tag: Terrorism

Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan

This time last year I published a piece over at Dorian’s site, On This Deity. It commemorated the final withdrawal – on this day in 1989 – of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and the end of that disastrous, bloody and futile invasion.

Afghanistan is BurningIn my piece I draw the obvious parallels between the ill-fated Soviet occupation of that central Asian country and the modern US-led Western occupation. In both cases the stated reason for the invasion was to combat terrorism. In both cases the invaders believed they were liberating the people of Afghanistan from the clutches of an aggressive religious fundamentalism. In both cases the occupying forces went about trying to install relatively progressive policies: the insistence on a national legal system that would supersede tribal and Sharia laws; the promotion of greater equality for women (just as, if not more, aggressively pursued by the Soviet puppet regime than by the US puppet regime it should be noted); the establishment of secular health and education facilities; the de-politicisation and secularisation of the police force and civil administration.

All of these policies were pursued vigorously by the Soviet occupiers. Just as they have been by the western forces. And – I would suggest – with roughly the same level of success. Perhaps the current occupation has it slightly easier thanks to the relative lack of external support for the Afghan militants. Whatever aid being supplied to the Taliban opposition by dissident Saudis, sympathetic elements within the Pakistani security forces and Iranian smugglers is as nothing compared to the huge resources made available to the mujahideen by the CIA during the 1980s. Indeed, it was fairly obvious to the world that the United States was fighting a proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan. They pumped money, weapons and military training personnel into Afghanistan on a massive scale and in so doing, they strengthened the ultra-reactionary Islamist elements within Afghan society. Those very same elements who are now killing US and other western troops today.

Rarely has the old adage about being careful what you wish for been so dramatically demonstrated in the arena of world affairs. The United States wished to turn the fundamentalist elements of Afghan society into a force capable of resisting a superpower. I suspect they no longer find Charlie Wilson’s War quite so clever.

Just as with the fall of the Soviet Union – an empire that was militarily over-extended and consumed from within by an economic system that was unfit for purpose – the United States must surely now face up to its own slow collapse. They are mired in debt that nobody sane believes will ever be repaid, and which is being aggressively ignored by both debtor and creditors alike in the mistaken belief that the elephant in the room can be trusted not to break the furniture so long as nobody talks about it. They are rapidly reaching the limits of their ability to intimidate the world with military power (how long before China decides to repossess the US 5th fleet in lieu of the money they are owed?) And while there is currently little sign of a wane in their cultural influence, that too can hardly be far away. On top of that, the rifts in US society – between their own religious fundamentalists and the besieged bastions of liberal secularism – threaten to rip the nation to pieces from within.

Just as the collapse of the Soviet Union cannot be blamed on their invasion of Afghanistan – the invasion functioned both as a symptom of that collapse and one contributing factor; so the US involvement in that nation will not, historically, be viewed as the reason for the decline of America. However, it will be heralded as an obvious symptom of western self-delusion and over-extension. And I suspect it will also be considered a contributing factor – albeit a relatively minor one, compared to our psychotic financial system and the inability of consumer capitalism to cope with resource depletion.

So today we pause to recall the final humiliation of the once proud Red Army. And we take a moment to look a few years into the future at that humiliation being mirrored on the other side of that old Cold War divide.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Dec 2011

Security (by Philip Challinor)

The War Against Terror has brought death, kidnap, rendition, torture and destruction to an already weary world. It has resulted in an ongoing erosion of civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law. It has also partly unleashed and partly revealed the moral vacuum at the heart of western society. The War Against Terror has done more damage to the notion of enlightened, liberal democracy than any terrorist could hope to have achieved. By fighting fire with fire we have merely succeeded in burning everyone. In my search for a silver lining – and it is a very narrow one indeed – I’m forced to fall back on that old cliché about harsh times providing inspiration for writers and artists.

Security (by Philip Challinor)It is The War Against Terror and consequent loss of civil liberties that form the heart of Philip Challinor’s 2010 novel, Security. It’s a story told with wit, skill and an unsettling dollop of resignation… a sense that humanity is more than willing to allow terrible things to happen if they’re scared enough, and sometimes just because they’re too lazy to do otherwise.

