How Valentines should go nuclear

Valentines and nuclear waste - a novel gift idea for your loved one...

Ah, Valentine’s Day. Love is compulsorily in the air and we’re all being urged to buy, buy, buy to prove it. But marking the day with more than a simple (recycled) card is full of ethical pitfalls. If you’re a Green, what are the options?

A short-haul mini break to hold hands in a European city is obviously out of the question. Similarly, diamonds have been tainted with every ethical dirty stick there is, including genocide, so I can’t see myself lusting after any of those. And any flowers available at this time of year, even if they haven’t been soaked with chemicals throughout their lives, are likely to have been either forced up in overheated greenhouses or flown in from warmer parts of the world.

Supporting a local restauranteur with a candle-lit dinner seems like the best idea for Wednesday, although I have probably left it too late to book anything now. Greenpeace’s case against the Energy Review has hit the High Court at the same time as the Green Party is focusing on Trident, so I have been busy with nuclear-related businesses most of this week.

The Greens are supporting Greenpeace’s case and put in a witness statement detailing how the consultation leading up to last year’s Energy Review was too short. It also asked questions that were hard to answer sensibly, and which betrayed the Government’s foregone conclusion to endorse a new round of nuclear power stations, and all of this went into the statement as well. I went to the Old Bailey on the first day of the case last Wednesday along with reps from the other groups supporting the case, including UNISON, the PCS union, Nuclear Free Local Authorities and the Welsh Anti-Nuclear Alliance.

At lunchtime, I joined a Green Party delegation to 10 Downing Street to deliver a letter outlining our objections to another huge waste of money that it’s hard to believe Labour are planning – the renewal of our Trident weapons of mass destruction.

Later on I went to meet Under-Secretary of Defence, Derek Twigg, with Green MEP Caroline Lucas. The MoD agreed to this meeting in lieu of us being able to take part in the rubber stamping debate that will be held in Parliament, and we grilled him quite thoroughly on the various moral, practical, financial and diplomatic madnesses associated with replacing the UK’s ‘nuclear deterrent’.

Predictably, we didn’t hear much new. Mr Twigg has memorised all the dodgy assumptions from the Defence White Paper issued in December, and he didn’t deviate an inch from these lines when we tackled him. Still, we left them some written questions to answer, and at least I got to see some first-class ministerial doublethink in the flesh.

Also this week, proposals for what to do with the nuclear waste from our current nuclear power stations were endorsed by the Geological Society of London. Tons of highly radioactive material has been sitting around at places like Sellafield for years while the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) tried to come up with a safe way of storing it in the long term. ‘Geological disposal’ is now the preferred plan – i.e. burying it under ground for a really, really long time and hoping for the best – and now the RGS has agreed this is the least risky way of coping with it.

The conjunction of all this nuclear action with wondering what to do about Valentine’s Day gave me a curious thought. If diamonds are actually forever, nuclear waste very nearly lasts that long, so could the Government perhaps save a bit on the cost of burying all that waste by enlisting the help of the man who can sell anything, Richard Branson? To complement Virgin Atlantic’s flights, Virgin Galactic’s near-space travel and Virgin Health Bank’s stem cell storage plan, he could launch ‘Virgin Isotopic – the nuclear option for lovers’.

It’s a simple idea. Romantic souls looking for the ultimate gesture would pay – say - £200 to have their declaration of love etched (with lasers!) onto one of the copper cylinders in which spent nuclear fuel will be contained. The personalised canisters would be taken to a depository far under ground and then kept completely safe and secure under every conceivable political or geological circumstance for hundreds of thousands of years.

A ‘business class’ option could be added to the scheme, where the different nuclear isotopes in the waste would be separated and customers given a choice of radioactive elements to reflect the level of their commitment. More cynical or realistic lovers could opt for a cylinder of caesium-137 – with a half-life of 34 years, this material could be safely handled again after less than a thousand years. Idealists could opt instead for a batch of plutonium-239 – its half-life of 24,000 years means the canister would remain lethal effectively forever.

Thinking about it, this is a definite winner. After all, unlike a diamond ring, it’s incredibly unlikely any of this stuff will be lost or stolen. Well, let’s hope not anyway.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Building peace in a dangerous world needs resources, not just goodwill

Conflict resolution is only the first step.

Thursday 21 September is the UN-designated International Day of Peace. At noon on this day, which has been celebrated for the last 25 years, the UN general secretary will ring the Peace Bell on the UN headquarters in New York and people of good will around the world will take part in events to mark the occasion. At the same time, spending on every conceivable type of weaponry will continue at record levels.

The first couple of decades after the end of the Cold War saw a steady reduction in conflict, but lately that trend seems to have been reversed. There are currently around 40 active armed conflicts around the world with violence and suffering at record levels. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index worldwide military spending last year amounted to a staggering $1.7 trillion and a further trillion dollars worth of economic growth was lost as a result. This compares with around 10 billion dollars spent on long term peace building.

To mark World Peace Day, International Alert, a London-based non-government agency which specialises in peace building, is this week publishing Redressing the Balance, a report contrasting the trivial amounts spent on reconciliation and the avoidance of war with the enormous and ever growing global military expenditure.  Using data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report’s author, Phil Vernon, argues that money spent on avoiding and mitigating the consequences of conflict is not only morally right, but cost-effective – "every dollar invested in peace building reduces the cost of conflict".

According to Vernon, "the international community has a tendency to focus on peacemaking and peacekeeping at the expense of long term peace building."  There are currently 100,000 soldiers, police and other observers serving 16 UN operations on four continents. He says what’s needed instead of just peace keeping is a much greater sustained investment, involving individuals and agencies at all levels, to address the causes of violence and to give all parties a stake in the future. Above all, although funding and expertise can come from outside, constructing a durable peace will only work if there is local ownership of the process.

The picture is not wholly depressing. Even in the direst conflicts there are examples where the international community has help to fund and train local agencies with the result that local disputes can often be settled without escalating into full blown conflicts. In countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Nepal long term commitment by the international community working with local people has helped build durable institutions in the wake of vicious civil wars. Nearer to home, there has long been recognition that peace in Ireland can only be sustained by addressing long-standing grievances, building resilient institutions and ensuring that all communities have a stake in the outcome.

At a micro level, too, there is evidence that funding and training local agencies can contribute to longer term stability. In the eastern Congo, for example, various non-government organisations have worked with local leaders, men and women from different ethnic groups to settle disputes over land ownership which have helped fuel 40 years of mayhem. In the Central African Republic training and support to local Muslim and Christian leaders has helped reduce tensions. In north east Nigeria several agencies are helping to reintegrate the hundreds of traumatised girls and young women who have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram only to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Peace building, says Vernon, is the poor cousin of other approaches to conflict resolution. In future, he concludes, it must become a core component of future international interventions. "This means a major re-think by donor governments and multilateral organisations of how they measure success… with a greater focus placed on anticipation, prevention and the long term." Or, to quote the young Pakistani winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousufzai: "If you want to avoid war, then instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of tanks, send pens. Instead of soldiers, send teachers."

Redressing the Balance by Phil Vernon is published on September 21.   Chris Mullin is the chairman of International Alert.