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new internationalist
issue 178 - December 1987



Danger down-play
Facts you should know

The future of the nuclear power industry lies in the balance. One more major accident, especially in Europe, will prevent any more power plants being built. The incentive therefore, for the industry to conceal, deny or play down incidents has never been greater. That must have helped prompt Ecoropa - a British environmental action group - to produce their latest concise and well-written pamplet on Nuclear Power.

Here are some of the key points:

What is the main problem with nuclear reactors?They provide heat which, via steam-driven turbines, produces electricity. Reactors are extremely complex, each having, for example, over 30,000 valves; and they are inherently dangerous. They require elaborate safety systems which all depend on perfect engineering and/or infallible operators. NEITHER EXISTS. There are an average of ten serious accidents in the UK alone every year.

What happened at Chernobyl? In April 1986, control was lost and two hydrogen explosions severely damaged the reactor. Radiation was released. It was the worst nuclear accident anywhere so far. Direct costs include 31 deaths, around 1,000 immediate injuries and at least $4 billion losses.

And one year later? Radiation-induced cancers take so long to show that people will die from the effects of Chernobyl until 2030 AD. Estimates of deaths vary between 1,000 and 500,000. Dr Gale, the US bone-marrow transplant doctor who tended the dying, predicts 75,000 deaths in the Soviet Union. The entire world has received a radiation dose equivalent to all the weapons-testing fall-out, and 30 to 40 times as much lethal ash as was produced by the bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Could Chernobyl happen elsewhere? Yes. Neither Magnox nor Advanced Gas Reactors have effective secondary containment. Indeed the containment structures of European reactors which are meant to withstand the effects of an internal explosion are inadequate. The Chernobyl reactor was the most successful Soviet model - much of its technology was similar to that in the West and it had a number of extra safety features. All nuclear reactors have an immense inventory of radioactive materials - 1,000 times more than an atomic bomb - which, if released by accident or design, can devastate countries. Political leaders do not seem to understand this.

So what's the problem with radiation?Radioactive particles inside or outside the body can kill human cells or alter their behaviour. Damaged cells can become cancerous. Large doses kill outright, small doses can take 40 years to show. One millionth of a gram of plutonium can cause lung cancer. So radiation from the nuclear industry is still to be paid for in unknown numbers of lives.

Why is nuclear waste so dangerous? Nuclear waste is the unacceptable face of nuclear electricity. Plutonium, which forms part of this waste, remains radioactive for at least 250,000 years (over 40 times longer than recorded history) and is highly toxic. It is also a security risk. It has to be isolated from the environment for a quarter of a million years or it will cause cancers. The several tons of waste per week from the British reprocessing plant at Sellafield is causing great radioactive contamination. More than a quarter of a tonne of plutonium has been discharged into the Irish Sea, making it one of the most radioactive in the world. The desperate search for ways to dispose of radioactive waste goes on. No safe solution has been found. Meanwhile three of the six nuclear-waste repositories in the US have had to be closed as unsafe.

As there is no way to dispose of nuclear waste safely, the only sensible course is to stop producing any more.

Copies of Nuclear Power are available from Ecoropa, Crlckhowell, Powys NPS I TA, Wales, UK. £2.75 ($6.00) for 25.


Rickshaw politics
Tric-shaw invention

Enter the tric-shaw, and a new lease of life for drivers.
Photo: Chris Cosgrove

The traditional cycle-driven rickshaw had not changed since it was first devised in Calcutta in the 1930s - although it does permanent physical damage to the drivers.

That was until the Canadian development agency, Inter Pares, started work on the design for an alternative. The result is the tricshaw. It looks much the same as a rickshaw - but it is not.

For a start it uses a tricycle as opposed to a bicycle frame and is especially designed to make the drivers' task less arduous. Which must be good news as current rickshaws wear down knee joints, strain the heart and back muscles and create respiratory problems.

The tric-shaw is also 20 kilograms lighter but capable of pulling loads twice as heavy as the traditional rickshaw. This, combined with the fact that it can be converted for passengers or goods, makes it extra useful in rural areas.

It scores higher on safety too, having not only a cable-operated front brake but also a foot-controlled powerful brake for the back axle. Traditional rickshaws have only a front brake and accidents are common as a result of this.

The only problem now is getting the tric-shaw into general use - and that is where the politics comes in. In Bangladesh, for example, the vast majority of the country's one million rickshaws are fleet-owned. The owner will rent out up to 100 rickshaws a day and live handsomely on the profits. She or he has a vested interest in making sure that nothing changes. Rickshaw drivers are also suspicious of change. Although they are severely exploited they view new developments with scepticism for fear of being exploited further.

However, the tric-shaws are being produced by worker co-operatives with Inter-Pares funding the construction of two new workshops to the tune of $200,000. Annual production is expected to be around 500, with ownership on a cooperative rider/owner basis. The price is $220 - the same as the traditional rickshaw.

The tric-shaw is not going to take the country by storm. But it is a start - and it provides a model for social change that goes beyond the simple question of how to get from A to B.

Chris Cosgrove


After the locust
Preparing for famine

Drought and locusts have combined to threaten famine once again in northern Ethiopia. But, providing food supplies arrive in time and are properly distributed, nobody need die, says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Five million poor peasants, one in eight of the population are at risk, claims the Government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC). The RRC blames the failure of the rains earlier this year and widespread locust infestations for the situation.

