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".