On Nuclear Power
by
Tony Staunton

The constant issue is power, and only strong, open and collective organisation on our side can defeat the combined forces of government, the Military (MoD) and the Corporations (Halliburton - owners of Devonport Management Limited).

The wind blows straight through the multi-storey Council flats of the impoverished Barne Barton estate. From this high knoll of north Plymouth, what would otherwise be a picturesque river estuary is infested by a tangle of cranes and chimneys and pipe paths. A four mile stretch of industry on the edge of the River Tamar. But a sense of oppression is immediately apparent. This is not an oil refinery or chemical plant, smelly and polluting as they are. There is an unusual stillness, an invisible notion in the air.

Gray Navy ships stand against the quay. Black towers of half-submerged attack submarines poke out of the dark water. This is the garage for Britain’s nuclear fleet. This is the nuclear dockyard where HMS Vanguard is docked and being refitted at a cost of over 985 million. That’s four times the original estimate – tax payers money, all. The Government has also agreed to a 500% increase in the discharge of radioactive Tritium gas into the atmosphere, water and public sewers that surround the site.

The Vanguard class submarines is the latest generation, designed to carry 9 Trident multiple nuclear warheads capable of 54 Hiroshimas. We are told there are no Trident warheads in Plymouth, but local folk tales speak of bunkers under Barne Barton. The Truth is an official secret. And no-one believes the Government these days.

The Vanguard fleet can sail for 2 years without servicing. Vanguards’ much bigger nuclear reactor core then needs to be emptied, scraped and refuelled creating a great deal more radioactive effluent than the previous generation. Hence the increase in Tritium pollution, a gas that recent studies in the US have proved to be highly carcinogenic. It is also responsible for birth defects and sterility. Such a tiny particle from this “low grade” radioactive toxin is hard to detect and easily embeds itself in lungs or anywhere else in the body. Its presence and effects can transfer down 6 generations.

To be fair, the Devonport Public Safety Plan, or DevPubSafe to give its typically unimaginative technical title, rehearses actions to be taken in the event of a low grade nuclear accident. The contingency plans end at the Dockyard wall. Were there ever to be a nuclear explosion, the footprint of fallout would engulf all of Dartmoor and include Exeter 45 miles away. So perhaps it is just as well that there is no contingency for the local populous outside the Wall. We’d be dead or dying, and there is no contingency for that.

All of Britain’s nuclear fleet are serviced in the middle of a City. Reason enough for protest, and protest there is. CND marches, Trident Ploughshares Peace Camps, trade union challenges in the Council Chamber, a complete umbrella organisation bringing together Greens and Socialists, Friends of the Earth and Women for Peace, UNISON and the local Trades Council, all meet together regularly as the Nuclear Free Coalition to develop opposition.

We have a trail of volunteers through the local Courts following break-ins and sit-downs and illegal marches. Rarely is our campaign not in the local press on at least a weekly basis. The Dockyard has a very busy Public Relations Department constantly countering our allegations. Special police officers routinely phone we who are notorious for tips on what we might do next. Who knows what they hear on our phone lines.

The anti-Trident campaign is a regular industry in Plymouth. But in truth we haven’t stirred our fellow Plymothians or galvanised the rest of the population of the South West. We are a small band full of positive energy, direct action, intellectual outrage and moral high ground, but few local followers.

Plymouth has a proud history of challenge and fightback. Older residents remember the blanket bombing in the second world war which flattened one third of the City, black and white pictures of rubble still hanging in pubs to “never forget” the horror of war. The Spirit of Plymouth is still referred to in terms of not being cowed by the Nazis. Yet Trident is tolerated. In the 1960’s every family included a “Yardie” and every year there was a strike by Yard workers over conditions and rights.

Even more exemplary, dockyard workers ran a 30 year campaign for compensation for asbestos contamination, denied for years by the management, and won! Yet no link to the radiation threat, similarly denied, has been made by workers and their trade union representatives who still work there. Any challenge may lose work and jobs, so keep quiet. A deal has been agreed for workers to have 2,000 immediately and private health bills paid should they fall ill with “work-related” sickness, including cancer.

Why, when Plymouth represents a microcosm of the issues raised by the War on Iraq, aren’t we all up in arms? The largest demonstrations of all times in London, but little resonance in this City at the heart of the Western Military Industrial Complex. With 7,000 out of 270,000 local people connected with the military, Plymouth is hardly a garrison town. So why tolerate Trident?

The answer is Power. Go door to door and talk to neighbours and friends and most will say the Dockyard management has always done what it liked, got away with murder, and always will. The shoulders shrug and say “what can’ya do?” This is not toleration or apathy but powerlessness.

They may have a point. The whole dockyard is privately owned, by Devonport Management Limited, bought out by Brown & Root, a part of the US transnational Corporation Halliburton. Halliburton is the enterprise of US Vice President Dick Cheney. Halliburton is a major oil company, involved in the pipelines in Colombia, South America where indigenous peoples get “disappeared” by paramilitaries if they get too close to the pipeline exclusion zone that cuts the country in half. Trade unionists in Colombia’s oil industry are routinely assassinated.

Halliburton got the first contract for rebuilding Iraq worth $6 billion of US taxpayers money, signed before the bombing of Iraq had begun. Halliburton is an arms supplier in the world’s Top Ten, with new contracts being awarded by the British Government with increasing regularity. Now that’s power!

The tax-payers money used to construct the nuclear dockyard (which, by the way, keeps falling short of the necessary specifications) nears 1 billion, mirroring the 1 billion profit promised to Halliburton for the Vanguard refits over 10 years. The owners are keen to publicise the value of the contract to the local economy, but workers know that the skilled nuclear staff all come from outside the City, “up the line” and the money goes with them. The profits all go back to the United States. Jobs have been cut back to under 350 in the Vanguard dock, and pay has been slashed through sub-contracting and hawkish management.

Plymouth remains very poor. The analogy with the plight of under-developed countries ravaged by trans-national corporations flying the flag of the free market and neo-liberalism fits here. We are occupied, passified, held in fear and fed propaganda.

The truth for our side is that we are not targeting our campaign properly. We are taking token actions on behalf of the people of Plymouth, rather than engaging with them. We are pretending to have the power vested in us by international law that deems Trident an illegal weapon of indiscriminate mass destruction. Problem is, Halliburton doesn’t give a damn. Nor do Governments.

Global resistance gives us a clue as to how to build. Protests and demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation gave representatives from under-developed countries the strength to stand up against the might of the United States in Cancun in September. Delegates were targeted by the protesters and helped to come together to get the votes necessary to prevent a deal that would worsen exploitation. We can use this as an analogy to build a successful fight against Trident. Link issues, be inclusive, find the highest common denominator to encourage confidence that we can win.

We have to recognise the Power behind Trident, and identify where the power lies on our side. Vitally, that means winning the collective organisations that are already involved with the dockyard. The trade unions. If the “Yardies” went on strike over safety, Halliburton could be called to account. There is a link to be made between the public campaign protests we must continue, and the collective organisation of those inside the Beast.

With the awesome power of the Pentagon, Whitehall and Halliburton backing Trident, we simply won’t see the back of this and all nuclear weapons without a matching power on our side. Simply being right isn’t enough. And a small group can’t change the world on behalf of everyone else. We can win. To quote John Pilger, there are two superpowers in the world today, the United States on the one side, and public opinion on the other. We have no option but to build a mass movement to smash Trident, and that means talking with, joining and convincing ordinary working women and men to fight for social justice.

Tony Staunton


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