The recent news of the nuclear disaster in Japan have brought a flood of memories to the fore from my days as a Greenpeace diver.
During the Summer of 1983, random sampling of beach sand near the Sellafield Nuclear Reprocessing plant in Cumbria, England, produced “off the scale” readings which led to the isolating of a 2km discharge pipeline into the Irish Sea as the source of the contamination. The pipe was releasing more than 10 million litres of radioactive water into the sea every day and has since been described as “Chernobyl in slow motion”.
A plan to block the pipeline was put together and in November of 1983 our ship “Cedarlea” dropped anchor into the dark Cumbrian waters and launched two Zodiac inflatables carrying myself and three other divers.
It was unlike any other of the many actions I had been on. The usual high sprits and jokey banter was replaced with silent introspection and nervous and repetitive gear checking.
As we slipped into the freezing water I distinctly remember the “dirty” sensation of the water all around me and of the “London air” compressed into my diving tank and flowing into my lungs being “clean”. The murky coastal waters made our lights useless as they only served to light up the flock we were swimming through I turned mine off and chose to feel my way along the bottom at 70ft until we intercepted the pipeline the follow it to the end where the diffuser was discharging.
The diffuser is like a flute and the plan was to insert plugs held in place with chain and hammer over the bolts so the could not be removed, but we found that the diffuser had been modified to be “Greenpeace proof” and we had to rethink the plan and remove the modification before we managed a partial plugging. Worse yet, this increased our planned bottom time on the pipe which to our horror was still in full discharge.
We wrapped up and kicked for the surface, and again I remember ascending like a missile to create rapid distance between the pipe and the surface. Surfacing like that is not a recommended practice and in the blackness I though I would be the first to hit topside only to find that the others were in the same mindset and had surfaced like “Flipper”.
As soon as we flopped cold and exhausted into the bottom of the Zodiac we were passed over with a Geiger counter which revealed that we were seriously contaminated. Our gear was stripped off and later sent to BNFL Harwell for decontamination …. we never got it back. I kept the diving tank I used and it is still lurks in the back of the shed as a “memento” (along with these few grainy press shots). I lost a little hair and had a few nose bleeds… I still worry about it.
Greenpeace UK was fined $75,000 for contempt which we thought would close us down and force us to sell Cedarlea, but we were getting three mail trucks a day of everything from kids pocket money to Paul McCartney sending a heavy check and we had the fine paid in a week.
Sellafield is still in operation with 23 times the level of Americium-241 – a highly radioactive, carcinogenic substance – found at Sellafield compared to Chernobyl. An estimated 200 kilograms (441 lbs) of plutonium has been deposited in the marine sediments of the Irish Sea. Cattle and fish in the area are contaminated with plutonium-239 and caesium-137 from these sediments.
The poet Norman Nicholson wrote a poem about his local Sellafield which is nested in the crook of the mountains of the beautiful Lake District (Scafell is the highest mountain in England). Nicholson paints the picture like no other can.
The toadstool towers infest the shore:
Stink-horns that propagate and spore
Wherever the wind blows.
Scafell looks down from the bracken band,
And sees hell in a grain of sand,
And feels the canker itch between his toes.
This is a land where dirt is clean,
And poison pasture, quick and green,
And Storm sky, bright and bare;
Where sewers flow with milk, and meat
Is carved up for the fire to eat,
And children suffocate in God’s fresh air.