Nuclear-free footsteps..

IssueOctober 2008
Feature by Dan Viesnik

This summer, I was one of nine walkers to complete a gruelling 84-day, 1000+ mile International Walk towards a Nuclear-Free Future from London to Geneva, through France.

The other eight walkers were: co-organisers Kerrie-Ann Garlick and Marcus Atkinson, and June, from Australia; Jill Saunderson from Fife; Steve Gwynne from Birmingham; Lena Bladh from Sweden; and Albert Monti and Aristide from France.

The walk was jointly organized by the Australian-American group “Footprints for Peace” and the French anti-nuclear network “Sortir du Nucléaire”. We were joined along the way by many more French walkers, other Brits, another Australian and representatives from Austria, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Switzerland and the USA, all keen to build a strong global movement against the worldwide expansion of the nuclear industry.

This was my second outing with Footprints for Peace, following last year’s amble from Dublin to London which also took 12 weeks, covering a paltry 900 miles.

Some of us, myself included, got arrested then – more than once in some cases – engaging in civil disobedience against Trident nuclear weapons at Faslane and the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston.

Battersea and beyond

This year’s walk departed on 26 April, the 22nd anniversary of the world’s worst ever civil nuclear disaster, Chernobyl. At a well-attended opening ceremony at Battersea Park Peace Pagoda, we heard from Bruce Kent, CND vice-president; Siân Berry, then the Green London mayoral candidate; and Shuji Imamoto, chair of the Japanese Greens.

We arrived in Portsmouth after five days, took a ferry across to Cherbourg and began our arduous trek across France.

If the last walk was tough, I found this one even more challenging. We often covered 15-18 miles a day in oppressive heat. Inevitable tensions arose through tiredness and spending so much time in a group of strong-minded individuals.

Sometimes we were put up in relative comfort and fed very well, but often we made do with basic conditions, camping in farms and playing fields and cooking out-doors.

Walkers of all ages joined us, from young children and teenagers to pensioners. Travelling through France, the cultural and language barriers presented extra challenges, although my GCSE French helped.

The walk’s strict no-alcohol rule created problems in a country where (moderate) consumption of alcohol is deeply ingrained in the culture. However, the group accepted this rule, standing in solidarity with indigenous people in Australia and North America whose communities have been devastated by alcohol donated by uranium mining corporations.

Nuclear France

The British government, committed to a nuclear power renaissance, is looking to the French to provide the technology, avoiding any debate about the health and environmental implications, safety concerns or the true financial costs of nuclear power and the management of waste that remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

There is no discussion of the links between nuclear power and the proliferation of nuclear weapons; of the risk of rising sea levels flooding nuclear sites in low-lying coastal areas; of the legacy of Chernobyl, Windscale and Three Mile Island; and of the constant leaks, discharges and dumping of radioactive materials into the air, land and water.

There is little talk about the displacement of indigenous populations due to uranium mining in Australia, North America, Niger and elsewhere, or the radioactive contamination of their sacred lands and World Heritage sites.

What is more, our government conveniently ignores the astronomical rise in the incidence of birth defects, leukaemias and lymphomas seen in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Lebanon as the West bombards them with its nuclear waste in the form of so-called “depleted” uranium (DU) munitions. We called at various civil nuclear sites on the Normandy coast and along the banks of the rivers Loire and Seine, some nuclear waste dumps and a couple of military bases. The 80%-state- owned company Electricité de France (EDF) operates every nuclear power station in France and wants to extend its nuclear empire to the UK. Prime minister Gordon Brown’s brother, Andrew is currently EDF’s head spin doctor in the UK.

Actions en route

At each site, we staged a “die-in” or other peaceful action, displayed banners, distributed flyers and, on occasion, engaged workers, bosses, the gendarmes and the public in discussion about the wide-spread death, disease, human rights abuses and environmental devastation caused by the nuclear industry.

We visited Flamanville in Normandy, where the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) is under construction. It has been plagued by safety problems and spiralling costs, like the only other EPR in the world, being built at Olkiluo-to in Finland. This is the technology French company AREVA and German firm Siemens want to bring to the UK.

At various public meetings along the way, we exchanged information and ideas with local activists, politicians and journalists. We spoke about local resistance to the nuclear industry and sustainable alternatives to nuclear power.

Arriving in Geneva in mid-July, we met with our national ambassadors to the UN on disarmament, as well as a high-level representative from the UN Conference on Disarmament who we presented with a thousand origami peace cranes we’d folded along the way. We shared with these diplomats our concerns about nuclear and uranium weapons and nuclear expansion.

Next year, Footprints for Peace plan to walk from Geneva to the European Parliament in Brussels, via Germany, starting again on Chernobyl Day, 26 April. In 2010, they will walk from the Y-12 plant in Tennessee to the United Nations in New York for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference.