Q and A

Talking to people about the Solway and their lives was a pleasure. I didn’t talk to as many as I would have liked. There were people who did not want to talk to me. Those people willing to speak with me asked me questions, and here are some of them, mostly testing what I might know. My knowledge is partial and the questions valuable.

Talking to people about the Solway and their lives was a pleasure. I didn’t talk to as many as I would have liked. There were people who did not want to talk to me.

Those people willing to speak with me asked me questions, and here are some of them, mostly testing what I might know. My knowledge is partial and the questions valuable.

Would you swim in the Solway?

This question is a sensory tool to measure degrees of danger and trust. The corroding elements from the shells as well as any continuing radiation are swimming, too, but without a body, without location, diffusing into the sea. Would I touch the water, if the invisible, silent, potential hazard was so pervasive and strong as to be in any splash of sea? Would I allow it to wash my skin, seep through my hair, perhaps come into my mouth? My body is being asked to be the metric of safety for the other body asking the question.

There are many reasons not to swim in the Solway. The tides and turbulence are too strong and unpredictable; there are quicksands. On both sides, the shores are so fascinating that I can spend hours marvelling at the life, without wishing to swim out. I do walk into the Solway to feel it and if there is some curiosity that draws me there.

A swim is a passing through, a glance for humans. The life of the sea and the sea bed is composed of those living beings that inhabit together with whatever is thrown there. How do I answer for their bodies, if I could? If I could have more than seiverts and clicks as measurements.

Can you help us find out why there are so many cancers here? Is it the uranium?

For this person, I did some preliminary online research of academic reports. There is a ‘rural myth’ that Dumfries and Galloway has an extremely high rate of cancers, the highest in the country. I could not find reliable verification of this. Instead, I found similar limits to epidemiological studies as are found near Sellafield: 1) the population is too small for reliable results; 2) physicians regards studies as breaking patient confidentiality; 3) attributing cause is not possible, over the timescales involved with radiation; 4) the chemicals used in intensive farming would have to be studied in the same detail.

Mapping the incidences of cancers could be a project for citizen science, generated among local populations. Proof and attribution of responsibility, though, are separate, and more difficult issues. Around Sellafield, it is a vexed issue full of accusation and obfuscation, even as it seems so obvious to those living in a place what is happening to their families.

When I saw the person again a few months later, they had resolved not to be apprehensive over such a ‘small thing’. They supported the military and its rationales for the firings, and had relegated any concerns to a distant future. House prices and the community depended on it. Their children had moved away.

Why are you doing this? These dumpings are just part of the history of the Solway. The radiation is insignificant. It’s one of the many stories than can and should remain secret. It doesn’t harm anyone. We need people appreciating the Solway in order to protect it. Raising the issue will just cause distress and will set back the conservation movement at a time when regulations are being lost with Brexit.  (paraphrased from several conversations)

I struggled with this one, helped by a colleague who had worked on a project disclosing a secret in her family: make sure your intentions are good, then showing the secret won’t – is less likely – to cause harm.

I am powerless to cause harm to the civil-military nuclear complex. And I do not wish to cause discomfort to the people working continuously to ‘protect’ the Solway and encourage more people to appreciate the life that it supports.

I am outraged, though, and that is a force with mixed intentions.

Some aspects of outrage:

The logic of the military is consequentialist, and it needs challenging. It says if an action appears to have no adverse consequences, it is justified. That logic strips away any regard for consequences not so smoothly drawn around the purposes of an action. Too, it justifies an action without regard for the ethical dimensions of that action. I hold that firing Depleted Uranium anywhere is an act without justification, because of the long-term, unknown effects of its release of radiation, its corrosive properties and the potential for limitless harm to civil populations and to environments. Too, because the secrecy with which it is undertaken lies outside democratic control. DU functions as part of the system of manufacture and procurement of arms for reasons of not only ending life, but the maintenance of states’ economies and the hierarchies of status in the world, over which protected commercial interests prevail.

The estimated measurement of radiation compared against a scale of harm (or of safety) may be informative, in part and in the laboratory, but the estimated size of radiation released into the environment does not mitigate ethically against the fact of the release.

The impunity with which successive governments and the military have acted against civil populations as regards nuclear releases is due for consideration by democratic processes.

The impunity with which the successive governments and the military have acted against the common seas of this country and all the life that passes through them is due for consideration by democratic processes.

It puzzled me when I stumbled over the public silence of most conservation organisations as regards the civil-military nuclear complex. From the conversations in confidence that I did have, I can speculate on the reasons – and these are speculations, not accusations.

It may be that this is not a priority of these organisation; it is not what they do. Their focus is in another direction and that is as much as they can do.

It may be, historically or at present, the nuclear industry has provided funding directly to them; or that nuclear industry jobs provide local tax revenues that indirectly provide financial support. It may be that with swelling numbers of subscribers, introducing a contentious issue may jeopardise the organisation’s finances.

It may be that to open up to the unconscionable effects that are evident and that may lie ahead undermines the immediate, present needs for conservation. It may be that pollution in the form of plastics and chemicals is easier to conceptualise, easier to find ways for the civic population to reduce, or to participate in clearing-up.

It may that their views of appreciating a seascape and landscape are tied to particular ideas of beauty and the pristine, or emphasize the visible or the wild, that exclude some environmental factors.

It may be that they fully support the military and the nuclear industries, for whatever reason. It could be that they support some but not all aspects of those industries, and prefer not to engage in the differentiation, at least in public.

It may be that the nuclear is too difficult to consider.

The many organisations must have their reasons, given how hard the civil-military nuclear and energy industries are pressing hard against them. I am interested to know what they are.

I say that my intentions are mixed because of the conversations with people longer versed in peace and reconciliation than I am. I am not yet able to see many sides, without taking sides.

Given the problems with discharges from Sellafield and Chapel Cross, this is trivial. Why raise it?

See above. These are direct firings of nuclear weapons onto common, openly accessible seas; an ‘experiment into nature’, as Hannah Ardent might write. The firings are on a scale that I find easier to think with. They are not the over-powering problems presented by the disposal of waste from energy production or by the harbouring of nuclear weapons. The firings are, in one sense, an exemplar with which to ask – how do I live with this, given that I cannot make the past go away. Then, as I cannot change this particular series of events, I may learn from this and change a future course of actions.

Why doesn’t anyone know about this?

I can’t answer that. There was series of stories in the Herald. A flash of news. A local story – it happened ‘over there’, ‘down there’. Then it’s gone. People nearby know, and possibly many have adjusted and moved on with everyday life. Knowing about it, forgetting it, is not the same as knowing how to live with it.

Would you eat fish caught in the Solway?

The fish that spend their lives in the Solway? They are fascinating, divine creatures – I don’t choose to eat them, and rather work to make sure their lives are good.