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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder