Yesterday we launched our beer, Nuclear Sunset. It occurs to me that my blog post was a little ill-thought out, and perhaps some other things I've written. I've been working on this for a couple of weeks, on and off, so yesterday I was somewhat blasé about the subject. Besides, we were bottling and sending out some samples, so I was also quite busy.
Not surprisingly there has been a view from some that using the subject of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a way to sell beer is "grotesque". Yes, I'd like to sell more beer, of course I would, but I genuinely care about the issues I'm trying to raise. This piece will become a personal expression of my feelings. From my heart. It might well end up being too honest. I'd like to write now about my own personal feelings surrounding this. Explain where I am, where I come from and detail my own thoughts about the subject.
I am fairly completely the result of an atomic age. My parents met when they both worked at Windscale1. When they got married my father decided to return for a short while to teaching. They settled in Kendal and I was born. However, perhaps due to the draw of the good salary and conditions at Windscale, or perhaps he just didn't like teaching, whatever, we moved to Seascale, where I spent the next 14 or so years growing up. Some days I wonder how my life would be had they stayed in Kendal.
Seascale is less than two miles from the perimeter fence of Sellafield. Most of the people who live there work at Sellafield. Indeed, many have been born there and their parents, and perhaps even grandparents worked at the plant. I still know many people who live there and I care about these people a lot.
During the 70s and 80s there was significant media attention, not unreasonably, as a result of various problems at the plant. Back in 1957 there was a fire. That was fairly heavy shit, to be fair. It should never have happened and was mainly due to the drive to produce our own UK nuclear deterrent. During the 60s and 70s and beyond the public became more and more concerned about the safety of nuclear power. In the 70s a program called Not The Nine O'Clock News did a spoof of the Ready Brek advert. For a kid living close to the plant, we didn't really find it that funny. In the 80s there was also the regrettable incident of the beach contamination and various other events. The press surrounding the events sometimes made us feel like we were in a microcosm very different to the rest of the world. When on holiday it was genuinely scary to mention where we lived.
In 1981 I was lucky enough to start an apprenticeship at the plant. The company subsequently funded my Open University degree. I ended up doing a fairly interesting job for a while, and the salary was very good indeed. Leave, pension, heath care and working hours all very favourable. Why on earth did I leave? It was a job for life, very probably, had I just stuck in and played the game.
But I'm not like that. I get frustrated easily. I like to get things done, and progress a job. I'm quite individual and in reality felt a lot like a square peg in a round hole. Having to do a written justification for nearly every move eventually drove me to near breakdown2. In 2003, after being there over 22 years, I left and bought a pub. There are days when I wonder why, but I did, and I am now doing what I do, dreaming that one day I'll make a sufficient success out of it to be able to retire.
During my time there I learnt about various things to do with potential accidents called "criticality"3 - I worked closely on systems that were designed to prevent such events. In brief, a criticality incident is where an uncontrolled fission chain reaction occurs giving out intense bursts of radiation. It is quite different to a nuclear explosion, keeping fissionable material together long enough to explode is in fact, incredibly difficult to achieve.
Prevention of criticality events is probably one of the most rigorous and carefully thought through combinations of science and engineering I can imagine. Indeed, the complexity of the whole technology was the part of the job that thoroughly fascinated me4. But what captured my imagination more than anything was the very need for such layers of safety.
The intense radiation that is given off without warning when an accident like this happens will give personnel a lethal dose of a combination of gamma and neutron radiation in microseconds. The last time I know that this happened was in Japan at the Tokaimura plant. Two people died. Death from radiation is very, very slow and protracted. Closer to home we are all familiar with the death of Alexander Litvinenko from polonium poisoning. A different cause, but the effect is similar.
I have had an interest, not a macabre fascination, but a sympathetic empathy for anyone who has been exposed to such lethal doses of radiation. In our training, we were given advice as to what to do in the event of the very specific alarm should such a criticality event occur. On the flip chart, the lecturer would write, "RUN LIKE F....."5 and leave the last bit unwritten. The very obvious intent of the word might have offended, in a formal and large company environment was unusual, but the effect of implying the very real dangers of such an incident justified the potential offence. Just to pacify sensitive course attendees, he would then complete the sentence "RUN LIKE FURY" but we'd already got the point.
