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Published: August 7th 2007
The article had to be re-published due to Travelblog.org system failure.
To our great misfortune, our fears were realized. As we treaded down the west coast of England along the Cumbrian Coastal Way, our destination had been Sellafield. We came upon its saturnine towers of concrete and metal. We stood vigil outside its aluminum blocks of industry where stores of highly radioactive waste were kept, reprocessed and manufactured. We prayed and then walked on, wandering toward London through the green fells of Cumbria. But before the ten peace walkers with FootPrints for Peace
went too far, we suddenly found ourselves prepared to do the unthinkable. Like the strike of a matchstick in a room of unwashed feet, we were about to step right into the effects from the world’s largest nuclear waste facility. The Trouble With Sellafield L
ocated in West Cumbria in northwestern England, the site of Sellafield remains the number one polluter of the Irish Sea and continues to add a mount of destruction. Specifically, the facility’s role within the nuclear industry is broad. According to its’ manager, British Nuclear Group
, (and its current owners, British Nuclear Fuel Limited) the site centers on “remediation, decommissioning and clean-up”, as well as reprocessing
the spent plutonium into Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel. And employing approximately 10,000 local citizens, it is a lifestyle to many.
One local was Duncan Ball. After 18 years of working at Sellafield and living right up the way in Whitehaven, he was finished with the industry. He knew the insides and outs until the day his superiors gave him orders to carryout an operation in which he considered immoral. With his refusal to comply, he was gone, jobless and seeking to reveal the industry for its destruction. But his attempts were futile against this iron curtain of waste, and eventually his mission landed him in jail for twelve months on a bogus charge of planning to plant a bomb. By the group’s luck, Duncan met up with us in his old hometown. He was ready to make a difference as he joined us for the excursion to Sellafield and beyond.
And so, here we were, at the road’s end. We had come to a footpath closed at the river’s crossing. It was in for repairs. In fact, it was a railway line, running over the bay at the small village of Ravenglass. The tide was out. The crossing
was closed. And the bridge was inaccessible. A 200-pound fine slapped onto any trespassers upon the tracks did not help. So we were left with our limitations:
1) Haggle with the workers to let us through (Denied).
2) Cross the railroad tracks (Risk fines, and worst of all, possible death by speeding train).
3) Create bridge across small stream to avoid wading through radioactive waters (Hours of arduous labor and skill, including tools, which were absent).
4) Risk it… take off our shoes and sprint through the mud, the waters, the carcinogenic particles of radioactivity… (Done).
A few miles south of the site that disposes its nuclear waste like sand to the sea, we stood like ducks on a frozen pond about to realize our greatest misfortune. We were left with no other options, but Number 4. Why Oh Why, Sellafield? T
o start off before our sprint, Sellafield used to be called Windscale. Then, come 1957, a fire at the plant spread radioactive particles across the land and sea. This caused major alarm—for good reason—as it became Europe’s first major nuclear catastrophe up until Chernobyl. And as a result of
the plant’s disaster, instead of looking consciously down the damning road the industry was heading towards, the facility continued onward with few adjustments. After being renamed Sellafield in 1981, life went on as usual; the industry grew and grew, the cattle and sheep grazed in the fields just beyond its’ gates, and the world spun round.
Today, instead of generating electricity as it was originally proposed for, Sellafield dedicates itself solely to the reprocessing of nuclear waste. Thus begins the new generation of “renewable” nuclear power, where the spent fuel rods are delivered to the site from around the world via ships, trains and trucks. Once within the armed barriers of Sellafield, the rod’s plutonium is mixed with oxide to create MOX nuclear fuel. This is then transported back out into the world to special Fest Breeder reactors.
Outside, the site’s effects have been widely felt. As The Alternative Sellafield Tour
reports: Since the 1950's Sellafield has pumped a quarter of a tonne of plutonium and a cocktail of other radioactive isotopes out of twin sea discharge pipes into the Irish Sea. Because the radioactive pollution is detectable the pollution can be traced as it flows into the seas around
Britain. In April 1997 the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Nova Scotia found Sellafield radiation had reached the Arctic.
The tip of the iceberg has been discovered, for reports from Greenpeace and other active organizations have attempted to present their findings publicly. From un-noticed leaks in silos trickling vast quantities of radiation to media reports that brought attention to the site having allowed radioactive isotopes to wash out to sea (only to drift back up onto the sands of local beaches), the Irish Sea is infested with what remains of its wildlife, all containing traces of radioactivity—from fish to lobsters, to its shellfish.
