Wednesday, 9 September 2015

George Monbiot takes on the City

This article needs to be read by everyone concerned about the state of our 'democracy'.

"The City’s stranglehold makes Britain look like an oh-so-civilised mafia state

Be reasonable in response to the unreasonable: this is what voters in the Labour election are told. Accommodate, moderate, triangulate, for the alternative is to isolate yourself from reality.

You might be inclined to agree. If so, please take a look at the reality to which you must submit. To an extent unknown since before the first world war, economic relations in this country are becoming set in stone. It is not just that the very rich no longer fall while the very poor no longer rise. It’s that the system itself is protected from risk. Through bailouts, quantitative easing and delays in interest-rate rises, speculative investment has been so well cushioned that – as the Guardian economics editor, Larry Elliott, puts it – financial markets are “one of the last bastions of socialism left on Earth”.

Public services, infrastructure, the very fabric of the nation: these too are being converted into risk-free investments. Social cleansing is transforming central London into an exclusive economic zone for property speculation. From a dozen directions, government policy converges on this objective.

The benefits cap and the bedroom tax drive the poor out of their homes. The forced sale of high-value council houses creates a new asset pool. An uncapped and scarcely regulated private rental market turns these assets into gold. The freeze on council-tax banding since 1991, the lifting of the inheritance tax threshold, and £14bn a year in tax breaks for private landlords all help to guarantee stupendous returns.

And for those who wish simply to sit on their assets, the government can help here too, by ensuring there are no penalties for leaving buildings empty. As a result, great tracts of housing are removed from occupation. Agricultural land has proved an even better punt for City money: with the help of capital gains, inheritance and income tax exemptions, as well as farm subsidies, its price has quadrupled in 12 years

Property in this country is a haven for the proceeds of international crime. The head of the National Crime Agency, Donald Toon, notes that “the London property market has been skewed by laundered money. Prices are being artificially driven up by overseas criminals who want to sequester their assets here in the UK.”

It’s hardly surprising, given the degree of oversight. Private Eye has produced a map of British land owned by companies registered in offshore tax havens. The holdings amount to 1.2m acres, including much of the country’s prime real estate. Among those it names as beneficiaries are a cast of Russian oligarchs, oil sheikhs, British aristocrats and newspaper proprietors. These are the people for whom government policy works – and the less regulated the system that enriches them, the happier they are.

The City is a semi-offshore state, a bit like the UK’s crown dependencies, tax havens legitimised by the Privy Council

The speculative property market is just one current in the great flow of cash that sluices through Britain while scarcely touching the sides. The financial sector exploits an astonishing political privilege: the City of London is the only jurisdiction in the UK not fully subject to the authority of parliament. In fact, the relationship seems to work the other way. Behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons sits the Remembrancer, whose job is to ensure that the interests of the City of London are recognised by the elected members. (A campaign to rescind this privilege – Don’t Forget the Remembrancer – will be launched very soon.)

The City is a semi-offshore state, a bit like the UK’s crown dependencies and overseas territories, tax havens legitimised by the Privy Council. Britain’s financial secrecy undermines the tax base while providing a conduit into the legal economy for gangsters, kleptocrats and drug barons.
Even the more orthodox financial institutions deploy a succession of scandalous practices: pension mis-selling, endowment mortgage fraud, the payment protection insurance con, Libor rigging. A former minister in the last government, Lord Green, ran HSBC while it engaged in money laundering for drug gangs, systematic tax evasion and the provision of services to Saudi and Bangladeshi banks linked to the financing of terrorists. Sometimes the UK looks to me like an ever so civilised mafia state.

At next month’s Conservative party conference, corporate executives will pay £2,500 to sit with a minister. Doubtless, because we are assured that there is no link between funding and policy, they will spend the day discussing the weather and the films they have seen. If we noticed such arrangements overseas, we might be inclined to regard them as corruption. But that can’t be the case here, not least because the invitation explains that “fees associated with business day & dinner are considered a commercial transaction and therefore do not constitute a political donation”.

