The technical lies are followed by medical “controversy”

Down a long country lane at at the English town of Newbiggin, past the Brown Cow pub and a shop that sells sausages which proudly sport the royal warrant, you finally get to reach the Irish Sea.

The water laps near a weathered wooden signpost pointing out the pleasant walk to the Roman port of Ravensglass. The edge of the estuary is an expanse of sticky mud covered with greenish moss and rotting seaweed.

However, this brown sediment is contaminated with radioactivity from the nearby Sellafield power station.

When anti-nuclear protesters tried to highlight the health dangers by taking a dustbin full of mud to Whitehall a few years ago, men in white protective suits were scrambled to take it away.

Sellafield, the world’s first commercial nuclear station, stockpiles more spent plutonium than any other similar plant — a huge store that has been built up over half a century.

‘We test the mud at Newbiggin regularly and it always contains low-level nuclear waste,’ said Martin Forwood, the co-ordinator of the lobby group Cumbrians Opposed To A Radioactive Environment.

‘There are no warning signs anywhere along the coast. People walk on this shoreline with their dogs and children. The dogs take the contaminated mud back home on their hair. The children carry it on their shoes. It then dries and can be breathed in. Don’t tell me this is not a danger to human beings.’

A Geiger counter measurement in the muddy area taken by Martin gives a reading of around 15 counts of radioactive particles a second. That is double the amount of radiation normally found in the atmosphere in Britain. Tests from some other parts of the shoreline shoot up to 50.

Anti-nuclear campaigners blame these high levels on traces of plutonium (as well as other dangerous elements such as caesium and americium, which are used in the production of nuclear fuel) in the mud.

This is because waste water from Sellafield has been discharged for decades through a pipe just two miles off the coast.

The former World War II munitions factory became Britain’s first nuclear complex in the late Forties.

The giant facility opened under the name of Windscale to produce plutonium for Britain’s H-bomb.

In 1956 Calder Hall nuclear power station was opened alongside it to produce low-cost electricity for millions of homes. Back then, the long, sandy beach at the nearest town of Seascale was popular with swimmers.

But families are now too afraid to go there because radioactive contamination has been traced in shellfish, seaweed and the sand.

The levels of radioactivity recorded by Martin Forwood are so high that they would not be permitted under safety regulations for the inside of the huge nuclear plant itself. Indeed, they are higher than those taken within the 20-mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl, scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986.

The deeper you dig down into the mud, the more poisonous the levels become because of the accumulation of waste over the years.

This week, as the world looked on in horror at the frantic attempts to try to make safe the out-of-control nuclear power station hit by the tsunami in Japan, it is not surprising that questions are being asked about the safety of Britain’s 19 nuclear reactors.

The Government has asked Mike Weightman, chief nuclear inspector, for a full report on the implications of the Fukushima disaster before a decision is made on the future of nuclear power in this country.

A series of new plants is being planned by the Government, and advocates of nuclear power argue that (although they have to be built next to the sea because they need vast amounts of water as part of the cooling process) they will be safe and will not be at risk from damage by coastal erosion, storms, earthquakes or tsunamis.

One of the new plants is pencilled in for Sellafield.

Of course, Britain does not experience earthquakes the size that hit Japan — the largest to strike (off the coast at Great Yarmouth in 1931) was 130,000 times smaller than the one that set off the cataclysmic events in Japan.

But anti-nuclear campaigners are not so convinced about safety guarantees and point to the troubled history of Sellafield.

In 1957, a fire broke out in No 1 of the twin ‘piles’ or reactors. It was only discovered 50 hours later, and took three days to bring under control.

The blaze was caused by heat building up in the reactor after a series of safety blunders. As the fire raged, workers at the plant used hoses to try to cool the reactor.

However, contaminated air escaped through the 400ft-high chimney and rose over the Lake District in a long grey plume. Eventually, radioactive particles fell on to the local countryside or were caught in a changing wind, which blew them further inland towards Wales and over the sea to Ireland.

Marjorie Higham, now in her 70s, remembers the accident well. As a young local woman, her job was to monitor data in the scientific laboratory at the site and, like all employees, she had signed the Official Secrets Act, which prevented her from talking about her work.

Only now is she prepared to discuss what happened. She says: ‘I arrived one morning and was told I couldn’t leave the site. We had to stay in the laboratory and not say anything.

‘It was rumoured that an operation was under way to pump water into the reactor to extinguish a fire.

‘When some men phoned their wives to explain why they would be late home, they got into terrible trouble from the bosses.’

Marjorie went home late that night too and never mentioned a word. The hope of the authorities was that the full extent of the accident would never be made public.

But there were reports from government scientists in subsequent days that cows across the Lake District had been contaminated by eating grass that had become covered with radioactive dust.

For the next six weeks, milk collected over a 30-mile radius was discreetly removed from dairies so it would not be distributed for human consumption.

When a delivery from Grasmere in the Lake District mistakenly got into the supply system, the truth was kept secret by Harold Macmillan’s government to avoid ‘unnecessarily alarming’ the local population.

