A punishing budget: but the government prepares to spend £100bn on nuclear weapons

Nuclear weapons provide the illusion of security not the reality.

The government says we have to tighten our belts and make massive cuts, but we are actually on the verge of spending our way to disaster. That is exactly what committing £100 billion to building and running a replacement for the Trident nuclear weapons system – as our Government intends – would be: a disaster for all those whose real human needs are not going to be met; those who are now suffering from the harsh effects of cuts to pensions, education, health, public travel provision and even our prison system.

It is not as if "our" nuclear weapons are even really ours. We depend on the United States for the technology, for the missiles, for the guidance systems and even the spare parts. Harold Wilson once said that we have a ‘Moss Bros’ deterrent – just like a suit which we borrow and pretend is ours.

But even if they were really ours, what are they supposed to be for? What is the point of trying to stay in the nuclear weapons game? Field Marshall Lord Bramall, who, as one time head of our armed forces, ought to know, has said: ‘Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face, particularly international terrorism…’

He is right. The Cold War is long over. The threats we face today are real but none of them can be dealt with by nuclear weapons. Terrorists? Civil Wars? Population movements as a result of climate change? Food and water shortages? Civil unrest leading to riots? Outbreaks of disease? As a matter of history, nuclear weapons – which were supposed to provide ultimate security – did not save the United States from humiliating defeat in Vietnam. They did not stop the Argentinians attacking the Falklands. And they did not help the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Nuclear weapons provide the illusion of security not the reality. Worse, they actually increase the whole world’s insecurity. We all know that every machine operated by humans eventually goes wrong. We are rarely told about the number of nuclear weapon accidents. As recently as 2009, two nuclear armed submarines – one British and one French – collided nearly head-on in the Atlantic. The oceans are littered with up to 20 nuclear submarines as a result of accidents, some with their weapons still on board. The United States once dropped hydrogen bombs in the sea and on the shore of Spain and had to spend fortunes digging up and removing the contaminated soil.

Worst of all are the human technical errors which have several times taken the world to the very edge of disaster. Those who doubt such a claim should read the story of Colonel Petrov who, in 1983, at a time of high East-West tension, "saw" missiles coming from the West to the East. He should have reported this to the Kremlin but, against orders, did not do so, fearful of the consequences. How wise. What he was seeing turned out to be a rare atmospheric condition not missile traces. Had he told the Kremlin that the Soviet Union was under nuclear attack their response might have been catastrophic. We could have been into World War III – a war of no winners.

From a purely British point of view it makes no sense to spend these billions of pounds on what is no more than nationalistic vanity – as any replacement of Trident would be. That’s the message I will be taking to Aldermaston on 1 April and across the country in my Scrap Trident Tour over the following weeks. But this is not just a British issue, it is a global one. We need to get rid of all nuclear weapons not just our own.

When we signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 we promised exactly that. And in 1996, the International Court of Justice said that there is an obligation to work towards the elimination of all nuclear weapons and ‘bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects…’ At the NPT Review Conference in 2000, Britain repeated this commitment.

A perfectly sensible draft nuclear weapons abolition convention, outlining all the steps needed on the way to global elimination, already exists, but Britain refuses to support it. To make sure, by replacing Trident, that we have nuclear weapons for another 40 years is to tell the rest of the world that we do not believe in global abolition. What an incitement to non-nuclear weapons states to take our road.

We humans are perfectly capable of dealing with global problems. Thanks to the World Health Organization smallpox is no longer a threat. We have a treaty, largely observed, against chemical weapons. There is an international agreement on landmines. So too could there be on nuclear weapons if Britain took a positive part.

A final thought. Do we really want to go on indefinitely with a style of "security" based on a willingness to slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent people elsewhere on the globe if by mistake, accident or miscalculation something goes wrong.

Bruce Kent is a peace activist and long-time campaigner for CND. More details about his "Scrap Trident Tour" can be found here

 

HMS Victorious at HM Naval Base Clyde, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images

Bruce Kent is a peace activist and long-time campaigner for CND. More details about his "Scrap Trident Tour" can be found here.

 

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.