New Internationalist

Update

Issue 103

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[image, unknown] NUCLEAR POWER[image, unknown]

The oceans glowing harvest

Britain is the only country that dumps radioactive wastes into the sea. Holland, Belgium and Switzerland had also been recent polluters, but following protests from the international community and an initiative from Greenpeace in the Netherlands earlier this year, a Dutch court ruled the postponement of waste dumping by the European countries pending an appeal. That left the good ship ’Gem’ sailing from the Sharpness docks in late July loaded with 3000 tonnes of radioactive waste drums, that were rolled off the deck and into the North Atlantic.

Such environmental irresponsibility, reminiscent of the Japanese attitudes to whales, has disgusted other nations but provoked little response from the British media. Indeed, the popular science magazine, New Scientist (Vol. 91, No. 1263) gave handsome editorial space to an employee of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment to explain why this dumping is for the best — in the best of all possible worlds. Meanwhile little coverage has been given to an excellent pamphlet, ‘Dumping at Sea’ produced by concerned environmentalists in the West Country — perhaps because it has a very different view of the British nuclear establishments policy, and nothing like the $10 million budget spent annually on advertising and promoting the nuclear case.

‘Dumping at Sea’ stressed:

• The nuclear lobby generally, and the New Scientist article in particular, emphasize how low-level and mildly radioactive are the contaminated wastes being shot into the seas. But they must be dangerous if they are sent to sea — an expensive transport exercise. Really low-level waste can even go straight onto municipal tips or be cheaply buried where it is created.

•The impression is created that the waste comes from hospitals, industry and other respectable users. A little of it does. But far more, a government report showed, was sludge from the controversial nuclear power stations and atomic weapons industry.

• The International Atomic Energy Agency, that well known watchdog with no teeth, in rulings in 1976 and 1978 made clear they did not encourage sea-dumping, and a ‘detailed environmental and ecological assessment’ should be made before more radioactive drums were jettisoned into the oceans. The British have cheerfully gone ahead with no proper environmental assessment, no full investigation into land alternatives and no actual checking on the environmental results. Instead assessments based on 'mathematical models’ conveniently and cheaply located in laboratories have had to suffice.

• The long term effects of sea dumping are largely unknown. The radioactive drums are designed not to break up while sinking: but radioactivity is expected by the International Atomic Energy Agency to quickly escape on the seabed. A 1980 Review of the North East Atlantic dumping site suggested that the organisms feeding on the radioactive debris had little contact with the fish we eat in our households. However, the problem of people swimming in radioactive polluted water was more worrying. Deep sea currents were expected to be the most likely way for radioactivity to be washed over a wide area. The ‘first approximations’ of how long before water left one dumpsite was 625 years, for another about 13 years. Interestingly, a recent investigation of the US sea dumping sites before they abandoned the practice in 1970 found fish with 5000 times as much radioactivity as would normally be expected. At the same time and in the same place as the investigation there were 25 commercial fishing vessels hauling aboard a contaminated harvest from the sea.

• International opinion on British sea-dumping policy was canvassed by Greenpeace last year. The Swedish government summed up the response: ‘such disposal is a threat to the fauna and flora of the sea, and, by consequence, to mankind’.

• But of course other countries have pro-dumping lobbies who use the British example. If the UK continues, it is likely such lobbies will triumph and radioactivity in the oceans increase. Already Japan has applied to dump in the Pacific — see update ‘Nuclear Garbage’ NI issue 98 — citing the British example. And the US Navy has two laid-up Polaris submarines with radioactive nuclear generators on board they propose to sink at sea. So far the US Environment Protection Agency has stopped them, but the Navy is pressing to get rid of the embarrassment — again citing the British practise in support of their case.

Ultimately, the environmental pamphlet concludes, it is irresponsible for the nuclear industry to produce ever more radioactive waste when there is no proven way of disposing of it. The unknown and possibly hideous environmental consequence of radioactive waste are just part of the price paid for our nuclear generated electricity and atomic bomb defence establishment

‘Dumping at Sea' price 7Op/$2 inc. postage, from Campaign Against Sea Dumping, Longacre Hall, London Road, Bath.

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[image, unknown] APPROPRIATE ENERGY[image, unknown]

Converting hot air to action

Hot air can be a useful form of energy. How much of it can be trapped and translated into action from the UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy this August in Nairobi still has to be seen. The energy issue is acute. For the 80 per cent rise in the real price of oil between 1978 and 1980 has buffetted the already fragile economies of the most energy-poor developing nations. Added to their stiff cocktail has been lower prices for their traditional commodity exports and a lack of demand from the recession-hit industrialised world. Faced with such a beverage, worried finance ministers don’t know which way to tum.

An Earthscan Briefing Document, New and Renewable Energies provides some answers. It takes a tough look at just how those expensive oil imports could be cut. But first, just how fierce has been the squeeze from the oil price hikes? Table 1 shows how in 1975 a tonne (1000 kilograms) of copper bought 115 barrels of oil. By March 1981, it bought 57 barrels. Put another way, commodity exporters needed to export 79 per cent more coffee, 180 per cent more sugar, 250 per cent more jute and 175 per cent more maize than in 1975 to buy the same barrel of oil.