Most of the grain from reserves will have been used up by the end of this month (December) and the Government at Addis Ababa has appealed to donors for another 950,000 tonnes to fill the food gap in 1988.

The provinces most severely affected are Eritrea, Tigray and Wollo which witnessed some of the most harrowing scenes in the one of the highest anywhere and last famine. A relatively successful harvest at the beginning of 1987 has not been enough to feed people into 1988.

The failure of the second main crop was almost total in the eastern highlands, with a lack of rain from June to September coming on top of severe damage by desert locusts and grasshoppers.

Families are already moving west in search of food and to the towns, where the market prices have increased dramatically. 'We are getting those early warning signs and should be able to prevent a famine on anything like the 1984/85 scale,' said an Oxfam and official. Then one million people died and 200,000 children were orphaned or abandoned.

Aid charities are privately critical of the agricultural policies pursued by the Ethiopian leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Marxist govermnent continues to emphasize cooperatives and state farms, instead of helping poor peasants more directly.

Ethiopia is still officially the world's poorest country, with average GNP per person of only $110 a year. Infant mortality is one of the highest anywhere and has hardly changed in 20 years, with 17 children in every 100 never reaching their first birthday.

But Mengistu's regime continues to spend large sums on fighting civil wars in Eritrea and Tigray, where rebel groups, which are also Marxist, want greater independence.

Meanwhile most Western governments deny long-term development aid to Addis because the regime will not reform agriculture along free-market lines.

Although international grain stocks have actually fallen by nine per cent in 1987, the FAO says that surplus stocks of rice grains are still sufficient to feed the whole world for up to three months.

John Tanner


Snake truce
Catchers back in business

SNAKE-CATCHERS in Southern India have found a way of going about their work that is good for them, good for medicine, good for conservation - and a lot better for the snakes.

Before they formed the Irula Snake Catchers Co-operative the tribal catchers of Tamil Nadu used to kill the snakes and sell their skins. But the Government banned the trade because the resulting shortage of snakes was allowing rats to breed like rabbits.

For the tribals it meant the loss of a livelihood - until they struck upon a compromise solution. They would go on catching the snakes but instead of killing them would just carefully extract their venom, dry it and sell it to medical institutes which produce the much needed anti-venom serum.

It did not take the snake-catchers long to recognize the virtue of keeping their prey alive. After two or three extractions of venom, the snake still has every chance of survival. The ventral scales are marked with a code so that if caught after a sufficient time lapse the snake can be 'milked' of its venom again. This is the only place in the world where venom is systematically extracted without killing the snakes.

The project was set on its feet with a small grant from Oxfam UK to buy equipment and since then it has become self-sufficient The catchers are paid a standard rate per snake brought - be they cobras, Russell's vipers, kraits or saw-scale vipers. The overall profits after sale of venom comes back to the co-operative members. And now all members carry their own supply of serum, whereas previously many of them died of snake-bites while out hunting.

The Irulas have enjoyed a renewal of pride in their traditional occupation. Many lives have doubtless been saved all over India by the increased availability of the serum. Meanwhile, the Irulas have been successfully weaned off the skin trade and enlisted as valuable agents for conservation.

The success of this venture has also given the impetus to two new projects. One aims to persuade local farmers to employ the Irulas as rat-catchers - they are renowned for their skill in catching the creatures with their bare hands. And the other involves reclamation of arid wasteland in this district by the Irula Women's Tree Planting Society. Most encouraging is the fact that all these projects involve self-help and have become self-financing after receiving a starter grant from outside. National and state governments in India have been shown that they do not need to provide enormous grants to lend a helping hand to their tribal population.

Neil Thin


Koranic riddles
Islamic feminism

Women in Saudi Arabia are leading a slow but determined feminist revolution - by referring to the Koran. The women argue that many of the prevailing Islamic traditions concerning women, such as polygamy and opposition to higher education, are the result of misinterpretations - and occasional violations - of Islamic teachings.

According to Hind Khutheila, dean of the King Saud University for Women, 'Islam decrees that it is the duty of every Moslem man and woman to seek an education'. Led by a generation of Saudi women educated at foreign universities, women are beginning to make their mark as doctors, engineers, university professors, entrepreneurs, managers, radio broadcasters and newspaper editors. More significantly, women are now receiving degrees at Saudi universities in fields such as medicine and dentistry. Segregated employment remains the norm, but some believe that, at least for now, this actually works in favour of women because it allows them to bypass the male bureaucratic hierarchy and move quickly to the top in parallel female bureaucratic structures.

As for polygamy, Islam treats it, according to Khutheila, as the 'least favoured practice allowed by God and stipulates that a man must treat all his wives equally.

What many people overlook is that the Koran says that it is not possible to treat wives equally - and therefore a man should have one wife except in cases where the couple cannot have children or there are other extenuating circumstances. While polygamy has declined by about 50 per cent over the past 20 years in Saudi Arabia, it is still prevalent. Khutheila believes women must 'collectively reject' marriage proposals from married men for the phenomenon to disappear.

World Development Forum

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