There are two types of tours of the Sellafield plant – a benign happy-go-lucky sightseeing tour [for I-don’t-know-who], and another for journalists, press officers, visiting government ministers, and other dignitaries. YT [obviously] belonged to the latter category.
We met at the Sellafield hotel around 9 am, where we were treated to a pre-tour lecture. Unfortunately the language was so technical and highbrow that I understood only about half of it, something that would prevail for the duration of the tour. [Afterwards I seriously wondered whether it had been done intentionally, to intimidate and/or create confusion.]
Next we were shepherded onto a bus and driven to the plant. Just before arriving at the gate, armed police officers came on board and asked to inspect the security passes we had been given – cards we were to keep around our necks, which doubled as swipe cards to get us through various barriers.
Our first stop was a building-slash-complex which contained masses of radioactive waste. Our guide was surprisingly honest: ‘We don’t know what to do with it’. The debate, it seemed, was whether to dump it into the ground in closed or open containers; i.e. whether it should be possible to open the container after it had been dug into the ground. [British Nuclear Fuels want it closed forever and ever; environmental groups want to have the possibility of opening it, just in case.]
Inside the building, we were herded into locker rooms where we put coveralls over our normal clothing. Our bags, jackets, and other superfluous belongings were to be left in the lockers. After that, we moved to a long and wide box-type thing that was about as high as our knees. We were asked to sit on this box and remove our shoes, then swing our legs over to the other side where we slipped into a special pair of shoes provided. It was absolutely stressed that we must not touch the ground with our feet, they had to be slipped directly into the shoes, and on leaving the plant, the same precaution had to be taken: the ‘radioactive’ shoes had to be left behind on the ‘radioactive’ side of the barrier.
Next we went outdoors and through a barrier gate on which we had to use our swipe cards [we would pass through those repeatedly during our visit, as security was naturally of the highest order]. We walked a short distance amongst dreadful industrial structures and edifices, finally coming to a building. Climbing a set of metal stairs, we arrived in a sort of reception room containing various monitors, desks and things.
I was absolutely stunned. I had envisioned a thoroughly modern, high-tech environment with lots of panels with blinking lights and such, a place totally clean and impeccable, with sombre people in uniforms efficiently going about their business. Yet this place was nothing like that. It was overwhelmingly, mind-numbingly dingy. The prevailing colour was beige, and it had become dirty with age and lack of maintenance. The computers and monitors all looked to be 20 years old, and were that same dirty, dingy beige colour. The entire place was run down and tired. As were the pallid men who were stationed there.
We were guided into a separate room to receive instructions about what lay ahead. We were advised that we’d be entering premises that contained highly radioactive waste. We were to be provided with a little counter to attach to our coveralls, which would measure our level of contamination; if it went above a certain figure there would be cause for alarm – but it was sure not to go above that figure [guaranteed?] If we had any cuts or open sores on our skin, we could unfortunately not be able to do the tour [why?]. Men had to be clean-shaven to ensure that the masks we would be wearing [wha..?] would tightly cover their mouths and noses. We would have to wear caps to cover our hair. And upon exiting, we would have to wash our hands thoroughly [why again?]
Suited, shod, masked and covered, we were finally admitted to the dreaded premises. [I have to say that I had a mild feeling of Torschlusspanic standing there just beyond the door, feeling as though I could barely breathe, the little counter clicking away just below my collarbone.] Inside, a curious smell greeted us – a smell I vaguely recognized… yes, it was the smell of sunlight on a bright summer’s day. The smell of the sun’s rays that you can very occasionally catch a whiff of. Only magnified. A hundred-fold. The smell of radiation.
There were bridges. Little walkways between huge tub-like containers, into which we could look over a banister. In the tubs there was water, and submerged in the water was loads and loads of scrap metal and various bric-a-brac. Like a junkyard, but with a metre or two of water on top. The stuff they didn’t know what to do with; right there, almost close enough to touch. The stuff they keep underwater until they figure out where to put it. Submerged, because radiation does not spread in water. And yet amazingly, scarily unprotected.
Over to the right, there was a forbidding-looking grey concrete wall with murky-looking windows. The windows were murky because the glass in them was 1.5 metres thick. Behind the glass, inside a concrete box that had no entrance and no exit, were the Big Things, the things they couldn’t fit underwater, huge bits of steel and giant cogs, all radioactive, stored away in that concrete block until they figured out what to do with it. An elephant’s graveyard of radioactive waste, that they observed through the glass in the windows.
We spent about 20 minutes in that place, and it was more than enough. Outside the door, I felt like I could breathe again. And even though my little Geiger counter reassured me that all was well, I scrubbed my hands again and again upon leaving.
Tomorrow: the third and final Sellafield instalment [because I’m obsessive about finishing what I start]. Plus weather.
SPEAKING OF WHICH!
I know I know, this has run on far too long; suffice it to say that it’s damn windy, somewhat sunny, and reasonably mild: 8°C, and counting. Daybreak was at 02.58 and nightfall at 23.56. Which according to my calculations means a mere three hours of darkness. And soon there will be none. Whoo-hoo!