The government also insists that there is no link between political donations and seats in the House of Lords. But a study by researchers at Oxford University found that the probability of so many major donors arriving there by chance is 1.36 x 10-38: roughly “equivalent to entering the National Lottery and winning the jackpot 5 times in a row”. Why does the Lords remain unreformed? Because it permits plutocratic power to override democracy. Both rich and poor are kept in their place.
Governed either by or on behalf of the people who fleece us, we cannot be surprised to discover that all public services are being re-engineered for the benefit of private capital. Nor should we be surprised when governments help to negotiate, without public consent, treaties such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, which undermine the sovereignty of both parliament and the law. Aesop’s observation, that “we hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office”, remains true in spirit, though hanging has been replaced by community payback.

Wherever you sniff in British public life, something stinks: I could fill this site with examples. But, while every pore oozes corruption, our task, we are told, is merely to trim the nails of the body politic.

To fail to confront this system is to collaborate with it. Who on the left would wish to stand on the sidelines as this carve-up continues? Who would vote for anything but sweeping change?"  

George Monbiot 8/9/15 Guardian

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

How Safe are Nuclear Weapons ?

Obviously when used as a weapon, a nuclear bomb is just about the most deadly piece of military equipment devised. It is a weapon with the capability of destroying all human life on the planet when used as part of a mass attack. This piece concentrates on the handling, movement and storage of nuclear weapons. From their creation and first use in 1945 there have been innumerable incidents where a catastrophic accident has been avoided as much by luck as by intention.

In Eric Schlosser’s history of nuclear weapons ‘Command and Control,’ he details some of the worst incidents. Although the following happened in the 60’s, it is still very scary. 
“On January 23, 1961, a B-52 bomber took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, for an airborne alert. The flight plan was a long, circular route along the East Coast. At the end of the first loop, the B-52 met its tanker and refuelled. At the end of the second loop, after more than ten hours in the air, the bomber refuelled again. It was almost midnight. Amid the darkness, the boom operator of the tanker noticed fuel leaking from the B-52’s right wing. Spray from the leak soon formed a wide plume, and within two minutes about forty thousand gallons of jet fuel had poured from the wing. The command post told the pilot to dump the rest of the fuel in the ocean and prepare for an emergency landing. But fuel wouldn’t drain from the tank inside the left wing, creating a weight imbalance. At half past midnight, with the flaps down and the landing gear extended, the B-52 went into an uncontrolled spin. …..the crew were ordered to bail out. 

The B-52 was carrying two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs, each with a yield of 4 megatons. As the aircraft spun downward, centrifugal forces in the cockpit pulled a lanyard in the cockpit. The lanyard was attached to the bomb release mechanism. When the lanyard was pulled, the locking pins were removed from one of the bombs. The Mark 39 fell from the plane. The arming wires were yanked out, and the bomb responded as though it had been deliberately released by the crew above a target. The pulse generator activated the low-voltage thermal batteries. The drogue parachute opened, and then the main chute. The barometric switches closed. The timer ran out, activating the high-voltage thermal batteries. The bomb hit the ground, and the piezoelectric crystals inside the nose crushed. They sent a firing signal. But the weapon didn’t detonate.

Every safety mechanism had failed, except one: the ready/safe switch in the cockpit. The switch was in the SAFE position when the bomb dropped. Had the switch been set to GROUND or AIR, the X-unit would’ve charged, the detonators would’ve triggered and a thermonuclear weapon would have exploded in a field near Faro, North Carolina. 
The other Mark 39 plummeted straight down and landed in a meadow…near the Nahunta Swamp. The high explosives did not detonate, and the primary was largely undamaged. But the dense uranium secondary of the bomb penetrated more than seventy feet into the soggy ground. A recovery team never found it, despite weeks of digging. 
The Air Force assured the public that the two weapons had been unarmed and that there was never any risk of a nuclear explosion. Those statements were misleading. The T-249 control box and ready/safe switch, installed in every B-52 bomber had already raised concerns at Sandia1. The switch required a low-voltage signal of brief duration to operate — and that kind of signal could easily be provided by a stray wire or a short circuit, as a B-52 full of electronic equipment disintegrated midair.

