Shine A Light

Did comic art save Cumbria from the nuclear dump?

Earlier this year, Cumbria county council woke up to the reality behind decades of government propaganda and nuclear industry spin and rejected a plan to bury radioactive waste in England’s Lake District. 

Marianne Birkby
21 March 2013

What Cumbria needed was a super hero to lead a revolt against the government plan to build a mega mine under Cumbria filled with the world's plutonium. That's what comic books are traditionally for isn't it — super heroes saving the world?

My days used to be spent happily painting wildlife with a bit of anti-nuclear campaigning on the side.  Slowly the balance tipped. The reason? Sheer frustration and growing anger, deeper than anger, at the government plan to bury heat generating nuclear waste under Cumbria in a hole (or two) deeper that Scafell is high. Surely, I thought, all the conservation and environmental NGOs would get together as they had back in the 1990s to lead the charge against this insane plan? Fat chance! Following a lot of pleading, the dawning realisation that national NGOs were not going to ride to the rescue hit the pit of the stomach like a lead balloon.

So, with a few good friends we formed Radiation Free Lakeland in November 2008. This followed a furious council meeting in which Cumbria County Councillors were not allowed to vote on whether or not to "express an interest" in a nuke dump. The decision was to be left to the Cabinet.

It was at that Cabinet meeting that the first cartoon characters made an appearance on a small placard, three red squirrels sat on barrels of nuclear waste "Hear no Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil" making reference to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s social fund, the obscene tax payer funded nuclear slush fund which has saturated almost every facet of Cumbrian life. PDF

Not even the red squirrels are free of the insidious nuclear largesse or "poisoned sweets" as the Japanese call it.  Despite an excellent presentation by Dr Ian Fairlie to the Cumbria Cabinet on radiation risks the decision in 2008 to "express an interest" was taken by a handful of Cabinet members.  The national press called Cumbria a "willing volunteer" who could expect financial "compensation" for providing a service to UK.  Radiation Free Lakeland were and are all "volunteers" in the dictionary definition of the word, that is, requiring no financial inducement.  The No Nuke Dump message wasn't easy to get out.  It seemed the national press wasn't interested at all despite being bombarded by us with press releases and phone calls.  Meanwhile the local press and local radio seemed much more interested in accusing us of scaremongering.  This despite the fact we were very naïve about the scale of the dump, initially describing it as being as deep as the Eiffel Tower. Three Eiffel Towers is nearer the mark!

Comic Art percolated in my head while writing rounds of letters and emails to councillors in the knowledge that most of the information we were sending was being binned faster than the junk mail. The inspiration for the first book came during a sponsored walk around Wastwater.  One of the generous sponsors that day was a diver whose aunt takes in Chernobyl children for holidays, giving a boost to their radiation-damaged immune systems. Wastwater is popular with divers who bizarrely place garden gnomes at great depths. They risk their lives for this act of bravado —  an individual choice to dive deep and set up Gnome gardens in England's deepest lake.

'The Wastwater Gnomes' explores the relationship of Wastwater to the nuclear industry and questions the sanity of new build and new, much more dangerous wastes, when cooling the existing waste requires 4 million gallons of fresh water from Britain's Favourite View daily. A Norwegian government-commissioned report in March 2009 said that a sustained stoppage of water to the cooling tanks would be 50 times worse than Chernobyl.  On the 1st of April the same year there was a stoppage of cooling water at Sellafield, described as being "hours away from catastrophe."  

Tom and Ellen, a gentle unassuming Lakeland couple trying to make sense of the government plan are the protagonists of the 2nd comic book, 'When the Water Flows’. The main theme was the slippage between the truth and the propaganda machine of the optimistically titled Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership.

Its aim seemed to be to normalize and underplay the plan. Eric Robson, the BBC voice of Gardener's Question Time was enlisted to provide the reassuring voice-over on the video playing at the village hall drop-in meetings. Robson is the Chair of Cumbria Tourism and the part owner of Osprey Communications, the PR company awarded the lucrative MRWSP contract. PDF  

Public relations strategy documents from 2004 obtained by the organisation Nuclear Spin reveal that the government agency overseeing the storage of radioactive waste appreciates the need “to be sure that opinion leaders are carefully recruited and groomed.”  And boy have we been groomed over the last decade or so. The Nuclear Industry Radioactive Waste Executive changed its name to Nirex which changed its name to Managing Radioactive Waste Safely. That sounds so much safer. Doesn’t it?

'Swallows and Amazons. For  You. For Life.' is the third title in the series. Tom and Ellen continue their journey to find out the truth about the government plan, the journey is fraught with questions, who is telling the truth?  There are real heroes in this story, the scientists who have provided astonishing amounts of work and time for free. Those include Dr Rachel Western, Dr Helen Wallace, Dr Ian Fairlie and Professors Smythe and Haszeldine (writing here on openDemocracy). Professors Smythe and Haszeldine are not opposed to geological disposal of nuclear waste in principle, believing there may be suitable areas elsewhere in the UK. They have, however emphatically stated that Cumbria is definitely not suitable, likening the geology to that of a leaky bowl.

The comic books and Radiation Free Lakeland take the same view as outlined in Rock Solid? the scientific review by Dr Helen Wallace, that the science is not yet sufficiently advanced and may never be to ensure safe geological disposal anywhere. (See Dr Wallace’s lectures here.) The wastes should be contained where they can be monitored and then if there is a problem something can be done.  Professor Haszeldine also pointed out rather scarily that "Emplacement of hot wastes will force rock to expand, with the strong probability that new fractures will be created. The fractures can allow radioactive gas to rapidly leak to the surface. Land users and housing at the land surface will be uplifted." PDF

Under the weight of public pressure, Cumbria County Council at last voted against the government’s nuclear dump on 30 January this year.  

So did Comic Art Save Cumbria?  Of course not, no more than the 38 Degree petitions did. Or the demonstrations at Ennerdale, Bowness and Carlisle. Or the excellent music gig at Silloth.  Or the vigorous 3 Weeks to Save the Lakes Facebook campaign. But as with all the cumulative actions, letters and conversations over beer in pubs, comic art may have played a tiny part of the bigger picture.   

A few days after the vote, Rory Stewart, the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Borders wrote: “Those people who actually wanted the repository to be built in Cumbria felt that a gradual scientific process had been derailed by instinct and politics. Those who opposed it felt it was a triumph of grass-roots activism, and of a democratic and responsive council. Both supporters and critics have a point. But the fundamental problem was the government’s failure to win the public’s trust. And having seen the irrational, unchallenged momentum in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public has reason to doubt the objectivity of government, when it is short of options.”

Comic Art may have helped change perception and create a bit of space in the Cumbrian and national consciousness for perspectives other than the government's entrenched "steps towards geological disposal”.

Radiation Free Lakeland’s ongoing campaigns to make Cumbria safe can be found here.


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