The difference between these criticality accidents and an atomic bomb is the fact that it is only when assembled in a bomb, and detonated with an implosion shock-wave6, do we get anything that might approach a nuclear explosion. I know very little about this part of nuclear technology. I'm really quite thankful that I don't know more. This part of nuclear warhead production does not and never has occurred in West Cumbria. If you want to know more, go and find out for yourself.
So, nuclear warheads. Frankly, they terrify me. Nuclear technology doesn't, beyond the criticality scenario I explain above. But the effect of nuclear detonation, deliberately to cause the biggest bang that is humanly achievable, really does scare the living shit out of me.
The suffering of the casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki genuinely moves me. Having undergone training over many years to drive home to me the dangers of the materials present on nuclear sites, it is difficult to not feel affected thinking about the utter devastation. The question of whether in fact the Americans had to drop those bombs to end the war is still unanswered in many war historians minds. We simply cannot know the answers to the questions. Even so, if they had not dropped the bombs then, might some other world conflict have precipitated something similar? Pandoras box is open, and we cannot get that genie back in that bottle.
We now know what the effects are. Subsequent American occupying troops documented details of the effects of the radiation on the sufferers. The troops did nothing to help the victims, just monitor, document, for the record, the technical biological effects. We know what happens now, we do not need to repeat that experiment. Indeed, it is difficult not to think that the real need of the Americans was to prove the bomb. After all, they had spent a colossal amount of money on the project, they might never, ever have the justification to drop a bomb again. We can't deny it proved the point.
The problem with the whole question of nuclear is the conflation of the aggressive use of military nuclear technology with peaceful power generation. It is true that the technologies do have some unfortunate cross-overs. It is possible for a state that has a peaceful nuclear program to divert into military use. However, we can say the same for conventional explosives, and for that matter chemical and biological technology.
Additionally, set between Sellefield, and BAE in Barrow where nuclear submarines are made, I cannot ignore the very great economic impact on my part of the world should we eradicate nuclear. The whole of the economy in my area depends very heavily on these industries. Should we abolish completely nuclear technology we'd have to think very carefully about how we manage thousands of people that have no other skill-sets outside the industry. They can't all go off and brew beer.
Something that is very close to my heart is the consideration of energy generation. It seems to be generally considered that global warming is real. There are not very many people who deny7 that at least in part global warming is increased by man's industry. I've recently been to Chamonix in the French Alps. There are a number of glaciers there that have retreated significantly over the time I've been visiting. One railway that connects the town to the most famous glacier, Mer de Glace, is now in completely the wrong place resulting in a significant climb down to get to the surface.
Renewables are a solution. Personally I love wind turbines, which isn't an entirely universal thought in our part of the world. Solar in the UK I think might be dubious, but I'm hoping that the technology will improve.
Covering the Sahara Dessert in solar panels might be helpful. I know enough about electrical transmission to at least question how efficient the movement of this energy would be. Hydro might help, but how many valleys might we need to dam, and how popular will that be? Biomass, anaerobic digestion and wind do have a part to play, and absolutely we should explore all of these, but I doubt they'll solve the problem in time.
Since I was born in 1965 world population has more than doubled. In the same time global energy usage has more than tripled. Most of the increase in energy usage has come from fossil fuels. Whatever your belief is about global warming, oil will become more difficult to find and more expensive to extract. We may have to accept fracking, for instance, if we cannot find ways of reducing fossil fuel dependancy.
Although it might not be something that gets general public agreement, especially after major disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl, but I believe we have to keep nuclear energy as a tool in our kit of things to help us into the future. Yes, we have to learn how to do it right, and my ex-colleagues are working very hard to help do that.
But back to my original intent to attach the question of nuclear to the beer we have just released. I have read extensively about nuclear weapons and their direct and indirect impact on populations. I personally feel that the questions in the minds of the general public have subsided over the years since the peak of questions back in the 60s and 70s. I do not think it is wrong to reignite that whole question.
