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Inside the sheer cave of a nuclear reprocessing plant

A display in the Sellafield Vistors Centre
Fig 1. A display in the Sellafield Vistors Centre (Photo credit: Fred Dawson)

A diary entry from 1992-10-06. Handwritten using a Sheaffer fountain pen into an A4 hardback notebook.


Tuesday 6th October 1992


Inside the sheer cave of a nuclear reprocessing plant


I spend several hours inside the shear cave of the THORP Nuclear Reprocessing plant at Sellafield, West Cumbria. I was a child the last time my mouth dropped at the sight of something so stunningly unworldly, so inspiring and incredible. Like the astronauts in ‘Alien’ coming across the chamber in which the eggs are sealed, like clinging to the layers of a wedding dress at the age of four looking up through veils of silk and lace, like ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man ‘being sucked through the polished chrome tubing of a vacuum cleaner (or is that something from ‘Land of the Giants’).


Entering the labyrinth that leads to the cave


There are entry procedures to follow: from kitting out at THORP Reception to pass checks at each door deeper inside this labyrinthine construction site.


Having already exchanged one pass for another at THORP reception, having dressed up like Mr Ben in hard hats, Donkey jackets and clog like shoes which seem to have been carved from single bricks of brick-like plastic, having shown our passes at two portals to the interior of the labyrinth we finally approach the last gate. A fat caterpillar of a Securicor Guard mumbles through his perfunctory performance. He takes our passes and replaces them with milk-coupon like coloured plastic tokens (I have a red one). I finger it all the way around the interior of the cave convinced that if once I lost touch with it I would forfeit the right to exit and would be sealed away like a lump of fissile material in a chamber that will not be reopened many millennia.


Strange lights and winding corridors lead to a cathedral-like cavern inside, rows of floodlights light up and celebrate the place.


Whereas previous gates were Medieval deep in painted concrete our last door is the size and shape of a Jerry rigged outside loo. Step through the gate, fart in Pavlovian expectations then push the wooden door into stand on an exclusive balcony. So very few people will stand here, ever. Not Royalty, not politicians or pop stars. In fact, more people will dance, give birth, and die on the moon in the next hundred years, than will have stood inside the shear cave of a thermo nuclear reprocessing plant. Beyond us a polished steel trough of Cathedral like proportions surrounds the eye.


Our host leads us around an enormous box of concrete and steel. We try to snatch a view into the cave from a misaligned monitor or through the toast wrack layers of leaded glass.


A herculean animatronic arm


A mechanical robotised arm comes to life for our pleasure, but this is more than puppeteers trick, this is Jim Henson animatronics writ large. Should the project go belly up, this guy will have a career in show-biz! It’s a Herculean Henry Moore of an hydraulic arm that articulates and gesticulates with the fluidity and charm of a traditional Thai dancer. It tries to communicate in a sequence of humanoid gestures. It’s as if it is trying to speak in sign language, it is articulate, as well as articulated. I’m enthralled and step closer, only to be warned to keep back. I step within the shelter of a bunker-like doorway. In time I imagine this arm, with sometimes clumsy left hand gestures, will take on right arm characteristics, perfecting its repetitive twitches, extensions and finger twiddling until it could play the flute, all it lacks it would lack would be a breath of air, to make a note, to breathe, to come to life. I study the row of chord-like ribbons and stretched tendons of wrapped steel. It’s the kind of thing da Vinci might have designed.


I want to make friends but know that all it could do is unhinge my jaw and unscrew my head mistaking me for a canister of alchemy.


Continuing towards the cave


Like beetles on our foreheads we scuttle out towards the edge of the inlet valve midway up one wall of this enormous trough. A structure of dried grain, leaning against our balcony’s edge takes us down onto the floor of the cave. I feel like a character superimposed by virtual reality within the bowels of ‘The Poseidon Adventure.’ My child like gawping as I tread down the wooden ladder held within the scaffolding makes me forget the most basic of safety precautions and I tread on the man’s hand below.


Jacketless and sleeves unrolled render a Turkish sun in August we make our way in and around, ducking and diving a chrome covered army assault course. Man’s access was never designed into this metal basin bottom. It is humbling. The very lifespan of the place is enough to warrant respect: my ancestors could have left France in 1066, reconquered France in 2066, populated and polluted Mars and become extinct with the return of the dinosaurs within the designed lifespan of this place.


The horse-shoe bar, long drop loos and roman wells


Arthurian, Wagnerian . In Paris there’s a cafe we frequently visit in the Marais called ‘The Horseshoe Bar.’ As well as good food and a great wine list they have a unisex toilet enclosed in polished steel. The wall and floors, the sink and fittings. We invite friends to try it. To feel what it must be like to be a wasp inside a Coca-Cola can wearing a miners lamp or with an ENG crew hand-basher attached to the skull. The shear cave is like it but on a scale that defeats mathematics.


