2. Contamination of Land and Sea

Chapter 5: Britain and France
Part 1: The Rough Road to Nuclear Supremacy

"It all started when the Irish Sea was found to be contaminated by radioactive material," explained Jean McSorley, a founder member of CORE, or "Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment," a group set up in January 1980 to monitor contamination in the district.

"The contamination got rapidly worse in the 1960s," she continued, "particularly since a large-scale nuclear fuel reprocessing plant was competed in 1964." Enormous amounts of radioactive waste were discharged out at sea via a pipeline approximately one and a half miles long. Contamination reached a peak in the 1970s when the plant was running at full strength, and every day over two and a half million gallons of nuclear waste were spewed out into the ocean.

More than thirty different kinds of radioactive substances, including plutonium and cesium, were detected in this waste liquid.

"What makes this contamination special is that the materials released, such as plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, and americium-241 with a half-life of 400 years, are all those which give off alpha rays," McSorley explained.

Although alpha rays can be blocked even with thin paper, once these substances enter the body, they have a more harmful effect than gamma or beta rays.

Despite the seriousness of the contamination, the local residents only started to become concerned in 1976, when a proposal was made to build a facility for reprocessing used nuclear fuel rods from overseas as well as those from domestic facilities.

Objections to the plant have been voiced by Ireland as well, which is understandably nervous about the contamination of plankton, shellfish, and other marine life in its waters. In 1980 the Irish government demanded that the British close Sellafield, and in 1985 it submitted evidence of contamination to the European Parliament and called for a resolution that would result in immediate closure. The first demand was ignored. The second ran into fierce opposition from the British government, which blocked its adoption.

McSorley showed us a bar chart published in 1984 by the National Radiological Protection Board which showed the levels of plutonium-239, plutonium-240, and americium-241 detected in ordinary household vacuum cleaner dust from houses on the Cumbrian coast and from houses in Oxford. Of the twelve bars representing twelve locations on the graph, one extended far beyond the others. The village of Ravenglass, a few miles to the south of Sellafield, recorded levels of plutonium five hundred times the figure for Oxford. A comparison of the levels of americium showed that houses in Ravenglass were twenty-six thousand times more contaminated than those in Oxford. Explaining the reason for these results, McSorley said. "Ravenglass is situated on an estuary, so naturally mud and sand carried in on the tide accumulate on the shore. When the tide goes out the sand is blown into the villagers' homes."