Radiation and sheep: Sellafield (formerly Windscale), Cumbria, UK

Sellafield (formerly Windscale) is a nuclear fuel reprocessing and nuclear decommissioning site, on the coast of Cumbria, England. It suffered a fire in 1957. It is a very hazardous site.


  The stories of Sellafield-Windscale and Chernobyl are intertwined in ways which Brian Wynne unravelled. Sellafield-Windscale is a huge complex of fuel storage ponds, chemical reprocessing plants, nuclear reactors, defunct military piles, plutonium processing and storage facilities, and waste processing and storage silos. It has developed from its original role in   the early 1950s of producing purely weapons-grade plutonium into a combined military and commercial reprocessing facility which stores and reprocesses thousands of tonnes of UK and foreign spent fuel. It is by far the biggest employer in the area, with a regular workforce of some five thousand swollen by a construction workforce of nearly the same size. It dominates the whole area not only economically, but also socially and culturally.   As explained by Brian Wynne (1992), Sellafield-Windscale has been the centre of  accidents and events relating to radiation discharges to the environment and workforce radiation doses, with criticisms not only of allegedly inadequate management and regulation, but also of poor scientific understanding of its environmental effects, and of the economic irrationality of the recycling option in nuclear fuel cycle policy. "In the early 1980s the plant was alleged to be the centre of excess childhood leukaemia clusters... This controversy continues, with every scientific report exhaustively covered in the local and national media... In 1984 the operators were accused by the environmental group Greenpeace of contaminating local beaches above legal discharge levels, and were subsequently prosecuted; and in 1986 they were threatened with closure after another incident and an ensuing formal safety audit by the Health and Safety Executive.

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Basic Data
NameRadiation and sheep: Sellafield (formerly Windscale), Cumbria, UK
CountryUnited Kingdom
ProvinceLake District, Cumbria
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Nuclear
Specific CommoditiesPlutonium
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsIn 1977, Windscale was described as "the largest nuclear installation in Britain. It was set up following WW II to produce plutonium for Britain's nuclear weapons program. It is operated by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) a commercial fuel-cycle company wholly owned by the UK Atonomic Energy Authority". In 1997 a new plant, THORP (thermal oxide reprocessing plant) was proposed and became the subject of an Inquiry. The report was approved by Parliament. There were strong objections by Friends of the Earth and other bodies, as explained by W. C. Pattrson, The Windscale Report: a nuclear apology. Bull. Atomic Scientists, June 1978, and also by Brian Wynne's book, Rationality and Ritual: The Windscale Inquiry [of 1977] and Nuclear Decisions in Britain, 1982.

In 2011, according to a report on the clean-up and decommissioning of a range of nuclear sites across the UK which in some cases date back to the 1940s, including Sellafield as the main one, by Tony Fountain, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the costs per year for Sellafield exceeded pounds sterling 1.5 billion. But they had reached 5 bn in 2005, with a total of 56 bn (The Guardian, 4 March 2005).
Level of Investment (in USD)approx 8,000,000,000 per year
Company Names or State EnterprisesBritish Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) from United Kingdom
Nuclear Management Partners from United Kingdom
Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) from United Kingdom
Relevant government actorsMAFF, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (UK)

UK Atomic Energy Authority
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersFriends of the Earth (UK)

Farmers' Unions (UK)

Cumbrians Opposed To A Radioactive Environment

The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups MobilizingFarmers
Local ejos
Social movements
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Other Environmental impacts
Potential: Soil contamination, Groundwater pollution or depletion
OtherRadiation risks. Contamination at sea also. In 2010, the Health and Safety Executive cracks down on Sellafield's operators, Nuclear Management Partners, after a series of radioactive leaks and safety blunders.
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Potential: Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts
OtherAlleged, cases of leukemia
Socio-economic ImpactsPotential: Violations of human rights
OtherDamage to the environment, and to sheep farmers over 60 years. Alleged damage to tourism industry in Lake District.
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCourt decision (undecided)
Development of AlternativesThe 1957 fire, the 1977 official inquiry, the confusion on sources of radiation after Chernobyl 1986, the suspicions of damage to human health - all such events have not been sufficient to stop the project.
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.Windscale (Sellafield) continues to operate, leaving behind a great radioactive mess and increasing costs o clean-up.
Sources and Materials

Brian Wynne, 1992, Public Understand. Sci. 1281-304. Public

Understand. Sci. Misunderstood misunderstanding: social identities

and public uptake of science.
[click to view]

Brian Wynne, Rationality and Ritual: The Windscale Inquiry [of 1977] and Nuclear Decisions in Britain, 1982, Chalfont St Gilles, British Society for the History of Science.

W.C. Patterson, The Windscale Report - a nuclear apology. Bull of the Atomic Scientists. June 1798.
[click to view]


The 1957 fire, remembered in the Daily Mail (19 March 2011)
[click to view]

Financial Times, January 30, 2013, Cumbria rejects nuclear waste storage. Andrew Bounds.
[click to view]

2011, Report from Nuclear Management Partners
[click to view]

19 April 2009, Sellafield: the most hazardous place in Europe
[click to view]

4 March 2005, Sellafield cleanup costs rise by £5bn in year. The expected cost of decommissioning and cleaning up Britain’s biggest and most hazardous nuclear plant, Sellafield, has increased by £5bn in a year, to £53bn, Whitehall’s spending watchdog has disclosed.
[click to view]

Other Documents

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Meta Information
Contributorjoan martinez alier
Last update04/08/2016