A year after the North Carolina accident, a SAC2  ground crew removed four Mark 28 bombs from a B-47 bomber and noticed that all of the weapons were armed. But the seal on the ready/safe switch in the cockpit was intact, and the knob hadn’t been turned to GROUND or AIR. The bombs had not been armed by the crew. A seven month investigation by Sandia found that a tiny metal nut had come off a screw inside the plane and lodged against an unused radar-heating circuit. The nut had created a new electrical pathway, allowing current to reach an arming line — and bypass the ready/safe switch. A similar glitch on the B-52 which crashed near Goldsboro would have caused a four megaton thermonuclear explosion. ‘One simple, dynamo-technology, low-voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe.’
The groundburst of that 4-megaton bomb would have deposited lethal fallout over Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City…..
..Robert McNamara, the new secretary of defense, learned about the accident during his third day on the job. The story scared the hell out of him.”

Schlosser also identifies concerns over the way the weapons are managed:
“On February 26, 1988, Peurifoy3 wrote to the assistant secretary for defense programs at the Department of Energy and invited him to Sandia for a briefing on the dangers of the SRAM [Short-Range Attack Missile]. The assistant secretary never replied to the letter. The president of Sandia raised the issue with another official at the DOE, who suggested that the secretary of energy and the secretary of defense should be briefed on the matter. But nothing was done…. A few months later an independent panel was commissioned to look at management practices at the Department of Energy, and Peurifoy was asked to serve as a technical adviser….the panel wound up using the SRAM’s safety problems as a case study in mismanagement. [They] were shocked at the lack of attention to nuclear weapon safety and its implications. Almost fifteen years had passed since concerns about the SRAM were first expressed — and yet no remedial action had been taken. ‘The potential for a nuclear weapon accident will remain unacceptably high until the issues that have been raised are resolved,’ the panel said in a classified report. 
So what were the safety issues?
“The high explosives used in the primary of the SRAM were found to be vulnerable to fire. As the missiles aged, they also became more hazardous. The propellant used by their rocket motors had to be surrounded at all times by a blanket of nitrogen gas. When the gas leaked, the propellant became a ‘contact-sensitive explosive’ that could easily be set off by flames, static electricity or physical shock. If the SRAMs were poorly maintained, simply dropping them on the ground from a height of five or six feet could make them explode — or take off. ‘The worst probable consequence of continued degradation …is spontaneous ignition of the propellant in a way similar to a normally initiated burn,’ an Air Force nuclear safety journal warned.

For those of you thinking all of this is ancient history consider the following from Navy whistleblower William McNeilly. He recently leaked details of safety issues in Trident submarines. 
‘The Trident safety whistleblower, William McNeilly, says he has been dishonourably discharged from the Royal Navy to protect its public image.
In a nine-page report posted online, the former nuclear submariner attacks “military deceivers” and naval “spin doctors” for downplaying his allegations about multiple safety and security lapses.
“It is shocking that some people in a military force can be more concerned about public image than public safety,” he says.’ Guardian 17/6/15

  1. Sandia - an organisation set up as a research engineering and science laboratory currently operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the US Department of Energy.
2.   SAC - Strategic Air Command

3.   Bob Peurifoy - a scientist who spent his working life devising ways of      making the handling of nuclear weapons safer.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Trident: secrecy and safety

There are many people in the UK who believe that nuclear weapons have kept us safe all these years. Thanks to a compliant media and a political consensus among the Westminster bubble that statement remains relatively unchallenged. The SNP brought the issue into the spotlight with questions about the future of the Faslane submarine base being raised during the referendum campaign. Recently George Osborne raised the stakes talking about pouring a massive investment of taxpayer’s money into the base. 

What is missing from the rhetoric and supine ignorance is an overview from an objective observer. Eric Schlosser made his name as an investigative writer with an excellent expose of the fast food industry.  ‘Fast Food Nation’ revealed sordid details of how chickens and cattle were treated on their way to becoming part of our diet.

He recently turned a forensic eye to the history of nuclear weapons in another admirable work — ‘Command and Control’. A major theme running through the book is that governments lie about nuclear incidents. Their default position is to lie, to cover up what has happened and to play down any potential harm to the public. The Soviet Union kept all their many incidents under wraps by ruthless means. It was Sweden who detected the radioactive plume from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The ‘good guys’ used news management and threats of security breaches to ensure the mass media told a predominantly benign tale. There have been many, many incidents which almost caused a complete disaster, plus countless others of a minor nature. Many involved storage and loading incidents e.g a nuclear weapon armed US fighter plane at Lakenheath in the UK catching fire when being refuelled, fortunately without the high explosive detonator in the warhead going off. This was not mentioned in the UK press. Similarly, many other incidents were not reported in official media. 

