On the coast of Cumbria, in the Lake District, there is a nuclear reprocessing plant called Sellafield, formerly Windscale, that daily pumps up to a million gallons of radioactive waste down a mile and a half of pipeline, into the Irish Sea. It has done this for thirty-five years. The waste contains caesium and ruthenium and strontium, and uranium, and plutonium. Estimates published in The Times and in the Observer are that a quarter of a ton of plutonium has passed into the sea through this pipeline–enough, in theory, according to The Times, to kill 250 million people; much more than enough, in theory, according to the Observer, to destroy the population of the world. The plant was designed on the assumption that radioactive waste would lie harmlessly on the sea floor. That assumption proved false, but the plant has continued to operate in the hope that radioactive contamination may not be so very harmful, after all. If this hope is misguided, too, then Britain, in a time of peace, has silently, needlessly, passionlessly, visited upon us all a calamity equal to the worst we fear.

Everything factual that I will relate in this article I learned from reading the British press or watching British television. But it would not be accurate to say that I know, more or less, what a reasonably informed Briton knows about these things, because there is a passivity and a credulousness in informed British opinion that neutralizes the power of facts to astonish.

To understand what I will tell you, you must imagine a country where, though the carcinogenic properties of radioactivity in general and of plutonium in particular are gravely conceded, it is considered reasonable, in the best sense, to permit the release of both of these into the environment until the precise nature of their effect is understood. This notion of reasonableness is, I think, extremely local, but the consequences of such thinking are felt in many places. The Danes object to plutonium on their beaches, as do the Dutch. And of course the Irish, a volatile people at the best of times, are now very much exercised by elevated rates of childhood cancer and Down’s syndrome along their eastern coast. They have leaped to the very conclusion the British find too hasty–that the contamination of the environment by known carcinogens is detrimental to the public health. No one disputes that the contamination of these coasts is surely and exclusively owing to British reasonableness, since the Irish have not developed nuclear energy–nor have the Danes, who consider it unsafe–and since the only other fuel reprocessing plant known to release waste into the sea, at Cap de la Hague in France, releases only one percent of the radioactivity that enters the sea from Sellafield.

When I realized what I was reading, I began to clip out articles every day and save them, and I brought them back to America, knowing that my uncorroborated word could not be credited. Travellers to unknown regions must bring back proof of the marvels they have seen. Perhaps the most incredible part of this story is that it has fallen to me to tell it. American scholars and scientists go to Britain in platoons. Many live there. Probably all of them look at the Guardian now and then, or The Times. Perhaps most of them are more competent to understand what they read there than I am, better schooled in such matters as the particular virulence of plutonium, or the special fragility of the sea. No one had ever hinted to me that for thirty-five years Britain has knowingly befouled itself and its neighbours with radiation, and nothing I had heard or read had prepared me to discover a historical and political context for which the one vivid instance of Sellafield could well serve as an emblem. Yet Sellafield does not depart from, but in fact epitomizes, British environmental practice. This is only to say, read on. This is a tale of wonders.

 

In November 1983 a family was walking along the beach near Sellafield–it is a major tourist and recreational area–when a scientist who worked at the plant stopped to tell them that they should not let their children play there. They were shocked, of course, and raised questions, and sent a letter to their MP. The scientist was fired, amid official mutterings about his having committed an impropriety in disclosing this information. No doubt he had violated the Official Secrets Act, though so far as I know the matter was not couched in those terms. British workers in significant nationalized industries–for example, British Aerospace, the postal system, and the nuclear industry–are obliged to sign the act, which imposes on them fines and imprisonment if they reveal without authorization information acquired in the course of their work. Only death can release them from this contract. Employees of private industries are in the same position, to all intents and purposes, since the unauthorized use of privately held information is prosecuted as theft. In the democratic kingdom, the exercise of judgement and conscience is the exclusive prerogative of the great.

