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Something nasty in the woodshed

May 19, 2014

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?

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about me as an author of 'techno' thriller books

Cathy Bell

writer | naturalist | lover of parks & wild lands

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