The culture of secrecy is all pervasive with good reason. Giving away details of how your thermonuclear warhead works would fall under ‘Aiding the enemy’ regulations. However there is a massive downside to the secrecy as Schlosser makes clear.

“Secrecy is essential to the command and control of nuclear weapons….In the years since Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the design specifications of American nuclear weapons have been ‘born secret.’ They are not classified by government officials; they’re classified as soon as they exist… is intended to keep valuable information away from America’s enemies. But an absence of public scrutiny has often made nuclear weapons more dangerous and more likely to cause a disaster.
Again and again, safety problems were hidden not only from the public but also from the officers and enlisted personnel who handled nuclear weapons every day. The strict compartmentalised secrecy hid safety problems from the scientists and engineers responsible for weapon safety. ….
…’Accidents and Incidents Involving Nuclear Weapons’ [obtained by the author using Freedom of Information] covered the period from the summer of 1957 until the spring of 1967. It was 245 pages long. It gave brief accounts of the major Broken Arrows [serious nuclear weapon incidents] during that period. It also described hundreds of minor accidents, technical glitches, and seemingly trivial events…..I shared the document with Bob Peurifoy and Bill Stevens [both experts heavily involved with making the handling and storage of nuclear weapons safer] —who had never seen it. Both were upset after reading it. The Defense Atomic Support Agency had never told them about hundreds of accidents.”

Frequently it is only the sight of protection-suited military personnel carrying Geiger Counters after an incident which blows a hole in the official line. As for incidents in remote spots who is to tell whether plutonium dust has contaminated the land around an accident site? 

Tony Benn told the story of when he was the Minister of Technology in Harold Wilson’s Labour government (1966-70). He said he was not informed by his top civil servants about the great fire at Windscale in 1957 (now re-named Sellafield). One outcome was that thousands of gallons of contaminated milk from farms as far away as north Lancashire were destroyed amid strict security. Senior civil servants at the ministry clearly knew about the fallout risks but felt under no obligation to tell their Minister, even while he was pursuing his policy of nuclear power expansion. The fact that Windscale was involved in producing plutonium for the UK’s nuclear weapons wrapped the plant in massive secrecy. 

As for Trident, this is what Schlosser has to say:

“The only weapons in today’s stockpile that trouble Peurifoy are the W-76 and W-88 warheads carried by submarine launched Trident II missiles. The Drell panel expressed concern about these warheads more than twenty years ago. Both of them rely on conventional high explosives, instead of insensitive high explosives. The Navy had insisted upon use of the more dangerous explosive to reduce the weight of the warheads, increase their range, and slightly increase their yield. The decision was unfortunate from a safety perspective, because the multiple warheads of a Trident II don’t sit on top of the missile. They surround the the rocket motor of its third stage, as a space-saving measure. And the Navy chose a high-energy propellant for the rocket motor that’s much more likely to explode in an accident — simply by being dropped or struck by a bullet — than other solid fuels. A Trident submarine has as many as twenty-four of these missiles, each carrying between four to five warheads. An accident with one missile could detonate the third-stage propellant, set off the high explosives of the warheads, and spread a good deal of plutonium around the ports in Georgia and Washington State where Trident submarines are based.”

The UK keeps a stockpile of thermonuclear weapons at the Faslane site, which is approximately 25 miles west from Glasgow. An explosion on a Trident submarine at Faslane could send a mass of highly radioactive particles towards the conurbation of Glasgow given a malign wind. The outcome would be catastrophic. 

Perhaps Osborne should invest taxpayers money into a nuclear base on the Thames if he is so confident of their safety. It is not difficult to imagine the outcry from Tory supporting Russian oligarchs who have invested some of their millions buying property in London. They may want their donations to the Tory party back.

Anyone still feeling sublimely relaxed about the safety of nuclear weapons is  asked to review their thinking. Begin by reading ‘Command and Control’.