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Windscale Inquiry Nears Conclusion


A Threat to Us and Future Generations

(November 1977)

From Militant, No. 383, 25 November 1977, pp. 6–7.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Windscale inquiry which has recently concluded at a cost of £2 million has generated enormous controversy on the issue of nuclear energy.

Big business and the nuclear lobby, which stands to profit from the continued development of the nuclear programme and particularly the waste disposal plans for Windscale itself, are optimistic that a decision in their favour is about to be made. By the same token, all those who stand for a sane energy programme, and in particular the labour movement, will be alarmed and outraged if the government ratifies this programme.

World attention, already roused by this issue, is sharply focused on Britain. The question of nuclear energy will be of crucial importance not only to workers in the industry but the labour movement as a whole.


The Windscale inquiry, amid heated controversy, began to consider British Nuclear Fuel’s application for a £600 million expansion of Windscale, principally to reprocess Japanese nuclear waste, which could effectively make Britain the nuclear dustbin of the world. Moreover, it would introduce fundamental and controversial issues like proliferation, storage, transport and ultimately the disposal of plutonium, described as the most toxic substance ever made by man.

These issues have already generated enormous hostility and precipitated a wave of unrest throughout the industrialised countries of the world.

In far-off Australia, over 30,000 workers attended rallies in Sydney and Melbourne to protest against the government’s $2 billion uranium mining and exporting policies.

In Frankfurt, over 20,000 demonstrated against the building of the prototype Fast Breeder Reactor. Demonstrations on the same scale have occurred in Switzerland, Belgium, the USA and Japan.

In the ugliest and bloodiest incident so far, over 30,000 demonstrators at Creys-Malville in France, were attacked by police and para-military riot police armed with sub-machine guns and percussion grenades. This resulted in one man being killed and scores more injured.

The inquiry which began in Whitehaven on the 6th June was the result of tremendous pressure from trade unionists and environmentalists following a succession of horrific reports concerning plutonium.

It began with the alarming disclosure that radio-active water was leaking at a rate of 100 gallons a day from Windscale!

This coincided with the post mortem results on three workers from the plant, which revealed that they died from leukaemia. This could have been induced only by plutonium which is obtained from the reprocessed nuclear fuel. In fact it was found in the brains of one of the dead men!

The link between plutonium and the high incidence of cancer was conclusively established a week later by British researchers at the American nuclear plant at Hansford and also by scientists here in Britain.

This immediately caused a tremendous furore which intensified with the publication by Dr. Zhores Medvedev, a dissident Russian scientist living in Britain, of an account of a catastrophic nuclear accident involving plutonium. Thousands of scientists and villagers were killed when a production plant exploded and released a cloud of plutonium dust which swept across the surrounding countryside. This occurred in the winter of 1957.

Medvedev’s revelation brought an immediate denunciation by Sir John Hill the chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, who described the accident as “science fiction” and “a figment of the imagination”. However, for what it is worth, the accident has since been “confirmed” by such unlikely sources as the CIA.

Hill later conceded that in the early 1950’s “our technology was pretty rudimentary”; so rudimentary in fact that in 1957 11 tons of uranium caught fire in Windscale. Serious reactor accidents have occurred at Detroit in 1966, the Swiss heavy water reactor in 1969, and the boiling water reactors near Chicago and Wuergassen, West Germany, in 1972 and, more recently, at Pickering Canada and Alabama USA.

The managing director of British Nuclear Fuel, unperturbed by these revelations, contemptuously called upon the Secretary of the Environment to stop vacillating about the plans for the expansion. Any delay, he said, might lose them the Japanese contract worth £300 million.

In the face of mounting pressure and public revulsion against the use of plutonium, however, Tony Benn, the Energy Minister, called for a public inquiry into the expansion.

It is important to note that another inquiry is to be called to examine the development of the fast Breeder Reactor which uses as its fuel the plutonium waste from the old Magnox reactors but, by a freak of nature, produces more plutonium.

