On a bright October morning, a dog walker strides across a golden beach and throws a tennis ball at his excited terrier.
As idyllic as it may sound, this coastal walk in the village of Seascale in west Cumbria takes place in the shadow of what has been dubbed ‘the most dangerous building in Europe’ – the Sellafield nuclear plant.
Standing proudly on a hill overlooking the Irish Sea, British Nuclear Fuel’s (BNFL) facility processes more radioactive waste than any other facility in the world.
It is also the site of the worst nuclear accident in UK history, the Windscale fire of October 1957.
The fire, rated Level 5 out of a possible 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, burned for three days and released radioactive contamination across the UK and Europe.
It was estimated that the incident caused 240 cancer cases.
A few decades ago, gulls around Sellafield became contaminated with radioactivity after flying into open fuel storage ponds and their carcasses had to be stored in an industrial freezer before they could be disposed of safely.
And as recently as 2018, a nuclear power plant owner was fined after a worker was irradiated.
But locals in the Victorian village of Seascale, half a mile away, say the sprawling six square kilometer site is vital to the local economy and employs 11,000 workers – half of Britain’s nuclear workers.
“It’s an amazing place to live,” says local resident Liz Boys, 71. “I don’t know a single person who’s scared of the plant.
“If the best scientists in the world aren’t running for the hills, why should we?”
Not everyone is so relaxed. One resident, who asked not to be named, said she was prepared to flee in the event of a disaster.
“I moved here three years ago and when I went to see my GP they gave me a pamphlet about radiation,” she says.
“You will also receive leaflets on what to do in the event of an evacuation and what to take with you.
“I have a backpack ready in case we need to get out of here quickly. I’m not afraid of it, I just like to be prepared.
“I have a magnet on my fridge with all the details of an evacuation plan and I have given the factory my number so they can update me on any radiation leaks.
“There are sirens in the area. There are three different sounds and they sound when there is a leak or you need to be aware of something.”
I have a backpack ready in case we need to get out of here quickly
The resident shared how her husband grew up in the area and was there when the Windscale fire broke out.
“He’s not worried about it. It’s normal for him,” she says.
She adds that if she had been younger, she might have thought twice about moving there.
“I moved here later in life, but if I had been younger and hadn’t had children I might have considered it more since I don’t know if radiation affects fertility,” she says.
“There are many people who work in the factory here, but they are not allowed to say what they are doing. You can’t even put it on social media.
“There is a fear that the information will leak out or that it will be targeted so nobody really knows what is going on there.”
“If you walk along the beach, you can even get very close to it. They regularly test the sea for pollution and it is sparkling clean.”
Despite the seaside village’s popularity with tourists, the run-down town center offers few shops and amenities.
The village has only a small cooperative, a hardware store, a pharmacy, a health center and two takeaways.
Liz Boys family has lived in Seascale for generations as her grandfather used to own a seaside hotel.
She raised her two children here and maintains a dark sense of humor when it comes to living on the doorstep of Sellafield.
“We always say that if something explodes, we’re the first to die and the rest of the country has to live with the long-term consequences,” she says, laughing.
“But I was never afraid of the system. I have lived here all my life and was here when the fire happened in 1957. I should be dead but here I am in my 70’s.
We always say that if something explodes, we’re the first to die and the rest of the country has to live with the long-term consequences
“People around here are always telling dark jokes about people opening paint cans and seeing nothing in them because the radiation has evaporated, but none of it was true.
“We never talked about radiation at school, we just kept going.
“We still went swimming in the sea – we were more concerned with the sewage pipe than with the radiation in the water.
“We didn’t turn green, but we all caught the sea scale beetle on that pipe.”
The influx of scholars into the region in the 1950s was a boost to local educational opportunities and jobs.
“We used to be called the smartest village in the country,” says Liz.
“When we were in high school, we were all arrogant. We were called the snobby Seascalers because we were all smarter and better educated simply because of the people who moved to Seascale.
“Without the plant, these people would never have moved here. I wouldn’t have had friends if it wasn’t for Sellafield.
“I think the facility is one of the reasons we have such a low crime rate, because they have their own police force, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC). They are there to protect the materials, but of course you don’t worry about them.”
As a young boy, Adam Lamb, 44, lived near Sellafield on a farm that was regularly tested for radiation.
He says: “Our sheep were tested for radiation from time to time by the Department of Agriculture and they took samples of the grass.
“Nothing has ever been found radioactive.
“We never worried about the radiation. For us it was like having a factory nearby.
“We had to keep iodine tablets around the house in case there was a leak, but we never had to use them.”
We had to keep iodine tablets in the house in case there was a leak
He adds: “There has been talk of radiation causing disease, but nobody has really been affected by it. People here tend to live a fairly long time.
“The guy who kept the 1957 fire from becoming a Chernobyl job lived nearby, he lived into his 90s, so the radiation can’t have been that bad.
“He was a manager and he said he got a call about the fire and had to go to the factory and take care of it. Can you imagine how terrifying that was?
“They demolished the cooling towers in 2010. The whole street was packed with local residents watching as they were blown up and demolished.
“It felt like the end of an era. Everyone in Seascale is connected to Sellafield, there are 11,000 workers.
“Sellafield built the whole village, from the houses for the workers to the shops. It’s all because of the factory here.”
Dirt the view
Adam is now the manager of the Seascale Golf Club which is at the very top of the village with holes right next to the factory.
Undeterred, golfers lug their clubs up the hill and hit balls toward the dangerous nuclear power plant.
Adam added: “Unfortunately it detracts from the beauty of the course.
“We’re ranked 79th out of 100 in the UK, but people who come to check it out always comment on how you can see the plant from the green.”
Over the course of five decades, the facility has received and reprocessed almost 55,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel from power plants across England, Italy and Japan.
Sellafield completed energy reprocessing in July 2022 and entered a new era of decommissioning.
Retired vicar Jonathan Falkner, 75, who moved to the village as a child after his father received a job offer at the factory, says: “People have the wrong idea that it’s really dangerous.
“When it first opened in the ’50s some workers certainly didn’t realize how harmful it was or what to do about the toxins, but that’s all in the past.
“We don’t think of it as a big, spooky machine.”
https://www.the-sun.com/news/6397338/seaside-town-shadow-europe-dangerous-building-nuclear-disaster/ In the British seaside town, in the shadow of ‘Europe’s most dangerous building’, where locals have rucksacks ‘ready for evacuation’