Already the energy-poor developing nations are finding that their main local source of fuel, firewood, is rapidly going up in smoke. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates 90 million people suffer from severe scarcity of fuel wood and another 800 million are lopping trees faster than the branches are growing. This is not only creating another energy crisis but has bleak, not to say barren, implications for the local environment.

Planting trees is an obvious answer, but few countries have managed the village-level fuel wood plantations which offer the best solution.

There is a variety of future energy sources which may compensate for the scarcity of wood and the high price of oil. In some areas biogas from silage is possible, elsewhere charcoal, kerosene or bottled gas could be an option. But it is the natural, renewable energy sources: the heat of the sun, the power from wind and water currents, the muscle of draught animals like oxen, mules and camels which really need to be studied. And conservation, too, has been taking a back seat for too long. The towns of Africa, Asia and Latin America have been abandoning the energy-efficient and naturally insulated buildings of mud, adobe and brick in favour of Westem-style glass and concrete. Such ‘modern’ architecture brings in its wake heavy electricity consumption for airconditioners and central heating.

In a cheeky and provocative guide — Table 2 — Earthscan provides a thumbnail sketch of energy technologies with real potential for the poor world. Clearly viable now, the Briefing Document suggests, is solar architecture (energy saving buildings), charcoal and draught animals. It also holds out good prospects for countries with peat deposits, oil shale near cities, sugar producers who can convert their crop into alcoholic fuel, more efficient harnesses and carts and stronger breeds of draught animals. All humble, all small scale. But the biggest contribution to energy needs it sees in the crystal ball will be an old favourite: the mining or importing of coal.

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[image, unknown] LEAST DEVELOPED COUNTRIES[image, unknown]

The gathering storm clouds

‘The situation is always critical but never serious,’ a weary diplomat once said of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unfortunately the least developed countries are looking set to go the way of the Hapsburg dynasty. ‘Unless we get action now!’ Gamini Corea, Secretary General of the UN Conference on Least Developed Countries held in Paris this September warned, ‘then some of these countries are just going to go under.’ The bottom line of the Paris Conference is likely to be a request for an 18 million dollar a year increase in aid.

Qualifications to join the 31 countries with ‘least developed’ status are demanding. Income per head averages $183 a year. Many of the 268 million people from these countries are subsistence farmers who rarely come into contact with dollars and cents. A more accurate indication of the appalling handicaps facing them is the 76 per cent illiteracy rate amongst adults. And two-thirds of these people live in ‘absolute poverty’, without an adequate diet.

Storm clouds, never far away, have gathered fast in the last three years. Petroleum price increases mean that some of the countries in the club are having to spend two thirds of their export income on oil bills alone. The money to pay for this has to come from export crops. But harvests over the last 20 years have inched upwards by 1.6 per cent a year, failing to keep pace with the 2.7 per cent population growth rate. And so, besides expensive oil imports, countries where 92 per cent of their economy is bound up with farming are becoming major food importers.

The goal of the Paris Conference is a doubling of income and living standards by 1990. One way this could be achieved is through an increase of $18 million a year from the aid donors; funds which would be channelled into primary schools, job creation schemes and agricultural improvements. ‘Precisely because these countries are so small,’ says Gamini Corea, ‘their needs when seen from the donor countries are manageable.’

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[image, unknown] LATIN AMERICA[image, unknown]

A Presidential facelift

The Brazilian government, winding up for the 1982 elections, is tampering with the electoral rules. It is proposing reforms where — surprise, surprise — the main beneficiary would be the pro-government Partido Democratico Social. The proposals, described in Latin America Weekly (WR-81-30), include strict limits on free electoral propaganda and media time allocated according to the present representation of parties in Congress. Particularly beneficial to the government is the proposal for the banning of electoral alliances between parties. The opposition is already split between warring factions and their only chance of success next year would have been a united front against the government.

President Joao Baptista Figueiredo has begun to stump the rounds of electoral hustings already, attempting to regain his reputation as ‘a man of the people’. Another effort to uplift his fallen image may have been the major plastic surgery he underwent in July. The operation attracted great public interest. Curiosity has been further aroused by the Presidential entourage who are treating his new face as a state secret. A strict ban has been imposed on all photographs until the scars have been completely healed.

The scars on Brazil’s democratic system might take a little longer to disappear.

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[image, unknown] UGANDA[image, unknown]

Recovering at last

The Ugandan economy, according to reports from returning Oxfam field staff, is at last recovering after a decade of chaos. Encouraging signs during the past few months include falling food prices and a sharp drop in the black market rate for the Ugandan Shilling.

Under Idi Amin’s regime, Uganda’s once highly efficient cash crop economy — based on coffee, sugar, cotton and tea — declined rapidly. The country’s transport, communications and public administration collapsed, and its health and educational institutions deteriorated almost beyond recognition. Dwindling foreign exchange earnings were squandered on whisky and other luxuries flown in from the United Kingdom for the Ugandan Army. Asians and Ugandans from southern tribes — badly needed because of their skilled manpower — either fled the country or were massacred.