Readers of Security spend 24 hours with a mid-level bureaucrat – Anderson – working for National Consolidated Solutions, to whom the UK government have outsourced a number of security contracts. Any novel about the work of a bureaucrat is going to be leavened with a certain amount of existentialism, but Challinor chooses to downplay this aspect of Security by turning the inner world of his protagonist into an abstract mystery story… Just what is it that Anderson does? The central character suffers from that terrible and slightly paradoxical combination of boredom and stress that anyone who has ever done a job that didn’t interest them, yet found themselves with a petty tyrant as a boss will recognise. Partly because of this – and partly due to the nature of his company’s business – Anderson forces himself to plough through his daily routine by focussing purely on the mechanics of the task at hand. As a result, the bigger picture takes some time to come into focus and although the entire novel is steeped in a sinister atmosphere, it takes a while to work out exactly why.

All the same, there’s plenty of humour to be found within the pages of Security, but it is both bone dry and extremely dark, so don’t expect too many chuckles. And the inevitable existentialism of a bureaucrat’s story hasn’t been completely eradicated – despite the attempts of Anderson’s unconscious mind to roboticise himself. This existential aspect is most obvious in Anderson’s encounters with and thoughts about his family. We can only assume that these sterile relationships did not start out this way and are a direct result of the toll taken on his psyche by the job he performs. Perhaps.

Ultimately Challinor successfully avoids getting too bogged down either in the monotony of bureaucracy or the opaque family relationships of the protagonist. And he creates more than enough intrigue to prevent Anderson’s monotonous life turning into a monotonous novel. Like the great Leopold Bloom, while Anderson is a passive participant in his own life, his passivity does not weigh down the story he tells. Over the course of the (relatively short) novel Anderson’s conversations begin to reveal precisely what is going on around him – even if at some level he would rather they didn’t. And fittingly, his final significant conversation – with the wonderfully objectionable Eric Munt – reveals everything in the most explicit terms while also hinting at an even worse future to come.

Security, like Ken MacLeod’s excellent The Execution Channel, paints a bleak picture of a future that threatens to engulf us all should we allow it. A future that has already begun to creep backwards into the present (as the inmates of Guantanemo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the cells at Bagram Airbase or a dozen other places whose names we don’t know can attest to), and which must be resisted at all costs. The alternative, as illustrated by Anderson, is too chilling to contemplate outside the pages of a novel.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews

Jul 2011

Norway. And the Media

There was a discussion between a news anchor and some “expert” pundit on Fox News in the immediate aftermath of the horrific tragedy in Norway, in which 76 people are known to have been murdered. The “expert” was pontificating on the reasons why Norway might be the target of an Al Qaeda terror attack. They’re members of NATO, he pointed out. They recently arrested an Islamist cleric, he pointed out. In the eyes of Muslim fanatics, Norway might share the stigma of the Danish cartoon incident, he suggested. The news anchor interjected… “it has been suggested that the perpetrator of these acts is actually a native Norwegian with a right-wing islamophobic agenda…” To which point the “expert” responded curtly, “I don’t think we should speculate about these things until we have all the facts!”

However much you or I may hate to perpetuate stereotypes, Fox News seems to have no problem promoting the idea that “Americans don’t do irony”.

But sadly, it wasn’t just the rabid right who immediately started to shriek “Muslims!” as soon as the news of a bomb in Oslo hit the airwaves. Peter Beaumont, a columnist with The Guardian, was quick off the mark with his entirely inaccurate and unjustifiable speculation. In an article – Oslo bomb: suspicion falls on Islamist militants – that has since been removed from the website (though is still currently available thanks to Google cache) Beaumont kicks off with the gloriously inept intro…

Oslo police have confirmed the source of the blast that damaged the prime minister’s offices in Oslo was a bomb. The question now is who is likely to be behind it.

The most obvious conclusion would be a jihadist group.

Really Peter? And why’s that exactly?

Is it because most acts of terrorism in Europe are carried out by jihadist groups? Because actually, between 2006 and 2009 (the most recent years for which we have accessible data) roughly 0.4% of incidents categorised as “terrorism” in Europe were carried out by groups with a known Islamist agenda. Yup, that’s a staggering 99.6% of recent terrorist acts carried out by non-jihadist groups. So why the freaking hell is it “the most obvious conclusion” that a jihadist group bombed Oslo?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Peter Beaumont was alone in coming to that “obvious” (and utterly wrong) conclusion. Merely that he – like a huge number of people out there – have bought into a media narrative that is dangerously flawed and borderline racist. Though of course, given that Beaumont’s article was actually a part of that ongoing narrative, further reinforcing and extending it, he does warrant a tad more criticism than most of the people who have succumbed to the notion that Islam is somehow uniquely linked with terrorism.

