For more than four decades, the hottest controversy in Irish environmentalism—if it is not too much of a stretch to apply that rubric to the decidedly modest activism of the 1950s and 1960s—was the Sellafield nuclear facility located across the Irish Sea in West Cumbria. Originally known as Windscale (the name was changed in 1981 upon the advice of public relations experts), Sellafield's nuclear facilities opened in 1950 and have been the site of numerous incidents, among them a 1957 fire that, prior to Three Mile Island in 1979, was the worst disaster in the history of non-military nuclear energy.
Veronica McDermott, a one-time press officer for British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), the plant's former owner, has written a history of the Sellafield saga that places the reality of Ireland as a young state, only recently founded on a nationalism that was both contested and uncertain, at the center of her account. Thus, McDermott finds Ernest Walton, destined to become Ireland's most well-known scientist, musing upon the many ways in which Ireland had changed during his seven years at Ernest Rutherford's Cambridge laboratory. At the center of Walton's 1934 world was a "new nation-state," attempting to forge "an identity separate and entirely distinct from its colonial past" led by those who "chafed at the bonds of economic dependence, culture and the mixed ethnicity and shared language that tied it to Britain."
For McDermott, the imaginings of such nationalist leaders as deValéra and William T. Cosgrave rested on a set of dubious claims bounded by "static cultural presumptions." She charges that like many such movements, Irish nationalism owed more to nineteenth-century romanticism and, in Ireland's case, to [End Page 155] "the Celtic revivalism of Yeats," than to the reality of Irish lives. McDermott returns to this point in describing developments some twenty years later, long after the atom had been split and the technical viability of nuclear generation, if not its economic viability, had been settled. In the late 1950s—Windscale Sellafield's first decade—Ireland's search for a distinctive national identity was floundering. As in decades previous, attempts to revive Gaelic, along with the "idyll of a self-sufficient, agriculturally led, Catholic enclave in the modern world" were stalled. According to McDermott, "nationalist self-delusion" was on the verge of wrecking the entire Irish project; only the deconstruction of the old model and the displacement of its central values could save Ireland from collapse.
At the center of this reconstruction was to be a new Ireland based upon "sustainable, productive, industrial employment." A critical element of this break from the dead hand of nationalist romanticism was to be a forward-thinking energy policy that included the "construction of a nuclear power station in Northern Ireland capable of supplying the future energy requirements for both parts of the island." Given what was to follow, it is hardly surprising that the proposal soon became entangled in the nationalist politics of the day. As McDermott points out, the Republic's preoccupation with establishing a "distinctive post-colonial identity" combined with the Unionists' "desire to demonstrate their political and economic integration with Britain"meant that such a proposal had little hope of gaining political traction. In essence, the nuclear debate was being driven by two competing and irreconcilable versions of Irish nationalism—one that equated being Irish with being English, and another that saw full independence from England as essential to the realization of Irish national project. Indeed, for many Irish nationalists, the identification of nuclear power as a British-led endeavor made it inherently suspect. Equally important, however,was the history of the Sellafield plant itself and its location on the Irish Sea.
Since its inception, the plant had been poorly run. Its owners were suspicious of any who might criticize its operation—a legacy, no doubt, of its military roots. Events over the years would, however, vindicate the suspicious. For instance...