Nuclear Legacies: Nuclear Energy and Farming Landscapes in Cumbria

Will Rawling and sheepdog (Photo by Rob Fraser of somewhere-nowhere)

The Tipping Points project looks at cultural responses to land-sharing in the north of England, as part of the UKRI Landscape Decisions programme. Tipping Points has explored various different kinds of site-specific issues, ideas and practices relating to the sharing of land between different owners, stakeholders, farmers and communities over the past year. You can explore some of the different project outcomes here, and here, including the fantastic nature writing and art workshops based at Castle Howard, Stirley Farm and Wild Ennerdale, which are now available for you to complete online! The following creative works were produced as part of the ‘Slow Conversations’ strand of Tipping Points, which aims to centre farmers’ voices in discussions over landscape decisions.

The following ‘slow conversation’, led by Dr Lucy Rowland, is a collection of responses to the legacies and impacts of nuclear energy on the Cumbrian landscape and its people. Alongside the following essay, written by Lucy Rowland, the conversation showcases two poems and the film below, written and produced by creative duo Harriet and Rob Fraser of somewhere-nowhere. All of these creative responses were informed by two interviews with the Cumbrian farmer Will Rawling, and the landscape around Ennerdale in Cumbria.

Nuclear Legacies: Farming the Cumbrian Landscape

Nuclear energy – like all energy sources – has a complex and fraught history. Since the first devastating large-scale deployment of nuclear weapons at the end of the Second World War, there have been conflicting narratives of the histories – and possible futures – of nuclear energy and its by-products. Different narratives of nuclear pasts tell us of nuclear energy’s pivotal role in darker histories: for example, it has been implicated in colonial violence, military endeavours, and large-scale environmental disasters. However, other stories tell us of scientific breakthroughs in nuclear energy, revolutionary new technologies, and of possible alternatives to the fossil fuels that have committed us on our current trajectory towards irreversible climate change.

When we think of nuclear energy in modern day Britain, we tend to think in more local terms, about the facets of nuclear energy that play into our present day lives and near futures. These include things like the environmental risks, the expense, our own proximity to different nuclear sites, and the increasing necessity for “clean”, emissions-free domestic energy. These issues all play into the kinds of discussions that exist in political, cultural and environmental circles in the UK. Often, conversations on nuclear energy revolve around very difficult questions: how do we use nuclear energy safely? Can nuclear energy offer part of the solution to goals to reduce CO2 emissions? What are the environmental risks? How and why do we choose particular landscapes to house nuclear power plants or waste repositories? Where does all the toxic nuclear waste go?


‘(in)visible: between fells and sea’ by Harriet Fraser of somewhere-nowhere

Read the text of this poem here

The answers to these questions can differ wildly, depending on who is part of these conversations. Many environmental groups, for example, consider the development of new and existing nuclear energy sites in the UK as inherently problematic. Recently, the expansion of the Sizewell C site in Suffolk threatens to disrupt the valued RSPB Minsmere nature reserve, and proposed redevelopments to the Wylfa B site in Anglesey over the past few years have been met with strong resistance from protesters. Because there are relatively few appropriate sites for nuclear power sites in the UK, there is an enormous amount of pressure on the few locations that are earmarked for development. The proposed sites must be situated on the coast, away from urban centres, and depend on a host of other environmental factors. However, industry groups continue to lobby for faster adoption of nuclear energy as a key source of low-emissions power in the UK. Other environmentalists, too, see new nuclear developments as vital in our attempts to slow the effects of the climate crisis, as we seek viable alternatives to fossil fuels. This clashing of perspectives alludes to the ambiguous, and often contradictory, perspectives we have on nuclear energy: how do we place the need for a low-carbon energy transition alongside the potential risks of new nuclear sites to existing landscapes? Even nuclear sites that have existed for over half a century – such as the Sellafield waste repository on the Cumbrian coast – are subjects of continuing controversy in public discourse.