In the hastily rewritten article that replaced the “suspicion falls on Islamist militants” one, Beaumont shamelessly spends much of his time highlighting the (ultra-tenuous) reasons why it was understandable for people to leap to the jihadist conclusion without ever referring to his own culpability in this bandwagon jumping.

The most tempting and immediate conclusion was that it would be a jihadist group, as the style of the Oslo attack bore strong similarities to other earlier attacks in Europe and elsewhere.

Really? Which ones? How many jihadist carbombs have there been in Europe? How many jihadist groups have sent a lone assassin to gun down members of a leftwing political youth movement in Europe? I’m not saying these things have not happened (though I personally don’t recall that being the modus operandus of Europe-based Islamist terrorism) but the fact of the matter is that “the style of the Oslo attacks” bears at least as much a similarity to the 99.6% of terrorist acts in Europe that were not carried out by Islamists. So again, why make that connection?

I am not downplaying acts of violence perpetrated by those with an Islamist agenda. I’m not downplaying any acts of violence at all. Being murdered by an Islamist suicide-bomber on the London tube is no more or less tragic than being murdered by an Islamophobic gun-man on a Norwegian island. Neither victim is less dead. And neither perpetrator is less unhinged or less monstrous.

What I am doing, however, is condemning a partly unconscious, partly conscious media narrative that appears to suggest that terrorism is somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, synonymous with Islamist extremism. A media narrative that insists the statistically less likely conclusion is the “obvious” one. A media narrative that, by virtue of its focus on jihadist groups despite their relative lack of activity in Europe, is guilty of forwarding a deceptive – and racist – agenda.

Terrorism Vs. Extremism

The other thing I want to address here is the weird way in which the language of (much of) the media switched from “possible Islamist terrorism” to “right-wing extremism“. A jihadist terrorist is an extremist . A Norwegian terrorist is an extremist. When an Islamist group or individual is involved, it’s “terrorism”, and there’s a subtle unspoken sense in which all of Islam – every Muslim – must shoulder some of the responsibility. But when the perpetrator is a Norwegian right-winger, then he’s a “lone extremist”. Possibly mentally ill.

The language we use is part of that. The word “terrorism” doesn’t distance the perpetrators from the mainstream population to quite the same extent as the word “extremism” does. It’s subtle. And I’m fully prepared to believe that the journalists and editors who create this obscene media narrative are largely unconscious of it. But that doesn’t excuse it. And it certainly doesn’t mean we should allow it to go unchallenged. And if we define Anders Behring Breivik as somehow “unhinged” or “mentally ill”, then the same applies to the suicide bombers who blew themselves up in London, or the hijackers who crashed airliners into American buildings.

Which is definitely not to say that I am defining anyone here as “mentally ill”. In fact, briefly donning my psychoanalyst hat, I have to say that I’m increasingly dissatisfied with the medical metaphor of psychology. However, I am calling for consistency in the media when it covers mass murder. Consistency, perspective and a thorough appreciation of the facts. As opposed to the current gung-ho willingness to perpetuate a narrative that is clearly at odds with reality.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jul 2011

The curious death of a master signifier

A crowd gathered at the site of the World Trade Center in New York. Many carried American flags or wore t-shirts with patriotic slogans. They pumped their fists in the air. They shouted “U.S.A” and “We’re Number One!” while others sang The Star Spangled Banner. They were in celebratory mood. And they were celebrating death.

Specifically they were celebrating the shooting of an unarmed man in his fifties half a planet away. A group of well-trained killers entered a sovereign nation without permission, swooped down on a house and shot Osama bin Laden in front of his family. They then took photos, scraped some DNA samples and threw the body in the sea. Far away, insulated from all harm, the US president watched the killing unfold on a monitor. And crowds cheered. And of course, this being America, a few of them wondered how they could profit from the death celebration.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote, “It’s been a long time since Americans felt this good and strong about themselves — nothing like putting bullets in someone’s skull and dumping their corpse into an ocean to rejuvenate that can-do American sense of optimism.”

