by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

It’s the largest commercial producer of plutonium in the world and also the largest source of radioactive contamination in the world. It releases plutonium, ruthenium, ameri­cium, cesium 13.7, radioactive iodine, and other toxins as part of its daily functioning. It’s the scourge of Europe but little known in the United States. It’s Sellafield – the government­ owned plant of Great Britain located on the Irish Sea in Cumbria. The plant has been operating for 35 years, during which time it has poured radioactive wastes into the sea through a mile-and-one-half long pipeline specially constructed for that purpose, creating an underwater “lake” of wastes.

It also throws off one quarter ton of plutonium which returns to shore in windborne spray and spume, and in the tides, and in fish and seaweed and flotsam, and which concen­trates in inlets and estuaries.

Radioactive iodine is vented from its smokestacks while cesium 137 flows into the sea, contaminating meat, mills, and fish. The plant receives nuclear waste, including wastes generated in other countries, and reprocesses plutonium for profit. What happens to the plutonium once it is extracted, no one says, although there were reports that the U.S. re­ceived Sellafield plutonium in exchange for nuclear materials produced in the U.S. How­ever, despite the British penchant for secrecy, it is known that Sellafield has had about 300 accidents including a core fire in 1957 which was, before Chernobyl, the most serious acci­dent to occur in a nuclear reactor.

One human cost of this deadly venture is seen in the instances of leukemia deaths in children living on the English and Irish coasts — one child in 60 dies of the disease in the vil­lage nearest the plant. For comparative purposes, the release of radiation from Three Mile Island (TMI) is usually estimated at between 15 and 25 curies of radioactive iodine. Many hundreds of thousands of curies of radioactivity have entered the environment each year through Sellafield’s pipeline and its stacks, in the course of the plant’s routine functioning. In other words, TMI’s accident was a modest event by the standards of Sellafield’s normal operation.

Plutonium from the plant carried by the seas has been found in Ireland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, and Belgium. Denmark and Ireland, neither of which has a nuclear power plant, object vehemently in the European Parliament to Sellafield’s operation. And while other countries object, they also pay Britain to take on their waste disposal problems. The source book, MOTHER COUNTRY, by investigative author Marilynne Robin­son, has been compared to Rachel Carson’s SILENT SPRING. Robinson questions the silence of the American press on Sellafield. She notes that hundreds of reports about Sel­lafield, originally called Windscale, in the British media yielded “slight, late, perfunctory articles” in The New York Times and Washington Post which concluded “that it was all a tempest in a teapot, more or less.”

Sellafield is not a small, radioactive waste problem restricted to the British coast in Cumbria. Indeed, the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant has been cited as a perfect metaphor for twentieth-century genocide. It is a lesson we should all know about.



PUBLISHER: FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX, 1989 19 Union Square West, New York, NY 10003


COMMENTS: Marilynne Robinson has written an extraordinary book about Sellafield, the government-owned nuclear plant of Great Britain located on the Irish Sea in Cumbria. Sellafield, the largest source of radioactive contamination in the world, is well known in Europe but little known in the U.S. The book has been favorably compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Robinson points out that it is important for all of us to know about Sellafield since its impact goes far beyond the British shores; indeed it has been cited as a perfect metaphor for 20th century genocide. Robinson notes that America’s nuclear industry benefits from the lack of coverage given the Sellafield disaster since “The nuclear industry in America owes whatever future it has to the belief, very commonly expressed, that in Europe nuclear power has been cheap and safe.” The reality of Sellafield refutes that belief. Ironi­cally, Robinson’s book is the target of two libel suits in England, one by Greenpeace and the other by Walter Patterson, an environmental writer. Robinson is being “sued for asking why these activist writers and groups do not make Sellafield known to the American public, and why Greenpeace would lower divers into the sea at the site of the most grave and prolonged disgorging of radionuclides and other toxins in the world.” While neither suit would have any standing under American law, British libel laws are far more restrictive; Robinson says they have served to stall progress on a proposed television film based on Mother Country.