Living in the nuclear age

In my previous post on environmental issues I mentioned the Sellafield plant in Cumbria. There have been industrial plants in this area since the late 1940s. As the nuclear industry has grown so has this site in West Cumbria.

‘Sellafield Stories’ was started by Whitehaven Archive and Local Studies Centre, with funding from British Nuclear Fuels. The project aimed to record 100 interviews to represent the history of the Windscale/Sellafield nuclear site in West Cumbria from the 1950s onwards. Testimonies cover the opening of Calder Hall power station, memories of the Windscale fire in 1957 through to the development and expansion of the Sellafield site.

Interviewees include employees, residents and anti-nuclear campaigners. Their differing perspectives give a fascinating insight not only into the nuclear industry, but also into the local economy and its heavy reliance on Sellafield.

Often in the same interview you can hear people on this dilemma of the positives and negatives of Sellafield on the area of West Cumbria as a whole. Mary Kipling states the impact on her hometown, St. Bees. (SS-13_e01 / download)

Joe Farrell recognises the importance of local employment but has concerns about how the waste will be stored in the future. (SS-16_e01 / download)


Family also feature in the interviews; here both interviewer and interviewee acknowledge that many families are employed by Sellafield. Mary Kipling goes on to recount the role her aunt played in the community as a district nurse and as someone who gave evidence at the THORP enquiry into whether a new plant should be built. (SS-13_e02 / download)


Graham Brightman shares his views on the nuclear industry; from the start he was only ever interested in the peaceful application of nuclear energy for the generation of electricity and not for the creation of weapons, although he was aware of both taking place on the Calder Hall site. (SS-1(1)_e01 / download)


In 1957 there was a fire at the Calder Hall site. Around that time public perception of the industry was generally positive. As Graham Brightman points out it brought employment that was of national importance. However, in the aftermath there was more caution at the plant, the public had to be reassured and there was more attention from the media. (SS-1(1)_e02/download) and (SS-1(1)_e03/download)


Mary Johnson shares her memories from this time; her brother was working at a farm and the milk had to be poured down the drains, yet the community were quiet possibly due to fear “…scared stiff really…”. (SS-25_e01 / download)


From 1964, when the Magnox reprocessing plant was opened, more spent fuel was reprocessed, meaning more plutonium was produced at the site. Dave Banks reflects on working with this material and his own social conscience. He goes on to talk about the protesters from Greenham Common (“…we hated them…”) and later Greenpeace, recalling the negative perception of them from the onsite security and police (“…we were told not to [shoot] …we were told not to even fire in the air…”) (SS-10_e03 / download) and (SS-10_e02 / download)


Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Sellafield seemed to gain a higher profile than other nuclear sites across the country. Part of the interview with Peter McLean looks into the role the media played and whether this was based on a previous poor reputation that proved difficult to shake. (SS-26_e02 / download)


Former BBC journalist and film-maker Eric Robson produced a number of programmes criticising the nuclear industry. He felt that they “…encouraged the industry to get its act together…”. He shares an anecdote about former colleague who went to work in public relations at Sellafield. Unfortunately, this was after a contamination incident. When asked if Seascale beach was safe, he is said to have replied ‘perfectly safe as long as they wear wellies’. (SS-38_e01 / download)


Around the same time the protests also continued and also became higher profile too. When talking to Peter McLean the interviewer notes that “Greenpeace has had a prominent role in the past around Sellafield…” and he goes on to detail the holes burnt into the pipeline to stop discharges out to sea and the work of the divers on both sides. (SS-26_e03 / download)

Eric Robson recalls his time covering the protests. While he admits to having a “…sneaking admiration for Greenpeace”, he is still fairly dismissive of protesters and only reluctantly admits they may have had a role in bringing the industry to account after prompting by the interviewer. (SS-38_e02 / download)

Conversely Keith Chisholm reports that the pressure from Greenpeace combined with negative media portrayals, as well as a court case brought about a “…change in ethos at Sellafield…” (SS-45_e01 / download)


Objections also took place at a local level. In her role as a local councillor Marjorie Higham attended Local Liaison Committee meetings and gives an eye-opening account of them! (SS-37(2)_e01 / download)


image: Ben Brooksbank / General view of Sellafield Nuclear Plant, 1986 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Sellafield geograph-3503250-by-Ben-Brooksbank.jpg

audio: extract from interview with Dave Banks (SS-10_e02 / download)


West Cumbria is not the only part of the north west to protest against the nuclear industry. Across Liverpool and Manchester various anti-nuclear campaigns have been held. In the Radio Manchester collection there are news reports from the mid-1980s featuring stories on a range of related issues, from weapons to peace camps.

Manchester CND plan to take part in a demonstration against Trident missiles in Barrow (RMAN/10078)

An anti-nuclear peace camp at the BNFL plant in Capenhurst, Cheshire ends with a rally and leads to the formation of a Merseyside women’s peace group (RMAN/2985)

Report in 1983 on a vigil in St Peter’s Square, Manchester in support of the Greenham Common women and their upcoming court case (RMAN/3771)

In 1984 a new peace camp was to be established at Burtonwood. At that time Burtonwood was the site of an RAF base and home to extensive American military operations. (RMAN/8979.1 and RMAN/8979.2)



There have been strong reactions to the nuclear industry over the years. Supporters look at benefits to the economy and in scientific breakthroughs. While detractors can point to a series of accidents and their implications for the planet. Others still fall somewhere in between, seeing the negative aspects of weapons production with the positives of meeting our growing energy needs.


Vicki Caren, Cataloguing Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage North West Hub, based in Archives+, Manchester Central Library.

Sellafield Stories collection is held by Whitehaven Archives and Local Studies Centre. Digital copies of the full-length interviews digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage will be available at the respective libraries in due course.

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