My godmother Peggy, holidaying in the area at the time, looked out of her hotel window and saw sheep dead in the fields. She told my parents what had happened, but since she was unaware there had been a fire at Sellafield (or Windscale, as it was then called), made no link between the dead animals and the accident at the nuclear plant.

The truth is that Macmillan ordered an official cover-up — fearing the British people would reject the idea of nuclear energy if they found out about the accident or its potential danger to human health.

The Government decreed that the official report into the fire should blame operator negligence and failed instrument readings. What’s more, ministers made sure the document would be kept secret by sealing it for 30 years.

After the fire, the twin reactors at Windscale were permanently closed and their function to produce plutonium was moved to an expanded Calder Hall.

Eventually, locals realised that the fire which they all knew about via the grapevine had, in fact, been a serious nuclear incident. But it took a whole generation to pass before its impact on the health of local inhabitants was revealed.

In 1982, the British National Radiological Protection Board issued a report estimating that 32 deaths and at least 260 cases of cancer could be attributed to the fire. But there are widespread concerns that this figure was much too low.

In 1993, the Government’s Health and Safety Executive confirmed that in nearby Seascale, the incidence of leukaemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (both linked with people being exposed to radioactive material) was 14 times the national average and twice that found in other areas of the western Lake District.

My godmother died of cancer in her fifties

It was never established whether the disease was linked to her exposure to radiation, but our family certainly suspect she was one of Windscale’s many silent victims.

John Urquhart, an epidemiologist at Newcastle University, said in the Eighties that he believed the chances of getting cancer in Seascale was one in 60, compared with a national average of one in 600.

Anti-nuclear campaigner Janine Allis-Smith’s son was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1983. She is convinced he was exposed to radiation during family trips to the Cumbrian seaside.

‘He put handfuls of mud and sand on his head and face. I’m sure Sellafield has something to do with it,’ she says.

‘I know lots of children who’ve died and whose fathers worked at Sellafield. The graveyard at a church near Newbiggin has lots of graves of children who died in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.

‘It was not just leukaemia, but other cancers. Some were stillborn, while other suffered unexplained deaths at a very young age.’

Another campaigner, Greenpeace’s nuclear adviser Jean McSorley, was born in the area. She describes herself as one of the ‘Windscale generation’. Her mother was pregnant with her when the fire happened in 1957.

She says: ‘Growing up, I watched children and adults go for cancer treatment at The Christie Hospital in Manchester. It is impossible to prove that the illnesses were caused by the fall-out from the fire, but we just knew.

‘At the time, people didn’t make a big fuss because the local community was very dependent for employment on the nuclear industry. Free speech was impossible because workers had signed the Official Secrets Act.’

But what is the truth?

In October, 1993, 36 years after the Windscale fire, two leukaemia victims lost their four-year battle for damages from the nuclear authorities. Although a judge did not rule out a connection between the radioactive emissions and the disease, he said there was a lack of supporting evidence for the theory.

Of course, worries remain.

A few years ago, complaints were made by neighbours against two women in Seascale who were feeding large numbers of pigeons. The estimated 2,000 birds were roosting in buildings at the nuclear plant and flying all over town causing a nuisance.

A cull was carried out by the RSPCA. Analysis of six of the dead birds, carried out by Greenpeace at an independent French laboratory, revealed high levels of radiation in their bodies.

As a result, the Ministry of Agriculture warned that ‘any pigeons found within a ten-mile radius of Sellafield should not be handled, slaughtered or consumed’.

Government scientists said eating the breast meat of the birds would give a radiation dose equivalent to the safe limit for an adult for a whole year.

The culled pigeons were placed in lead-lined canisters and buried at a dump for low-level nuclear waste which is patrolled by guards 24 hours a day.

Today, the entire Sellafield site no longer produces nuclear power because its equipment has reached the end of its lifespan. But it remains the world’s leading centre for reprocessing nuclear waste — taking waste from power stations all over the globe (including Japan) to extract the spent plutonium.

From this, a fuel called MOX (mixed oxide) is manufactured and sold back to power stations, again including those in Japan, as a means of burning weapons-grade plutonium to produce electricity.

The result is that Britain has the dubious distinction of being the world’s plutonium capital, with 112 tons of the element (about half the global total) stored at Sellafield.

No wonder Martin Forwood’s Geiger readings are so high when he tests levels of radioactivity over the Newbiggin mud.

And there is a small, sad postscript to all this. Last Christmas Eve, the Cumberland sausage, hams and bacon maker with a royal warrant was forced to sell up because of ill-health. He no longer sells his prize bangers to prestigious stores across the country.

Now only his little shop near Newbiggin remains.

Colin Woodall, who is in his early 50s, said that after generations of his family making traditional sausages, he had contracted leukaemia.

One can only speculate, of course. But has this proud Cumbrian become another victim of Sellafield and its very poisonous legacy?

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