From The Guardian
The publication this week of the report of the Cerrie committee – the committee examining radiation risks from internal emitters – is a public scandal. It deletes the arguments put forward by a minority on the committee, which suggest that the numbers of people who die each year from cancer caused by nuclear radiation may be at least 100 to 300 times more than official estimates.
The point at issue is that the standard model used by the nuclear industry to calculate the effects of radiation on human health is based on estimates of the external blast impact from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb explosions in 1945. But the model largely excludes the impact of radiation from a wholly different source, when radionuclides are inadvertently inhaled from, say, a nearby nuclear reactor.
The impact of radiation from an external bomb blast is assumed in the standard model to be averaged out across the whole body. But when a radionuclide is swallowed, it attaches itself to particular tissue within the body which it then continually bombards with radioactivity as it gradually decays. To illustrate the point, there is a big difference, when one is cold on a winter’s night, between warming oneself in front of a coal fire and popping a red-hot coal into one’s mouth.
There is already strong evidence that the standard model is flawed because it cannot explain the facts which have been uncovered in the past two decades. It assumes, for example, that cancer risk is strictly proportional to dose. But the mounting evidence from studies in Germany, Belgium, Greece, Scotland and Wales, and from dozens of studies in Russia, which have examined the sharp increase in leukaemia among babies in Europe in the two years after Chernobyl, indicates that this is wrong.
The nuclear industry explains that the increase would be expected on the basis of the radiation those babies received while their mothers were pregnant, and they take as the benchmark an increase in risk of up to 40% where the dose from obstetric x-rays is 10,000 microsieverts. However, babies in Greece received only 200 microsieverts from the Chernobyl fallout, yet infant leukaemia there jumped by 160%. Babies in Germany received only 100 microsieverts, yet the increase was 48%. Clearly the standard model used by the nuclear industry and regulators is faulty.
I therefore set up Cerrie, with balanced representation from all sides of the argument, to examine how the model should be modified to take account of this new evidence and how precautionary action needs to be tightened to safeguard the nation’s health.
I insisted that the final conclusions must fairly include the views of all sides to the committee, preferably within a single report, but if that was still not possible then in the form of majority and minority reports. The chairman had already given an undertaking that minority reports would be allowed, and indeed in May this year in the final stages of drawing up the report the committee agreed on a 10-1 vote to admit minority reports if that should prove necessary.
However, just one month later, it was suddenly proposed at the end of the final meeting by some members of the committee, without prior notice and without any discussion being allowed, that no dissenting statement from the mainreport would be allowed, and it was passed on a 5-2 vote.
Why have these shenanigans been used to gag a critical debate about public health? Maybe it is because if these arguments suggesting far higher fatalities than officially admitted from radiation-induced leukaemias and other cancers were included in a government report, it could well lead to a legal challenge to the regulatory approvals granted to nuclear power stations – without which the nuclear industry could not function. But whatever the reason, any data of critical relevance to the nation’s health should under no circumstances be suppressed.
From The Guardian
From the Financial Times
Russia’s ratification of the Kyoto protocol – which could come as early as this Friday – is the breakthrough that makes the commitments of the signatory countries to the climate change agreement legally binding. It is great news. But is it enough?
The best the Kyoto protocol can now achieve, with the US still outside it, is a 2 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2010, compared with the 1990 baseline. Yet the scientists say we need a reduction of 60 per cent to arrest global warming. In fact, because developing countries, notably China and India, which are industrialising fast, are still declining to ratify the protocol, the greenhouse gas emissions of the planet as a whole are likely to increase by around 75 per cent by 2020.
That is disastrous enough. But two other factors increase the threat further. One is that the rate of global warming is steadily accelerating – it has doubled over the last few decades. The other is the real possibility that the die-back of forests, the collapse of the continental ice-sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, or the release of billions of tons of methane hydrates trapped in the oceans could suddenly increase the momentum of warming until it is out of control.
Is this all inevitable? Not necessarily. But to deliver the three-prong programme necessary to avoid it will require far greater political grit than the world has shown so far.
First, the level of global carbon emissions that can be “safely” absorbed into the atmosphere needs to be determined. The world’s scientists have generally reckoned this level is about 550 parts per million. At present it is about 379 ppm, and increasing by 3 ppm per year. The only rational way then to keep below the 550 ppm ceiling is by setting an emissions quota for every country. Initially this quota would be set at each country’s current emissions level. The quotas of the developed nations would then be gradually reduced, and those of the developing countries increased to allow them to industrialise, until all countries converged at a uniform per capita figure. Each national quota would then be reduced so that global emissions contracted and the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases remained below the agreed “safe” level. This programme has been called “contraction and convergence”.
If this is the only equitable and long-term feasible solution, what are the chances of its gaining universal political consent? At the moment, very slim. The US, with 4 per cent of the world’s population but responsible for 25 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, has reneged on the Kyoto protocol and has just shown itself willing to fight a war in Iraq to gain control of one of the largest remaining repositories of oil in the world. If the lead western country is still bent on a fossil-fuel economy, even at the price of war, why should developing countries sign up to the protocol?
