The Return of Nuclear? A West Cumbrian perspective
By Pancho Lewis
The government’s Energy Security Strategy, published in response to unprecedented concerns over energy costs and security, has proposed eight new nuclear power stations for the UK. But what does this mean for the communities nearby? Since October, I have been working with communities in West Cumbria, home to the UK’s first nuclear power plant in the 1950s. Sellafield, as the site is now called, is being decommissioned. But some are hopeful that a new power station could be located here.
The importance of Sellafield as a regional employer is hard to exaggerate. It provides direct work to ten thousand people, and many more indirectly through supply chains. Sellafield’s mighty presence is felt not just in the local economy but extends into the physical landscape. Its operations have become etched into the area’s aesthetics – drive around south Copeland and you’ll find a megacomplex of domes, chimneys, buildings, fences, walls, and armed security guards.
So how do local communities who live close to Sellafield feel about the company and, more broadly, nuclear operations?
It’s often assumed that West Cumbrians are straightforwardly supportive of the industry. Indeed, in a region that has experienced severe deprivation it is a lifeline, providing the dignity of secure, often well-paid jobs. As a result, the local MP has long been arguing it should be a hub for nuclear innovation – including a place to trial new Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and nuclear fusion.
My contention is that the depiction that Cumbrians are straightforwardly supportive of the nuclear industry is a simplified and, ultimately, unsatisfactory reading. Deeper analysis suggests a less clear-cut, more complex picture. Sellafield generates ambivalent feelings among local populations, producing what is best described not as universal support but a tapestry of complex and fluid emotional responses. There are three factors that illustrate this.
(1) Sellafield as ‘kin’
Sellafield can’t be understood as a conventional, ordinary employer. Its significance for local social life goes much deeper. According to Manchester anthropologist Petra Kalshoven, Sellafield is best understood in metaphorical terms through the symbolism of ‘kinship’, with the company operating as a kind of paternal, caring figure for the area. Large grants are awarded for community facilities and charities; the company teams up with mental health organisations; employees are encouraged to volunteer in the community; and so on. It is often seen as the place to go to when community organisations and charities need funding. Managers describe the local community as a “child needing to become independent from its ageing parent” (2021, p.46) so that when decommissioning is complete communities no longer ‘rely’ on the company for opportunities.
There are moments where the construction of the West Cumbrian nuclear family interweaves with the way the ‘family’ of industry employees is imagined. Successive generations of workers in the same family line can be found working for the company. Kalshoven points to one employee who can look both upwards and downwards in the family tree and find continuity: his father worked at Sellafield and his son is now starting an apprenticeship with the company. A figure of the Nuclear/nuclear family therefore surfaces. Given that family relations are a site of one of the most intense experiences of all human formations, the linking of the nuclear family to the industry gives the company a heightened emotional and symbolic power, elevating it well above the status of the company that engages in a purely transactional relationship with its employees, to one which is enmeshed in the intensely emotive worlds of kinship relations.
But if the metaphor of kin is accurate, then clearly Sellafield is clearly also not just like any parent. As personal experience has taught most of us, successfully navigating parent-child relationships isn’t always straightforward. But the nature and extent of hazard experienced in family relations clearly can’t be directly equated to the hazards of nuclear matter. Which leads me onto the second point.
(2) Sellafield as risk
Though Sellafield has been out of the media spotlight in recent years, in past decades it has been at the centre of much controversy. In 1957 the infamous ‘Windscale Fire’ accident unfolded. A nuclear reactor caught fire – this has gone down in history as the country’s worst nuclear accident, with catastrophic consequences only being narrowly avoided. Though the accident led to a tightening up of protocols, incidents have occurred since then: There was the discovery of the dumping of radioactive discharge into the Irish Sea in 1983, and the THORP plant leak when cracked pipes led to the spillage of radioactive waste in 2005.
What impact do these incidents have on local peoples’ lived experiences? Using focus group methods, sociologists Claire Waterton and Brian Wynne’s (2011) study points to understanding West Cumbrian collective experience as moving between two viewpoints. On the one hand, risks are minimised: there is an acceptance that Sellafield is part and parcel of the local landscape — Sellafield simply ‘is’; it is blended into the background of the everyday. On the other hand, the risk that nuclear operations pose linger just underneath collective consciousness, floating to the surface spontaneously in conversations. They cite an interaction between a fisherman and a farmer who recall the risk to fishing stock and contamination of local milk supplies. Though they joke about what happened, the interaction reveals a mutual appreciation about the risk that the site poses to livelihoods. Similarly, they cite an interaction between two women who recount spending time on a local beach. As recent emigrants to the area, they were unaware that the beach was empty because of concerns about potential contamination, only later learning of the risks involved.
