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Proper Gander: Under the Concrete Carpet

Proper Gander

Over on BBC4, Professor Jim Al-Khalili is our guide on a rare tour of the Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, mostly only seen in old newsreel about radiation leaks and Greenpeace protests. Britain’s Nuclear Secrets: Inside Sellafield gives us useful primers in what a nuclear reaction is, as well as Al-Khalili enthusiastically showing us as much of Sellafield as its tight security allows. Along the way, he says ‘this place is buzzing with activity!’, including the radioactive kind. We visit the ‘legacy pool’ and ‘shear cave’, the misleadingly mystical-sounding areas where toxic, radioactive waste is held. On the same site are the decommissioned nuclear reactors Windscale and Calder Hall, places which split opinions as well as atoms.

The programme simplistically frames the debate about nuclear energy as whether the potential for limitless electricity without much of a carbon footprint justifies creating waste which will remain radioactive for millennia. Al-Khalili’s similarly simplistic solution is that that the nuclear industry has to think more about its long-term effects, regardless of economic and political pressures. But the problem is that those economic and political pressures dictate how much importance is placed on limiting radioactive waste, or indeed whether nuclear energy is worth the risks at all. There are already better ways of dealing with spent nuclear fuel than sweeping it under a concrete carpet and ignoring how much it will make our descendents resent us. But any new methods have to prove themselves as cost effective as well as efficient. Science is as influenced by the market as anything else is, shaping how nuclear technology develops. And because of its connections with weaponry, nuclear power is even more politicised than other industries. Economic and political forces determine how nuclear technology is used, rather than considerations of what’s in the best interests of ourselves and the planet.

Inside Sellafield was part of the BBC Four Goes Nuclear season, marking 70 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed. Another of the season’s shows focused more on the relationship between nuclear power and political power. The press release for Storyville’s Atomic – Living In Dread And Promise, called it ‘an impressionistic kaleidoscope’. In other words, a compilation of footage of mushroom clouds, CND rallies, Chernobyl and CERN, to a soundtrack of Mogwai’s electronic beeps and gurgles. Despite its tricksy editing occasionally being distracting, the documentary highlights the sizeable impact nuclear technology has had on society. Our mixed feelings about this are summed up in the programme’s title, with the emphasis on footage of blast damage and contaminated Ukrainian villages representing ‘dread’ more than ‘promise’.

Together, both shows remind us how splitting the atom has released potential for both benefit and harm, which capitalist society struggles to balance.

MIKE FOSTER