Approaching Sellafield

Sellafield Dosimeter, Dave Giffiths, 2017
Sellafield Dosimeter, Dave Giffiths, 2017

Dave Griffiths and Ele Carpenter travelled with BBC Producer Beatrice Pickup and presenter Gordon Young to the Greycroft Stone Circle and Sellafield nuclear site, Cumbria, UK on 23rd January 2017. The day was spent recording for a BBC Radio 4 documentary on 'Radioactive Art' broadcast on 2 March 2017:

We were late by an hour and a half, maybe more. Already running overtime due to the confusions of recording too many opinions in the rain, in a bog, in the middle of a stone circle, in the lea of the Sellafield Nuclear Site on the Cumbrian coast, neatly skirted by a golfcourse and a military style border. A double fence topped with fresh shiny barbed wire, a patrol road inbetween the fences, no-one drives by. The landscape instrumentalised for human meaning. Vying for historical weight: the golf course is neatly short-lived, the stone circle is roughly intermediate at a couple of centuries, but it is the nuclear heritage which will outlive our lifetimes by hundreds of thousands of years. In the drizzle we argue about the terms of reference for art and radiation, and don’t record any of it. Instead we try and make clear and considered reflections on what we see, what is at stake. We all have sodden boots and feet, and we’re late. As we climb the hill back to the local farm, a quick glance back offers a view of Sellafield, a nuclear factory stretching six kilometres across the landscape chimneys poking up behind the trees. It reminds me of the view of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant from the edge of the red exclusion zone.

Finding a site without a postcode takes time. But time is exactly what we seem to have, thousands of years of slow mutating time. Time, whose meaning will change along with the decay rates of the isotopes seeping through the site. The rendezvous is another farm. But this isn’t really a farm at all, it’s the site of the old Sellafield visitor centre, closed since 2011 after the Fukushima meltdown, or was it 2001 after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Both events sent shivers down the spine of every nuclear worker, manager and de-commissioner, when the unthinkable, the impossible, actually happened.

We’re met by the communications team, and everyone is nice and polite. A quick double check of paperwork, ID, sign forms, dosimeters on, and we’re in a bus on our way in. Then time stops. It’s like being on a rollercoaster, you don’t really know if you were there for ten minutes or an hour. Whilst you’re there it goes so slowly, but then you jump off the ride and instantly feel that you’ve missed it.

Apart from the midcentury Windscale stack, and Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (WAGR) golfball everything looks the same. Miles of corrugated iron industrial sheds covering a multitude of alchemical sins. Here mere humans are desperately trying to decontaminate the most toxic radioactive materials in the world including a rather unnecessary stockpile of 112 tonnes of plutonium and ‘legacy waste’ containers of miscellaneous radioactive sludge. As if the site wasn’t contaminated enough, it seems that the whole world has shipped their nuclear waste to Sellafield for reprocessing and vitrification . All waiting for mythical geologic repositories. In addition images of crumbling storage ponds full of fuel rods circulate online, but here they are hidden from view. But we can visit the WAGRA intermediate level waste storage shed and see the self-sealing boxes, in fact we can walk up to the sign that reads “2.86 milliSieverts at base”. And I have to double check, that it’s milliSieverts, 1000 times more radioactive than a microSievert. And then I realise why everyone else is standing on the otherside of the building. We are politely asked not to photograph the sign. As Dave says, only our dosimeters can tell that story.

There seems to be a pride in nuclear heritage, lovingly cleaning up the old mess. But I’m not sure the ever-present isotopes allow for the indulgences of nostalgia. I ask questions, but only some of them can be answered.

After visiting several test labs for geological storage of radioactive waste around the world, I wanted to come to Sellafield, to see where it all begins. And I wanted our BBC producer and presenter to come here to to. Throughout the day I’ve been reminded that the Sellafield visit isn't really part of the programme, as it’s not in the script. But this is exactly the problem with the debate about geo-storage, it doesn’t deal with the materiality of the production of waste itself.

The site comprises of six square kilometres of compact radiological hazards, some neat and tidy, others rusting and leaky; some intermediate and fairly stable, others hot and volatile. Materials we can’t get near, that only robots can touch. But this is not luxury communism, an automated future to allow for more leisure and learning time. Here the robotics enable a distance between high level ionising radiation and the delicate cells of the human body.

I’m trying to hang on to these thoughts as we drive through the site at dusk, as the communications team smile and talk about effective decommissioning. Everyone is helpful, but I’m caught up in my instinctive resistance to public relations speak, and wishing we could talk to the engineers, scientists, and hydro-geologists who have a material understanding of the site.

Of course artists are interested in politics, and deep time and site markers, but they are also interested in materials, and how things work. Without any material understanding of nuclear industrial processes art-projects are in danger of being recuperated by public relations, either as a process of simplifying complexity for acceptance, or scare mongering for rejection. So the question here isn’t whether art is neutral, but how seriously it can engage with the cultural and technical infrastructures of the nuclear industry and the characteristics of radiation.

Radioactive Art, BBC Radio4
For a detailed account of the site – read the WIRED article here: