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Tuesday, 02 September 2014

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Living with a nuclear neighbour

ALAN Irving delves into the new book, Sellafield Stories, in which author Hunter Davies records locals' thoughts and memories of the nuclear site.

DURING the Windscale Pile fire of 1957, Joe Farrell drove a forklift to the heart of the disaster scene.

“All these people [were] running around in frogmen’s suits. I was just, as I am now, in my ordinary civilian clothes. They said: ‘What you doing here? You shouldn’t be down here.’ I said: ‘They’ve asked for a forklift, there’s a fire.’ They said: ‘Aye, it’s a tommy (atomic), the Pile is on fire.’

“In them days you were really ignorant... I came home and didn’t really know what to do. I remember putting all me clothes in the bath and washing, thinking you could wash it off. Which you know there’s no such thing as washing it off, it’s there forever, isn’t it, nearly? So actually I don’t know whether it’s done me good or it done me harm. Luckily, I’m still here....”

Joe’s is one of the more vivid tales in Sellafield Stories, a warts-and-all book of what Hunter Davies describes “as one of the most extensive oral history projects of our times”.

The acclaimed author – the first official biographer of The Beatles – was brought in by Jenni Lister, of the Cumbria Record Office and Local Studies Centre, Whitehaven, to edit a fascinating book as part of the £260,000 Sellafield oral history project.

It is based on uncensored interviews with people who, says Davies, were free to rubbish, praise, complain or rejoice about Britain’s biggest single industrial site.

Out of the many interviewees (36 end up in the book, many of them can be heard on tape), only one spoke in what might be called a strong Cumbrian dialect. DAVID HEAD recalls: “Yan o’ me ’ardest jobs when I was chargehand was keeping peace between Catholics and Masonic and Protestants. Masonic were the worst of the lot, ’cause they really didn’t like t’Catholics. To me I nivver bothered what they were...”

Former pit lad David, born at Brisco Road, Egremont, left the mines to work at Sellafield, where he was a welder for 20 years before promotion to charge-hand. He recounts: “They gave us radiation bleeps, a la’al thing just like a modern telephone, and if we ivver got near radiation it would bleep. And I thowt they were marvellous. I still used mine till the day I left.

“You could walk round a corner and walk into radiation and beep, beep, beep, beep! I could nivver understand why Sellafield didn’t use mair o’ these radiation beeps, like. But they didn’t like us when we were ga’an round on jobs if we’ed our bleeps switched off. T’bleep would be rattling like hell and people would be looking at you – what’s it picking up?

“I just kept mine in me pocket and if it bleeped two or three times I just walked a bit quicker.”

The vicar of Seascale, the Rev ALAN POSTLETHWATE, ruffled a few feathers in his time in the parish. Mr Postlethwaite found Seascale “a very vibrant, active sort of community” with so many livelihoods dependent on Sellafield. But he recounts in the book how within a relatively short space of time he had to conduct the funerals of three children who died of leukaemia.

“And that put the frighteners on us because we’d small children,” he says in his personal chapter.

“One of the youngsters who died of leukaemia was actually in the vicarage, I mean he was a pal of our boys, it was that sort of thing that knocked the stuffing out of all of us.

“When you asked the regional health authority statistician ‘how many leukaemias would you expect in a community of 2,000 people? – and the answer comes back ‘perhaps one in 20 years’... and you’ve had three in 12 months’. You know? There’s something to bother about.

“The conclusions, the one they came up with, was that if it had to do with anything it was likely to be to do with population movements. If you moved a largish group of people from one part of the country to another they were exposed to a different set of challenges and it wasn’t so much the nuclear industry it was a phenomenon that was likely to occur in new towns or anywhere where there’s been a significant movement of population.”

The vicar had concerns about housing in Seascale describing it as being ‘set up very much like a War Department settlement’.

“If you lived on a certain street you were of a certain status within the works. If you move up the ladder you moved house. And I mean the thing was ridiculous: a husband and wife living on their own had a four-bedroomed house, whereas somebody lower down the pecking order who had six children was forced to live in a two- or three-bedroomed house. It was bonkers.”

DONALD CRELLIN, bank manager in Seascale, points out: “I suppose Seascale always had a reputation of being a bit divided in that there was the sort of well-heeled and the artisans, you know, but they got on all right. Sellafield came and instead of incorporating the houses with the village they virtually built a separate village. That in itself led to I wouldn’t say friction but problems. I found out later there was quite a distinction between the scientists and what they called the artisans. When I came back to Seascale (in ’72) my predecessor said to me ‘now be careful if you have any social functions who you invite’.