In the rhythms of everyday social life Sellafield’s presence may therefore be unremarkable. But there is nonetheless an often latent, at other times more explicit, recognition of risks. This requires navigation — both in terms of places to avoid (the beach) and in discursive interactions between locals (who use humour to make light of a subject they recognise is serious). Sellafield is therefore both ‘de-risked’ and surfaces as a site of danger.
(3) Sellafield as a site of mystery
A final factor to consider is how Sellafield evokes feelings of mystery and suspicion. Whilst many thousands are employed by the company, very few ever enter the inner areas where nuclear waste is kept. The combination of this setup, together with the optics of the securitised borders around Sellafield, creates intrigue.
In the summer of 2019, a team of researchers ran a series of workshops in Whitehaven, a town in the north of Copeland. Entitled ‘Exploring Sellafield’s limitless future’, the workshops were intended to provide a space for West Cumbrians to engage in creative thinking about the process of decommissioning – and, more specifically, what should happen to the physical area when Sellafield eventually closes in 2140. The team reports that:
“Some large maps had been commissioned for the workshops for use on the floor, to be walked on — which to our surprise evoked the lack of accessibility of the actual site amongst participants who were not affiliated with the nuclear industry and longed for a stroll in that forbidden land” (link here).
Mystery – a lack of knowing or being able to fully grasp something – can quite transform into suspicion. For a lack of knowledge can become the basis of disempowerment if it is used against the interests of powerless, unknowing parties. This provides the backdrop for what has now gone down in history as the ‘Nirex’ scandal.
Backdating to the 1990s, the Nuclear Industry Radioactive Waste Executive (Nirex) was set up to identify a site in the country in which to dispose of toxic nuclear waste. It was perceived that Nirex adopted a tactic of trying to impose their chosen location about where nuclear waste should be stored without prior consultation. The body determined that the site should be the village of Gosforth in West Cumbria. When residents learnt of this proposal there was bitter opposition, and a lengthy political process subsequently kicked off, culminating in a minister halting the proposals. The wishes of the population were, therefore, upheld, but the length of the process and the anxiety of worrying they would find themselves the unwitting and unwilling hosts to hazardous radioactive material, to be stored right underneath their feet, generated lasting feelings of suspicion. Geographer Karen Bickerstaff argues that the lasting legacy of the fiasco of the Nirex process has left lasting scars on the community – to the extent that even if the nuclear industry were to learn from its mistakes, attempts to reopen conversations about a future siting ground may face significant local resistance, no matter how open or transparent the consultation process.
The above three points illustrate that the way coastal Cumbrian communities feel about the nuclear industry isn’t straightforward. Sellafield is at once a source of care for the community, a lifeline for a deprived area, and part of the most intimate, familial aspects of West Cumbrian social life; for many, social life might be difficult to conceive of or imagine without the presence of a company which is a sustaining force for life in the region. And at the same time its operations are entangled with perceptions of mystery, suspicion, and potential harm.
Government and other stakeholders would do well to take these experiences seriously. Whilst coastal Cumbrians experiences will have differ from communities elsewhere, attention to lived experiences in other places are likely to point to a similar conclusion – there are no clear-cut answers about what it means to live next to nuclear operations. The fluid and at times seemingly contradictory patterns I’ve outlined here are likely to be similar in other contexts.
If and when new nuclear sites are built, there should be no smoothing out of these thorny, complex dynamics. The imperative is ethical as much as it is practical. This isn’t just about political reality – what will or won’t work in consultation processes. It involves questions about the kind of lives we ask people to live. And recognising the hazards – real or imagined – that we are asking communities to embed into the folds of their everyday routines.
On questions of practical application, the above also strongly suggests the need for real, authentic consultation: Consultation which is genuinely open, transparent, and easy for all to navigate. Tick-box exercises simply won’t do. Further, they must not be rushed, but instead give time for communities to reflect carefully and input meaningfully.
If nuclear is to play a role in any future scenario, as appears increasingly likely, then it’s crucial that the perceptions and feelings of communities with lived experiences are taken seriously. Anything less given the nature of the matter and the risks involved would fall far short of the mark.