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Something nasty in the woodshed

For those who’ve read my novel SHADOW ON THE SUN ( you may have guessed that I’m slightly negative about matters nuclear. This whether it’s in relation to energy generation or more understandably with weapons production. It seems that I’m out of step as nuclear energy is so viewed as the ‘least worst’ of energy options to fossil fuel that even Gaia Theory proponent James Lovelock finds it acceptable. All of that being said, ever since I was a lad, I’ve been in awe of what Oppenheimer and his team achieved seventy years ago with The Manhattan Project leading to the atomic bomb and nuclear energy.

A Cancer in our Midst
A remark I made on Twitter a few days ago ‘ The cancer in our midst’ (15th May) about Hanford in the US and Sellafield in the UK led to an explosion of my Twitter traffic along with questions about why I appeared so negative to both. Twitter with its limitation of 140 characters per Tweet is not a forum for explaining such a complex subject. So anyone who wants to know in future will be directed here.

I don’t propose to go into the history of it as that’s already been done well enough elsewhere. The best is probably the lengthy tome by American historian Richard Rhodes, ‘The Making of the Atomic Bomb’. Apart from doing what it says on the tin, as a subordinate topic, it subtly also tells of why we later had to build Sellafield after the Americans had established Hanford.

Penney’s Leading Role in Manhattan Project
However a note of caution, Rhodes in his otherwise excellent book, doesn’t really give much credence to the role the Brits played in getting the Manhatten Project rolling in the first place. Nor when they had, the role the Brits then played in keeping the show on the road. British mathematical physicist Bill Penney, later Baron Penney, was a man who although looked and spoke as if he was your gardener, contributed enormously to the task in hand. He was much like Oppenheimer,but who was impressed with both Penney’s technical and managerial capabilities. This so much so that rapidly he became one of Oppenheimer’s ‘inner team’. Manhattan Project super boss – the Project’s capo di capo – General Leslie Groves wrote of him: ‘vital decisions were reached only after the most careful consideration and discussion with the men I thought were able to offer the soundest advice. Generally, for this operation, they were Oppenheimer, Von Neumann, Penney, Parsons and Ramsey.’Yet depite this Penney only merits a couple of short mentions in Rhodes book.

So despite Rhodes omission, Penney was important. Just as well as it turned out. For directly after the nuclear bombing of Japan, the Brits and everyone else were promptly kicked out in 1946 under the provisions of the US McMahon Act. It meant Britain had to go it alone. And it did so for the next 12 years. It was later said of Penney that arguably his technological achievements in the design of the first British H Bomb led to the repeal of the McMahon Act along with the re establishment of technical cooperation between the two countries. It has been further suggested this was because Penney’s design was both more elegant and smaller than the American equivalent (designed by Teller) ‘requiring an ox cart’ for its delivery.

Britain On Its Own
That Britain’s nuclear bomb making was a success was, in large part, down to Penney. But where to get the fissile uranium or plutonium Britain needed for its own atomic bomb? Enter what would eventually be called Sellafield under the guises of, amongst others, Windscale and Calder Hall, a mere two reactors compared with Hanford’s seven! But even so, as we speak, there is a hundred tonnes of weapons grade and therefore highly toxic plutonium stored at Sellafield with nowhere to go. The parallel with Hanford is ironic in this latter respect.

Electricity too Cheap to Meter
For those with long memories Calder Hall was supposed to generate electrical power ‘too cheap to meter’. It was bunkum! Both plants had little to do with power generation and everything to do with plutonium production. The great British public might never have known anything about this reality until 1957 when Windscale nearly burnt down and in the process covered the countryside in radioactive iodine. It was rated at Level 5 on the 7 point International Nuclear Event Scale. The positive aspect is that it could have been so much worse!

Similar Production Plants
So, in 2014 we have with Hanford and Sellafield, two similar plutonium and uranium production facilities with similar histories. And both, following the end of the Cold War both no longer needed for what they were intended. But it’s not that simple. Nuclear plants cannot be switched on and off at will. Nor can the pollutants they have generated in sixty or seventy years of production be tipped down the back yard drain.

