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Is Britain ‘Befouled’?

Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution

by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 261 pp., $18.95

Here in Britain we are all criminals: guilty of conniving at a crime against humanity committed by a government that is polluting the Irish Sea, the British Isles, the entire globe with the radioactive discharges from its nuclear plants at Sellafield, a village in northwest England, on the Irish Sea. According to Marilynne Robinson, the author of the novel House-keeping and now of the book under review, “The earth has been under nuclear attack [from Sellafield] for almost half a century.” This book is aflame with indignation at the diabolical practices of the British Atomic Energy Authority, at the irresponsibility of our National Radiological Protection Board, at the careless indifference of our venal members of Parliament and of the British public, at the American press for failing to warn unsuspecting tourists of the deadly dangers threatening their health if they set foot on these poisoned isles, and the American government for wasting its armed forces on their protection.

Since reports of scandalous happenings that at first seemed beyond belief have often turned out to be true, I approached these accusations, which have been taken seriously in some reviews of the book, with an open mind. I had read of an accidental release of radioactive smoke from Sellafield and of radioactive wastes being discharged into the Irish Sea, but without knowing how much these discharges had added to the natural radioactivity that surrounds us, I had not been able to judge how dangerous they were.

The nuclear plants at Sellafield were constructed shortly after the end of World War II by the Labour government of Clement Attlee, in the first instance to produce plutonium for atomic bombs. Attlee and a few of his close associates reached that decision because the war had left Britain without allies. The United States had entered the war against Germany only after being attacked by Japan, and the war had ended without any treaty pledging the United States and Britain to come to each other’s aid in case of another attack. Attlee feared that Britain might again find itself alone, as it did in 1940, and decided that having the ultimate weapon was essential for its security.

Under an agreement between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill signed at Quebec in August 1943, the first atomic bomb was developed at Los Alamos by a joint Anglo-American-Canadian team. According to this agreement,

any post-war advantages of an industrial or commercial character should be dealt with as between the United States and Britain on terms to be specified by the President of the United States to the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Doubts about postwar collaboration left by this agreement were allayed by an aide-mĂŠmoire signed by Roosevelt and Churchill at Hyde Park in September 1944, promising that full atomic collaboration between the two countries for military and commercial purposes should continue after the war, unless and until terminated by joint agreement. Seven months later Roosevelt died, and it seems that no other American officials knew of that agreement until they were told of it by the British. After the victory over Japan, Attlee and President Truman signed another document stating: “We desire that there should be full and effective cooperation in the field of atomic energy between the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada,” but the following year Congress made most forms of atomic collaboration with other countries, including Britain and Canada, illegal.1

Nuclear reactors use the fission of uranium atoms to produce heat and plutonium. Natural uranium consists of two kinds of atoms, one having 235 and the other 238 times the weight of a hydrogen atom. For each atom of the former there are 140 atoms of the latter. Every so often an atom of uranium 235 splits up spontaneously into two lighter atoms with the emission of neutrons. If one of these neutrons collides with and is absorbed by another atom of uranium 235, that atom in turn splits, with the emission of more neutrons. In a large lump of pure uranium 235 this sets up an uncontrolled chain reaction leading to an atomic explosion.

In natural uranium, chain reactions do not occur, at least not on Earth, because the atoms of uranium 235 are too thinly spread and most of the neutrons emitted by them travel so fast that they escape without being absorbed. In nuclear reactors that escape is prevented by a “moderator,” a substance made of light atoms that bounce the neutrons back and forth until they have lost most of their speed and therefore have a better chance of being absorbed. The first American reactor for plutonium production at Hanford in the state of Washington consisted of a pile of uranium rods immersed in water that acted both as a moderator and as a coolant, and thus allowed a controlled chain reaction to take place. In that reaction neutrons captured by uranium 235 generated more neutrons, together with radioactive fission products and energy, while neutrons captured by uranium 238 generated plutonium that was later extracted from the uranium rods in a chemical processing plant. The reactor required a large supply of very pure water, a safe way of discharging it, and a safe distance from large centers of population. No suitable site of this kind could be found in Britain.

The British team that returned from Los Alamos had to design their first atomic piles and the chemical separation plant for the extraction of plutonium with knowledge of only part of the American experience. They decided to use an as yet untried system: a pile of uranium rods interspersed with rods of graphite (pure carbon) as a moderator was cooled by a stream of air drawn in from below the reactor; the air was discharged, after being filtered, from 400-foot-high chimney stacks. The atomic piles were built at Windscale, the site of a wartime ordnance factory near the village of Sellafield, on the Cumberland coast. The first pile went into operation in November 1950, and the first British atomic bomb was exploded in Australia in November 1952, the same month as the first American hydrogen bomb.

