Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Birds and the Bees

In addition to its other unfortunate effects, Britain's nightmarish Sellafield nuclear plant is apparently generating an expanding mountain of dead, frozen, radioactive birds.

Sellafield is very worried - somewhat arbitrarily, I'd say, given their policy of discharging large amounts of radioactive material directly into the Irish Sea - that contaminated gulls and pigeons could spread radioactivity. Accordingly, they've hired sharpshooters to shoot the birds down. This policy has left them with freezers full of birds that qualify as low-level radioactive waste, but can't be disposed of at the existing waste site because of their "putrescence."

Something about this story is not quite convincing. Marilynne Robinson's Mother Country, which is the definitive book on Sellafield, demonstrates that the plant has tended, over the years, to publicize rather theatrical "protective" measures: a great fuss is made over peripheral issues - presumably to demonstrate a commitment to public health - while larger problems are covered up.

What I find especially interesting is the current contention that the radioactive birds can't be placed in the Drigg disposal site. After conducting a very small amount of research, I found this account of the killing and burial of 2000 feral pigeons from the village of Seascale, circa 1998:

With the entire flock culled by BNFL, the bodies were entombed in lead canisters and buried at BNFL's nearby Drigg licensed waste dump. The garden and tarmac drive from the sanctuary where the pigeons had been fed, were dug up and also removed for disposal at Drigg as Low Level Waste together with garden furniture, bird houses, flowers, shrubs and garden-gnomes.
This glaring contradiction aside, the sharpshooting plan makes little sense. One wonders if it could be a cover story for a drop in the overall population of birds in the vicinity of the plant, such as was noted in the nearby village of Ravenglass:
In 1981 nature reserve wardens noted a dramatic decline in the estimated 12,000 breeding pairs of black-headed gulls. By 1985 the colony was all but defunct. Many naturalists suspect that Sellafield's high discharges of the late 1970's were responsible, in some way affecting marine life and the food chain. Terns also disappeared during the 70's and numbers of Oystercatchers, Shelduck and Ringed Plovers have also declined.
I admit that this is just irresponsible speculation on my part. All I can say with any assurance is that the story, as written, doesn't make as much sense as one would wish.

While I'm on the subject, I have to put in a plug for the scientific illustrator Cornelia Hesse-Honegger's beautiful but disturbing book Heteroptera, which comprises detailed drawings of mutant insects and leaves found in the vicinity of Sellafield and other nuclear plants. As Hesse-Honegger explains in a related book called The Future's Mirror:
I started in Seascale next to the stone ring, and found 28 insects, bugs, beetles and flies, four of which had deformations on the feelers and wings of uneven lengths....I recorded the worst deformations on one bug larva of the soft family Miridae, which had a heavy deformation on the right wings, a seven point ladybird with wings of uneven length, and a leaf hopper which had a hole between the head and the thorax....In spite of the heavy winds, one could detect that the places with the highest incidence of deformities were in the areas close to Sellafield, or in the main wind directions: such as Seascale, Drigg, Calder Bridge and Ponsonby.

3 comments:

mandt said...

I started in Seascale next to the stone ring, and found 28 insects, bugs, beetles and flies, four of which had deformations on the feelers and wings of uneven lengths....I recorded the worst deformations on one bug larva of the soft family Miridae, which had a heavy deformation on the right wings, a seven point ladybird with wings of uneven length, and a leaf hopper which had a hole between the head and the thorax....In spite of the heavy winds, one could detect that the places with the highest incidence of deformities were in the areas close to Sellafield, or in the main wind directions: such as Seascale, Drigg, Calder Bridge and Ponsonby. Oh my gosh---sounds like a description of the Bush administration. lol M

monkeygrinder said...

As soon as the technology for Really Big Rugs is developed, we'll have something to sweep this mess under.

Until then...

Speechless said...

During my years in Ireland (before the internets), I found that there were runours of extreme environmental degradation blamed on Selafield and blamed on the the chemicals being used as fertilizer on farmer's fields.

People felt completely trapped in a system that was destroying the air, water food etc. That sort of environmental despair hits many in the US, but in pockets. Over there (and I suspect it's as common or more so in Britain) it seemed to color the perception remove all hope from the equation.

In the US, until the end of the petro-chemical age, and the universal acceptance of global warming, we'll probably to imagine ourselves as individuals free from the ramifications of the poisons we dump into the eco-system. Over here many still see humans as the ones holding and controlling the web of life.

Sociological venting, rather far off topic. Thanks for the venue.