Clean-up and Decommissioning
As we speak Sellafield and Hanford are both largely in the field of ‘clean-up’ and decommissioning. Sellafield covers an area close to the coast and the Irish Sea of six square kilometers containing 170 separate plants. The business it is involved with has a current budget for decommissioning work of £70 billion. The programme will run for at least the next seventy years as it decommissions the country’s old Magnox nuclear reactors or 100,000 years if you include spent nuclear fuel and all its resultant contaminants.

Hanford, as you might expect, is slightly larger. In fact 600 sq miles! Although its heart where all the muck lies is only slightly larger than Sellafield. This includes the controversial and leaking tanks not very well sited next to the Columbia River and holding 56 million gallons(!!!) of high-level radioactive waste or ‘Legacy Waste’ as Sellafield terms it with its own ‘Legacy Ponds’. Hanford’s decommissioning budget too is slightly larger than Sellafield’s. Give or take a penny, it’s currently estimated at $200 billion and rising!

At one stage our very own BNFL, once part of Sellafield but now RIP, was part of the Hanford solution in the late Eighties with its knowledge of building ‘vitrification plants’. This is where, as in Sellafield, high level waste is turned into glass logs for storage over the next millennium or hundred.

A Cumberland Council ‘Nyet!’
Cumberland Council remained unimpressed with Government plans to bury all of Sellafield’s muck underneath their fair county (see February 2013 blog for details) and refused permission anywhere along its once so-called ‘Energy Coast’.

My View
So where do I, the writer of this blog, come into the picture I hear you all ask?
For reasons already explained, I was well into Hanford. Indeed it forms a substantial part of the plot line for SHADOW ON THE SUN.

Too Important to Leave to Scientists and Vested Interests
Hanford is now run by the benign sounding US Department of Energy. But not so long ago its name was the US Atomic Energy Commission which was anything but benign. At the drop of a hat it would throw you into prison. For starters look at what it did to Oppenheimer the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’ when he’d done nothing wrong. But it didn’t save him from being eventually hounded out of America! For further history check out the various ‘Downwinder’ web sites to see how they really were at treating anyone who had the temerity to complain about anything. It was not good! The lying and worse that went on until comparatively recently was humungous. People’s health was of little moment as long as nuclear weapons production was maintained. Look at what happened at Rocky Flats, a plutonium production plant just outside Denver that had to be raided by the FBI and shut down! Or read a US AEC document which gave as its reasons for choosing Nevada for atmospheric testing that the people living there were ‘of lesser economic value.’

This very same organisation, now rebranded to protect the guilty, is the same not- very-trustworthy organization still running the show. It’s why there is a Washington State public pressure group called ‘The Hanford Challenge’, run by the effective Tom Carpenter, ready to check on what they are doing and haul them off to court if necessary.
Do we have a comparable organization for Sellafield, one way or another still run by the same mindset that gave us Windscale? Sadly no. Just tier upon tier of inter related organisations each looking over the shoulder of the other but in reality acting as a buffer between those who make the decisions and those who carry them out.

But Does Anyone Care?
It is too late to put the nuclear cat back in the bag. It’s out and we have to live with it.
But Sellafield’s role is simply too important to be simply left to scientists, politicians or those who make a living out of what goes on there, the vested interests. The consequences of an accident – and they are all ‘accidents’ in the nuclear industry – can potentially devastate us all, not just those living in Cumbria. Whether we like it or not we all have a stake in what happens at Sellafield, not just through footing the bill via our taxes. It boils down to whether large parts of this Sceptred Island continue to remain habitable. The Irish Government for one has its reservations as witness its current representations to the British Government about the radiological contaminants they find in the Irish Sea.They want Sellafield shut down.But it’s too late for that.

Wot about us?
Unlike the Americans with their Hanford Challenge, who do the British have representing ‘us’, the British public, the people who live here? Is there someone we can trust to represent our reservations? And at the end of the day does anyone – apart from me – care?


Watch this Space

                                                                           Vit Plant Aerial view 2a

Hanford Site in America’s Washington State and where an almighty

                         clean up process is under way.

The eagle eyed amongst you will have spotted that this blog has lain almost fallow for the last couple of months except for a video related to my novel mixing fact with fiction and entitled ‘Shadow on the Sun’ ( for one minute – no kid – promo video).

The original idea here was to write about nuclear stuff as this is central to my book’s plot (more of this later). However there were three issues that threatened to overtake me. The first came in the form of former Apple chief evangelist Guy Kawasaki. He  has a zillion followers for his books and so should know what’s he’s talking about. He made his point that ‘blogs’ were a waste of time during a marketing ‘webinar’ I was attending during April care of my book’s distributor, Amazon.