And then the lies began. The dead man had resisted capture. He’d opened fire on his assailants. In the last resort he’d grabbed his own wife and caused her death when he used her as a human shield. A day later, mystifyingly, we were told that none of that had happened. The dead man had been unarmed. He hadn’t used his wife as a human shield. She wasn’t even present when he was shot dead.

I found myself wondering how a man in his fifties, whose health – we’d been told for some time – wasn’t all that great, could have resisted capture so forcefully while unarmed, that a team of elite soldiers was unable to subdue him without shooting him numerous times in the face and chest. Don’t get me wrong, I shed no tears for Osama bin Laden. But nor do I find much to celebrate in the gunning-down of an unarmed man, followed by a series of official lies.

I also found myself wondering why we were being told this at all. Where had the first set of lies come from? And why bother correcting them given that there was no evidence one way or the other beyond the official version? It reminded me of the brutal slaying of Jean Charles de Menezes by police in London. Immediately after the killing a series of lies emerged from the authorities that were so far from the truth that they had to have been deliberately manufactured. They simply couldn’t have been mistakes or someone misinterpreting something. Jean Charles de Menezes had vaulted the ticket barrier in the tube station, we were told. He’d been wearing a bulky coat, we were told. He’d sprinted away from police who had clearly called upon him to stop, we were told.

Except he hadn’t. He’d used his season ticket to walk through the ticket barriers just like a hundred thousand other commuters that day. His clothes had been perfectly appropriate for the weather, and yes while he had sped up — like a hundred thousand other commuters that day — to catch the train that had just pulled into the station, he’d not been sprinting. We were just told lies. And the apparently casual manner in which the authorities appear willing to feed bullshit to the public suggests this is a routine occurrence.

The bizarre testimony of the police officer at the centre of the Ian Tomlinson “unlawful killing” case serves to reinforce this. Everyone had already seen the clear footage of the incident that killed Tomlinson. It was as unambiguous as something like this can possibly be. Yet at the inquest, the police officer whose action had resulted in the death of Tomlinson insisted upon a version of events that completely contradicted the video evidence. It was just weird. And what’s weirder is the fact that he clearly expected the jury, and the wider world, to accept his version above the evidence of their own eyes.

Over the years I’ve found it instructive, whenever I encounter a statement issued by an authority, to imagine that the exact opposite is true. It’s unsettling how often the news makes more sense when you do that. Admittedly it’s a little strange to have the strategy validated so quickly as we did when bin Laden was killed. Within 48 hours an armed man became an unarmed man, and the wife we were told was used as a human shield wasn’t even there.

What does all of this mean?

Well, it means those in power have no respect for those they claim to protect, serve and represent. This isn’t an earth-shattering piece of news. I’m not claiming to be telling you something you’ve not heard before. I’m merely pointing out that despite incontrovertible evidence that this is going on all the time, we appear happy to allow it. Our police and our politicians are constantly lying to us, and we choose to accept it. The psychoanalyst in me can’t help but find the words of Wilhelm Reich springing to mind and wonder whether this is inevitably going to end with the sound of a hundred thousand jackboots marching in unison beneath a fascist flag. The willingness of a population to accept obvious lies eventually gets exploited by someone even less sane than Blair or Cameron or Bush or Obama. And the phrase “it couldn’t happen here” is rarely any protection.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2011

On This Deity: 19th March 2003

New article at On This Deity

19th March 2003: The Beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

On March 19th 2003 US President George W. Bush announced that US and UK armed forces had launched strikes against “targets of military opportunity” in Iraq. It marked the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom; a disastrous conflict that would drag on for the rest of the decade resulting in massive casualties, a huge economic cost and the further destabilisation of a region already beset by conflict and strife.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Mar 2010

Four Lions trailer

Still no news on an Irish release date, but the first feature film from ground-breaking broadcaster Chris Morris is poised to hit British cinemas very soon.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video

Mar 2010

Expectations born of madness

Top US officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have been calling for the military to go after the militants in these regions.

All this comes at a time when Pakistan’s government is already under a great deal of domestic criticism.