Perhaps my intent is "naff" I don't know. Perhaps it is just the actual application of my intent that isn't quite right. Maybe as a businessman I should have just got on with the job of selling my beer and leave these issues for someone else to address.
That perhaps is true. Perhaps I should have just left this particular dog to sleep. I expect that at some point in time this issue would have surfaced and what I'd hope is that what I've written here makes it clear that the issues are genuinely important to me.
Sellafield, formally Windscale is there as a direct result of The Manhattan Project. I was conceived because my parents met at Windscale. I am truly a product of the nuclear age. I cannot undo that.
So, when I think about the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about the suffering of the people. About the people who didn't even know what happened because they were vaporised instantly. Or about the people who suffered for many days, weeks or even months afterwards only to die a painful and distressing death as a result of what was argued a necessary action to end the war with Japan. When I think about the people that survived, and rebuilt the cities, rebuilt their lives and still remained scarred both physically and mentally, I remember that my life and theirs are inextricably linked.
And so is my beer. I am my beer and my beer is me. I don't make a huge amount of money out of beer. Hardknott is still a frighteningly small and vulnerable business. Yes, we'd like to sell more beer. I'd like everyone to like what I do.
I am who I am and I do what I do because I care about what I do. I want to make good beer, and I would like to get it out to more people. I also care about the future of mankind, how we make the world a better place for us all to live in. Is it my place to raise awareness of a terrible event that occurred 70 years ago? Perhaps not, but I've done it now. I expect I'll have got people to talk little more than they would have otherwise done. I expect in reality it'll not make much difference to my business.
1Windscale was the name then given to the place we all know as Sellafield. Back in the late 70s the people in charge changed the name as Windscale had got itself a bad name. There were all sorts of excuses given back then, but we all know it was a PR thing.
2I would not even want to try and suggest that anything should change in the way that safety is conducted on the site. I do not think it is wrong to have the inevitable heavy layers of safety systems that exist. Some people revel in that environment and many of my friends work there and continue to keep our nuclear industry safe. It's just not for me.
3Life after Sellafield is an interesting thing. There are things I know, mostly things that are available for people to look-up in Wikipedia, that I am unsure how sensible it is for me to discuss. I am of the view that mentioning criticality incidents is reasonably safe a thing to discuss. It is all very well documented on the internet and something that concerns a fair few people who work at the plant.
4It might be worth pointing out that nuclear safety is something that is totally necessary. I might have already given the wrong impression by suggesting that it is this that drove me away. Not at all. I was genuinely very much enthralled with the necessity to ensure safety of nuclear material. Having multiple layers of safety mechanisms so that the risk is kept as small as humanly achievable is paramount. It was the stuff like "hold on to that handrail when walking up stairs" was what drove me mad. FFS, I'm a climber in my spare time, I'm not having some jumped-up manager tell me I can't walk up and down stairs without holding the handrail, that's just daft.
5Conventional evacuation of a building, in the event of fire for instance, advises that people should simply walk in a calm manner. Panic in such cases might cause bigger issues than the danger actually presented. We were left in no doubt that panic was indeed the thing you should do in the event of a criticality. The technical reasons for this are that fissionable material, when in solution, may well boil the solution in the event of a criticality and the resultant foam be sufficiently sub-critical to halt the event. However, once the foam died down, it might go critical again, and so cause pulses of radiation. The first pulse might not be enough to kill you, so run like fuck whilst you have the chance and are still able. The inverse square law may yet save you.
6Holding together a fissioning chain reaction is incredibly difficult. The energy involved in these events is so incredible that even the thickest vessel would be torn apart in microseconds creating a nuclear "fizzle"
7I actually have a cousin who is highly active as a sceptic of global warming science. I'm not sure I understand what he gets up to, but I admire his approach. What is important is to question, and to keep questioning our rational. There is danger of group think. I like the fact that we can discuss issues in our society. The fact we can question various outputs of human learning, opinion and scientific research is part of what makes us human. It is important in a democratic society that we can do this. I do not expect the reader to agree with my points in this piece, or for that matter anything else I write. But it is important to be able to rationally, intelligently and constructively debate.