I could take his point. Researching blogs is hard work and how many potential, new readers do you reach? So far not many is my candid observation. However, the alternative answer came via an inner voice telling me it was too early to quit.

Finally was my chosen blog topic – nuclear power (again part of my book) and its hazards thereof – and which seemed to me to be dying a natural death.  This because of a lack of robust companies around willing to foot the multi billion pound financial bills for building new nuclear plants.

Look at what’s been happening in the UK with its proposed Hinkley Point C expansion? Seemingly blest by the UK Government (‘but don’t ask us for money!’) of which so far no takers for the finance. And of those there have been (Centrica springs to mind here) they’re busy looking for the exit. The only good news is that of a possible Chinese white horse on the horizon but again its all talk. And as they say ‘talk is cheap.’

Maybe this wariness is just as well. Anyone reading my past blogs will have realized whilst I’ve been not exactly been “for” nuclear power than I haven’t been entirely “against” it either.

Those more positive than myself could argue that it’s now as safe as houses. And on paper, so it looks. The major problem is not the plants themselves but the people who design, build and run them. For here ‘Murphy’s Law holds sway: if it can go wrong then it surely will. And historically it has!

Look at the US with its Three Mile Island experience (and former President Jimmy Carter in office at the time was a trained submarine, nuclear engineer care of the US Navy), or the Russians with those fools who burned down Chernobyl! Then there’s been the British with its Windscale disaster…and so it goes. Wherever there’s a country that’s gone nuclear then there’s usually been a calamity. Japan’s Fukushima is only the latest and is still posing an uncontained threat all this time later. All of these disasters were down to human error. The real problem is the result can be around for 100,000 years contaminating the whole planet in its wake! BIG stakes to play with! So far we’ve been lucky. What happens when the luck runs out?

Japan’s Fukushima problem upset the anti-nuclear apple cart even further – if that was possible. The result has been ever more and vigorous protests against existing nuclear sites. Nowhere has this been more vigorous than in California with two sites, one at San Onofre in the South down San Diego way and the other, further North close to San Luis Obispo at Diabolo Canyon towards the centre of the state.

The soft target eventually proved to be the aged 2.200MW facility of San Onofre giving power to 1.4m people and on the doorsteps of former President Nixon’s Western White House at San Clemente. The axe came down in June of this year when the plant’s operator, Edison threw in the towel after an upgrade originally aimed at extending the plant’s life by another 20 years and costing £400m.

It should have saved itself the effort.

Bungles on an epic scale (what did I tell you about human fallibility?) ended with premature closure only months after restarting. Worried regulators, amidst mounting public concern stepped in and finally called a halt. Edison decided the cost of going on was too much. Now there’s going to be legal wrangles all round as to who pays the bill estimated at a cool $2billion? Meanwhile as Winter draws ever nearer Californians will be left wondering whether the lights will ever come back on again!

Only the French seem to be charging relentlessly on with ‘nuclear’ but then they are the French and that’s what they do whatever the opposition. But the French are not backing a one horse race. Comparatively recently it received the green light from the EC to proceed with its ITER Fusion reactor in Southern France. Hopefully this one will be ‘self-sustaining’. Note that word ‘self sustaining’ along with ‘fusion’. Nice, clean fusion is where tomorrow’s energy is going to be they say. So far it has proved elusive. But you never know…

That brings me to the end of ‘Issue 3’ if you can remember that far back? It moves me on too to potential new pastures. ‘Fusion’ has for long been the Great White Hope. It also again lies (yet again) at the centre of my book ‘Shadow on the Sun’ so seems appropriate.

Britain too has a foot in the camp with its own Tokamak reactor based at Harwell in Oxfordshire (where ZETA was also based for those with long memories) but sadly one that is not self sustaining as the French system is hoped to be. Added to this we have the recent failure of the American ‘National Ignition Facilty’ at the Lawrence Livermore laboratory along with a tacit admission that after spending $3billion its never going to work as hoped. And so its back to the drawing board – but this drawing board is the relatively hum drum task of modeling nuclear explosions!