Sellafield, as seen from Will Rawling’s farm (Photo by Rob Fraser of somewhere-nowhere)

Sellafield, like all sites with a nuclear past, is a controversial feature in the Cumbrian landscape. The original site took its place among other remnants of industrial energy production that peppered this part of the north-west coastline: coal mines, shipyards, and steelworks all left their permanent marks. The first incarnation of Sellafield was a Royal Ordnance Factory, which produced munitions for the war, which became operational in the early 1940s. However, in 1947, construction began on the nuclear facilities. The ROF Sellafield was renamed Windscale Works, and with its iconic twin reactors (the Windscale Piles), the factory produced plutonium for Britain throughout the 1950s. With the Calder Hall power station opening as part of the existing site in 1954, nuclear-generated electricity was used for domestic power for the first time in Britain. Windscale was held up as an initial national success: yet this image of domestic nuclear energy as safe and reliable was somewhat clouded when a fire at Windscale in 1957 released radioactive isotopes into the air and soil. This national disaster had a long-standing impact for those in the local community.

For those living close to the Cumbrian coast in the present day, Sellafield is a permanent – and even historic – fixture. For many, the sight of the Sellafield reprocessing plant, with its grey towers puncturing the air, and a maze of concrete buildings with the sea shimmering behind, is a backdrop to daily life in Cumbria. Sellafield has a notorious and problematic past, and for some, it poses a sense of hazard or risk that is always lurking on the horizon. Yet, for many who live in its vicinity – and particularly for farmers, who work closely with the surrounding land – this sense of risk must be put to one side for daily life to continue. This is the case for Will Rawling, a sheep farmer in Ennerdale, whose family history with the Cumbrian landscape goes back centuries.

Ennerdale (Photo by Rob Fraser of somewhere-nowhere)

During an initial interview, I spoke with Will about his experiences of farming in Ennerdale within sight of Sellafield, and his views on farming in a landscape so influenced by nuclear energy production. Harriet and Rob Fraser, of somewhere-nowhere, also visited Will’s farm in Ennerdale for a filmed follow-up interview (watch the film here!). Over the course of these conversations, it became possible to get a sense of the lasting influence that the nuclear industry has had on the Cumbrian landscape: and of course, not just as a result of Sellafield. Our discussion took us from the present day, back to the events of 1986, when the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster settled over parts of the UK, to the Sellafield (then Windscale) disaster in 1957. It is true that both of these events may seem relegated to a distant past, a time when nuclear energy production was still in relative infancy and before the massive technological advantages we possess today. However, the strict measures taken to prevent sheep contaminated by radiation from entering the food market were only relaxed as recently as 2012. For those who farm in the immediate area surrounding Sellafield, too, the land, livestock and cows’ milk are monitored regularly for contamination of any kind. Contamination still occasionally crops up: leaks in the 1970s and 80s into the sea at Sellafield prompted concern, and in 2008, radioactive iodine-129 was found in milk from cows on a farm close to Sellafield. It was undecided whether this was the result of historic or contemporary contamination. Through considering these complex and lasting effects on the Cumbrian landscape and its people, rather than seeing the negative consequences of nuclear energy production as historical events contained by the past, we can begin to consider how nuclear disasters (and the day-to-day management of nuclear waste) affect our present and our future. Crucially, we can also ensure that we bear witness to nuclear energy’s enduring cultural and environmental legacies.

Ennerdale, Cumbria (Photo by Rob Fraser of somewhere-nowhere)

The area around Ennerdale has been used for hill sheep farming for centuries, and Will’s family in particular have been farming this landscape for over 500 years. In the last few decades, Will and his family have endeavoured to make more space for wildlife on their land, for example growing and managing hedgerows in place of the traditional dry-stone walling, protecting rare species found (like the freshwater pearl mussel found in the river traversing the farmland), and taking part in stewardship schemes. This complements the approach of the Wild Ennerdale project that begun in 2003, which has sought to protect the Ennerdale Valley and allow the landscape there to evolve with minimal human interference. As Will likes to say, his farm takes an ‘extensive’ rather than ‘intensive’ approach, encouraging biodiversity and taking the scope and range of the landscapes into consideration. Will also has a deep interest in the science of soil: the heavy clay of the Ennerdale valley of course wouldn’t be conducive to intensive farming in any case, but the way the soil holds nutrients and pollutants has played a vital role in Will’s farming experiences. In the last few decades, with climate change causing erratic weather patterns with heavier, more intense rainfalls in Ennerdale, the soil quality is of increasing concern to Will and his family.

