Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Sellafield story (1986)


From the May 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Half a tonne of uranium is dumped in the Irish Sea; fifteen workers are affected by highly toxic plutonium nitrate; contaminated water is accidentally discharged . . . another few weeks like that and Sellafield — formerly Windscale — had better start looking for another name.

Not to worry though, after one incident British Nuclear Fuels calculated that only two workers were affected. That this figure grew to 11, then 15, should not be unexpected in an industry with a particularly notable history of lies and deception. Indeed it was this general lack of information that forced 800 workers at Sellafield to come out on strike.

At the same time, local communities in four areas around Britain are having their wishes ignored, their protests ridiculed, and their lives threatened by the proposed dumping of radioactive waste. Recently, the government — promptly for once — pressed ahead with a public inquiry into a new kind of fuel reprocessing plant at Dounreay. The inquiry is being held half way between Cape Wrath and John O' Groats and is being boycotted by all the major anti-nuclear groups because of the haste with which it is being carried out.

Back at the source of the waste, at Sellafield, the chairman Con Allday was living up to his name — he criticised public concern with radiation as being "born of ignorance". However, according to the Guardian (March 1). only about 10 per cent of the research carried out into the pollution and biological effects of radiation is readily available to the public.

Of course, you can have all the access to information that you want, but the real decisions are based on economics, the figures under the headings "profit" and "loss". And the story that these tell is that profit must be maintained. Compared to that, the figures for the ten-fold rate of leukaemia around Sellafield might as well come under "other costs'.

Make no mistake, in the socialist alternative locked doors, secret files or codes on computer files will be as impossible as money or markets. Socialism will be a society in which decisions will not be made by an owning minority or a state, nor will decisions be subject to the anarchic fluctuations of the market, which can favour nuclear power one week and oil the next. Instead decisions on. for example, energy production, will be made by the whole of the community concerned.

But talk of socialism is all very well we are told. In the meantime, however, "workers must be given a lead". But what sort of lead has come from the politicians? For example, Jack Cunningham? Now as Labour spokesman with responsibility for issues concerning the protection of the environment. Cunningham has shown his sincere concern and abiding interest in protecting his seat from any nasty fallout. To hell with the environment. and to hell with the health of a large proportion of the population of Britain, because Sellafield employs 11.000 people, and that's 11,000 votes.

Of course, such a lead has angered many Labour supporters, but what they don't realise is that such political hypocrisy is not limited to one Labour shadow minister; Jack Cunningham need have no worries about selling out on Sellafield. because he had been given assurances anyway, that the Labour Party conference resolution on stopping the nuclear power programme, would not even be included in the next Labour election manifesto.

If you take the view that politics is only about what politicians offer you, then we have no choice. Workers and local communities have no real choice when it comes to such an area as energy production: the workers in and around Sellafield are choosing between keeping their local cancer factory or suffering immense unemployment in the area. Not that they should really worry — when Thatcher visited the plant last year she said that she would be happy to live near Sellafield. Presumably Barratt 's did not have any houses in the right price range in the area.

Similarly, at the Scottish Labour Party conference in Perth recently, the choice was seen as being between nuclear power (hazardous to health and the environment but provides jobs for some workers), and coal (similarly hazardous but provides jobs for other workers). The stale politics of the Labour Party and of working within capitalism, divides workers into different apparent groups when what is required is the recognition of the common interests that workers have under capitalism, and the common interest all workers have in getting socialism as soon as possible.

But if the Labour Party has been shown to be powerless to protect the environment, what about the likes of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace? The first thing that can be said about such "single-issue" campaigns is that they aren't. Both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are starting to realise that you cannot just concentrate on one problem at a time. Now the Socialist Party has been saying for years that the vast majority of social problems have at their root the present social system — capitalism — and the consequent domination of profit over people and their environment; the problem of pollution can only be seen, and solved, with an understanding of the society that causes it.

However all that the environmental pressure groups are doing is supporting a variety of fragmented and futile reform measures. For instance, faced with official censorship of information on the extent of radiation in the environment, the environmental pressure groups have been forced to broaden their campaigning to include demands for Freedom of Information. Similarly, in their arguments for the closure of Sellafield. FoE have calculated that reprocessing is currently uneconomic. Now you can bet that if profit was the only reason to keep Sellafield open, it would indeed have been closed down years ago. However, closure of the plant would in a real sense have "cost a bomb” as that provision is also integral to Sellafield. So the environmentalists are also having to face up to the part that nuclear power can play in the whole area of nuclear weapons. The lesson is clear — once you start to deal with problems bit by bit, you will never finish.

The environmentalists have called for the closure of Sellafield. but the demand will be ignored if it runs counter to the economic logic of capitalism. However the environmentalists have succeeded in the minor but still futile demand to get rid of BNFL's chairman (as if changing the chairman's name will make any more difference than changing Windscale's name). The chairman was due to retire last month anyway, but at least now the members of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth can sleep at night in the comforting knowledge that the unfortunately-named Con Allday has been replaced by the even more unfortunately-named Neville Chamberlain.

It is tempting to think that problems can be reformed away one by one. bit by bit; that the problems of pollution are just unfortunate accidents, sad aberrations in an otherwise perfect world. But experience shows that reforms rarely remove the problem. One example of the ineffectiveness of reformism is the ReChem plant at Bonnybridge, Scotland, which incinerated a toxic chemical and in the process could produce an even deadlier chemical, dioxin. After much protest the plant closed down (due to economic reasons, said the company). A success for the environmentalists, you might think? Not really, the problem has only shifted — to South Wales to be exact, where the only other factory for the disposal of these chemicals (called PCBs) is now incapable of dealing with the increased load. So now more and more toxic waste is having to be stored before incineration, in itself creating more problems. Another example of the "success" of reforms in the field of environmental protection is the simple solution to emissions of smoke and chemicals from factories and power stations polluting the nearby countryside — build chimney-stacks and kill a fjord or German forest instead.

All these examples (and more) of environmental destruction — from Bonnybridge to Bhopal. Sellafield to Seveso. or the Black Forest to the rainforests — have a common cause in capitalism, and the socialist alternative is relevant to them all. For inside socialism, the choice will not be between polluting your own backyard or someone else's; neither will it be a choice between having a job or having your health.
Brian Gardner
Glasgow Branch

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