Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Lost In Newsak

Major UK news buried in Sept 11 aftermath

The British government were quick off the mark in using the terrorist attack on the US as a convenient cover to get some dirty domestic work done. SQUALL investigates five significant pieces of UK news found buried in the rubble of the war on terrorism

September 2001

Newsak: a fug of content-lite news babble

Radioactive Decisions

Government announces nuclear escalation at Sellafield "It has all the hallmarks of a bad news story hastily released in the midst of a momentous international crisis in the hope that most people would be distracted," snorted Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, in October. The sudden government go ahead given to the MOX fuel processing plant at Sellafield on Oct 3 was one of the more brazenly opportunist government announcements hidden in the dust clouds of the so called 'war on terrorism'. And yet not only did nu-Labour spinners take hasty advantage of the terrorist attacks, they did so via a press notice issued late in the day, in the middle of a truncated, and supposedly sombre, Labour Party conference. Despite the massive significance of the decision, the lack of a press conference meant ministers could avoid awkward questions, ensuring the few column inches devoted to the subject were washed away in the deluge of post Sept 11 newsak. And yet........

The decision means copious quantities of spent plutonium and uranium will be transported by sea to Sellafield in Cumbria, reprocessed into Mixed Oxide fuel (MOX) and transported back again to foreign nuclear reactors. The last ill feted shipment of MOX fuel to come out of Sellafield in 1999 contained enough nuclear material to make 60 atomic bombs and was transported by lightly armed ships half way across the world to Japan. BNFL's Japanese customer, Kansai Electric Power, then sent the MOX fuel back after Japanese environmental researchers discovered BNFL's employees had falsified data relating the shipment. Not only did the material have to be returned to Cumbria in the same precarious seagoing fashion, BNFL sehlled out £40 million in compensation. Customer confidence in BNFL plummeted and orders for MOX from power companies abroad, including more from Japan and Germany, were subsequently cancelled. BNFL was left with a lame donkey and another big bill. And yet the government, keen to get the nuclear industry into some sort of privatisable shape, was determined to get on with it regardless of environmental and, indeed economic, implications. But they had to wait for the right moment.

The £462 million MOX processing plant at Sellafield, completed in 1996 as a pre-demonstration facility, had been sitting in disgrace since 1999, awaiting a government go ahead for fullscale production. Contrary to their hopes, however, opposition to MOX fuel processing at Sellafield did not fade with time after the data falsification scandal, it grew stronger.

For the past three years five Nordic countries - Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden - have been pushing for the closure of Sellafield all together, arguing that radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea are finding their way into fishing grounds and moving directly into the human food chain. Under the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic, the so called OSPAR convention, all fifteen signatory states - including the UK - are required "to take all possible steps to prevent and eliminate marine pollution". The Nordic countries argue that the escalation of Sellafield's activities is in clear contravention of the agreement.

The Irish government, who are also vehemently opposed to Sellafield's radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea, are now seething at nu-Labour's opportunistic announcement. An official meeting with the British government to discuss the issue was arranged for October 5. In a decision supposedly made jointly between Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, and Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, the UK government spurned the Irish and gave the go ahead to MOX on October 3.

Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern didn't mince his words: "This survival dinosaur of a defunct military-industrial complex is being kept on life support by the huge write-offs of British taxpayers' funds. It has no stand alone economic justification. It is the triumph of vested interest over economic reality. The opening of the MOX plant will mean that the Irish Sea is used as a highway for the transport of highly dangerous nuclear fuel to and from nuclear plants around the world."

The Irish government is now pursuing a legal challenge in the European Court of Justice and are seeking an immediate injunction before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg. "This issue will not be allowed to rest," fumed Bertie Ahern. "The campaign to close Sellafield. The campaign to stop the MOX plant in its tracks is only begun. It is campaign that will be waged ceaselessly until it is won." A highly controversial decision at the best of times, the transport of nuclear material by sea was an especially awkward announcement for nu-Labour to make at a time of supposedly high terrorist alert. The government press release declared MOX production at Sellafield to be "justified" after supposedly taking note of all submissions in no less than five 'public consultation' processes.

One such submission was from the Oxford Research Group, an independent think tank of nuclear scientists. "The MOX pellets would be most vulnerable from terrorists when being transported from the reprocessing plant back to the nuclear power stations," said nuclear physicist, Frank Barnaby, a senior member of the Group. "All the details terrorists need to make a bomb are in published literature or on the internet. The chemical apparatus would not cost that much. You just need a physicist, a chemist and an electronic engineer."

Opposition to MOX processing was considerably strengthened by an alarming report from the Scientific and Technological Option Assessment (STOA) unit of the European Parliament, made public at the end of October and unusually overt in its conclusions.

Among a catalogue of criticisms, ranging from radioactive pollution to terrorist threats, the report states: "The reprocessing of nuclear fuel at Sellafield and La Hague [France] constitutes the greatest radioactive waste released into the environment in the world which corresponds to a nuclear accident on a grand scale each year." The vital safety difference between reprocessing plants like Sellafield and power-generating nuclear reactors, is the amount of highly radioactive material stored on site. Nuclear reactors may be built to withstand aeroplane crash but the storage facilities at reprocessing plants often aren't. The STOA report examined the possibility of an aeroplane crashing into the Sellafield site and dramatically concluded that a direct hit would induce the equivalent of 100 Chernobyls all at once.

At the end of September, BNFL actually shut down their reprocessing plant because the amounts of radioactive material stored on the Sellafield site - over 1,550 cubic metres - have grown too large. And yet there's still no where to put it. "There is no site on the radar screen at the moment," said Environment Minister, Michael Meacher. The nearest the government have got to finding a solution is to commence a consultation exercise. They say they hope to formulate some kind of strategy for disposing of nuclear waste by 2005. Meanwhile the amount of radioactive waste increases.

* Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are also taking high court action against the government over its justification criteria for giving the MOX go ahead.


Rearranging Deckchairs

Railtrack crashes but privatisation steams ahead with usual suspects After the Hatfield crash even the News of the World took a break from peering into the bedrooms of the stars, and sent its investigators to examine track maintenance. The media were rather more preoccupied when Railtrack's spectacular failure was brought to a close.

However, early indications suggest there will be no clean break with the past. Among names floated to back Railtrack's replacement are Vivendi and a consortium including Jarvis, Balfour Beatty, Amey and Serco. Vivendi run the heavily criticised train service, Connex, whilst Balfour Beatty, Jarvis and Serco are already main players in the UK's track maintenance business. Since 1999 Jarvis have paid £507,000 in fines following prosecutions by the Health & Safety Executive for unsafe practices on the railways. Both Jarvis and Balfour Beatty were responsible for track maintenance at Hatfield.

Worse still, the brains behind Railtrack also run nu-Labour's wider privatisation programme. Sir Steve Robson, the civil servant who drew up the original plans for privatising British Rail, now sits on the board of Partnerships UK (PUK), the government's pro-privatisation quango charged with fostering privatisation schemes all over the country. PUK was itself privatised in July 1999.

The deputy chair of Partnerships UK, Adrian Montague, also advised John Major on the British Rail sell off. John Prescott in turn put Montague on the Strategic Rail Authority, the quango supposedly responsible for solving the crisis in rail.

Nu-Labour's determination to re-apply Railtrack methods and re-employ Railtrack culprits, despite their abject failures, is further demonstrated by a series of new and unreported contracts.

Metronet, a consortium led by Balfour Beatty, have now been selected as 'preferred bidder' for another section of the London Underground privatisation scheme. They can now add the contract for the Circle, District, Metropolitan, Hammersmith and City and East London lines to their existing portfolio of the Bakerloo, Victoria and Circle Lines. And yet Balfour Beatty were the company who carried out rail maintenance in the region where the Hatfield crash took place. Balfour's latest contract means they will now control two thirds of London Underground.

Nu-Labour's determination to force Railtrack-type solutions on the public sector goes beyond transport. Within days of Railtrack's collapse, Jarvis - a firm thoroughly tied to the private rail industry - were awarded a £358 million contract to run Liverpool's schools.


Private Skies

Newly privatised air traffic control service hits serious turbulence Within two month's of being privatised, Britain's air traffic control service is already suffering severe engine failure. And were it not for the preoccupations of the 'war on terrorism', the stress fractures would be commanding column-miles of embarrassing media.

In July this year, nu-Labour ignored strong dissent both from within its own ranks and beyond, and sold a 46 per cent controlling stake in the UK's air traffic control services to a consortium called The Airline Group. As part of the deal the Airline Group, consisting of British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, BMI British Midland and Easyjet promised £1billion worth of investment in the newly created National Air Traffic Services (NATS). This investment programme included the construction of a new control centre at Prestwick in Scotland. John Prescott defended the controversial sell off saying it would ensure a safer system with updated equipment. Then the twin towers collapsed.

Within three weeks of the Airline Group announced they would be bringing forward their ten year cost cutting programme and reducing their staff by twenty per cent. Furthermore, with government consent, they have now suspended development of the new £60 million air traffic control centre at Prestwick. Furthermore, in a move which provokes an instant Railtrack flashback, the banks providing the acquisition and investment finance for NATS (Abbey National, Barclays Capital, Halifax and Bank of America) have cited "market uncertainty" as a reason for postponing part of their loan, and have suggested the Airline Group approach the government for bail out cash. According to a NATS' statement: "The tragic events of Sept 11 and the fact that most of our airline customers will be operating fewer flights in the future means that we must review the phasing of all elements of NATS' capital investment plan."

And yet despite the temporary diminution of flight traffic post Sept 11, the overall pattern is still forecast to increase in the long term.

Indeed, in early November, Emirates airline announced it was buying another $15 billion worth of aircraft to cope with expected demand. The Chairman of Emirates, Sheikh Anmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, explained: "In the short term airlines have seen their business dip. Long term air travel remains firmly on course to double in the next 15 years."

