Disappearing Trick: Birds and Nuclear Waste



Imagine you are stood on sand dunes between the mountains and the sea. Above your head a sky full of thousands of elegant wheeling birds from terns to black headed gulls. “The birds, which at a distance cover the ground like white dots, rise in a mass into the air. It is difficult to tread between the nests..” This is a description from The Spectator written in 1902.

The writer continues: “The nesting colonies of sea birds are commonly stinking places ; but here the pure dry sand disinfected the guano, and absorbed any scraps of wasted food. As you walked across the links towards the place where they descended at a steep angle to the shore, fresh birds always rose as sand-ridge after sand-ridge was crossed. ..Such a place affords a delightful spectacle to a naturalist. The grey sea, the long row of yellow sand hills, the distant Cumbrian Mountains, the deafening, shrill music from the clouds of birds, make you feel like a traveller landing upon some unexplored island.” The Ravenglass Gullery stretched along miles of sand dunes to Drigg and was even thought to have provided eggs for the Roman Fort at Ravenglass. Up until 1958 thousands of black headed gulls eggs from the gullery were harvested at a time in basketfuls and sold in London. The black headed gull is now on the amber list.


By 1983 there was a huge decline in numbers of waterfowl, waders and gulls in the Ravenglass estuary. This decline was most apparent in the black headed gull population nesting on the Drigg dunes. The gullery failed catastrophically going from over 10,000 pairs in 1976 to the site being abandoned in 1984. The finger of suspicion fell on radioactive waste discharges from Sellafield: “Since 1983, concern has been expressed about the apparent decline in numbers of birds in the Ravenglass estuary in west Cumbria, particularly of the black-headed gull colony on the Drigg dunes, and suggestions have been made that this decline might be due to excessive radiation in the birds’ food and their general environment.” But official studies concluded: “the concentrations of radionuclides in the foods, body tissues and general environment were at least three orders of magnitude too low to have had any effect. The more likely cause of the desertion of the gullery was the combination of an uncontrolled fox population, the severest outbreak of myxomatosis amongst the rabbits since 1954 and the driest May–July period on record, all in the same year (1984)”.

Fantastic Mr Fox?

So, the official finger of blame for the gullery collapse was pointed not at the dumping of nuclear wastes but at a lack of rabbits and the Fantastic Mr Fox! If this was the cause surely the gullery (there long before the rabbits), would have recovered along with the rabbit population. Earlier this month it was announced that the “Repository” for “Low Level Nuclear Waste” at Drigg has been given the all clear by the Environment Agency to expand, though this still needs to be approved by Cumbria County Council scheduled for early 2016 (date tbc). http://llwrsite.com/2015/11/llwr-achieves-major-milestone/  The Alvin Weinberg Foundation welcomes the Environment Agency’s rubber stamp with open arms saying “Radioactive waste, such as that found at Drigg, is surprisingly easy to contain, as encasing the waste in appropriate materials can block all the effects of radiation.”  A “repository” suggests “a safe storage location.” Drigg is not a contained store. Radioactive emissions are routinely released to air and to sea. (http://llwrsite.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/7_-RP-DR-GEN-PROJ-00035-2010-Leachate-Groundwater-and-Surface-Water-Monitoring-Issue-2-MASTER-26-.pdf )

Some years ago an advert appeared in the Whitehaven News asking Cumbrians if they could recall what had been put in Drigg nuclear dump as the official records were less than complete. “We are very keen to speak to people who were directly involved in consigning nuclear waste during the 1960s to the mid-1980s in order to build up a comprehensive picture of the waste inventory in the trenches.”

It is not surprising that the deadly cocktail of radioactive and chemical waste at Drigg is unfathomable. Drigg was first dragooned into military service in 1940 with Sellafield following two years later as Royal Ordnance Factories producing trinitrotoluene (TNT) and other chemical explosives. These isolated and remote coastal sites within a short distance of each other were chosen because of the hazardous nature of the process and to minimise the risk of enemy air attack.

Things have moved on from tumble tipping into trenches. Now radioactive and chemical waste is packed into shipping containers which are then filled with concrete.

Nuclear “Bin Juice”

At Drigg a Marine Holding Tank operates like a septic tank and the nuclear dump “bin juice” is emptied into the Irish Sea regularly. Incredibly the radioactive sediment which collects on the floor of Drigg’s Marine Holding Tank was recently trucked over 250 miles to Kings Cliffe, Northamptonshire.( http://llwrsite.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/On-the-Level-June-2015.pdf )The people of Kings Cliffe have vigorously opposed the opening up of landfill for reclassified/deregulated “Very Low Level Radioactive Waste” Northamptonshire County Council had refused planning permission for the Kings Cliffe nuclear dump and 98 per cent of people who took part in local referendums opposed the plans. However, government minister Eric Pickles dumped democracy in order to dump nuclear waste. Mr Pickles said he was satisfied the waste “would not be harmful to the local community”. Tell that to the gulls!