The second fundamental requirement is a major and rapid switch to renewable sources of energy. This is currently happening only at a snail’s pace. Solar energy and wind power have huge potential. But so far they provide less than half of 1 per cent of the world’s energy and face enormous hurdles. For instance, the cost of manufacturing the silicon-based photovoltaic cells used in solar panels remains incredibly high and the power generated is intermittent depending on climatic conditions. Factoring the direct and indirect environmental costs of traditional power sources and petrol-driven vehicles into their price could accelerate the switch. But, again, governments may not be prepared to grasp this nettle.
The third policy prong is the least understood. The amount of energy we waste is colossal. More energy is discharged as waste heat by US power plants than is required by Japan to run its whole economy. It is estimated that raising the fuel economy of American vehicles by only 2 3/4 miles per gallon would be sufficient for the US to dispense completely with oil imports from the Gulf.
A massive worldwide push for energy conservation could therefore have an enormous impact. But this is feasible only if there is a fundamental shift away from the capitalist ethic of artificially stoking up demand to absorb higher incomes. The much-improved fuel economy of cars over the last decade has been far offset by consumers’ habit of buying more and bigger vehicles.
No one policy is sufficient to confront climate change. It requires the combination of contraction and convergence to force down, equitably but effectively, the use of fossil fuels; a global switch, led by fiscal incentives, into renewable sources of energy; and a huge campaign to maximise conservation and relentlessly squeeze the prodigious waste of energy. These are the solutions. The big question is whether we are prepared to pursue them.
From The Guardian
Tony Blair’s declaration that he intends to serve another full term accentuates the constitutional crisis now building in Britain – the growing belief that all the normal checks and balances have broken down and the country’s leadership seems unaccountable and uncontrollable.
There are several factors feeding this despair: massaged intelligence; decision-making confined to a tiny non-elected coterie around the prime minister; and neither parliament nor the electorate able to secure a change in policy. Although discussion may take place on public platforms and in some of the media, the government shows no sign of listening.
Not surprisingly, this has generated great frustration and anger, but it has not had any decisive effect because all the constraining elements in the power structure have been stymied. Parliament is hamstrung by the government’s huge majority, enforced by a mixture of patronage and rigid discipline. No objection was raised even when the sole debate on the crisis in Iraq since the so-called end of the war was staged by the government without a substantive motion, and therefore with no vote at the end.
Pressures from within the Labour party have been deflected because the national executive committee, the parliamentary party, the trade unions and the annual conference have all either had their composition weakened or their role largely marginalised. Even a leadership challenge is problematic under internal Labour rules. Not only is a challenger required to obtain the openly declared signatures of a fifth (83) of Labour MPs, but consent to an election could still be withheld if half the delegates to party conference did not agree.
We not only need a radical strengthening of parliament’s holding the executive to account but also, even more important, new forms of direct democracy involving the electorate.
In parliament, we need a fully elected second chamber – perhaps based on regional representation – in order to secure a more democratic determination of policy than a whipped programme handed down from above without genuine consultation. We need cabinet appointments to be ratified at a public hearing of the appropriate select committee before they can come into effect, so that the principle of joint accountability to both prime minister and parliament is established, with the option of recall by either where justified.
We need the appointment of the chair and members of specialist committees of inquiry (such as Hutton and Butler), and their terms of reference, to require approval by the relevant select committee. And we need the members of these revamped committees to be elected – in quotas reflecting the balance between the parties in the Commons – by MPs of each party in a secret ballot. If introduced, these measures would greatly strengthen parliament in checking the centralisation of power in the executive.
But the democratic deficit will not be met without wider reform. Turnout at elections is steadily declining because people feel that one vote every 4-5 years gives them no influence over major events – foundation hospitals, top-up fees, GM crops, war in Iraq, to name just some.
Bills, instead of being hammered through parliament on a whipped vote, should be examined first by a Commons committee in televised sessions, with specialist witnesses. Interested electors could then offer online comments, to be fed into the parliamentary process.
Even more important is to draw on best democratic experience from abroad. In Switzerland, for example, citizens have a right to call a referendum on any issue they like, so long as they gather enough signatures. Indeed, any new law brought before the Swiss parliament can be challenged by the voters before it is enacted. If 1% of the population sign up to a proposal within an 18-month period, it can be voted on by the public and, if passed, become law. This really is direct democracy in action.
Suppose, more modestly, we were to require a 5% threshold: that would require nearly 2 million people to sign up – an exacting demand, but by no means a prohibitive one. It would radically transform our politics.
Of course there is a risk, with inflammatory tabloid headlines, that law-making could be too influenced by emotions rather than reasoned judgments. But a delay before a referendum could be held would allow tempers to cool. What is needed is a public debate about the pros and cons of referendums, which would enable us to achieve a real element of direct democracy while minimising any unintended misuses. If we could get that balance, it would re-engage public involvement in the big decisions, make politics meaningful beyond one vote every five years and, as a last resort, hold government leaders to account when all else fails.