If we add to this mix the current issues of a place called ‘Hanford Reach’ (where?See photo) in the middle of Washington State then there might be enough to keep me writing and readers interested. For those wanting to know, Hanford is a place of mind boggling nuclear contamination on a vast scale (also included in my book) and requiring an equally vast but belated effort on the part of the US Department of Energy to clean it up and costing quadrillions. There’s a whole lot of other mess too. And all connected with America building a not inconsiderable stockpile of 60,000 nuclear weapons during the cold war. Now thery’re finding, as Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy used to say: This is another fine mess you’ve got me into!’

So there we have it. All it leaves me to say is ‘Watch this Space!’


Shadow on the Sun

The link is to a one minute video giving you the essence of  my new novel, ‘Shadow on the Sun’. Hopefully the video will make you think – enough to buy a copy for reading on your Summer Vacation maybe!

Come back all is forgiven!

Hinkley Point C

Just when we thought it was unsafe to go back into the water up pops the UK Government to say maybe it was not so bad as we thought!

The ‘water’ in this case was the tsunami induced waters that flowed so copiously into the standby generating sets of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station located not a million miles from Japan’s capital, Tokyo.

The problem with Fukushima was its coastal siting. First came the earthquake that knocked out the vital cooling water necessary to keep the various reactors from meltdown. Then came the tsunami and with it millions of gallons of seawater swamping the standby generating sets there just in case such an unlikely event ever happened. It did. The net result we all know.

It so happens, this month, March 2013, is the second anniversary of Japan’s nuclear power disaster and where three out of the six reactors involved went into full meltdown. Meltdown is not good where nuclear power stations are concerned.  Along the way came a series of hydrogen gas explosions venting radioactive material into the surrounding environment. Bungled plant and Government inspired safety procedures followed leading to the total evacuation of 100,000 people living within a 20-30km radius. To date only 16000 people have been allowed back. Latest estimates are that it could take between 40 – 60 years to clean up the resultant mess.

Fukushima underlined what we already knew: anything to do with nuclear is a highly hazardous and risky undertaking. And if anything goes wrong then it can take decades, to put right and cost a fortune let alone the impact on people’s lives. But then maybe Stalin was right? A person’s life is a disaster. A million is a statistic.

Fukushima has not been the only power facility to have gone wrong. Chernoby in Russia was probably the worst with its ‘Level 7’ event, whilst others include Three Mile Island in the US, Windscale in the UK, Chalk River in Canada, Orleans in France and Buenos Aires in Argentina. Since the nineteen fifties it adds up to almost 30 civilian ‘accidents’ worldwide excluding military candidates (Hanford in Washington State for example springs to mind here).

But parking these not inconsiderable issues to one side, Government’s have to decide if ‘nuclear’ remains an option in the energy mix when it comes to considering what the next stage of the power generation game should be. They like to go for as near certainty as they can get in an uncertain world. Not only that but ‘carbon emissions’ and how to limit them is also becoming a prime consideration that was never there before. Hence in this context the retro fitting of flue gas desulphurization kits amongst other measures to British coal fired power stations of Drax and Ferrybridge sited on the Yorkshire coalfield.

So ‘nuclear’ still has life Governments around the world opine even after all the brickbats have been thrown. To underline this the British Government, even as we speak, has just given the green light to French owned nuclear power station builders EDF to build a new 4000MW power station to be known as Hinckley Point C and costing a currently estimated £14billion. One thing we know is certain, it will cost more and will take longer by the time it’s done.

Sited as Fukushima was right on the coastline (the British one is in North Somerset) the Hinkley C plan has however been modified in the light of Japanese experience so as to give improved earthquake and sea water flooding resistance. This is just as well for despite the belief that the UK is earthquake-free, it’s is not strictly true. Since 2000 there have been 29 of them. Most fall below 3.5 on the Richter scale and which means they are just about noticeable. However, as residents of the town of Bishops Castle in Shropshire can testify, they can still cause much damage (April 2nd 1990 and 5.1 on the Richter scale).

Only one hurdle remains on the road to Hinckley Point C and it is not small. It involves how much the Government will allow EDF to charge for its electricity over forty years of the project’s expected sixty-year lifespan. Observers say the company is after a strike price of around £95 – £100 per megawatt hour. That’s around twice the price of the current going rate. The reason is EDF’s capital funding costs bearing in mind it won’t be coming from the cash strapped UK Government. Instead it will be coming from financial institutions wanting to see a healthy return on their investment. Until such an agreement is reached work is unlikely to start on building a nuclear plant that will ultimately provide power to 5million British homes.