But I digress. Though the renegade employee was dismissed, the issue of the safety of the beaches was called to public attention, with a number of consequences. A woman who lived in a village near Sellafield sent a bag of dust from her vacuum cleaner to a professor in Pittsburgh, who found that it contained plutonium. Divers from British Greenpeace tried to close the pipeline but were unable to do so because the shape of its mouth had been altered. They discovered an oily scum on the water that sent the needles of their Geiger counters off the scales. The divers and their boat had to be decontaminated. The radioactive slick was said to be the consequence of an error at the plant that had disgorged a radioactive solvent into the sea–an accident that, unlike the normal functioning of the plant, raised questions of competence and culpability. That is to say, this matter was put into the hands of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and quite appropriately. However, it is a curious feature of British law and practice that silence descends around any issue that is about to become the subject of legal action. A judge may remove this restriction in particular cases; murder trials, for example, are reported in lascivious detail. But a newspaper that publishes anything relating to matters prohibited as sub judice is subject to catastrophic fines. The manufacturers of thalidomide, the sedative that caused many British children to be born without limbs, kept the question of their liability before the courts for seventeen years, and therefore unresolved and out of public awareness, until the Sunday Times defied the law and broke the story. The newspaper took its case to the European Court of Human Rights, and won, but this has had no effect on British law or practice. British justice, which is cousin to British reasonableness, grows squeamish at the thought that the legal process should be adulterated by publicity.

As a third consequence of the attention drawn to Sellafield, Yorkshire Television sent a team there to look into worker safety. The team discovered that children in the villages surrounding the plant suffered leukaemia at a rate ten times the national average. This revelation fuelled public anxiety to such an extent that the government was obliged to appoint a commission to investigate. It recently published its conclusions in the so-called Black Report, named after Sir Douglas Black, president of the British Medical Association and the commission’s head and spokesman. Dr Black startled some by assuring a television interviewer that people fear radioactivity now just as they feared electricity one hundred years ago.

The report offers ‘a qualified reassurance’ to those concerned about a possible health hazard in the area. The Guardian said: ‘Recognising that radiation is the only established environmental cause of leukaemia in children, “within the limits of present knowledge,” the Black team calls for new studies to provide additional potential insights.’ Again according to the Guardian, ‘Despite the high rates of cancer close to Sellafield, the report stresses: “An observed association between two factors does not prove a causal relationship.”’ This is certainly true. And this is the darling verity of the British government. Souls less doughty than these might feel that exposure to radiation around Sellafield, together with an elevated cancer rate, testifies to a causal relationship between these two factors, but we’re not dealing with a bunch of patsies here. In environmental issues, a standard of proof is demanded that makes the claims of the Flat Earth Society look easy.

What do we have here? The better college sophomore has learned that this world does not yield what we call ‘proof’ of anything. That so weighty an edifice as public policy should be reared upon an epistemological abyss is truly among the world’s marvels. Are these decision makers, known to wags as the Good and the Great, cynical connivers, imposing upon what can only be a frighteningly naive and credulous public? Or are they themselves also frighteningly naive? I cannot think of a third possibility. Whatever the cause of their behaviour, its effect, like the effect of the Official Secrets Act and the contempt laws, is to shield government and public and private industries from suspicions of error or wrongdoing, and to blur, fudge, and frustrate questions of responsibility and liability.

You will note that the laws and practices and attitudes I describe here have existed over decades, and have persisted while governments rose and fell. For example, in 1974 the government passed the Control of Pollution Act. To have a proper understanding of ‘pollution’ in this context it is essential to realize that in Britain, no legal control is exerted over agricultural chemicals or sprays. DDT is still in general use, as are Aldrin and Lindane. I know of no reason to imagine that policies towards industrial pollutants are any less indulgent in effect. Inspectors politely inform manufacturers of their intention to visit, so control of effluents can hardly be stringent. And we are not speaking here of soapsuds. In any case, part two of this Control of Pollution Act is now to be implemented, reports the Guardian. The article goes on to say, ‘The new measures are expected to have a big impact on the problems of Britain’s dirty beaches.’ This seems to me a remarkably cheerful thought, considering that, to quote again, ‘the measures only apply to new sewage or trade effluent discharges, however. Existing discharges will continue, but “consents” already granted will be subject to public scrutiny.’ Well, this looks to me like an act designed to confer legality on the very sources of pollution that already dirty Britain’s beaches. However, the act must have a fang, if only a small one, because for ten years it was not implemented. Why? The article offers an explanation from William Waldegrave, Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who said that ‘one of the factors that had held back successive governments was the fear of increasing costs to industry.’

How is one to understand the degradation of the sea and earth and air of the British homeland by people who use the word British the way others of us use the words good, and just, and proud, and precious, and lovely, and clement, and humane? No matter that these associations reflect and reinforce the complacency that allows the spoliation to go unchecked; still, surely they bespeak self-love, which should be some small corrective. I think ignorance must be a great part of the explanation–though ignorance so obdurate could be preserved only through an act of will.

 

The issue of Sellafield is complicated by the great skill the government has shown in turning accidents to good account. You will remember that the Greenpeace divers surfaced through highly radioactive slime. If they had not had Geiger counters with them, no one would have known that an accident had taken place. Ergo, one cannot know that other accidents have not taken place. From which it follows that these accidents, and not the normal functioning of the plant, might be responsible for the cancers and other difficulties and embarrassments. As the Guardian said, in its sober and respectful paraphrase of this startling document, the Black Report, ‘The possibility of unplanned and undetected discharges having delivered significant doses of radiations to humans via an unsuspected route could not be entirely excluded.’ The implication of all this is that the plant can be repaired, improved, and monitored, and then the hazards will go away. Number eight on the list of ten recommendations by the Black inquiry team suggests that ‘attention [be] paid to upper authorized limits of radioactive discharges over short periods of time; to removal of solvent from discharges and adequacy of filter systems’–in other words, if occasional splurges are avoided, the level of radioactivity will remain safe and constant. That might well be true, if the substances put in the sea decayed. But as the Observer has noted, plutonium remains toxic for at least 100,000 years.

Another accident that has had great effect on the way this affair has been managed is the fact that Yorkshire Television focused its attention on leukaemia among local children. This is understandable, since the deaths of children are particularly vivid and painful to consider. But the limiting of the discussion to childhood cancer in the Black Report is clearly arbitrary and possibly opportunistic. Seascale, the village nearest the plant, where seven children have died of leukaemia in a period of ten years, has a population of 2,000. Children living there are said to have one chance in sixty of developing leukaemia, but the sample is considered too small to be reliable–coincidence might account for the high incidence of the disease.

But why are we talking only about leukaemia? I noted with interest, and added to my collection, a brief report about an inquest into the death of a Sellafield worker from bone cancer. An environmental group (not named) had pointed out that Dr Geoffrey Schofield, the plant’s chief medical officer, ‘did not mention the three most recent deaths from bone cancer at Sellafield.’ The article continues, ‘Dr Schofield, quoting a 1981 report on mortality rates among British Nuclear Fuels workers at Sellafield, referred to four cases of myeloma, a bone cancer. These figures over the period 1948 to 1980 were comparable with national figures. Since that report three more workers have died from myeloma and a fourth appears to have contracted the disease.’ How do these cancer deaths relate to the cancer deaths among children in the area? Doesn’t the concentration on the young actually focus attention on that portion of the population least likely to have developed cancer?

But officially preferred hypotheses are invoked to preclude lines of inquiry that might produce data that would discredit them. What harm could there be in checking for lung cancer deaths in areas downwind of Windscale? 1  These would certainly be equally relevant to the question of public safety, the real issue here.

 

The Waste Land - Marilynne Robinson
 

The conclusion reached by James Cutler, the Yorkshire Television producer who first made public the high incidence of leukaemia in Seascale, and the great fear of the chairman of British Nuclear Fuels, who really is named Con Allday, is that anxiety among the public signals a defeat for proponents of nuclear power. Now, I think nuclear power has proved to be a terrible idea, but I do not think the practices associated with Sellafield should ever be spoken of as if they were characteristic and inevitable aspects of its development. To do so would be to obscure the special questions of competence, of morality–of sanity, one might say–that Sellafield so vividly poses. But as I said earlier, I do not wish to imply that what has been done at Sellafield departs radically from the British nuclear establishment’s behaviour. Ninety percent of the nuclear material that has been dumped in the sea world-wide has been dumped by the British. They have deposited it off the coasts of Spain and France and, of course, Ireland, and elsewhere–in containers, supposedly, though their methods of disposal at Sellafield do not encourage me to imagine that their methods elsewhere should be assumed to be particularly cautious.

I suppose the British make lots of money cleaning spent fuel rods from all over the world, and from their own facilities. To be a source of a substance so prized as plutonium must bring wealth, and influence too. It is certain that they do not do it for their health. Exactly contrary to the universally held view, Britain is an island of unevolved laissez-faire plutocracy characterized by unregulated (my translation of the British ‘self-regulated’) commerce and industry. So far from being lumbered with the costs of runaway socialist largesse, Britain ranks near the bottom in Europe not only in health spending but also in spending for education. In workers’ wages and benefits, it has never approached the levels achieved by
West Germany, Sweden, or the Netherlands. The British seem rather fond of their poverty, which I think is a social and economic strategy rather than the mysterious, intractable affliction it is presented as being. It effectively excuses the state from responsibility for the conditions of life of the poor, and for the quality of life of ordinary people. While lowering public expectations, this ‘poverty’ justifies the astonishing recklessness of British industries, public and private, and makes it entirely acceptable for government and industry to be in cahoots to a degree that boggles the American mind.

Avoiding costs to industry is treated as an unquestioned good–Britain being so poor, after all. That very little trickles down from these coddled industries is a fact blamed squarely on the British worker, of all people, who, if he is lucky, toils for bad pay in a decaying factory and hopes that his children’s lives will not be worse. Only consider: Britain is the world’s fourth-largest arms dealer, a major exporter of petroleum, a major exporter of drugs and chemicals, a major centre of banking and insurance, a major centre of tourism. And it has access to the vast literatures of research and technology produced in the United States, the application of which in other countries is slowed and complicated by the problems of translation. This seems to me to be the basis for a presentable economy. But no, Britain is ‘poor’–because its workers are sullen and Luddite, or because its governing classes are too haplessly genteel and fair-minded to cope in the hurly-burly of the market-place, or because the national character has grown idle in the embrace of the Welfare State, or because the great forces of entropy and decline have at last overtaken this noble civilization. Or because neither law nor custom encourages the sharing of wealth. Consider: university students are almost entirely subsidized. But only five to seven percent of secondary-school students are admitted to universities. Since nothing is done to compensate for the advantages children of privileged backgrounds bring to examinations and interviews–such education is expensive, and Britain, after all, is poor–the subsidies go to the children of the prosperous. The cost per student of the university system to the state justifies its being kept very small–and this magnifies the value and the prestige that attach to university degrees. That is British socialism.

My point is simply that all the talk of decline, along with the continuous experience of austerity, creates an atmosphere in which the granting of enormous latitude to corporations, whether private or public, seems urgently necessary, and the encumbering of them with codes and restrictions a luxury embattled Britain can scarcely afford. Economic considerations have an importance and a pervasiveness that startle. The Sunday Times, reporting on a critical study of the British diet that had been suppressed, laid the blame on a government fear of a negative impact on the food industry, and also on an awareness on the part of the government that old people are expensive: ‘Civil servants representing the social services . . . point out that healthy and long-lived citizens will increase the number of old-age pensions.’ Britain, you must always remember, is poor.

What a thoroughly miserable business. What arrogance to save a few quid by allowing Sellafield to spew and haemorrhage, again and again, on and on. According to the Sunday Times, a spokesman for British Nuclear Fuels agreed that it was ‘in everybody’s interests to get discharges down as low as possible’ but argued that the cost was ‘prohibitive.’ He said, ‘We would have to pass the cost on to our customers, which would mean higher electricity prices. We are already spending £500 million on reducing our discharges. We have reduced them considerably over the past ten years.’ Reduced them from what, to what? Note how ‘everybody’s interests’ are put in the scales against cost, and with what result. Why should expenses at a fuel reprocessing plant raise the price of electricity, rather than of plutonium? And why should the cost of recycling spent fuel for Japan–to pick a name out of the air–be subsidized by consumers in Britain? The idea is preposterous. We are hearing the same old song: Shackle us with restrictions and you will pay dearly for it.

Con Allday, chairman of BNF and, as one may glimpse him through the dark glass of British newspaper journalism, a man of views as emphatic as they are liable to be consequential, and who was quoted in the Guardian as saying that ‘There is little point in spending additional money simply to be safer than safe,’ is well deserving of some attention, while we are on the subject of thrift. This gentleman, according to the Guardian, ‘announced a new feasibility study into how the company can reduce radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea to “as near zero as possible.”’ I am quoting this so that you can share my admiration of the language. ‘He said: “Public acceptability of nuclear power is so important and the time-scale needed for a swing-round of public opinion is so long that we must be realistic and accept that our discharges must be reduced to very much lower levels than hitherto planned.” This was “even though there is no rational, cost-effective basis for doing so on risk assessment grounds.”’ Weighing cost against risk again. That really is an interesting exercise–quite theological, I think. Considering that the expense involved in running a nuclear plant safely is truly vast, is it possible to say that the value of a given number of lives is exceeded in cash terms by the expenditure that would be required to prevent their loss? Clearly for these purposes the answer is yes, a fact all the more disturbing since the question is gravely distorted by the association of this slovenly enterprise with ‘nuclear power’ and by the insistence–based on what?–that anyone, least of all an island of coal in a sea of oil, needs nuclear power in any case. Note Allday’s impatience with the idea that discharge levels lower than Sellafield’s should be achieved. Does this give us insight into the environmental standards maintained at other facilities?

Even Dr Black, whose report found that the connection between radiation and leukaemia at Sellafield was ‘by no means proven,’ was quoted by the Guardian as having said that ‘the risks of living near Sellafield were no greater than many of the risks everyone faced in their daily lives.’ He compared the increased risk to that of someone who used a private car rather than public transport. This unctuous little simile translates into an admission that there is some measurable risk involved in living near Sellafield. (Risk of what? Leukaemia, surely, among other things. Then is not the presence of leukaemia this very risk actualized? By no means proven!)

 

How has this happened? I can only speculate that within a tiny community of specialists, where esteem, advance-ment, and influence travel through a very narrow channel, and where over the life of a new discipline such as nuclear technology the views of a very few people are reflected in policies of great magnitude and consequence, dissent would have little practical or emotional reward. Choices have been made, by scientists, industrialists, and politicians, that have reflected their willingness to accept human deaths at a certain rate, to put a part of the earth at risk, and the sea, contaminating them irreversibly. They have presumed so far on the basis of notions about the hazards involved that they admit to be conjectural. This is an appalling presumption, truly unpardonable if their notions prove wrong. It ought to be expected, therefore, that their standards of proof would be exceptionally rigorous.

Certainly the development of these policies has been very much affected by the dangers, political and diplomatic, of the issues involved. The British would know the effects of radioactivity if they had monitored the Australians who lived in the path of fallout from the huge, misbegotten hydrogen-bomb test at Monte Bello; or the aborigines who drifted across Maralinga, in South Australia, where radioactive detritus was left behind after British weapons testing; or the populations affected by the fire and the radioactive cloud that drifted south-east and west from Sellafield in 1957. They have given themselves many opportunities to look into this question and availed themselves of none of them, no doubt because to do so would undermine their claims that nothing serious has really happened.

There is, as I have said, the continuing threat of economic erosion to keep the public mind focused on the short-term and the local; and there is the image of the government battling to recoup Britain’s losses and restore her scanted dignity; and there is the educational system, which trains very few people and these very narrowly, greatly enhancing the authority of specialists while diminishing the content and forcefulness of public debate and the numbers involved in it. And there is the secretiveness that permeates British life, which allows the Foreign Office to impound the records having to do with Argentina’s claims to the Falklands; which prohibits journalists from reporting what they see in prisons; which conceals the identity of those on the committees that choose Britain’s magistrates (the magistrates have no legal training–they simply suit some anonymous notion of worthiness); which leads the governing bodies of cities and counties to conduct their business behind closed doors. The Official Secrets Act is simply the most conspicuous manifestation of all this. Granting that it is used as the basis of prosecutions, and assuming that the Guardian is accurate in its accounts of mail-openings, phone-tappings, and break-ins practised by MI5, the British secret police, against groups such as Greenpeace, the Friends of the Earth, and the National Union of Mineworkers–nevertheless, it seems to be that the English, at least, have the government they deserve, that they prefer not to know, and that they have very little capacity for exerting power and influence. I think they feel–deeply feel–that their moral rectitude is preserved intact by this means. The Greenham Common women will never encircle Sellafield, though Britain could desist unilaterally from its war against the sea, which is not a terrifying threat, but a terrifying fact.

Then there is the absence of American reaction to consider– especially puzzling since both Greenpeace and the Friends of the Earth have been involved with Sellafield. British Greenpeace was given a heavy fine–paid by public donations–for tampering with the pipeline, and was induced to intervene to prevent Danish and Dutch Greenpeace ships from sending divers down by the threat that all its resources would be sequestered by the court if they did. Why Greenpeace has chosen not to galvanize public opinion outside the range of such restrictions, I cannot imagine. Perhaps regional patriotism has stood in the way of global matriotism. Or perhaps British environmentalists, like many Europeans of advanced views, believe that American public opinion is too brutish to be enlisted in any good cause. It is a treasured faith among Europeans of the Right and the Left that America is a nation of B-movie villains laying waste to the continent and to one another by any means that come to hand, in a sort of frenzy of capitalist rapacity.

Europeans on the Left enjoy the opinion that they are very advanced thinkers. In fact they are simply intellectual cargo-cultists, to whom accident now and then delivers an elaborated policy, a sophisticated idea, or half of one. That crude, capitalist America should enforce higher standards of public conduct than humane, socialist Europe is not to be imagined. So our example in environmental matters is almost never consulted, and our research and experience are almost never invoked.

We in America are greatly at fault in this. There is a streak of pure yokel that reaches straight to the top of American intellectual life, widening as it goes, and it is deference towards all things ‘English’. We cannot believe that the English could be stupid or corrupt. We think of them as our better selves, and the source of our most precious institutions–a slander on the dark and the ethnic and a disparagement of the noisy public dramas of advocates and adversaries that provide us with the legal and ethical capacity for discrimination and judgement. We are capable of outrage and we are capable of shame, like a living soul. If we are fortunate in one thing it is in the knowledge that we can do evil, and we can do injury. A country incapable of scandal is like a mind incapable of guilt or a body incapable of pain.

On 24 July 1984, the Guardian concluded its editorial on the Black report, titled ‘Lingering Particles of Unease,’ with a call for ‘one group of inter-disciplinary experts who do nothing else but shadow it round the clock.’ In the editorialist’s affable view, ‘life with [Sellafield] is a tumultuous and ongoing affair.’ On 30 July, the Guardian wrote that Charles Haughey, the former Irish prime minister, had called the report a whitewash. He said: if there is a high incidence of leukaemia in an area where a nuclear plant is situated, surely to God the obvious interpretation is that the plant was responsible for it. These figures alone would in my view justify closing down the plant immediately for further investigation, and certainly putting a lot of people in gaol who have clearly been telling us lies over the past four or five years about this matter.’ The words we have longed to hear. But from the wrong side of the Irish Sea.

 

Featured photograph by Ben Brooskbank; in-text photograph by Burt Glinn/Magnum


1 A striking feature in all this is the seeming difficulty of obtaining and interpreting information. One would think that a country with a national health service would enjoy centralized and continuous monitoring of health data. One would expect it to encourage preventive practices at both public and individual level, if only on grounds of economy. But the British government has actually suppressed reports on alcoholism and on the relation of cardiovascular disease to diet–the second of these was leaked to the Lancet; the first, though joked about in the press, has been dubbed an Official Secret, and its findings may not be published. The British government saves money in the most direct way: by refusing to spend it. In the European Community only Greece spends a smaller share of its wealth on health care. Yet the British are proud of their health system. Margaret Thatcher is fond of saying they get ‘good value for money,’ and one often sees statements to the effect that indicators of general health show the British system outperforming the big spenders. If this is true–if, with poverty and unemployment and all the problems that attend them; if, with rampant abuse of alcohol and heroin, a polluted environment, and immunization policies so casual that Britain still has rubella epidemics; if, with a slow rate of decline in cigarette smoking and rates of breast and lung cancer at or near top of the charts–if Britain still does better than countries that devote more generous portions of larger resources to populations whose conditions of life are distinctly more consistent with well-being, then the National Health Service beggars any praise.

 

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