Getting Shot of Nuclear Wastes

The nuclear industry is desperate to get shot of its nuclear wastes. Radioactive waste is dispersed around the environment by diverting it to landfill, discharging it into our estuaries, seas and atmosphere using for example metal ‘recycling’ plants and incinerators. As a result of this deregulation, intermediate level waste has already been “accidently” dumped in Cumbrian landfill at Lillyhall.  The plan for the extension of Drigg Nuclear Dump will come before Cumbria County Council in early 2016. We will be urging the Council to question the assumption that Drigg’s vulnerable and uniquely dangerous coastal nuclear dump site should recieve further nuclear wastes. The Author of ‘Wild Britain’ observes: “The full title of this nature reserve – Ravenglass Dunes and Gullery – is now a sad irony, for although the dunes are still a distinguishing feature, the gullery is not. In 1985 the birds decided that the level of radioactive pollution from nearby Sellafield had reached unacceptable levels, and the huge colony of black-headed gull and the four species of breeding tern – sandwich, common, arctic and little – all departed.”

Wild Britain, Douglas Botting, (1992), p.87/8. http://www.doordie.org.uk/issues/issue-9/22-9-reviews/117-wild-britain-a-traveller-s-guide.html

New build and continued reprocessing would of course lead to a further tsunami of nuclear wastes requiring many more Driggs. https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/stop-moorside-biggest-nuclear-development-in-europe

Please write to Cumbria County Council at : democratic.services@cumbria.gov.uk  asking them to oppose the extension to Drigg and to oppose the continued dumping of radioactive wastes at this uniquely vulnerable site. “Low Level Waste” does not mean low risk or short lived. Some of these “low level” radioactive wastes will still be lethal tens of thousands of years into the future. http://ieer.org/resource/books/high-level-dollars-low-level-sense/

Planning Application 4/11/9007 Low Level Waste Repository Site Optimisation and Closure Works

“The Environment Agency has given a formal view that providing their requirements as stated in the Agency guidance are met, the potential for disruption of the site is an acceptable risk”   By “disruption of the site” they mean inundation by sea and flood.

“Planning Overview

LLW Repository Ltd is seeking planning permission from Cumbria County Council (CCC) for:

  • Disposal of low level waste (LLW) in Vault 9 (rather than storage);
  • The phased construction of new Vaults 9a and 10 to 14;
  • The phased disposal of LLW in the vaults over the period 2014-2079; and
  • Phased construction of a final restoration cap over the period 2014 to 2079 across each full vault and the adjacent area of trenches. 
The site will be progressively restored to grassland in parallel with a phased cap construction with screening planting on the perimeter of the site.”

“The Drigg site uses two disposal systems: 1) An original system operated from 1959 to 1988 comprising a series of parallel trenches excavated into glacial clays, back filled with LLW and covered with an interim water resistant cap. 2) Current disposal of compacted waste placed in steel ISO-freight containers, with void space filled with a highly fluid cement based grout. These containers are then disposed of in a series of open concrete vaults. Figure 1 illustrates the disposition of the two disposal systems. Drigg LLW contains a large proportion of cellulosic waste together with disposed steel and contaminated soil. Radionuclides with highest activities in the inventory include 3H, 241Pu, 137Cs, 234U and 90Sr. The long-lived radionuclides 238U and 232Th have the highest molal concentration.” http://centaur.reading.ac.uk/16608/1/mrspaper.pdf


12 thoughts on “Disappearing Trick: Birds and Nuclear Waste

  1. Reblogged this on sinclairgordon2012 and commented:
    The nuclear industry is desperate to get shot of its nuclear wastes. Radioactive waste is dispersed around the environment by diverting it to landfill, discharging it into our estuaries, seas and atmosphere using for example metal ‘recycling’ plants and incinerators.

  2. John Williamson

    Hi, I am sure you are aware of this http://nf2045.blogspot.jp/2015/12/french-nuclear-waste-project-hungry-for.html but you have to also consider United Utilities recent purchase of 2 farms in the Cleater Moor area. When asked what their intentions were they said – nothing. Just let them return to nature. Either way, whatever the reason for buying them, we are not wanted around here

    Date: Tue, 29 Dec 2015 13:45:33 +0000
    To: john445@hotmail.co.uk

  3. Pingback: #DriggLockTheGate: letter to Cumbria County Council | Radiation Free Lakeland

  4. Pingback: Cumbria flooding: Environment Agency issues alert on Drigg nuclear waste site | Eco Bio III Millennio

  5. Pingback: With UK floods now, a timely call to stop extending Cumbria nuclear waste dump « nuclear-news

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  7. Reblogged this on Radiation Free Lakeland and commented:

    EGGS …once upon a time there were thousands of them on the Drigg Dunes….now there are thousands of nuclear waste packages in steel shipping containers. On 11th May Cumbria County Council will decide whether to allow a further tsunami of nuclear waste to be dumped in shipping containers at Drigg on land that is a short distance from the shifting sands.

  8. The new date when Cumbria County Council is to decide whether to allow a further tsunami of waste to be dumped at Drigg is 11th May. The decision will be made by the Development Control and Regulatory Committee. Incredibly the Environment Agency have already rubber stamped the further use of Drigg


  10. Pingback: British Nuclear Dump to Be Placed Near Newry???NOT A CHANCE-TRY BUCKINGHAM PALACE | Paddy Healy's Blog

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