Will Rawling speaking with Harriet Fraser (Photo by Rob Fraser of somewhere-nowhere)

Like the immediate landscape around Sellafield, however, there are continuing environmental risks posed by the soil itself. The Chernobyl disaster was a globally significant event that – nonetheless – seemed a million miles away from the quiet Cumbrian countryside. However, the fallout from Chernobyl had a troubling impact on many parts of the UK, primarily the hills of North Wales and Cumbria. The heavy rainfall in these areas in the days following the explosion of the reactor in Pripyat, nearly 1800 miles away, dumped toxic radioactive particles on the hills and fells of Ennerdale and beyond. The soil and grass absorbed much of the radiation. As Will recalled, all sheep grazing on the land around Ennerdale were monitored closely, and those on the higher upland peat soil would often fail their becquerel tests. The peat soil didn’t bond with the radioactive particles, meaning that they would be present in high levels in the grass eaten by the sheep. The grass in the fells, however, was less risky: the heavier clay soil would trap the radioactivity and the grass was therefore safer.


‘Chernobyl Fallout’ by Harriet Fraser of somewhere-nowhere

Although many people might be concerned over their personal risk of exposure, especially those living on and working so closely with the land, Will rightly pointed out in our interview that radiation itself is not necessarily sinister. Natural background radiation is an inherent part of the Cumbrian hillscape. Remembering that his sheep would often fail the toxicity tests if they were tested too close to the granite walls, Will remarked in our interview that we might not notice or think about this background radiation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not always there. Thinking through radiation in all its different manifestations challenges us to see complexities in how we think about nuclear energy: complexities that move beyond the binaries of “unnatural” or “natural”, “clean” or “dirty”. As Will remarked in his interview, ‘everything revolves around nuclear in this part of the world’. It is also true that the inherent contradictions in how we discuss nuclear matters are evident even in this statement. In Cumbria, nuclear energy is central to the economy. As Will notes, Sellafield is a locus for nuclear technologies, drawing in skilled workers from across the country. However, it is also peripheral in its situation on the edge of the country, and in Cumbria, it forms a kind of backdrop to everyday life. The risks entailed with such close encounters with nuclear energy in Cumbria are part of the everyday, which is best exemplified in an anecdote Will recounts about salt gritting the roads in the area during the winter. Will’s land exists along something of a commuter corridor to Sellafield, but in one interview he joked about how the roads surrounding his farms are always gritted at the first hint of snow or ice: maintaining a clear getaway from the area in the event of a nuclear disaster or leakage. This is, Will suggests, just an everyday part of life living next to a nuclear waste repository: although he remarks, very dryly, that it would be unlikely that anyone in the vicinity could escape quickly enough if a large-scale disaster occurred unexpectedly.

Photo of Will Rawling (Photo by Rob Fraser of somewhere-nowhere)

