Accidents

Paul Foot

  • Britain’s Nuclear Nightmare by James Cutler and Rob Edwards
    Sphere, 200 pp, £3.99, April 1988, ISBN 0 7221 2759 6

When something awful or unexpected happens in public affairs, we are usually referred to the ‘cock-up theory of history’. This is preferred by realists to the ‘conspiracy theory of history’. That strange or shocking events should be ascribed to mistakes, accidents or coincidences is very much more comforting than the notion that they are part of some sinister plot. Take the example, familiar to readers of this paper, of Hilda Murrell. In 1984, Miss Murrell, a 72-year-old rose specialist who lived in Shrewsbury, was taken out of her house in her own car, driven to a field outside the town and systematically, apparently ritualistically, stabbed. She was left unconscious in the field, where she died of exposure. The Shrewsbury Police announced that the murder was the result of a burglary gone wrong. Their suspect, they were convinced, was a ‘common burglar’. He had, we were told, been surprised by Miss Murrell returning to her home, and had panicked. This was perhaps the first common burglar in the history of petty crime who ‘panicked’ in such a way that he took his victim out of the house, where he and she were relatively unobserved, and in broad daylight drove her through crowded streets to a place where he carried out a ritual murder. There were those at the time who challenged the police assumptions. There were even some conspiracists who observed that Hilda Murrell had been an objector to the proposed new nuclear power-station at Sizewell; that the surveillance of all such objectors had been put out to contract by a high-powered London security firm; and that the contract had been won by an Essex private detective, Victor Norris, whose main credentials were that he was a Satanist, a fascist, and had been sent not long previously to prison for six years for hiring out his own small daughters for the sexual gratification of his associates. Norris wasn’t Hilda Murrell’s murderer – who, everyone agrees, was a man half his age – but the choice of someone like him to carry out this kind of surveillance is an interesting indication of the characteristics required of a nuclear spy.

With the help of the Daily Mail, the realists – or ‘cock-up’ theorists – prevailed in the argument over the Hilda Murrell murder. In the end, most people were inclined to adjudge it beyond belief that an old woman should have been so foully murdered as part of a conspiracy about a nuclear power-station on the other side of Britain. The police relentlessly pursued the ‘common burglar’ theory. They rounded up all the common burglars in the area and questioned them. They pursued the matter with ‘the utmost rigour’ – and never even came up with a suspect.

If something so extraordinary happens once, most people will think it a cock-up or an accident or a coincidence. But what if something rather like that happens again? What if William McRae, a radical Glasgow solicitor, and a prominent objector to the dumping of nuclear waste in the Galloway hills, is found shot dead in his car with the revolver some twenty yards away in a stream? Are we to assume, as the authorities in Scotland did, that the solicitor had shot himself? How did he manage to hurl the gun that distance before his (instant) death? ‘There are no circumstances to justify a public inquiry,’ said the Procurator Fiscal. And thanks to the rather quaint Scottish habit of not holding inquests, there was no inquiry of any kind into this strange death.

As in the Murrell case, the very idea of a conspiracy connected with the nuclear power movement seemed grotesque. But then there is the story of Pat Davies of Slough. She was married to a sailor on the Resolution, a nuclear submarine, based at Faslane in Scotland. When her friend, whose husband also sailed on Resolution, had a baby, Pat Davies went to visit her. She was shocked by the baby’s hare lip. Not long afterwards, Mrs Davies herself had a baby with a hare lip. Then she heard of a third, and then a fourth wife of a submariner on Resolution who had given birth to babies with hare lips. All four babies were born between 1972 and 1975. If the figures for babies with hare lips and cleft palates born to wives of submariners on Resolution had been equivalent to those for the country at large, each of the Resolution crew would have had to have fathered thirteen or fourteen children over three years. The figures (even the four which are admitted by the Ministry of Defence) are wholly unattributable to chance; and almost certainly connected with a leak of radiation from the submarine.

Pat Davies started a campaign for an inquiry into deformities among children fathered by the crew of the submarine. She wrote letters to the press and contacted journalists. In February 1987 she claimed she was visited one night by two men who beat her up and told her to stop what she was doing. Once again, Mrs Davies’s claims are usually written off as ridiculous. There is no evidence that two men went to her house. Perhaps she is a fantasist? Perhaps she is, but when you put her story together with that of Hilda Murrell and William McRae it seems rather more credible.

What about Vera Baird? She was the lawyer acting for LAND, Lincolnshire against Nuclear Dumping, which campaigned against the proposed NIREX site at Killingholme. Her car was broken into and her confidential papers stolen. Or Debbie Ladley. She was 18, a nanny, and she had given some help to LAND. James Cutler and Robert Edwards record: ‘On 29 September 1986, she was hanging out her washing in her garden at Stragglethorpe near Fulbeck. A man grabbed her from behind by the throat and banged her head against the wall. She suffered a fractured wrist, a cracked rib and injuries to the face.’ The men muttered threats which can only have been connected with her anti-nuclear work.

The cock-up theory of history is hard put to it to explain what happened to Hilda Murrell, William McRae, Pat Davies, Vera Baird and Debbie Ladley. As the cases mount up, the conspiracy theory becomes more credible. It suggests that the movement for nuclear power is sustained by secret forces who have orders to stop at nothing to dissuade dissent.

These forces appear all the more ugly when reflected against the background of the industry’s ever-smiling and confident public-relations army. I recall with some misgivings my first really ‘big’ assignment as a cub reporter on the Scottish Daily Record in the early Sixties. I was dispatched to Dounreay, near Thurso, on the northernmost tip of Scotland, to ‘write up’ the new nuclear reactor there. I was 25, an unqualified reporter accustomed to being treated with cheerful scepticism by the population of Glasgow. In Thurso I was met by rows of smiling, intelligent and enthusiastic men and women in white coats. With tremendous care and enthusiasm they escorted me round their beloved reactor. They would not rest until I had understood the principle of nuclear power and shared their excitement for it. No more digging coal out of the ground! No more dependence on ‘finite resources’ like gas and oil! Here, in something smaller than a bucket, was a force which could light up every home in Scotland, and fry every egg for every breakfast all the way down to Manchester! It seemed quite wonderful: clean, simple, optimistic. The whole social atmosphere in the area reeked of this enthusiasm. New life had come to Thurso; new, well-off middle-class people had come to boost the impoverished rural economy. Pretty well everything from the chess club to the thriving Scottish reels society was ‘sponsored’ by the new dynamic power which buzzed away in the bucket.

I shudder to remember what I wrote in the Daily Record. I do remember that it went down so well in Thurso that I was summoned again for another mind-bending freebee, which resulted in yet more idealistic claptrap. Somehow, during all those days and all those lectures, no one had ever bothered to ask whether the new energy revolution was safe. In any case, the answer would have been very reassuring. ‘Join Atomic Energy and live a longer life,’ Sir John Hill, chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, said in 1976. Until 1984, even the Government went on claiming there had been no deaths from radiation inside a nuclear power plant. At Windscale, the nuclear plant in Cumbria which caused some local worries after a massive leak of radiation in 1957, the local medical authorities were just as complacent as the company which ran the plant, British Nuclear Fuels. The Medical Officer of Health in West Cumbria announced in 1983 that ‘hard statistics’ showed you had more chance of not dying from cancer in West Cumbria than in Britain at large. The industry did not quite get round to advertising for people to come to Windscale to get away from the higher rates of cancer in other parts of Britain, but no one who knew their PR department would have been surprised if they had done so. By one of those curious twists of fate which sometimes name people by what they represent, the chairman of British Nuclear Fuels in the company’s halcyon years was called Con Allday.