Amin’s downfall in April 1979 did not bring about an economic recovery. Instead, lawlessness spread further. Ex-Amin soldiers and bandits halted local trading by raiding trucks carrying produce to towns and cities. Inflation raged with paper notes being printed indiscriminately and the Ugandan Shilling became totally debased. By early 1981 the black market — or magendo — for the Shilling offered almost 20 times the official rate.

A key stage in Uganda’s economic recovery was this February’s visit of a team from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The team recommended devaluing the Ugandan Shilling, sharply restricting the money supply and slashing government borrowing and spending. After some grinding and gnashing teeth, the Ugandans have complied with most of the IMF recommendations. Bank notes are being systematically withdrawn and destroyed. The Ugandan Shilling was allowed to ‘float’ and by May had sunk to one third of its former official value. The magendo — rate also fell from 20 times to only twice the official rate. Providing these tough policies are maintained, the IMF will lend Uganda $180 million — in quarterly instalments — over the next year.

At the same time there are reports from the country that internal security has improved as undisciplined troops are withdrawn to barracks and freshly trained police restore some security on the roads. Fuel is available more readily, greater quantities of food and other basic commodities are being moved into towns and cities, and markets are springing back to life. As a result, prices of many essential goods have plummeted.

But to uphold the value of the currency, the government must earn foreign exchange. In the short term this must come from exports of coffee, most of which still is smuggled over Uganda’s borders attracted by higher prices. In May President Obote announced a trebling of coffee prices, but even this may not be sufficient inducement to producers.

Uganda is blessed with a solid basis for economic recovery, despite the ravages of the past decade. There is well-watered, fertile land in abundance, mineral resources (copper and cobalt) are waiting to be tapped and the people are resilient and hard working. But western governments — including the UK— are still reluctant to provide the development aid which Uganda needs for full economic recovery.

To restore full security and the people’s confidence in their own future, the Obote government must crush the resistance of armed insurgents in the bush. Whether the Ugandan Army and Police are up to this task is another story.

Glen Williams

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[image, unknown] DISARMAMENT[image, unknown]

Sunny days for the killer industry

British manufacturing industry is taking a nosedive. Over the last two years manufacturing output has dropped by 17 per cent and 1,028,000 jobs (one in seven of the manufacturing workforce) have been lost.

Courtaulds have cut 35,000 jobs since 1979; Dunlops, 11,000; ICI, 6,000 in 1980 and perhaps another 6,000 in 1981. Over the last three years British Leyland has cut its workforce by nearly a third from 187,000 to 132,800. The British Steel Corporation has cropped even harder and quicker, reducing its workforce from 186,000 to 111,000 in little over two years.

British Aerospace Rapier missile display.
British Aerospace Rapier missile display.
Photo: Camera Press/Michael Blackman

These are the giants of industry. Numberless medium and small manufacturing firms would tell the same story — factories closed, workers dismissed, profits becoming losses and businesses going bankrupt.

But there is one bright spot in the gloomy picture. Manufacturers of arms and military equipment are doing very well; there is more money to be made in devising and selling technology for killing people than in making things for people to enjoy life.

Electronics is at the forefront of arms boom and by coincidence two leaders in that field, Ferranti and Racal, published their reports on the same day late in June.

About a century ago the founder of the Ferranti dynasty, S Z de Ferranti, was applying his considerable inventive skill to devising amp-hour meters, various electrical transformers, particularly those for the transmission of power over long distances, and so on. From this beginning the firm grew to be one of the leading makers of meters, radio sets, heavy transformers and other electrical gear. But a few years ago they fell upon hard times.

Now all that has changed, thanks to the boom in electronics equipment for military purposes. Their profits for the year just completed were $40 million, an increase of 62 per cent over the previous year and a pleasing 6.7 per cent of their turnover. Non-military exports were down but, comments the Financial Times, the Scottish group has now got its teeth firmly stuck into an extensive aerospace order book.

The arms race is bringing prosperity not only to the electronics firms. British Aerospace, as well as making aircraft, has a Dynamics Group which makes guided missile and space systems. Over the last six years its sales have risen from $300 million to around $750 million and at the beginning of this year the Group had an outstanding order book totalling nearly $3,000 million: enough to keep it going and growing for a while yet. Most of the Group’s sales and profits derive from guided missiles and it boasts that it is Western Europe’s largest and most diversified manufacturer of tactical guided missiles. Two thirds of its business is with the British government. The Argentine Navy and the Brunei, Egyptian, Swiss and Swedish governments are among its other customers. Tracked Rapier (the Rapier low-level surface-to-air missile mounted on an armoured vehicle) was originally developed for export to Iran — but then the Shah left. Perhaps the Tracked Rapiers could now be sold to Iraq instead, for there are high-level talks going on about selling arms to that country — the other side in the same war.

David Pitt


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