Under the neutron bombardment the graphite rods in the Sellafield plant gradually became brittle. That brittleness could be cured by allowing the pile to warm up above its normal working temperature for several hours. In 1957, during one such operation, some of the fuel rods overheated and caught fire. While the operators tried to cool the rods by blowing more air through the pile, highly radioactive vapor escaped through the chimney stacks; finally the fire was extinguished by flooding the pile with water. Most of the dangerous radioactivity that resulted came in the form of radioiodine that contaminated the nearby countryside and made the milk from the cows grazing there unfit to drink for several weeks. More came in the form of polonium (the radioactive element Marie Curie named after her native land). At the request of the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, the Medical Research Council (an autonomous body equivalent to the National Institutes of Health) set up an independent committee to consider the consequences of the accident on the workers at Windscale and on the public, but the committee was not told about the release of polonium.

Radioiodine can give rise to cancer of the thyroid, but monitoring of the radioactivity of the thyroids of workers at Windscale and of people living nearby showed that none of them had received dangerous doses. The committee concluded “that it is in the highest degree unlikely that any harm has been done to anyone in the course of this incident.”2

Before 1957 exposure to radioactivity below a certain threshold was generally believed to be harmless, but in the years that followed scientists became increasingly concerned about the biological effects of the radioactive fallout from atomic weapons tests. They found that the probability of a mouse developing cancer, or of a fruit fly’s offspring being affected by a genetic mutation, increased if it received a dose of radiation, however small. It may increase only from one in 50,000 to one in 49,999, but this means that absorption of the same small dose by each of 50 million people may give rise to a hundred additional cases of cancer.3

In the light of these findings the National Radiological Protection Board, an autonomous body set up by the British government in 1970, later reevaluated the likely aftereffects of the Windscale fire. A plume of radioactive iodine and polonium spreading out from Windscale over parts of Britain and Northern Europe would have caused in many people traces of radioiodine to be taken up by the thyroid glands and traces of polonium by the lungs. Even though most of them would have received only minute doses of each, the probability that some of them would later develop cancer was thereby increased. Calculations showed that, in the forty years following the fire, there might be about 260 cases of thyroid cancer over and above the 27,000 or so naturally occurring ones in the affected populations. Of these additional cases about thirteen might prove fatal. Nine cases of other fatal cancers might be caused by the fallout of polonium.4

However, according to Rosalyn Yalow, the American physicist who received the Nobel Prize for Medicine for her invention of radioimmunoassays, an important and widely used tool in diagnostic medicine, there is no trustworthy experimental evidence to support these views. On the contrary, a great variety of observations indicate that our bodies are well equipped to withstand moderate doses of radiation. For example, no increased incidence of cancer or genetic abnormalities has been found in populations living in regions where the natural background radiation is abnormally high.

People in the Rocky Mountain states in the US receive twice as much natural radiation as the rest of the American population, but cancer rates there are lower than average. In certain districts of India and Brazil, people’s exposure to natural background radiation over a period of twenty-five years equals the acute exposure of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, yet no deleterious health effects could be found there.5 If Rosalyn Yalow is right, there would have been no additional cases of cancer, nor any other deleterious effects as a result of the Windscale fire.

Marilynne Robinson writes that the Windscale fire bore “an uncanny, not to say unnerving, similarity” to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. In fact, the two reactors were quite different and so were the accidents. The atomic piles at Windscale were air-cooled, while those at Chernobyl were cooled by water under high pressure. At Chernobyl the cooling water turned into steam that reacted with hot metals and graphite rods, producing hydrogen and carbon monoxide, while the nuclear reaction was still continuing. The hydrogen and carbon monoxide ignited, causing a tremendous explosion that lifted the roof off the building. There followed a meltdown of the reactor that could have contaminated the ground water of the region had it not been contained by the heroic efforts of the workers who excavated a tunnel underneath the reactor and filled it with concrete.6 At Windscale the uranium and graphite rods caught fire after the nuclear reaction had already been shut down, and the smoke from the fire escaped through the chimney stacks. There was no explosion and no meltdown. Extinguishing the Windscale fire with water could have initiated the same dangerous reaction between the steam and the graphite rods as at Chernobyl, but fortunately it did not, and the fire was put out.

  1. 1

    Margaret Gowing, Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy, 1945–1952 (Cambridge University Press, 1974).

  2. 2

    Accident at Windscale No. 1 Pile on 10 October 1957 (London: HM Stationery Office, Cmnd. 302, 1957).

  3. 3

    J.E. Hogle, Biological Effects of Radiation (London: Taylor and Francis, 1983).

  4. 4

    M.J. Crick et al., “An Assessment of the Radiological Impact of the Windscale Reactor Fire” (London: HM Stationery Office, National Radiological Protection Board—R135, November 1982 and R135 Addendum, September 1983).

  5. 5

    Rosalyn S. Yalow, “Biological Effects of Low-level Radiation,” in Science, Politics and Fear, Michael E. Burns, ed. (Lewis Publishers, 1988).

  6. 6

    Richard Wilson, “Chronology of a Catastrophe,” and “What Really Went Wrong,” unsigned editorial in Nature, Vol. 223 (1986), p. 29.

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