But reports extend to the land as well. One day while taking lunch alongside the road, a local named Sean who once worked the depths of the Sellafield files within Greenpeace, alarmed us with his story. In the town of Seascale near the site’s plutonium reprocessing plant, two sisters of the Robinson family housed hundreds of pigeons. They fed them. They cared for them. Then, at a complaint filed by the community that the pigeons were a health hazard, Greenpeace came along and smuggled a handful of the birds to France. There, they tested positive for
radioactivity, and before long, bulldozers trailed by dump trucks arrived at the Robinson croft to declare their home a hazardous waste. They dug up their backyard that was feral with pigeon excrement and hauled off nearly 700 pigeons, dumping them in the nearby nuclear waste site of Drigg (oddly, located down the road at the next village of Drigg).
More recently, a report concludes that radioactive particles have seeped into the water table beneath Sellafield, widening its radial effect throughout the sandstone aquifer. Yet, despite the evidence presented over the years, and as the industry expands more and more, locals continue to support a habit that will bring an end to their health, as well as their families’.
And reality reigns supreme with these facts. Nuclear groups and powerhouses, including the governments that support their wallets, make a claim that nuclear plants are for the manufacturing of nuclear power. Yet the inevitable is obvious. The nuclear fuel cycle follows: Uranium mining - Nuclear power - Nuclear waste - Nuclear weapons - Nuclear holocaust - Nuclear legacy The Green Hills of Cumbria A
nd so we ran. We ran across the Solway Firth just outside Ravenglass, splashing
through the bay at low tide as our bare feet sunk into the mud like lead weights, parted the waters like crazed camels, and reached dry land like a pack of frothing zombies. Our pants became brown with thick sludge. They were given the term “plutonium pants”, for it was only our humor that could soften the degree of the situation.
Meanwhile, Duncan stayed high. He climbed over the gates and claimed the tracks as his right of way. Though suddenly, as if staged for the set, a whistle sounded round bend. The rails began to squeal, sending a hum of vibrations through the air, and our hair rose on end. Like a mouse winding through the grass, escaping an iron cat on a one-way track, Duncan forged ahead until sliding over the edge onto the wooden rafters of construction. The train screeched, whipped past with unceasing fury and disappeared down the line. And just as gracefully, Duncan swung back up and continued his way.
Once in Ravenglass, we reunited and found puddles from the morning’s rain. Washing our feet and legs, the group then drifted to a trackside pub. With free hot soup and two soft, warm
buns for soaking, even the owner shunned the idea of dredging through the active firth. Duncan smiled in agreement, tipped back his head, and drained his soup bowl. To be continued...
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Kim Buckley and Richard Baxter
Here's a Norman Nicholson poem, published in 'A local habitation' in 1972, entitled 'Windscale': The toadstool towers infest the shore: Stink-horns that propagate and spore Wherever the wind blows. Scafell looks down from the bracken band, And sees hell in a grain of sand, And feels the canker itch between his toes. This is a land where dirt is clean, And poison pasture, quick and green, And storm sky, bright and bare; Where sewers flow with milk, and meat Is carved up for the fire to eat, And children suffocate in God's fresh air. There is a rather incredible newsreel from 1957 detailing the events that inspired Nicholson's poem - "You can't explain radioactivity to a cow." Go to Norman Nicholson on Wikipedia and take the "Five Norman Nicholson poems" link at the bottom. http://www.cleo.net.uk/resources/displayframe.php?src=181/consultants_resources//english/norman3/index.html
Hey Cumberland Sausage, Thank you for the poem. I will read it to our group tomorrow morning as we head south for London. We were just in your area, passing through Sheffield. How'd you do with the floods? Hillsborough looked like it was wading, as families placed their destroyed goods outside their doorstep for disposal. I hope you were more fortunate. Namaste, w/Love, Peace and Joy, cam PS - Feel free to come and join the walk if you're willing and free!
Duncan Ball RIP
It was a great shock to read of the demise of Duncan "Bounce" Ball. He was a “reet canny” lad and will be sadly missed. One of the few who had a word to say to me on my few returns home from the Middle East. May his work continue to it’s logical conclusion. A fellow Ex-Windscalian and a fellow Newcastle fan.