Indeed this growth is cited as the major reason for building the controversial Heathrow Terminal 5. The possibility that the government will justify Terminal 5 as a necessity to cope with air traffic increase, whilst at the same time allowing the Airline Group to renege on its investment promises due to air traffic decrease, is a difficult contradiction to spin.

"Controllers are genuinely fearful," says Lawrence King, chair of the Air Traffic branch of the IPMS union. "The public private partnership was supposed to enable investment and expand NATS business, yet both are being reduced...... Cuts have already started and Government assurances are melting away. We cannot allow safety standards to become the next victim."

The possibility that the Hatfield's and Paddington's of yesterday will be repeated as the Heathrow's and Glasgow's of tomorrow is real.

As Gavin Strang, former transport minister and leading opponent of the NATS privatisation, said: "We are in danger of learning more quickly than some of us feared why no other advanced country in the world has privatised its air traffic control system."


Kicking The Crutch

Nu-Labour gives party-funder contract to interrogate the disabled.

You would imagine that a time of 'war' was not the opportune moment to launch an attack on Britain's disabled. And yet plans to force people on disabled benefits to attend 'work focused interviews' - dubbed "MOT's for the disabled" by nu-Labour spinners - were slipped out in mid October.

The hasty announcement was made just two days before MP's were given a chance to debate the subject. Central to nu-Labour's plans to curb disabled benefits is a contract with one of the Party's own funders. According to the latest submitted accounts, Sema have given nu-Labour "£5,000 or more" in sponsorship. They also have the contract to run Disability Testing. Sema's control of the scheme has been criticised in a report from the Commons' Social Security Select Committee, with MP's declaring "present performance is not acceptable", and wondering whether "standards are coming second to profitability". MP's also criticised the treatment of ethnic minorities in particular. Sema demonstrated the superiority of the private sector by going bust earlier this year following dubious share dealing by one of its directors. The firm was taken over by oil service giant Schlumberger. However, their ignominious failure did not deter nu-Labour from either accepting their cash or awarding their new owner lucrative contracts.


Branded

Labour Party conference sloshing with arms traders and private train companies The Guardian's decision to give a front page splash to McDonald's sponsorship of the Labour Party conference set the stage for a thorough press examination of nu-Labour's backers. When the twin towers fell, however, the investigative trawl for "Tony's cronies" and nu-Labour sleaze fled the horizon. And yet Party accounts hid two unexposed points of interest: As nu-Labour went to war, the Party was now part financed by two major arms companies. And, as the government grappled with the failure of privatised rail, it was being drenched with cash from private rail operators.

Nu-Labour's accounts revealed the Party received "£5,000 or more" in sponsorship from both British Aerospace and Thomson-CSF Racal. Arms maker British Aerospace, one of the few firms to have its share price boosted by the September 11 attacks (shares in BAe Systems went up over 35 pence in the week following the terrorist attacks), has funded the Party before. However, Thomson-CSF Racal, a French weapons maker recently renamed Thales, is a new backer. This year nu-Labour gave Thales a £70 million order for the Thermal Sighting System of the Self Propelled Variant of the High Velocity Missile, a £230 million order for night vision systems for tanks, and a £66 million order for the 'Successor Identification Friend or Foe' missile system. Thales are also bidding for the massive £13 billion Strategic Tanker Programme, a scheme to privatise the RAF's airborne refuelling tankers. One of Britain's main contributions to the war with Afghanistan has been its capacity to refuel American planes in the air. Nu-Labour's accounts also show that the privatised rail industry were also pouring cash into the coffers. Rail firms like Vivendi-owned Connex and GNER gave "£5,000 or more" in sponsorship. Sea Containers, the Bermuda based parent of GNER, and train operator, the National Express Group, both paid "£5,000 or more" to nu-Labour's lucrative "tickets for dinners" scheme for which corporation's buy a table at a dinner function serviced with government ministers and corporate lobbyists. Nu-Labour may have been forced into finally pulling the plug on Railtrack but the other half of the private rail system - the train operating companies - still have the Party's ear.

All of this was missed by the mainstream press, who uniformly reported the Labour Party conference as sombre and downbeat in the shadow of the deaths in New York. In fact, inside the security zone, the same corporate parties and stalls dominated events, with only cosmetic adjustments. Ministers still spoke on business-sponsored platforms in the Grand or Metropole Hotels, as waiters dished out wine and canapes. Among the winers and diner, were the high street retailer Dixon's, who also paid the Party "£5,000 or more" for their "tickets for dinners" scheme. Dixons' boss, Sir Stanley Kalms, has previously been one of the Tory's biggest and most vocal funders and this November was appointed Tory party treasurer. His patronage of Blair's government just prior to his new appointment is indicative of the accommodation of nu-Labour into the old Tory establishment.

Research and writing by Solomon Hughes and Jim Carey.


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