All posts by domenicainedinburgh

Warnings over nuclear sub leaks

By Domenica Goduto

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) has expressed concerns over multiple safety lapses at a naval base near Faslane which resulted in radioactive coolant leaking into the Firth of Clyde on three occasions.

The environmental watchdog is concerned over the breaches of procedure at HM Naval Base Clyde that resulted in the leaks and said it would consider shutting down the base if it had the power.

The incidents were revealed in a Ministry of Defence report which was revealed under the Freedom of Information Act. The report characterised the incidents as a “recurring theme.”

However, no formal legal action can be taken as military installations are not subject to the usual laws governing nuclear sites. Sepa has already issued a letter of complaint and an enforcement notice.

The submarine fleet at Faslane includes vessels carrying Trident nuclear missiles as well as nuclear-powered vessels. Leaks occurred in 2004, 2007 and 2008.

One incident in August 2007 involved the nuclear-powered sub HMS Superb, which discharged potentially contaminated water into Gare Loch. In February 2008, a tank in the HMS Torbay’s reactor overflowed into the same loch.

A spokesperson for the MoD noted that “The dicharges into the Gare Loch had no environmental consequences.

“The MoD is a responsible nuclear operator and informed the appropriate regulatory authorities.

“We commissioned an independent study into the facilities and practices at HM Naval Base Clyde and an improvement plan is currently under way to ensure modern standards and best practice at the base.”

Sepa says that although the environmental consequences in these instances were minor, there are still concerns that proper procedure was not followed.

Following the 2007 incident, the agency was not notified of the leak for six days.

SNP refuses Treasury financial advice

By Domenica Goduto

The Scottish National Party has refused offers of financial advice from the Treasury, despite  concerns about the Scottish Government‘s ability to make appropriate spending cuts in the face of the recession.

Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy claims that the SNP Administration is “the least efficient of all four UK governments.”  He offered First Minister Alex Salmond the services of top Treasury advisers and civil

SNP's Jim Murphy courtesy of
SNP's Jim Murphy courtesy of

servants in an attempt to improve the Scottish Government’s efficiency target, which Murphy said is “the lowest efficiency target of them all”.

“If it hit similar targets to those the rest of the UK is chasing, it would be able to find the relevant efficiencies and be able to help real people through the global recession.  It cannot be exempt from tightening its belt along with the rest of us.”

The SNP’s refusal has created further tension between the Labour and SNP administrations .  Labour claims that the 2% efficiency savings proposed by SNP finance secretary John Swinney does not measure up to the 3% savings to which Westminster, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly aspire.

A spokesman for John Swinney argues that “The very last people to advise Scotland about efficient government would be the very Treasury who have presided over a financial disaster, racked up £1.4 trillion of debt and whose forecasts aren’t worth the paper they are written on.”

This is not the first time the SNP Administration has turned down offers of assistance or otherwise refused to cooperate with Westminster.  Last month John Swinney turned down the Treasury’s offer of £1 billion to be put towards the construction of the new Forth Bridge on the grounds that the money would simply be siphoned off from other sections of Scotland’s budget.  First Minister Alex Salmond also faced criticism later in March for refusing to enter into discussions with the Calman Commission – an independent group set up to review the Scottish Government’s devolved powers – because Scottish independence would not be considered as part of the review.

“Hauntings” in Edinburgh

By Domenica Goduto

The days are getting longer and brighter, but this does little to dispel Edinburgh’s eerie atmosphere.

With its narrow closes and bloody history, it is the perfect setting for “Hauntings: The Science of Ghosts,” a one-day public event that will be held this Saturday, April 4, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, in the appropriately creepy University of Edinburgh Anatomy Lecture Theatre.

 “Hauntings” is a series of talks concerning the many aspects of ghostly phenomena. The speakers, all experts in their fields, will discuss  ghosts from the viewpoint of scientists, social historians, and the entertainment industry.

Dr. Caroline Watt, one of the event’s organizers, hopes the combination will prove both “informative and entertaining.”

The talks are expected to attract people interested in the science of ghost research, as well as the cultural and historical significance of the supernatural.

Dr. Watt is a psychologist at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh.

“My own work deals with the ways in which a person’s experiences are shaped by their expectations, and how our experiences can be distorted by the experiences we’re having – whether we’re cold, or tired,” she explains.

While Dr. Watt concedes that “We can’t be absolutely certain that ghosts do not exist,” she quickly points out that many factors can contribute to the impression that something supernatural has occurred.

She agrees that parapsychology occasionally gets a bad reputation because “it tends to be associated with all sorts of fringe pursuits by people who aren’t really aware of what it is we do.”

In fact, she explains, parapsychologists take a very scientific approach. They do not generally conduct overnight vigils in allegedly haunted locations in the hopes that something may appear. She feels that “there is little to be gained” by these attempts, regardless of the impression given by many popular television programmes.

However, parapsychologists will visit locations to measure a variety of physical conditions, such as light levels, humidity, and electromagnetic activity, though not necessarily at night.

Dr. Watt has conducted experiments with Professor Richard Wiseman – a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire and another of “Hauntings”’ organizers – in Edinburgh’s Underground Vaults.

They found certain correlations between physical conditions and the experiences people report.

People seem to get a spooky impression in dark locations, as well as in large rooms, both of which Dr. Watt points out “tend to make people feel vulnerable.”

Expectations also play a role – people feel more uneasy in places they already believe to be haunted. “Any ambiguous event – a draft, shadow, noise – can then be interpreted as ghostly,” Dr. Watt explains.

Levels of electromagnetic activity may also contribute to ghostly impressions, although to what extent and in precisely which manner is unclear. Dr. Watt notes that the evidence in this area is still “patchy,” although people are certainly sensitive to these levels.

In the lead-up to the “Hauntings” event, Professor Wiseman held a competition in which members of the public were encouraged ttantallon-ghosto send in ghostly photographs for analysis. The entries were posted online, and viewers could comment and vote on the authenticity of each photo.

The results of the competition will be discussed at the seminar on Saturday, although the top ten photos have already been announced online.

Dr. Watt says many of the photos can be explained by the fact that people are “hard-wired as individuals, almost from birth…to see faces.” Thus any kind of pattern seen in nature, or in a photo, tends to be interpreted by our brains as a face. It is a matter of “seeing shapes where there aren’t any.”

Often, when a photo is zoomed in, it is possible to see the effects of light or texture which create the impression of a face.

However, Dr. Watt admits that the winning photo (left), taken at Tantallon Castle in North Berwick, is more difficult to explain.  She and Professor Wiseman visited the site and attempted to recreate the photo, but there is nothing in the background that could suggest a face, possibly belonging to a figure in period clothing, looking out of an upper window of the castle.  Furthermore, experts confirm that the photo shows no sign of tampering.

 The area of the castle in which the figure appears, however, is open to the public, so they cannot rule out the mysterious face belonging to a very human visitor.

For the moment, though, the picture has yet to be fully explained.

News in Brief

A quick taste of what else is going on:

A stark warning was given today that more than 10,000 Scottish businesses could fail in the next two years.  BDO Stoy Hayward LLP issued its Industry Watch Report today.

The body of Simon MacMillan, 21, the naval cadet who has been missing since Boxing Day, was discovered yesterday in Loch Bee, near his home on South Uist.

Small shops are being given more time to remove tobacco displays in the wake  of the new government ban.  Despite this, the National Federation of Retail Newsagents are afraid that shops will lose business to larger retailers.

Scientists have discovered a fat-controlling enzyme in the gut which could be used in the fight against obesity and related illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Antibodies present in HIV survivors could hold the key to developing a vaccine for the virus.

The rise in the number of cases of animal cruelty may be linked to the recession as people can no longer afford to keep their pets. 

On the 20th anniversary of the birth of the worldwide web, computer experts are finally acknowledging  the pioneering role of Stirling University graduate Jonathon Fletcher in the development of the search engine.  

EU leaders have banned the use of such forms of address as “Miss” and “Mrs”  in an attempt to encourage gender-neutral language.

Comic Relief  has defied the credit crunch trend by raising a record amount of money on this year’s Red Nose Day last Friday.

Dr. Carol Craig, chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-Being in Glasgow, suggests that an excessive focus on children’s self-esteem by parents and teachers is creating a generation of self-absorbed young people who believe that their feelings come above everything else.

Denmark has become the first country to offer compensation to women who have developed breast cancer after working a significant number of night shifts.  A UN agency report had previously established a link between the two.

Scientists have discovered the remains of a giant prehistoric sand worm at the seaside resort of Torbay, in Devon.

Scott tells SNP to ditch ‘independence panto’

Tavish Scott SNP
Tavish Scott SNP courtesy of britishblogs

By Domenica Goduto

Tavish Scott, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrat party, caused confusion this weekend after he made an apparent about-face regarding his party’s views on the SNP‘s proposed independence referendum.

Yesterday, 15th March, Scott told supporters at the Scottish Liberal Dem conference in Perth that the Scottish Government must ditch its plans to hold a referendum on independence and focus instead on the country’s economic recovery.

He stated,  “You cannot waste taxpayers’ money, government time and parliamentary debates on a cause that the country doesn’t want and the economy can’t bear.

“Ditch the referendum. Forget the spin and politics of the independence panto.

“Put the needs of Scotland before the interests of the SNP.”

Scott also claimed that the ongoing banking crisis is the Prime Minister’s fault. “The banking shambles is Labour‘s shambles, Gordon Brown’s shambles,” he said.  He accuses Brown of “fixing” the Lloyds takeover of HBOS, when he feels that the Scottish bank should have remained independent.

The attack came just one day after Scott revealed in an interview that he would not rule out a future referendum. “I don’t think I should rule out a referendum for all time because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he told the BBC.

Asked about the possibility of his party forming a coalition with the SNP, Scott replied that, “It could be a possibility.”

These statements have raised speculation as to whether the referendum may yet take place, despite the Government’s previous attempts having already been voted down by the Scottish Parliament.

The Lib Dems have traditionally opposed the question of independence, refusing previously to enter into a coalition with the SNP unless the Nationalists abandon their referendum plans.

However, some Lib Dems are now calling to reconsider that position, a reassessment which could lead to cooperation between the SNP and the Lib Dems in the 2011 election.

Scott claims that for now his party’s top priority is fixing the economy and supporting Scottish voters who are struggling in the recession.

“This party will work every hour on the needs of people, businesses and families,” he said.

“We will work every day to build practical help for people now, when they need it most.

“Liberal Democrats are ready to rebuild the jobs, homes and hope destroyed by this recession.”

SNP Home Affairs spokesperson Pete Wishart MP observed, “There have now been so many Lib Dem U-turns on a referendum that they must be just as dizzy as labour.

“The economic downturn demonstrates the need for Scotland to have the economic muscle and financial powers to combat recession.

“The need for Scotland to have the powers of independence are even more acute now.”

Scott’s attack  is the latest in a string of setbacks for the Government.  A recent survey conducted by the Government itself revealed that a majority of Scottish voters do not back the SNP’s plan to block the construction of new nuclear power plants in Scotland.  53% of respondants would support a turn to nuclear power, while only 23 % would oppose it.

Meanwhile, the results of a YouGov poll conducted for The Sunday Times show that support for Labour has overtaken that for the SNP for the first time in two years.  The SNP is still ahead in the constituency vote, with 35 per cent versus Labour’s 34 per cent, but Labour’s 32 per cent on the regional vote beats the SNP’s 30 per cent.  This would amount to 49 seats for Labour versus 44 for the SNP.

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Fritzl pleads guilty to charges but denies murder and enslavement

By Domenica Goduto

Josef Fritzl, the mild-mannered Austrian electrician who achieved notoriety when it was revealed that he kept his daughter imprisoned as a sex slave for 24 years and fathered her children, has pleaded guilty to rape and incest but not to murder.

charged with murder, photo courtesy of
charged with murder, photo courtesy of

Fritzl is charged with one count of murder following the death of one of the children he kept hidden with his daughter in a cellar prison under the family home.

Prosecutors claim that the child might have survived if taken to a doctor in time.  The boy had developed breathing difficulties and actually turned blue, but Fritzl refused to seek help, allegedly commenting, “Whatever happens, happens.”

Klaus Schwaighofer, head of the criminal law institute at the University of Innsbruck, told reporters, “I consider a murder conviction rather unlikely.”  Too much time has passed and the prosecution lacks forensic evidence, he explains.  The charge is based on Elizabeth’s word alone, as Fritzl allegedly incinerated the child’s body and scattered the ashes in the garden.

Fritzl is also charged with coercion, false imprisonment and enslavement. 

Schwaighofer thinks the case for enslavement may also be difficult to prove as its legal definition mostly refers to the exploitation of labour.  Viennese lawyer Dr Raoul Wagner agrees:  “The slavery charge has never been used since it was put on the books;  he did not buy or sell his daughter in the slave trade and the charges do not apply.”

Dr Wagner also thinks that the charges overall have “little chance of working to keep Fritzl in jail for life.”

He faults the Austrian legal system for this lack of sufficient justice:  “As sentences for incest and rape run concurrently, the most he would face would be for rape, which means seven-and-a-half-years with [time cut for] good behaviour.  With the year spent inside, he could be released in six and-a-half years.

“In a case like this the Austrian legal system is a nonsense.  In America, for 3,000 rapes [the number Fritzl allegedly committed] a person would face 30,000 years in jail.”

Fritzl trial begins in Austria

The Dungeon Dad, photo courtesy of
The Dungeon Dad, photo courtesy of

By Domenica Goduto

The trial of Josef Fritzl, the man who imprisoned his daughter for 24 years in a basement under the family home and fathered 7 children with her, has begun today in Austria.

Fritzl, escorted by six policemen and with his face shielded by a blue folder, declined to speak to journalists as he arrived at the courthouse in St. Poelten, west of Vienna, this morning.

The 73-year-old is charged with murder following the death of one of his secret children, who prosecutors claim might have survived if taken to a doctor.  Other charges include rape, incest, coercion, false imprisonment and enslavement.

Much of the evidence is based upon the testimony of Fritzl’s daughter Elizabeth, which will be delivered via videos shown behind closed doors to a eight-member jury.

An estimated 200 journalists are in the town to cover the event, but less than 100 are permitted within the courtroom.  Judges requested  that photographers and camera crews leave the room shortly after the trial commenced.

Fritzl’s case shocked the world when the facts emerged last April.  The apparently respectable husband and father was revealed to have a second life, keeping his daughter Elizabeth and a number of their children in a cellar dungeon beneath the home in Amstetten, Lower Austria, where he lived with his wife Rosemarie.

Elizabeth had supposedly run away from home, but was in fact kept hidden by her father for the majority of her life.  The situation only came to light when one of the children kept underground was taken to hospital.

Public to report NHS hygiene failures to Scottish Government

handwashingBy Domenica Goduto

Patients and visitors to hospitals are being encouraged to report hygiene failures on the part of the NHS directly to the Scottish Government.

This measure is among several announced by the Government today as part of a new campaign to improve cleanliness standards in order to combat hospital superbugs. 

Other measures include random hygiene inspections and the creation of a government organization, the Care Environment Inspectorate, specifically dedicated to wiping out infections such as MRSA and C. diff.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon announced that the £1 million that will be spent on the scheme each year is an indication of the Government’s determination to tackle the problem.

She stated: “We have put in place a comprehensive package of measures, including boosting spending by 260 per cent, but it’s crucial that we – and more importantly the public – are assured that this work is delivering the high standards everyone expects.

“The Care Environment Inspectorate’s stringent inspection regime will do just that.

The initiative is the result of a consultation held last year in reponse to the C.diff outbreak that killed 18 people at the Vale of Leven hospital in 2007.

More stringent hygiene standards have already lowered the number of MRSA and C. diff cases since 2006, when 40 people across the Lothians died as a result of the latter infection.

Handwashing regulations are being more strictly adhered to, and the appointment of nurse wardens to each ward has helped with the enforcement of cleanliness standards.

Junior doctors have also been warned not to list C. diff as a contributing factor on death certificates unless they are absolutely positive that this is the case.

Sturgeon also notes that the appointment of a chief inspector to oversee the Government’s efforts in this area will be a key factor in its success.  She says:  “With the right person at the helm, offering strong leadership, I’m confident that the inspectorate will ensure all boards meet the highest possible standards.

The move follows claims by Theresa Fyffe, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Scotland, last week that the Government needed a more coordinated approach to battling superbugs, including more staff, an overall supervisor and clearer guidelines on initiatives.

She said that many frontline hospital staff were confused by the Government’s sporadic tactics and that the issue was becoming politicized, thereby creating confusion and anxiety on the wards.

Edinburgh World Heritage Trust receives £780,000 extra funding for historic landmarks

Edinburgh's historic Calton Hill
Edinburgh’s historic Calton Hill

By Domenica Goduto

The Edinburgh World Heritage Trust has received a funding boost of £780,000 which will allow it to refurbish a number of Edinburgh’s historic landmarks.

The Tron Kirk, St. Bernard’s Well and the buildings on Calton Hill are among the sites likely to benefit from the extra money provided by the City of Edinburgh Council.

The funding, which is to be distributed over the next three years, will also help in the promotion of Edinburgh as a world heritage site and allow schoolchildren to learn about the capital’s history.

The council received the money as part of a £3.5 billion award from the Scottish Government to shore up Edinburgh’s status as a capital city and a world heritage site.

A council spokesperson said, “This funding will allow Edinburgh World Heritage to continue to maintain the city’s heritage status which helps to promote the city and attracts people to live, study, visit and invest here.

Last year the local authority was warned that cutting funding to the Trust would significantly harm the city’s world heritage status.  The Trust normally receives £500,000 annually from the council and Historic Scotland to support its conservation activities.

The council has also been faced with a UNESCO probe following its approval of proposed developments in Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns.

An Edinburgh World Heritage spokesperson said that the supplementary backing constitutes “a clear commitment to investing in Edinburgh’s unique built heritage. We will be working closely with the council in planning for the future of Calton Hill, and helping find sustainable uses for historic buildings such as Riddles Court and the Tron Kirk.

Statues of poet Allan Ramsay and explorer David Livingstone on Princes Street and of William Pitt and George IV on George Street are also on the list for refurbishment.

The Edinburgh Heritage Trust has already completed work on the Black Watch Monument at The Mound, the Bow Well in the Grassmarket and the Melville Monument, in St. Andrew Square Garden.  It has also started work on several monuments on Calton Hill, and is now expected to be given responsibility for developing a long-term management plan for the site.