This is mainly due to increased missile strikes by the US targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in the tribal areas.

These have turned a sometimes ambivalent tribal population against the Pakistan military.

Analysts say the tribesmen see the strikes, which have claimed more lives of civilians than of militants, as contiguous with the military operation.

I was imagining a scenario where the roles were reversed back on September 11th 2001. How different everything would be. If an extremist group of fundamentalist Christians had crashed a cargo plane full of explosives into The Great Mosque in Mecca. And now, almost a decade on, unmanned drones adorned with Islam’s Crescent Moon are levelling homes in Texas and Utah. Sometimes, killing sympathisers and extremists. More often, killing regular American families.

Obama and Hillary Clinton

Embracing the insanity of their predecessor

Can you imagine how much pressure the world would need to put on the US government to make them turn a blind eye to this bombing campaign? Which is exactly what America expects of the Pakistani authorities.

And would the people of America see these raids as justified? Or would they instead swear bloody vengeance on the perpetrators, and view the complicity of their own government as the most despicable betrayal in American history?

Expecting the government of Pakistan to accept the regular killing of innocent civilians — people whose interests they are supposed to represent — by a foreign military. Even when that killing is done in error…

It’s unreasonable. And it is a demonstration, among many, of the psychotic nature of The War Against Terror and of modern politics in general.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2010

Chris Morris, film director

It’s a nailed-on certainty that the Daily Mail is going to have an outrage-athon when it’s released (the premiere is tonight at The Sundance Festival). But if the first feature film from Chris Morris (Day Today, Blue Jam, Brass Eye, etc.) is half as funny as this clip implies, then it’s also a nailed-on certainty that it’ll be worth seeing. Four Lions is being described as “jihadist comedy”.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Video

Nov 2009

A free Mann

Equatorial Guinea is a pretty awful place to live. Unless, of course, you happen to be a member of the ruling elite. Despite experiencing recent economic growth thanks to the discovery of oil, the population largely live in poverty with almost all of the petroleum revenue being appropriated by President Obiang to fund a luxurious lifestyle for him and his inner circle, as well as ensuring the military are paid well enough to keep him in power. Although there are occasional elections, they are quite obviously loaded in Obiang’s favour and nobody is under any illusions about him being willing to relinquish power voluntarily. He is a dictator in all but name, and while he probably isn’t responsible for quite as much bloodshed and tyranny as the guy he overthrew, that’s really not saying much given the record of Francisco Macías Nguema. Macías reputably had a penchant for mass public executions to the soundtrack of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days. His regime was nightmarish in the most literal of senses… terrifying and surreal all at once, like a David Lynch film writ large.

If you’re an ordinary person in Equatorial Guinea, you have a difficult life and probably quite a short one.

It’s worth pointing out that when people describe Equatorial Guinea as “oil rich”, it’s a statement that needs to be placed in some context. In fact, with estimated recoverable reserves of a little under 2 billion barrels, Equatorial Guinea represents a fraction of one percent of global oil. However, with a population of less than 650,000 that should, in the right hands, be enough wealth to provide the country with a more than adequate health, education and social welfare system. Given their oil resources in proportion to their population size Equatorial Guinea could be a very pleasant place to live given radically different circumstances.

It’s the sort of place that could desperately do with a change in government.

And about five years ago, a group of men decided to try do just that. A bunch of South African mercenaries led by Simon Mann (a former British SAS officer turned soldier-for-hire) were preparing to launch a coup d’état when they were seized enroute to Equatorial Guinea. The Zimbabwean government intercepted their chartered plane when it touched down in Harare to take on supplies and Mann was extradited to the small West African nation to stand trial. During the trial allegations were made that Mann’s coup attempt was being backed by members of the British establishment including Sir Mark Thatcher (son of a certain ex-Prime Minister) and Jeffrey Archer (baron, bad novelist, prominent tory and all round git). These remain “allegations”, though Thatcher’s involvement in providing logistical support has been proven despite his insistence that he was unaware of the details of the plan and had no idea Mann and his private army were up to anything dodgy.

The details of the operation are obviously a little vague, but the basic plan seems to have been to overthrow Obiang and install either Mann himself or a local puppet as President of the country whereupon those who organised, financed and took part in the coup would reap the rewards in much the same way that Obiang currently does. I feel confident that largescale infrastructure projects and a redistribution of the oil wealth to the general populace wasn’t on the cards.

Mann was placed on trial in Equatorial Guinea and found guilty of plotting to overthrow the government. In July last year he was sentenced to 34 years in prison.

Now, it’s fair to say that Equatorial Guinea probably doesn’t have the most robust or transparent judiciary. People like President Obiang rarely install that kind of thing in the countries they rule. Dictators can be funny like that. Nonetheless, there’s no question — given Mann’s own public statements — that the basic facts are as stated. Surprisingly (or not if you assume that some kind of deal was done… cf. not the most robust or transparent judiciary) Mann has just been released having served less than a year and a half of his 34 year sentence. He appears to be a guy with an axe to grind and is looking to get even with the other coup plotters who left him swinging in the wind.

Despite the obvious relish with which some are anticipating whatever he’s got up his sleeve for Thatcher, there are others; Merrick for instance; who point out quite rightly that “a vicious mercenary is now free to enjoy his millionaire’s lifestyle and work on his book deal and film options”. This is hardly very satisfactory and is a somewhat lamentable outcome to the entire affair.

John Band, on the other hand, via that horrid twitter service that irritates me considerably, makes the following comments…

Struggling to see why Merrick upset re S Mann – Eq Guinea one of Africa’s vilest regimes, so no biggie if overthrown

and then (because twitter insists on breaking simplistic soundbites down into absurd soundnibbles)

If he’d been overthrowing an (even vaguely) democratic or liberal government, *that* would actually matter

Taken at face value (and Twitter is doubtlessly doing John a disservice by reducing his position to two sentences of less than 140 characters each) that’s a pretty dreadful sentiment. It seems to be saying that so long as the regime is bad enough, it doesn’t matter if rich westerners storm into an African country, kill a bunch of people, overthrow the government and then syphon off the mineral wealth for their own benefit. It’s an endorsement of violent imperialism because the suggestion that Mann and his 70 heavily armed mercenaries were going to liberate the people of Equatorial Guinea from tyranny is risible.

Perhaps they’d have set up a regime that was moderately less oppressive? But that resolves into an endorsement of Obiang’s government given the fact that it is moderately less oppressive than the Macías dictatorship it replaced.

The reason we should be upset about the likes of Simon Mann and his establishment backers… the reason their actions should matter… is because military intervention and murder for personal gain should not be tolerated even if most of the dead were bastards. People like Mann are no different to the Obiangs of the world, even if he did go to Eton. And I’m a little taken aback that John seems to think it doesn’t matter if they go tearing around Africa pocketing the continent’s wealth at gunpoint.

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2009

Awww… it's a little nuke

Over at U-Know! someone posted a link to an article in The Guardian from last November (Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes). The article discusses a technology under development by Hyperion Power Generation in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It’s essentially a small nuclear reactor capable of powering tens of thousands of homes and costing a relatively modest $25m.

A quick search on google news reveals an article on Reuters as recently as this week (Hyperion Has a $100M Valuation for Mini Nuclear Power) which includes the paragraph:

Although nuclear power produces radioactive waste, it doesn’t release greenhouse gases and it has vocal supporters in the new administration, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu. So it’s not so far-fetched for investors to see the potential of Hyperion’s nuclear option.

Now those two articles and a reading of Hyperion’s website (mostly marketing bumpf investor relations) are the extent of my knowledge on this subject, so I don’t know enough about the specifics of their solution to offer a considered critique of the actual technology. However there are some generic criticisms of this approach to energy production that I feel are valid and worth highlighting. All the same, I’m flagging this post in advance as a “first thoughts / first impressions” thing. OK?

And on that basis… yikes!

Small enough to be transported on a ship, truck or train, Hyperion power modules are about the size of a “hot tub” — approximately 1.5 meters wide. Out of sight and safe from nefarious threats, Hyperion power modules are buried far underground and guarded by a security detail. Like a power battery, Hyperion modules have no moving parts to wear down, and are delivered factory sealed. They are never opened on site. Even if one were compromised, the material inside would not be appropriate for proliferation purposes. Further, due to the unique, yet proven science upon which this new technology is based, it is impossible for the module to go supercritical, “melt down” or create any type of emergency situation. If opened, the very small amount of fuel that is enclosed would immediately cool. The waste produced after five years of operation is approximately the size of a softball and is a good candidate for fuel recycling.

