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-mémoire 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…

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