“There was certainly a little bit of intellectual snobbery, you know. Some very clever people. Top notches. And the school was top notch. That was the council school. Then there was the (private) Calder Girls’ School and the prep school. At Calder Girls’ School when it used to be half-term they (parents) all used to stay at what was then the Scawfell Hotel – and you never saw as many Bentleys and Rolls-Royces in your life. Seriously. Now it’s all flats.”

Recalling events surrounding the Windscale Fire, he recalls: “Seascale was absolutely buzzing with reporters and television crews, even the great Chapman Pincher thought that everybody should bow down to him when he got off the train at Seascale.”

A reporter from the Daily Sketch came looking for Alf Moore, the village clogger, saying he (Alf) was the ‘most dangerous man in Seascale.

“Alf was handling radioactive footwear, you see, that’s why he was supposed to be dangerous,” Mr Crellin reveals.

Another well-known Sellafield personality was the late CYRIL McMANUS, ex-commando, Sellafield foreman and union leader.

Cyril, who sadly died last August, said: “In various parts of the plant at Sellafield we were getting more and more radioactive discharges, more and more of us were getting contaminated, we had no alarm plutonium-in-air systems and by that I mean in those days we’d a Hoover, an industrial Hoover, you’d be working in a lab and unknown to you radioactivity had been released into the air....we didn’t wear masks. We wore rubber gloves.”

On decontamination techniques, he said graphically: “You’d think the Americans invented waterboard treatment, you’d be wrong. The Sellafield site surgery on the separation site invented the waterboard treatment. They would have a tube, fine tube, attached to the warmed cold-water tap, they would adjust it until they got it reasonably warm, ram it up your nose and then they would irrigate your nose. If you ever had water forced up your nose to clean out your nasal passage, well it was horrendous. It gave me headaches afterwards and nosebleeds.”

Legendary fell runner and Wasdale sheep farmer JOSS NAYLOR started work at Sellafield in 1968, reckoning: “I’d be far better in there than taking bloody silage out of a pit wid a gripe (dungfork) and wrecking myself. I cut down on sheep a bit, and I thought well, we’ll have a easier life, but it didn’t keep it easy for long.”

On Calder Hall, where he worked, Joss reflects: “One thing here (in Wasdale) we don’t get the mists since the cooling towers have gone. When them cooling towers were producing it covered these fells - aye we see a lot more of them.”

TOM JONES was a Sellafield manager, like his father before him and now his son. “Some people did describe Sellafield as a holiday camp,” he recalls in the book, “and a lot of people were like that, you know, they had non-jobs, but there was always opportunity to keep yourself busy. I always felt I’d really worked for the place. So whenever anybody said to me ‘Oh, you work at that holiday camp,’ it got my hackles up.

“Tom Tuohy from his office in the top of the admin block saw all these people cycling in long after their start time so he decided he was gonna put a stop to it. He started putting people on the gate taking names and all that sort of thing and he had this campaign called ‘Time Is Money: Don’t Waste It’....when they came round for collection for Tom Tuohy’s retirement people were putting in a card saying ‘One Hour.’

BARRY SNELSON was Sellafield Ltd managing director until the advent of Nuclear Management Partners in 2008. Arriving at Sellafield in 1999, Barry says that first of all “there was no respect for money. There was always more money, didn’t matter what it cost, we could just get some more money. Whereas I’d come from a site where every penny was a prisoner. You just had to justify spending, you didn’t just say ‘well we’ll have one of them’.

“Another feeling was – and this is a little bit more contentious – the way the management talked about the unions and the workforce, and the way the workforce talked about the management. There was a huge gulf between the two.”

CHARLES CROSS recalls “fun and games” wearing his Windscale suit and handling the Greenpeace protestors – and the night he was one of the site fire crew trying to find the finger of a Thorp construction worker.

“This chap had lost a finger. We’d done our best to bandage him up and he was gonna go to surgery but we needed to find the finger first, the finger can be put back on if you can get it at a certain time.

“Where’s it at? He says ‘it’s somewhere up there where I was working – up there where they’re putting them beams together and putting the bolts in.’

“We looked around to see if it had dropped on the ground but we couldn’t see it. We had all these contractors looking round as well. Eventually one of them said: ‘Well, I was with him and I never seen anything dropping’. So we looked up – and there was this finger pointing at us.”

Sellafield Stories abounds with such tales. Many struck a chord with me, having worked there, too, for a good 10 years, but some tales can’t be told – many of us signed the Official Secrets Act.

The book is on sale for £9.99 from Michael Moon’s Bookshop, Whitehaven.

Have your say

Nice to have some honest opinions about Sellafield rather than the diet of PR-fed stories that have become a regular feature.

Posted by Dave J on 8 March 2012 at 16:29

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