Like the metallic lavatory of ‘The Horseshoe Bar’ the THORP Shear cave has its long drop, a hole in the ground, each with a lid. One is open. Others are sealed with packing case lids of wood stained like a Houdini escapologists’ trick, like looking into a Roman Well too deep to see the bottom I pause to let the apertures of my eyes adjust. As I make out the fine mesh of a basket (like a Parmesan cheese grater the size of one of the columns of Acropolis) I contemplate the consequences of tossing in one of Her Majesty’s milk bottle top new 10p coins. If a Vulcan archaeologist in the year 3000 found it, could they take an impression of my finger print and reconstruct me (clothed of course) to stand in a museum at the Sellafield Visitors Centre (the only thing on the site that will outlive the half life of Uranium 232 waste).


I want to string a water-proof torch and lower it to the bottom. I did this with the rubberised torch Dad used to keep in his study at Appleby Castle, Cumbria. I took it to the Roman well in the car port corridor, attached it to a badly knotted (and unknottable) waxed washing-line and lowered it through the grate. I watched as it broke the film of scum on the surface of the water and sank deeper. It was as if I was looking down a telescope through time. At the level I reached I could have been spying on the Roman Camp that rested on this embankment above the Eden 1,700 years ago. The washing line unwound itself dropping the still functioning torch down to the year 203 AD. The torch burned on for a week. I hoped no one would water the plants around the rim of the well and be startled by the swamp thing shining like a star from a million years away.


A time telescope


I listen to the Chief Engineer as he prattles on like the enthusiastic zoo keeper with a gaggle of VIP sponsors. I look into my well and once again wish I had a torch bound in rubber to lower over the edge. The acids designed to unbind fragments of fissile uranium from used fuel rods from around the world would chew my torch like saliva on a tooth of Endecay Chewing Gum. I wish I had my torch. I wish to look down this telescope through time, not backwards, but forwards by as many hundreds of years. I surmised that if I am to the Romans what future generations will be to me that in 1,700 years time (3,692 AD) Captain Kirk the US having conquered Europe, will be standing on this same spot beamed through the layers of steel, concrete and carcasses that could have littered the site by then. What a conundrum I’d give that archaeologist of the third Millenium: a black rubberised torch in the bottom of a Roman well in Appleby and a similar black torch melted (though recognisable once the individual atoms have been cleverly reassembled) at the bottom of a tank of acid in the Shear Cave of the THORP Reprocessing Plant.


Needless to say I hardly take in a word the Chief Engineer is saying. I would have taken notes if I was anything more than the supervisor to a subcontractor IV designer and project manager . Together we would make a computer controlled learning programme to enlightened several generations of THORP workers on the inner workings of the place. Could a doctor describe the inner workings of the gizzard if he were opened inside a sealed capsule and swallowed? No. Not unless he designed the gizzard in the first place.


As the producer I wanted to find an excuse to bring a TV crew in here. But we’d never isolate one object from the other all of them being (the background included) made from polished steel. I wondered about the many patches of scraped and scratched surfaces. As if the silver has been attached in places with a Brillo Pad or steel brush then left.


The impulse to scrawl graffiti on the shear cave


I imagine workers with less self-control than me scratching or painting their names onto the inner surface of this chamber; like the slaves who built Egyptian Pyramids knowing they’d last forever they are compelled to scratch a mark which says ‘I was here.’ To support my argument notices in corridors all around THORP warn that any vandalism will be considered a criminal offence. I wonder how many contractors had been sacked for writing their names inside this time capsule? ‘Richard Sowerby. 6th October 1992’ a bit daring, a bit of a give away.


There must be a way around it


Could I get myself back in here with the TV crew? Could I be the only name Captain Kirk finds? Like a message in a bottle I could write a note and seal it in one of those pneumatic metal canisters they one used in Department Stores. My departmental message would be shot by pneumatic tube into the new Millennium. What would I say? Little more than a soldier ‘going over the top’ could scribble before the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916. Or as much as Blue Peter buried in the garden behind the studios in Shepherd’s Bush? I could enclose a lock of hair and like Beau Bridges in ‘Starman’ extra-terrestrials could read my DNA and regrow me from implantation in a host egg.


But my name might also become notorious


I take in what I am told about the infinitesimally small chances of fissile material from the many tonnes of waste being able to bond with a five kilo sized sphere and so resulting in criticality. A nuclear explosion would follow which whilst contained by the site would do little more than make West Cumbria toxic. One imagines, given the scale of precautions and the magnitude of the forces involved that it would blow a hole right through the skin of the earth and like Stanley Kubrick’s eye in Anthony Burgess’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ the planet would bleed, implode, split in two and die. Or, on this scale, a pin like fissure through to the core like the rib of a pen stabbing a child’s balloon would make the planet burst in an instant. My name engraved on a spherical colander bought to boil brown rice and used to deposit my message inside the Shear Cave would go down with Goebles, Hess, Polpot, as the murdered of the six billion inhabitants of earth. And if that wasn’t bad enough Green Peace and various wild life preservation groups would dam my name for sinking the Arc.


