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.

 

GETTY
Show Hide image

North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.