Category Archives: Environment

Taking Umbrage


I used to have a blog called Action for Autism. I am hoping to make an archive version available online. Meanwhile I wanted a new blog in which I could write about all my interests: autism, bird watching, conservation, ethics, history, journalism, language and literature, music and the arts, science, social justice and anything else that sparks my interest.

The title, Penumbrage, derives from penumbra, the shadowy world between light and dark. Umbrage is also a good old fashioned word meaning offence, most commonly used in the phrase, “to take umbrage.” It shares a common origin with penumbra. The Latin root is umbra or shadow. So umbrage carries with it the connotation of a shadow or suspicion of injury as well as the injury itself. I expect you, the reader, to judge whether the matters which provoke me to take up my pen in umbrage are real or imagined and to let me know.

Pen also refers to an organization I have just joined.

English PEN is a registered charity (number 1125610), working to promote literature and human rights. From defending the rights of persecuted writers to promoting literature in translation and sending writers in to refugee centres and prisons, English PEN promotes literature as a means of greater understanding between the world’s people. English PEN’s work is made possible by the generosity of our sponsors, donors and members.

I recently had cause to take umbrage when reading an article by my friend, Michael Baron. We share a common interest in autism. We both have autistic children and are long-time members of the National Autistic Society. Michael’s “long-time” beats mine by about 40 years. There again, he was a founding member when I was still in short trousers.

We also live in the same beautiful part of England, Cumbria, home to the Lake District. It is also home to Britain’s nuclear industry. Calder Hall was our first nuclear power station. The Windscale reactors were used to produce weapon grade plutonium and Sellafield is still used to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

Our nuclear heritage has not always gone well. The Windscale fire in 1957 remains the most serious nuclear accident to affect the UK. There was also a major incident at the Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield in 2005. Cumbria’s own nuclear power stations are now being decommissioned. But neighbouring Heysham Power Station is clearly visible on the other side of Morecambe Bay. Meanwhile, much of the nation’s low level nuclear waste is stored in Cumbria at the repository in Drigg. Sellafield is still operating as a reprocessing plant and, when it is finally decommissioned, will continue to be used as a storage site for plutonium and uranium.

The long-term solution is for a geological disposal facility (GDF) in which nuclear waste is stored in a depository deep underground where it can be safely left for thousands of years. The government invited local authorities to express an interest in hosting such a facility. So far only the local authorities in Cumbria, specifically Cumbria County Council, Copeland Borough Council and Allerdale Borough Council, have responded by setting up the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership. Not everyone in Cumbria is quite so sanguine at the prospect. Michael Baron in the aforementioned article is cynical about the whole process and invites us to consider whether the decision has already been taken during cozy chats in private rooms.

I did not take umbrage with Michael’s position. It was this statement in his article by a pro-nuclear activist that raised my hackles.

Popular science writer and convert to nuclear environmentalism, Mark Lynas, in his 2011 book ‘The God Species’ boldly asserts that ‘this is not an ‘unsolved problem. It is not really much of a problem at all’.

When I talked to him recently he claimed waste loses its hazardous nature in a short time and that the deep burial option (see the Finnish film ‘Into Eternity’) is an answer to a political problem rooted in fear. While France stores its high level waste, Lynas writes, ‘under the floor in a single room’, it is temporary, and harms no one. There is no environmental crisis. He stressed that exposure to radiation killed no one at Fukushima, and of the 4000 Chernobyl children who contracted thyroid cancer only 15 died. His optimism on risk and nuclear waste is not shared by H.M. Government — why else the 94 page White Paper?

I read this on the day that my membership of PEN arrived along with a special issue of Index on Censorship commemorating 50 years of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee. Mark Lynas’ casual acceptance that 4000 Chernobyl children contracted thyroid cancer and only(!?) 15 died stands in stark contrast to the stance of Professor Yury Bandazhevsky, who left his post as director of the Central Laboratory for Scientific Research in the safe western area of Belarus to work in the irradiated area close to Chernobyl, just across the border in Ukraine. For publishing the truth about the effect of the Chernobyl disaster on the children in the Gomel region of Belarus he was imprisoned on trumped up charges of corruption. Prior to that he narrowly escaped rendition to Ukraine (where he would have faced summary execution) when border guards recognized him and refused to let his KGB captors across the border. So he was tried and imprisoned instead and his collection of embryos exhibiting congenital malformation was destroyed. While he was in prison his wife, cardiologist Balina Bandazhevsky, was asked to leave her job and his pathologist daughter was blacklisted. Yury Bandazhevsky has since been freed but is subject to restrictions.

Only fifteen died? Congratulations, Mark Lynas, author of “How a nuclear disaster can be good for ecology.” You are the first person with whom I take umbrage.