The question of the reprocessing of nuclear waste to separate plutonium must by its very nature involve the proliferation of nuclear weapons and ensure the continued development of the Fast Breeder Reactor and the subsequent production of more plutonium. These crucial questions were ignored by the inquiry.

Advocates for expansion conveniently chose to ignore the fact that the very early nuclear reactors were made with military objectives in mind, that is, the production of plutonium and the enrichment of uranium. These were crucial for the development of nuclear weapons, nuclear-propelled submarines and warships.

The present American Light Water Reactor is based on naval reactor development. The techniques for separation and reprocessing of plutonium were originally developed for nuclear warheads. The policy of nuclear energy for peaceful use – first formulated by Eisenhower under the banner “Atoms for Peace” – was directly attributable to advancing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The present US President, Carter, who inherited this legacy, is today making frantic attempts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.

Today the world’s nuclear reactors produce 30,000 kilograms of plutonium annually and one-third of this is produced in 20 countries.

This figure will increase to 28 nations producing 45,000 kilograms by 1985. 40% of this plutonium will be owned by the USA, USSR, France and UK. These countries are continually refining the destructive capabilities of these weapons, the latest of which is the Neutron bomb. This is an eight-inch nuclear artillery shell designed to produce highly penetrating neutrons and gamma rays capable of annihilating whole populations while leaving building intact.

This industry employs a quarter of America’s half million scientists alone! The 1977 nuclear expenditure for the US was $113,000 million.

The Windscale inquiry has revealed that, to date, 7½ tons of plutonium have been recovered and as much as 45 tons will have accumulated by the turn of the century.

The pro-nuclear lobby – sometimes in an hysterical and abusive fashion – have argued that there is no real alternative to nuclear energy. They have attempted to picture all opponents of extending the nuclear energy programme as Luddites. Frank Chapple, in his own inimitable manner, dealt with proposers of an anti-nuclear resolution at the Labour Party conference, in this crude way.


Sir John Hill has also not been averse to a little blackmail. Thus he stated at the Windscale enquiry: “Unless Windscale is enlarged and reprocessing begins immediately the spent fuel that will start to be discharged by the Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (AGR) next year will start to corrode with corresponding leakage of radiation in less than five years.” This Alice-in-Wonderland logic means that only by increasing the danger of future nuclear radiation contamination by building a re-processing plant will we be able to avoid being contaminated now!

Nevertheless, there are many who are unfamiliar with the subject and confused by the scientific jargon and are taken in by the nuclear establishment’s argument. They claim: (1) There is no viable alternative to nuclear power, (2) It will create jobs, (3) The anti-nuclear advocates are opposed to all technology and progress. Is there any validity in these arguments?

As to the question of jobs. It has been estimated that for every £2 million invested in Windscale one job will be created. In other words, a mere 300 jobs at the cost of incalculable harm to people and the environment. Of course, the labour movement would be opposed to any worker losing his job. On the basis of an integrated fuel policy it would be entirely possible to give all those employed in the fuel industries , and more, jobs.

As to the alternatives. Studies to date on alternative forms of energy have been pitifully small, while huge sums are devoted to nuclear energy. If the cycle from uranium exploitation through mill construction, fuel fabrication, enrichment and reprocessing of waste material is taken into consideration, the sum involved would be astronomical. To appreciate the extent of the money involved, the proposed enlargement of the reprocessing plant at Windscale is put at £600 million! This compares with the miserly £100,000 Britain spent on research into wave energy last year – a drop in the ocean!

At the height of the oil crisis, the US National Science Foundation rushed out a report recommending that the US commit $3,500 million to solar energy. Solar energy could provide 35% of the nation’s heating and cooling requirements, 40% of its fuel and 30% of its electricity.

Similar recommendations were made in Australia, Japan, France and Britain. The French are already operating a 1 megawatt solar furnace in the Pyrenees. Sweden and Denmark are so far ahead that they expect to obtain 40% of their electricity from wind power by 1980!


Britain, however, has just allocated a mere £3.4 million on research into alternative forms of energy or the next two years. Who can dispute the fact that, if the same resources were put into alternative forms of energy that are at present devoted to nuclear energy, then today we would have a viable alternative?

The thermo-nuclear fusion process (as distinct from fission) which promises to provide us with all of our requirements for thousands of years, has been languishing in a state of malaise as the EEC, which has now just embarked on a joint project (JET), haggled over a site.

The original estimate for JET of £90 million rose to £120 million because of the delay and inflation until today, nearly two years after the commitment, it stands at £165 million.

The advantages of nuclear fusion are enormous. There is no nuclear waste, more particularly deuterium, its fuel, is present in sea water at a concentration of 34 grammes per ton. It has been calculated that the oceans represent a reserve of 50 million, million, tons – enough for thousands of years of fusion.

This is a sharp contrast to the present nuclear fuel policy which advocates the construction of Fast Breeder Reactors to solve our energy needs. This policy does not appreciate the fact that a reactor is dependent on the fuel resources of uranium as its fuel.

The dangers involved with plutonium have never been considered adequately. The major problem has been its incredibly long life; it takes millions of years to become harmless and it is impossible to accelerate this process. It has been officially classed as the most poisonous man-made substance, the finest particle of which can induce cancer.

The current method of disposal is in deep underground wells and is at present costing BNFI £64 million. Its link in the food chain from marine creatures to man is already posing a health hazard.

An extraordinary suggestion for waste disposal has been to separate out the plutonium and store it as a precious metal, in the same way as you would gold and diamonds!

At some stage, however, the plutonium must be transported and the number of incidents involving mishap is well documented.

There have been 119 transport incidents over 19 years in the USA alone, and in 35 of them radiation was released. The US Nuclear Commission is today investigating an accident in which 15,000lb of uranium was spilled on a highway in Colorado. The number of shipments of spent fuel was increased from 76 in 1971 to 1,417 in 1974 and well over 25,000 shipments today.

Of course, coal and oil will continue to play, in the foreseeable future, an important part in any fuel policy.

The other major problem is possible use in hijacking by terrorists. Plutonium the size of a golf ball can devastate a city! This has come into prominence following claims that Israeli agents penetrated an American nuclear plant and staged four hijackings in Europe to obtain uranium for nuclear weapons.

It is obvious that man cannot go on vandalising the world’s reserves of oil, coal and gas which provide a feed stock for our drugs, clothing and ensure the survival of future generations.

Further, the great quantities of carbon dioxide emitted when these fuels are burnt has already resulted in climatic changes in all parts of the world. If we rely solely on coal to satisfy our energy requirements, as President Carter has just proposed for the US, then the carbon dioxide concentration in the air could reach 4 to 8 times its present level. This would cause a ‘greenhouse’ effect with the climate becoming hotter, wetter and cloudier, with the melting of the ice cap!

Not only would this weather be catastrophic for crops but would cause a shift of important agricultural regions to higher latitudes. Evidence has already been accumulating. The sea which holds about 60 times as much carbon dioxide as there is in the air is already showing signs that it can no longer absorb any more carbon dioxide. Moreover, the world’s forests, which have so long been absorbing the carbon dioxide released by burning of fuels have shrunk as demand for timber has increased. The sulphur and heavy metal contaminants in coal would also lead to an increase in respiratory illness and bowel cancer.

The expansion of Windscale and the construction of Fast Breeder Reactors, far from improving our standard of living, would become a monster of nightmarish proportions which would scar the lives of future generations. This is inevitable on a capitalist basis.

A world socialist fuel and energy plan would give top priority to renewable forms of energy like nuclear fusion, wind, solar and waves that would save our primary fuel stocks and ensure a harmonious relationship with our environment. Only such a coherent policy can abolish the gloom and uncertainty which has been made possible by insane and irrational policies.

Nuclear power, and particularly Fast Breeder Reactors, on the other hand, are such a colossal danger to mankind that there is an overwhelming case for a halt to be called to its development.

At the same time, the present situation shows the inevitable chaos and anarchy in the energy field which results from an unplanned and blind economic and social system, which is what capitalism is.

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