It became clear that all of our discussions with Will were underpinned by a shared understanding of nuclear energy as kind of power that is laden with contradictions, both culturally and practically, in our contemporary world. In one telling part of the conversation, Will said: ‘Sellafield is one of life’s great contradictions […] it flags itself up as the future of […] clean fuel, but it’s actually sitting on a load of dangerous material. Locally, we don’t think about it and never have done. It’s just been there all the time’. Although here, there is perhaps evidence of the traditional Northern grit –and refusal to dwell on things that can’t be changed – Will also gestures towards the sense of danger that is always inherent in discussions of nuclear energy production and waste storage. Although nowadays, disasters like those at Chernobyl or Windscale are far less likely to occur, due to advances in safety procedures and technology, the possibility for things to go wrong is always simmering just beneath the surface. Will is suspicious of narratives that seek to present nuclear energy as the “clean” future that can help us slow our carbon emissions, too: perhaps what our explorations here have shown is that all conversations around nuclear energy and its presence in the UK need to acknowledge the complex, and entangled, cultural understandings of its uses. They must also seek to hear from those in close proximity to sites that generate nuclear energy or store nuclear waste: in Will’s words, ‘having a nuclear dump on your doorstep isn’t everyone’s idea of paradise’. If nuclear energy is to constitute part of our response to the climate crisis, the industry must be willing to grapple with the long and complex histories that shape the landscape, and peoples’ lives and livelihoods, in the areas proposed for nuclear development.

by Lucy Rowland

With many thanks to Will Rawling for his time spent talking with us and allowing us access to his farmland, and to Harriet and Rob Fraser for their insightful creative inputs to this project.

Dr Lucy Rowland is an early career researcher and postdoctoral tutor based in the School of English at the University of Leeds. Lucy has worked on the Land Lines project and continues to work on both of its follow on projects, Nature Revealed: Tracks, Traces and Trails, and Tipping Points.

Further reading:

Hogg, Jonathan, British Nuclear Culture: Official and Unofficial Narratives in the Long 20th Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2016)

Davies, Hunter (ed), Sellafield Stories: Life with Britain’s First Nuclear Plant (London: Constable & Robinson, 2012)

Vidal, John, ‘Sellafield: ‘It was all contaminated: milk, chickens, the golf course’, The Guardian, 11 March 2012 <;

Read Harriet Fraser’s two poems here:

A poem by Harriet Fraser, which reads:

(in)visible / between fells and sea

are we in the middle of nowhere
		where the March mist settles
then passes, as sun seeps in

a butterfly tests its wings
curlews weave their call into wind
and the beck, freed from fell-deep earth
	flows silksmooth, shimmers through a shadowed land

a little to the south is George’s place
and in the next valley, where clouds ride 
dark hills, is Michael 

these farms are jewels
threaded by time, bloodlines 
and the knowing of land, where hefts are linked
and the wide open space is home 

from this farm gate, in one sweep of the eye
thousands of hectares ready to green with this year’s spring:
Calder Beck, Kinniside, the heights of Ennerdale

further, there’s Wasdale, and above it all, 
Scafell, marbled with winter’s stubborn snow

looking the other way, with our backs to the fells
there’s the Irish Sea, the shine of water under sun
	so intense it’s piercing

we blink, adjust our eyes
to the bright sea and the black towers 
of the radioactive dustbin 
that no one wants
on their doorstep 

but here it is and here we are, ignoring it 
- you can’t wake up every day
thinking about radiation 
what the sky brings
what blows over
what could happen

A poem by Harriet Fraser that reads: 

Chernobyl Fallout, Ennerdale, April 1986

all day the rain fell 
water ran off hoods 
dripped from sleeves

ewes fussed over lambs
farmers tended both
backs against the weather
wet wool on wet hands 
wiped over wet faces

spring rain falling
spring rain falling

that evening, the television brought news 
something blowing in from Russia: 
invisible, falling

the ewes did not stop
letting their lambs fall to the ground
the farmers did not stop 
tending both, faces into the rain
backs against the unknown

spring did not stop 
the natural cycling of things

womb-swaddled babies did not stop 
growing, and they are parents now

hindsight is a fine thing

here is the blessing
that we are all here to look back on those days
the lambing, the gathering, children playing in the rain
the years of passing Geiger counters over sheep
to clear them for sale

there were jokes, that these Cumbrian sheep 
came with a premium: guaranteed nuclear free

that’s all but forgotten now 
anniversaries are marked
only by the arrival of spring 
and the song of unseen skylarks 
falling from the sky
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