Perfect for moderately-sized projects, Hyperion produces only 25 MWe — enough to provide electricity for about 20,000 average American sized homes or its industrial equivalent. Ganged or teamed together, the modules can produce even more consistent energy for larger projects.

The Hyperion team is committed to helping make the clean and safe benefits of nuclear power — benefits that could assist in solving the worst of our planet’s problems — available in even the most remote locations. We hope you will enjoy learning about Hyperion through our web site!

“Nefarious threats”? They make it sound like they’re securing the place against attack from Dr. Evil. Or that we live in a world where the worst thing that could happen is Terry-Thomas might show up and attempt to do something dastardly. Poor copywriting aside, I believe that passage from their website, coupled with some of the claims being made in the media, should raise some serious concerns.

Thousands of little nuclear reactors encased in concrete, scattered all over the world, maintained and secured by the lowest-cost local contractors? There’s a whole bunch of things wrong with that.

First of all, this commits us to a heavily industrialised future which I’m not sure is a sensible decision (i.e. one in which uranium mining and processing is done on a scale that rivals the modern oil industry — how this squares with the claim in the Reuters piece that “nuclear power […] doesn’t release greenhouse gases” is anybody’s guess). I’m not suggesting we abandon technology or automation or electrical energy; merely that we need to scale our usage of these things back dramatically if we wish to use them sustainably. Be far smarter and more selective in the technologies we adopt or continue to use.

Secondly, the waste management issues just give me the head-staggers. It’s one thing having a few secure, essentially semi-militarised, locations where the waste is produced and stored. Even that’s problematic in my view. But to handle a massively distributed network (“available in even the most remote locations”) with a reasonable guarantee that none of the stuff ever ends up in the local reservoirs? Significantly increasing the amount of highly toxic waste we produce when there are alternatives? Future history books will view such decisions as criminally negligent… beyond reprehensible and into pure evil. Always assuming there’s going to be history books chronicling our times and crimes.

Thirdly, I’m always worried when the person selling the technology creates a huge straw man regarding security. What’s he trying to distract us from?

‘You could never have a Chernobyl-type event – there are no moving parts,’ said Deal. ‘You would need nation-state resources in order to enrich our uranium. Temperature-wise it’s too hot to handle. It would be like stealing a barbecue with your bare hands.’Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes, The Guardian

I’m not too worried about someone weaponising this stuff. North Korea’s already done that, and depending upon how the next few years go in Pakistan, some seriously hardline Islamists may get their hands on that technology too. Also, I’m not so sure that we can rely upon Israel to pursue a rational, evidence-based foreign policy and even the countries we view as being a relatively safe pair of hands are more than capable of rationalising a pre-emptive strike one of these days. So the “scary people with nukes” cat is very much out of the bag.

What worries me isn’t a nation state getting hold of this stuff and weaponising it, but a less organised bunch of psychos getting hold of it and poisoning wells and water-tables for several generations. See, I’m not sure exactly what part of “stealing a barbecue with your bare hands” would have prevented the September 11th hijackers doing so if it was part of their mission. For me the security risk of these things is a dedicated group of nutters — some of whom, perhaps, work for a local concrete supply company? — who don’t care about getting their hands burnt, metaphorically speaking. Unfortunately it seems there are plenty of people who’d be willing to expose themselves to a lethal dose of radiation as they steal a bunch of uranium “softballs” from one of the more remote clusters of these things.

Even if powdering the stuff and dumping it into a handful of municipal reservoirs was demonstrated to only raise the risk of childhood leukemia by 0.5% in those areas, how soon before you’ve got a bunch of ghost-towns? Ghost-cities? Millions of families won’t make a level-headed and rational assessment of the risks when the headlines scream “Radioactive Reservoir! Al Qaeda dumps uranium in Dallas water supply!”

The whole thing is fraught with the kind of “What Ifs” that just don’t enter the equation when you recommend a combination of renewable energy and a reduction in consumption.

But I’d be interested in having those “What Ifs” answered and I’ll look out for more information on this over the coming months should it start to gain credibility. Maybe this is the magic space dust we’ve been waiting for.

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