Needless to say the environmental lobby is on the case. Friends of the Earth wanted wind power as an alternative. Given Hinckley is on the Bristol Channel coastline it might have once seemed a possibility – until one does the math. Each wind turbine generates a mere 5MW. This would mean a wind farm of 80 units or about enough to cover the whole of the Bristol Channel. A scheme for a paltry 12 turbines was turned down in 2005 so approval for a mega wind farm is highly unlikely. Another alternative favoured by FoE was a highly impractical distributed solar power system. Maybe okay for the deserts of Saudi Arabia but less so for the UK.

All this still leaves the not small issue of the Hinkley Point C resultant and highly toxic nuclear waste.

Originally this might have found a home at the Government’s planned underground repository on the Cumbrian coastline 250 miles North West of London. Superficially it would have been easily accessible by ship from Hinkley Point C. But an outsize spanner was thrown in the works when the Cumbrian local authority, after years of supporting the nuclear industry, ungraciously vetoed the whole £12billion idea last month (see February blog). And as it stands the existing and ‘temporary’ high level storage facilities at Sellafield aimed at holding its output of solidified and radioactive vitrified ‘glass log’ output, is getting close to full. So far no alternative solution is in sight.

Politicians are of course in the realm of doing what they think is possible. To the fore of Energy Secretary Ed Davey’s thinking will be the knowledge that of Britain’s remaining 9 nuclear plants left out of an original 19, all but Sizewell will be shut by 2023. Amongst them will be Hinkley Point B, an aged Advanced Gas Reactor still soldiering on as we speak at 70 per cent output. And Hinkley Point A, a twin Magnox reactor design, finally shuttered May 23rd 2000 and undergoing decommissioning.

As the planned closures continue, if there are no replacements built, then the lights will start going out. Hinckley C on its own would bridge nearly forty per cent of the gap. And the nuclear industry remains hopeful the site will serve as a world showplace for rekindling nuclear power passions after Fukushima almost extinguished them.

Meanwhile shutting Britain’s aging nuclear stations brings with it yet another problem: safe decommissioning. It’s a process that takes up to a hundred years per site and on average costs £1billion a throw. This month (March 2013) the Public Accounts Committee, a select committee of the British House of Commons, estimated the total undiscounted cost of decommissioning all nuclear sites to be £100billion, a long way north of the £56billion estimate given in 2005.

One thing one is certain of anything with the word ‘nuclear’ in it and that is it will always costs more than you originally thought and will take longer than you originally thought. But such considerations are all well beyond the current Energy Secretary’s time horizon, or indeed his lifespan. They will simply become someone else’s problem. That means your children. And then their children’s children.




Try and imagine 100,000 years ago!

It’s hard, not only hard but about impossible. The problem is it involves a timescale far beyond anything we humans have as a comparative yardstick with which to measure.

A lifetime is say only a 100 years. British railways saw their great expansion in the 1850’s, a mere 170 years ago. The Battle of Trafalgar was in 1805. The American War of Independence began in 1775 and ended 1882, only 230 years ago.

These are puny timescales. Even the death of Jesus Christ is still tiny at 2000 years ago. Even the building of Stonehenge 3000 years ago still looks tiny.

10,000 years ago the ‘mini’ ice age ended forming the British coastline we would know today. Prior to that a thick ice sheet up to a mile thick had covered most of these islands. It was also when arguably the first of the ‘British’ arrived from what today we call Iraq.

20,000 years ago mammoths and sabre tooth tigers roamed the lands. It is also when the cave paintings of Lascaux in France first appeared. Beyond this era it becomes ever more conjecture. Language may have appeared 50 to 150,000 years ago. In Europe Neanderthal Man still dominated although was busy interbreeding with modern man who would eventually succeed him.

Now comes the answer as to why this short excursion into history.

It is connected with a decision made by the ten man Cumbria Council during the closing days of January 2013.