Designed like a Tupperware lunch box


I contemplate the consequences not of any graffiti scratched onto the side of drum H1 in the THORP Shear Cave, not of any contained of my own tucked into one corner of the trough to be fingered by the robotic arm in a few hundred (or thousand years time), but of these words published in a novel as the THORP Plant opens later in 1993. Of the fears created in a piece of fictional imaginings compared to the rantings of a hack journalist from ‘the Sun’ (Ref: Krypton Emissions, March 1992), or the objective reasonings of a shambolic elderly nuclear physicist propped up (and propping up) Green Peace. Not even Bono had the opportunity to take inspiration from THORP’s interior. As a creative he too would have been won over by the Shear Cave.


It must be one of the greatest wonders of the World, but they housed it in a 200ft high, mile long Tupperware lunch box.


The French would have built the outside to match the inspirational qualities of the interior the Victorians would have got it right too, a crystal palace sitting on the lip of the Lake District. Instead the numbing dullness of the exterior kills the rich gift it contains like a diamond necklace offered on a birthday wrapped in a Sainsbury’s shopping bag sealed with translucent Sellotape. Instead of being inspired by the exteriors (because few visitors will ever go inside) they will be left thinking ‘so what?!’ As if an aquarium has been sprayed over with car paint and the tropical delight of the fish it contains can only be described in a corporate brochure (pictures boxed and wrapped) or corporate video (pictures boxed and spun, cropped and littered with bullet points). If we want to build a symbol, a benchmark for the new Millenium it should be here. A single tower of glass one mile high. A rod of energy. A beacon over the years the site will watch over us.


As I write train pulls into Sellafield


As I write the train pulls into Sheffield, but I don’t read Sheffield, I read ‘Sellafield,’ so tuned in am I to thoughts on this place. Like the person who picks up the melody to a popular song from the rhythm of feet walking along the street, like being given the wrong drug and knowing it, is coffee until someone says you’ve got their tea and do a swap, like seeing someone in a crowd knowing they are distant love affair until she turns her face and speaks morphing her features into someone else.


As I write I think of the nuclear reprocessing plant in West Germany that by political demand was closed down: Wakerdorf. No journalist, no professor, no child dying of Leukaemia in Seascale will make a family in Leeds rush to the polling booth and say ‘No’ to any government that keeps the site open. Only a writer could stir the fears of the psyche in a way that would obsess a million people to come and camp out on the beech. I’d be a traitor.


Hanged for treason


It was another people who wanted Salmon Rushdie executed, another culture who lived more in Iran than Acacia Avenue, Birmingham or Bradford. I’d take from the country 17 years of foreign income, billions of Yen, dollars and Deutschemark. I’d remove all forms of employment from West Cumbria. Even the sheep on the fells would want to pick the flesh from my bones. But my reputations as a writer would be launched into the stratosphere and maybe like a firework I’d sparkle for a moment before falling to earth, (the hangman’s’ noose about my neck) better though to become a hero of the revolution to fly repeatedly around the Solar System I’d saved like Hailey’s Comet.


U2, excalibur and the metropolitan museum


But I’d want to inspire, not denigrate. I’d want to stand in the bottom of the Shear Cave with a CD Player blasting ‘The Joshua Tree’ as Bono scribbled lyrics and the android arm dexterously knitted chain mail jumpers from wires of steel. John Borman should shoot Excalibur II with Merlin in here creating Arthur’s sword. The armoury of the Metropolitan Museum should have a temporary exhibit of the 16th century ceremonial armour. Who can something of such beauty be constructed for a purpose that is wholly industrial? My archaeologist of the third Millennium will want to find a mask and treasures far more inviting than Tutankhamen’s gold mask.


Should I have a word with BNFL’s Chairman?


See if a young sculptor could be invited to place a work of art in here. should I make it my duty to do this place justice? Not by recording it on the insulting medium, of videotape, or in the false three dimensional reflection of computer animation, but on super 16mm, not 35 mm. Best of all 72 mm IMAX so that my interior, this interior, this privilege can be shown in the only suitable viewing room for the piece. The Geode in the Parc de l’industrie in Paris. That’s it! With a backing track by U2. The ultimate post-nuclear anti-anti-celebration pop video. I’ve got a week to find the money and will be given less than 2 x 24 hour days to film it in November. Shame. Nice Idea. Grand. Big. Enormous.





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