While attention has been focused on British bombers on runways in Cyprus waiting to take off and bomb Syria and on the premature attempt to launch Bomber Benn’s campaign to become Labour Leader – unlike the actual bombers, it stalled on the runway following the Oldham West and Royton by election – another runway event has gone extraordinarily quiet. This is the announcement of the government’s decision on the third London runway. Presumably the government has concluded that announcing such an environmental catastrophe while the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris is still meeting would be hard sell even with the capitalist press and the BBC in their pocket. We must presumably await another headline grabbing distraction before the government will announce its decision.
Another environmental catastrophe continues, however, to simmer away without attracting any attention at all – except, that is, in the small circulation literary magazine, Granta. In the current edition, Number 133, entitled What Have We Done, there is a splendid article by Fred Pearce on Sellafield. Splendid? Perhaps I mean ‘terrifying’. Fred Pearce is an environment consultant and former editor of New Scientist. In the article he recounts the history of Sellafield, formerly Windscale, and describes what Sellafield’s managers call its ‘legacy’ problem – the lamentable history of management failures that created and continues to create a backlog of radioactive waste and allows it to accumulate in unsafe conditions. This waste will be around on a geological timescale, i.e. for longer than human social and organisational structures have so far existed. Its accumulation under a care and maintenance regime is inconsistent with the fragility of the capitalist system that created it.
Sellafield currently has 240 radioactive buildings awaiting decommissioning, including the pile that caught fire almost 60 years ago – an event that was largely hushed up at the time. This pile comprising the core and an estimated fifteen tons of buckled uranium fuel has been left alone lest it catches fire again or even explodes. Yet, according to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, there are four other silos at Sellafield considered to be in even more urgent need of being ’made safe’. This should have been done decades ago but these radioactive dumps were abandoned and now represent, in Fred Pearce’s words, “the dark hearts of Sellafield, the radioactive reminders of past follies”. The tragedy is that we were not forced into these follies by the need to reduce consumption of fossil fuel – something we may, arguably, have to face up to in future. The primary motive was the UK’s nuclear weapons programme. And so the folly continues.