They were effectively vetoing plans the UK Government had for building a vast, long-term underground nuclear waste depository somewhere on the West Coast of Cumberland. It is an area of low population jutting out into the Irish Sea where the UK nuclear industry had already carved out for itself a big niche with its nuclear power stations, nuclear weapons making facilities, above ground high and low level radioactive waste containment, nuclear reprocessing, decontamination and a million other things too numerous to mention. Indeed the Council often proudly referred to it as being ‘The Energy Coast.’

Along the way the industry laid claims to be the site of the world’s first ever nuclear power station at Calder Hall, opened in 1956 and shutdown in 2003, and also site of Britain’s worst ever nuclear accident in 1957 at Windscale. Today these two sites are included in a larger facility known as Sellafield. Amongst other things it also includes a ‘vitrification plant’ where high level nuclear waste is turned into huge glass logs in a process not dissimilar to the two being built close to each other on the banks of the Columbia River as it flows through the old Indian reservation at Hanford in America’s Washington State (c.f. my novel SHADOW ON THE SUN,

At the end of the day the Government could just go right ahead and do what it wants if ‘push’ has to come to ‘shove’. But as we speak the modus operandii is one of ‘co operation’ with the local inhabitants.

The reason why the 100,000 year question opening this blog is because this is the timescale the worthy men and women of Cumbria have had to consider when pondering their ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ votes concerning the planned underground depository. It is no small undertaking either. Although it will be 1,000 feet underground its interconnected labyrinth of tunnels will cover an area larger than the municipal seat of Carlisle (pop 110,000), is currently estimated to cost £10 billion and will employ up to 1000 people.

Cumbria is an area of outstanding natural beauty situated in the North West of Britain 200 miles from London, and hosts the picturesque ‘Lake District’ much treasured by the poet Wordsworth and today’s Art’s polymath Lord Bragg.

Cumbria Council leader Ed Martin underlined this in giving the Council’s decision: ‘Cumbria has a unique and world-renowned landscape that needs to be cherished and protected. While Sellafield and the Lake District have co-existed side by side successfully for decades, we fear that if the area becomes known in the national conscience as the place where nuclear waste is stored underground, the Lake District’s reputation may not be so resilient.’

Now as why Mr Martin should cite these concerns seems to some to be a little belated. For the nuclear industry already has an outsize boot print in his parish and which stretches back to the late nineteen forties when Britain decided to build it own nuclear weapons making facilities and chose the Cumbrian coast as the place to do it.

Mr Martin also commented that the industry could always maintain the burgeoning above ground nuclear storage site it currently has. This is true but hardly a safe alternative, at least not in the long term. He then cited the geological concerns that have been underlined by the authoritative UK Geological Survey. It is true too insofar that nowhere is ever tectonically stable. But this is usually over millions of years. Britain does have its earth tremors One could be tomorrow. Or in a million years.

But even for the 100,000 years we are talking about here the prospect is daunting. How can one ever be sure it will be ‘safe’ over such a long duration of unimaginable time? The Americans felt the same with their Yucca Flats depository in Nevada and now have to rely on their alternative site at Calsbad, New Mexico.

But maybe these last two examples show the true reality of the way things are when you ever associate yourself with things nuclear: later escape from its maw is difficult.

In the last blog I talked about the later problems of Colorado where even now the nuclear lobby wants to further desecrate the lives of people and the environment they live in. Look at Washington State too and the environmental legacy of Hanford. Or at Nevada where over 1000 nuclear weapons were ‘tested’ and who were then asked to play host to a the Yucca Mountain depository where they did say ‘no’ eventually.

Overall though, as Gaia Theory proponent James Lovelock has already conceded, when the lights start to go out there is only one energy source left and its name is ‘nuclear’ however much we dislike it. But we need to know that it is an option that leaves a terrible legacy and where it will be our children’s, children’s children ad infinitum that picks up the final bill.


Where the dust blows

Uranium mining New Mexico

It was in August of last year, 2012, that I found myself driving across the southwestern state of Colorado. I was surprised at what I found to be going on. On one side of the road, just out of a town called Grand Junction, was mile after mile of what looked like mining detritus. But this was nothing like the sort we sometimes saw in the UK in the wake of coal mining. This was altogether different, and huger. So huge, so expansive that I wondered  whether they were of volcanic rather than man made origin. A quick check on the internet revealed what I already suspected. The mountainous heaps of rubble resulted from uranium mining. And it’s not the best of dust to have blowing around your back garden.

