wished. Certain villages, however, were not on the list of decontaminated safe places and it is unlikely they will be deemed habitable for decades.
Another peace initiative to come out of Nuclear Free Manchester is In Place Of War, an innovative arts project under the direction of Professor James Thompson at Manchester University that works in "sites of war, revolution and conflict to build powerful networks, create social change through creativity, and demonstrate the value of the arts to public space, public life and public debate". Thompson was in Hiroshima for the 70th anniversary as part of a collaboration with Nuclear Futures, an arts platform that works with nuclear survivors to expose the legacy of a nuclear age.
As someone who worked in the arts prior to becoming a parliamentarian I appreciate the role the arts can play in opening up the debate about some of our most difficult issues. Thompson's work is part of a growing body of applied cultural practice emanating from a rigorous academic perspective. Whilst Thompson was in Hiroshima I was in Bosnia, observing another In Place Of War collaboration dealing with the consequences of genocide. The massacre of more than 8000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995 is considered a war crime and justice is being seen to be done. The Mothers of Srebrenica can take some comfort therefore from the ongoing forensic and judicial process that enables the identification and burial of victims and the trial and conviction of guilty parties. No such processes were put in place for the 'Hibakusha', the Japanese atomic bomb survivors. Indeed, in many cases there were not even bodies to bury, simply shadows on the ground, incinerated unidentifiable body parts. Whether or not anyone should have stood trial for the mass murder of civilians in two Japanese cities in August 1945 is debatable but it is worth remembering the indiscriminate nature of WMD.
In the middle of Nuclear Free August 2015, I also travelled from Bosnia to Ukraine. Bankrupt and still bankrolled by oligarchs, Ukraine has allowed its ancient nuclear power stations an extension to their active working lives up to 2030, raising concerns about health and safety. For those that don't know, Chernobyl is 130 km north of Kiev and still largely uninhabited. Every summer children from Chernobyl come to Workington in my constituency. They stay with generous local families and enjoy a few weeks of bracing activities in the Cumbrian landscape. I wonder if they will always be called Chernobyl Children, even if they miraculously survive into old age, their tender bodies having been subject to high levels of radiation
Over the past year, the anti-nuclear movement found itself feeling more hopeful than it had for years with a new Labour leader in the person of Jeremy Corbyn, who has shown a lifelong commitment to CND and environmental campaigns, along with fellow Shadow Cabinet members Diane Abbott and John McDonnell. I was one of two Labour MEPs to endorse Corbyn's leadership nomination, partly because of this issue.
Across the border from my NW constituency Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, was as good as her word and held a proper debate on Trident, acknowledging perhaps that the nuclear weapons issue was a contributory factor in Labour losing all but one of its SNPs. The debate resulted in 70% of members opposing Trident renewal. At the Labour Party conference in 2015, a proposal to debate Trident renewal was voted down by the powerful unions within the National Executive Committee, but this is only delaying the inevitable as Corbyn's continuing ethical stance caused huge consternation when he announced that he would not be prepared to push the nuclear button. Labour’s free vote on Trident renewal in July only goes to show that views on this are shifting.
In the NW a proposal from Westmoreland and Lonsdale Constituency Labour Party to debate the issue was withdrawn following advice that this was a national rather than regional matter. Surely it is also a global issue? And it is a jobs issue and a public spending issue and an ethical issue. At some time we will have to talk about it as a party that has within its ranks a broad range of views.
Despite a good deal of speculation about what the Labour Party may or may not ultimately do about Trident, other nuclear issues have disappeared from the news. For example, the establishment has gone very quiet in respect of the case of the British naval whistleblower, William McNeilly, who was discharged from the Royal Navy, to protect its public image following his shocking insider account of poor safety procedures aboard nuclear submarines. McNeilly's case has not been reported on since July 2015, and the media seems to have completely forgotten about it.
Meanwhile the implications of the Iran nuclear deal continue to rumble on with jubilation in some quarters that painful and protracted negotiations finally resulted in the signing of an agreement despite the fact that Iran has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Sadly for the thousands of people languishing in Iranian jails awaiting public execution, it seems there is always a price to pay whatever side you're on.
One can often be criticised for being simplistic about the nuclear issue. After all nuclear power stations help to keep the lights on. But maybe my instinctive dislike of nuclear power as well as nuclear weapons is justified? Chatham House think-tank released a report last year criticising the 'culture of denial' harboured by nuclear power plants around the world with regard to the threat of cyber hacking. The security risks posed by the very existence of processed uranium in all its myriad forms is largely ignored and vastly underreported. In an era of global destabilisation and political turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere it would therefore seem that no nuclear establishment can consider itself safe.
These are just some of the complex interwoven issues that I continue to work on, as we look ahead to the upcoming UN General Assembly vote, and hopefully an international conference to draft a much-awaited UN Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty in the spring of 2017.
NB: To mark the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster a British theatre company has been working with Ukrainian artists to create a show that is touring this Autumn.