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


  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.

Despite huge investments in public relations, they have suffered a generally very poor public image for openness and honesty over the years.”

 Before most of these controversies developed, in 1957 the Sellafield-Windscale site suffered a large accident, when a nuclear pile caught fire and burned for some days before being quenched. It emitted a plume of radioactive isotopes, mainly iodine and caesium, over much the same area of the Lake District of Western Cumbria as that affected by the Chernobyl fallout thirty years later. This fire and its environmental effects were surrounded by a great deal of secrecy.

Although farmers in the vicinity were forced to pour away contaminated milk for several weeks afterwards, at the time they reacted without any overt hostility or criticism of the industry.

Even in 1977 when they had the opportunity during a public inquiry to join with an emergent coalition of various forces against a major expansion at Sellafield, the local farming population largely kept out of the argument. The work force at Sellafield was seen as an economic bonus by the farming population.  It  was only after 1987 that the fuller extent of the Windscale fire cover-up emerged into the public domain.  After the Chernobyl accident of April 1986, in Britain upland areas got heavy variable deposits of radioactive caesium isotopes, which were rained out by localized thunderstorms. The effects of this radioactive fallout were immediately dismissed by scientists and political leaders as negligible, but on 20 June 1986, a ban was suddenly placed on the movement and slaughter of sheep from some of these areas, including Cumbria.  At the time over four thousand British farms were restricted.

The initially wide restricted area in Cumbria (which included about five hundred farms) was whittled dawn within three months to a central crescent covering one hundred and fifty farms.  Very close to this central ‘crescent’

of longer-term radioactive contamination, almost suggesting itself as its focal point, is the Sellafield-Windscale nuclear complex.   One of the farmers interviewed by Brian Wynne said: "They talk about these things coming from Russia, but it’s surely no coincidence that it’s gathered  around Sellafield. They must think everyone is completely stupid". And another farmer ventured this explanation: "Quite a lot of farmers around believe it’s from Sellafield and not from Chernobyl at all. In 1957 it was a Ministry of Defence establishment-they kept things under wraps-and it was maybe much more serious than they gave out.

Locals were drinking milk, which should probably never have been allowed -and memory lingers on."     Many years later, there are powerful interests (including local unions in Sellafield, representing 9000 workers,  and the local Labour MP) in favour of turning Sellafield into even more of a nuclear waste dump. As reported in 2013 (Financial Times, Jan 30), Lord Hutton, Chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, favoured disposal in Cumbria. He said that  “The issue of what to do with our nuclear waste has not gone away”. But he was confident other places would be available. Ed Davey, the energy secretary, expected the programme to manage radioactive waste safely to be ultimately be successful. However, he rejected calls by Copeland, the area that is home to Sellafield nuclear plant, and where most of the waste is stored temporarily, to be allowed to go it alone. He said both district and county authorities had to agree and Cumbria county councillors were clearly against it, because of  public opposition. "Tens of thousands have campaigned against hosting the dump, saying it would ruin the Lake District’s tourism industry and threaten health".

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Radiation and sheep: Sellafield (formerly Windscale), Cumbria, UK
Country:United Kingdom
State or province:Lake District, Cumbria
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Nuclear
Specific commodities:Uranium

Project Details and Actors

Project details

In 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:approx 8,000,000,000 per year
Company names or state enterprises:British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) from United Kingdom
Nuclear Management Partners from United Kingdom
Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) from United Kingdom
Relevant government actors:MAFF, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (UK)
UK Atomic Energy Authority
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Friends of the Earth (UK)
Farmers' Unions (UK)
Cumbrians Opposed To A Radioactive Environment

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Local ejos
Social movements
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Other Environmental impacts
Potential: Soil contamination, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Other Environmental impactsRadiation 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
Other Health impactsAlleged, cases of leukemia
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Violations of human rights
Other socio-economic impactsDamage to the environment, and to sheep farmers over 60 years. Alleged damage to tourism industry in Lake District.


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (undecided)
Development of alternatives:The 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 an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Windscale (Sellafield) continues to operate, leaving behind a great radioactive mess and increasing costs o clean-up.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

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.

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

Understand. Sci. Misunderstood misunderstanding: social identities

and public uptake of science.

W.C. Patterson, The Windscale Report - a nuclear apology. Bull of the Atomic Scientists. June 1798.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

The 1957 fire, remembered in the Daily Mail (19 March 2011)

2011, Report from Nuclear Management Partners

19 April 2009, Sellafield: the most hazardous place in Europe

Financial Times, January 30, 2013, Cumbria rejects nuclear waste storage. Andrew Bounds.

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.

Meta information

Contributor:joan martinez alier
Last update04/08/2016