My curiosity was keen at that time as a few days earlier I had written a chapter of my then about to be published book, SHADOW ON THE SUN and which with its new chapter featured some of the anguish currently going on in the Northwestern state of Washington. Although my book is a work of fiction it does borrow heavily from a great deal of fact. Part of this and about which I had been writing, is something called the ‘vitrification’ plant now nearing completion beside the Columbia River and on what used to be formerly known as the Hanford Indian Reservation site.

For their luck it fell to Washington state to be host to their country’s then nascent plutonium manufacturing activities during the second world war and for some considerable time afterwards. There was a war going on at the time so objections to its siting were muted. There were also rumours that the Nazi’s might be the first to crack the secrets of splitting the atom. If this had been true then the world as we know it today might have been a vastly different place.

American activities in Hanford began in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, the project that gave birth to the first atomic explosion in  in New Mexico’s Alamogordo desert, July 16th 1945. Washington State’s part in it all ended 45 years later in 1987 when the last of Hanford’s nine plutonium reactors was shut down. Unfortunately it was not to be without issue. Major of these was the  53 million US gallons of  high level radioactive waste it left behind together with an additional 25 million cubic feet of solid radioactive waste and 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater beneath the site. Although you won’t get Washington State’s ecology departments to say as much, there are signs that the once plentiful sockeye salmon that used to breed just below the nuclear site, are now on the wane. One report studying the toxic effects of decades of nuclear manufacture next to the river gave a reason why: radio nuclides leaking into the groundwater and then into the river.

The Hanford vitrification plant was built to head these dangers off at the pass. But it’s already $10billion over budget and ten years late. And it’s not expected to begin operation for another seven years! And if it does this will not be for want of dozens of activists (see countless Youtube video’s) trying to halt it on the grounds it is already unsafe. They argue it uses unsafe construction methods for many of the plant’s final key processes. This can only mean later danger they say.

Lurking behind the whole issue is an organisation with the bland and at first glance user friendly name of the Department of Energy. In earlier incarnations it used to be called The US Atomic Energy Commission. That was until the AEC fell out with Congress over incompetence. Nowadays the DoE has a budget probably only second to that of the US Department of Defence.

In the DoE’s earlier incarnation as the USAEC it once requisitioned huge areas of the country for atomic manufacture. Some, like the plutonium processing plant at Rocky Flats,  just outside Denver, were raided by the FBI and permanently shut down for utilising dangerous manufacturing procedures. Collectively these  resulted in plutonium laden dust being blown all over downtown Denver. The clean up continues.

But Denver was not alone. And neither is Washington State. There’s about three hundred others in the same company. And the DoE, as part of its relatively new tasks, has been given the objective of cleaning them all up. This is going to take decades and cost hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars.

This all brings me back to where I started: that detritus parked alongside Interstate 6 as it sweeps past Grand Junction. Thankfully, as one watches the wind blow the radioactive dust along the valley bottom largely populated by the Navajho Native American Indians, one can thank God the mines are now disused. Their decay was prompted by falling uranium prices which prompted cheaper imports from the likes of Australia.

But more recently prices have been on the increase and some companies have been wanting to re open their  long closed old sites. And so it would have been after they had first asked the Department of Energy for the OK as it was the DoE that owned the mining rights. They got that permission too. And so the bad old ways of the past, including further pollution of the Colorado River, mirroring what had long ago happened to the Columbia, would have been spurred into motion one more time. And people like me driving past on one Summer’s day would have been left to wonder why it was that the American’s never seem to learn.

There is an easy answer to this and it’s summed up in one word: money, just as it always is in America. Where ‘money’ is concerned all things are possible.

But this time around there has been a higher calling. It went by the name of a Federal Judge brought in by ‘the people’ who were worried about what it would further do to their state,  the same state where a guy called John Denver used to extoll its clean air virtues in song.

The judge, on the basis of what had happened in the past, reversed the mining companies permission. Until the next time.

One small step for man….at least this man!

It was a long time ago when I set out to be a ‘writer’. How long ago is immaterial. What is germane is that in the time that has passed the publishing world has changed beyond recognition. In those ‘old’ days I was brought up on ‘letterpress’ printing, solid type, and sticking bits of paper onto other bits of paper to make up a page. Not much seemed to have changed since the days of Gutenberg or Caxton in the 14th century it seemed to me even then. And in Caxton’s day it still took Dr Johnson, the father of the first English ‘dictionary’ the best part of twenty years to get into print. Or Thomas Malory a similar time to see his literary masterpiece, Morte d’Arthur be published.

