I moved from London to Cumbria in 1986, the year of the Chernobyl accident. Living with a small child in a former water board cottage in the Pennines I was concerned about the levels of Caesium-137 in our spring water which drained from the peaty soil. Sheep were being monitored in Cumbria but there was little interest in the people living in the fells.
Heavily contaminated rain had fallen particularly in the western fells of the Lake District – which coincidentally was the area close to the notorious Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant. I was not allowed to get my child monitored but was able to get monitored myself in Whitehaven. I was told I had noticeable levels of caesium-137 but not as high as some of the hill farming people. I then proposed a documentary with the hill farming community in the western fells, a community both under Chernobyl restrictions and which had long suffered as a result of accidents and discharges from Sellafield, most notably from the 1951 fire which spread contamination across a wide area.
Both Channel Four’s Fragile Earth documentary series and Border TV backed the project known as ‘The Hills are Alive’. I undertook much research, and shooting spread over a year, profiled the way of life and conducted extensive low key interviews with farming families who proved to be angry, well informed and incisive. Many farming families contributed and the film also featured discussions between seperate groups of women and men which were very illuminating. One farmer had a young daughter who had survived leukaemia and he became a key and moving contributor to the film. He had also worked at Sellafield for a while and had witnessed the significant release of radioactive gas from an unreported accident.
‘The Hills are Alive’ was highly acclaimed and nominated for the Prix Italia.
Works on paper
During the process of making the film I learned a great deal about the reality behind BNFL media relations. The satirical image above lampooned a BNFL broadsheet advertisement in which they made the claim that the radioactive legacy at Sellafield was insignificant. By its own admission, it is home to one of the largest inventories of untreated waste, including 140 tonnes of plutonium, the largest stockpile in the world.
As part of the Cumbria visual arts festival in 1996 I exhibited various works at the Harbour Gallery, Whitehaven. They included ‘Greater Transparency’ an installation consisting of two school desks filled with intertidal mud from three sites along the coast, the Ravenglass estuary, the Drigg stream (draining from the Drigg low level waste dump) and the Whitehaven harbour itself, just outside the gallery. BNFL in its own monitoring had identified these as hot spots with higher than background levels of radiation. I selected the mud using a radiation meter which confirmed the higher levels. Also part of the installation were two enlarged BNFL monitoring charts of local produce and wildlife. These attracted a lot of attention from local people who had never seen them before.
The installation became controversial when the gallery staff, concerned that radioactive dust could disperse from the work contacted Westlakes Research Institute who advised the desks be covered with cling film. This implied that the whole coast should be covered, at which point BNFL weighed in declaring there was no radiation at all in the mud, in contradiction of their own charts and my own readings.
Modified artist’s impression of the then proposed NIREX underground waste repository at Gosforth, near Sellafield.
The Epidemiologist Professor David Gardner made the controversial assertion that the higher rate of childhood leukaemia in Seascale and the surrounding area was linked to radiation exposure of fathers who had worked at Sellafield. Although dismissed at the time his theory has since been vindicated.