The first stone was thrown into this complacent pool by James Cutler, a television journalist. His programme, broadcast by Yorkshire Television in 1983, set out to establish the true facts about child cancer in the area immediately around the Sellafield plant. It was hard work. There was obstruction from the extremely powerful company, which runs the area as though it were its property; from the workers in the plant; from the local health authorities and from the Government. It was not easy to tour the houses of bereaved parents asking how their children got ill and died. But the final result dispelled the notion that there was no link between the plant and child cancer. The figures were so striking that the Government was forced to set up an official inquiry. That inquiry (whose statistics have since been cast in doubt) was cautious about the evidence. James Cutler continued with his work. Another Yorkshire Television programme exposed the dreadful catalogue of death and destruction inside and outside Britain’s nuclear bomb plants at Aldermaston and Burghfield, in rich, heavily-populated Berkshire. Once again, there were arguments about the figures. But when, in May 1988, a government committee produced the results of a long and thorough inquiry into child cancers in and around the Dounreay plant in Scotland, the question which I hadn’t asked in 1964 was answered. There is a high rate of child cancer in the area, so high that there must be a connection between it and the reactor.

To write this tough and uncompromising book James Cutler was joined by a freelance journalist in Edinburgh, Rob Edwards, one of the few writers to sustain in the New Statesman something of that magazine’s tradition of combining good writing with informative journalism. Bit by bit, the book dismantles the nuclear industry’s case. The chief victim is Windscale/Sellafield, the world’s nuclear dumping ground. But there is no part of the industry which is safe from this assault. It ranges from the old Magnox stations to the proposed new pressurised water reactor at Sizewell. It takes us through the harrowing stories of the nuclear power workers, most of them loyal to their employers, who have died, or are dying, from cancer because of their work. Each claim by the nuclear industry is followed by a recital of the facts. Is nuclear power (as the industry would have us believe) cheaper than other sources of power? No, it is not. The Dungeness power-station, for instance, produced 20 per cent less electricity than was planned and cost five times more than the original estimate. Is nuclear power accident-free? After Windscale (1957), Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986), who can claim that? Is it likely to be any safer here than in other countries? Certainly not. Indeed, more scrupulous governments send their nuclear waste to Britain for treatment because they know how low the standards are here. For discharging radioactive waste into the sea, for instance, Windscale/Sellafield is the ‘worst polluter’ in the world.

How is it that so many modern governments (though by no means all – Italy, for instance, will not touch it, and in the United States no new nuclear plants have been commissioned since Three Mile Island) have promoted this monster? How is it that the British Government has promoted it more enthusiastically than any other with the possible exception of the French? One answer can be found in a leaked Cabinet minute of 1979: ‘A nuclear programme would have the advantage of moving a substantial proportion of electricity production from the dangers of disruption by industrial action by coal miners or transport workers.’ The miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 still haunt the Conservative governments of the Eighties, and to some extent have dictated their energy policies. But the real reason for nuclear power is more obvious, and more frightening. It is that civil nuclear power is a spin-off from and complementary to military nuclear power. There is, as these authors put it, ‘a fundamental and indissoluble link between the civil and military application’. The absorbing book Brighter than a Thousand Suns told the story of the argument among scientists in the first half of this century as to whether or not they should split the atom to process weapons of unimaginable destructive power. The most curious feature of this argument was that no one seriously suggested (as military enthusiasts usually do when they defend military expenditure) that there was a recognisable civilian ‘spin-off’ from the process. The fanatics who carried the argument for the development of weapons of mass destruction did so on mainly military grounds: they were servants of their governments, and their governments wanted to win wars quickly. The military aim was deadly dangerous, and so were the weapons which were produced. The same dangers haunt the civil nuclear industry. The book ends with a chilling scenario. In 1997 there is yet another Sellafield accident. The cooling systems have failed, all the waste has boiled away, pouring vast quantities of radiation into the atmosphere. Lancaster and Manchester are worst hit. Soon the experts are (under) estimating eight hundred deaths in a year, and eight thousand cancers in twenty years. The cancers will be duly passed on to future generations. Some might say that this is rather sensational stuff for serious journalists. I think it is a little on the conservative side. Those who really believe that there will not be such an accident somewhere in Britain or France some time before 1997 are victims of incurable complacency. They should look for a job at once in the public relations department of British Nuclear Fuels.