Some say ‘Thank God!’ its changed or is changing since then particularly for authors such as myself. For without this change most of us with a literary bent would have stood no chance. For in the world of yore writers such as me had to rely entirely on the serendipity nature of ‘luck’ in order to get published. And by ‘published’ I mean in ‘book’ form.

Actually I haven’t done too badly for prior to my latest and to date only work of fiction, SHADOW ON THE SUN ( there had been a couple of works of non fiction which by and large I had always discounted on the basis that ‘fiction’ was the only real thing. But by the time I got to where I thought I wanted to be such things as ‘literary agents’ and ‘publishers’  looked set to go the way of the Dodo  both replaced by something called ‘Amazon’ and its ‘end to end’ alternative.

I don’t want to blather on too much about this changing landscape as I’m sure there have been plenty of writers before me who have already given it a good airing and there’ll be plenty more afterwards. My only addition to the fray might be my observation that the changing nature of book publishing is adding a new dimension to the issue of  ‘marketing’. For as they say, the best products or services in the world will fail if no one knows about them.

I don’t mean here that conventional publishers have never done any marketing. Sure they have but usually only for the JK Rowlings on their author lists. The rest have by and large had to do it for themselves in the form of endless signings within such stores as Waterstones located up and down the motorways. Now with the rise of self publishing this has come even more to the fore.

As it happens I have spent much of my life in ‘marketing’, particularly in a sub sector they call ‘below the line’ so its going to be pretty interesting to see whether I can employ a lifetime’s experience in this arena for my own ends so to speak? A case of physician heal thyself huh?

It sounds easy, but there is much to learn as I go along although I think the essentials of ‘marketing’ remain as they have always been. I’m pretty computer literate too and so the ‘technology’ aspect of it doesn’t scare me. After all I was chairman of a largish UK computer company which as an aside did once lead me to shake the hands of the now sadly deceased Apple guru, Steve Jobs. It occurred when I was once in San Francisco at some computer exhibition or other. At the time I think he was unemployed or about to set up ‘Next’ on which ‘New’ Apple would one day be based. Funny how life sometimes works out isn’t it?

‘My book’ took a long time to write primarily because I had a full time and demanding  job to do during the day. The book was regarded by me as akin to a ‘hobby’: something to do to see if I could. Well I finished writing the book about a year ago then came the business of getting it edited and proof read by ‘professionals’. Then of course was the issues of turning it into hard copy format as well as electronic. It all took rather longer than I had originally thought together with a whole load more work. Then having accomplished it all came the issue of checking  whether in practice one could actually buy the the finished product via Amazon and others. It  should have been  easy. Suffice to say it wasn’t and it took time to sort out. Here I could go into detail about corporate machinations concerning plans for world domination but space does not allow.

But now I’m there. After a year I have taken the first step. And as the Chinese say, the longest journey starts with the first step. It is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Waterstones and a load more. The eagle eyed ones amongst you might have spotted that it is published by ‘Northern Lights Publishing Ltd and not self published. This because I suspected that liberalisation of the book market might have had an adverse effect on quality resulting in  a backlash from readers.

In short the shear volume of books coming down the turnpike has in its wake led to an attitude by their authors of  ‘anything will do’ when quite simply it won’t. There is much to learn and that certainly includes me.

Many books should not have been published at all on the grounds that their authors didn’t have a clue as to how to tell a story, how to structure it, and then finally the many who thought ‘proof reading’ the final copy was merely for the birds.

For proof of what I say look at the book blogs and reviewers who blatantly say no ‘self published books’ here mate! It’s a bit like it used to be in the old days when guest houses used to say ‘No coloureds’ or gates of private houses displayed a sign nailed to their garden gate stating ‘No hawkers or salesman’. The biblical saying ‘as ye sows, so shall ye reap.’ floats across the mind here.

So for the coming year Ive got all this ample flotsam to get through. But at least my hat is in the ring. The first step has been taken. Now to see where to go from here and whether progress can be made?


about me as an author of 'techno' thriller books

Cathy Bell

writer | naturalist | lover of parks & wild lands

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