Mother Country

Marilynne Robinson’s Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution is polemic at its most impassioned. From first page to last, her prose betrays a seething anger, a repugnance not quite contained for a social and political system, England’s, that allows a death-dealing monstrosity such as Sellafield not only to exist but also to prosper. Robinson is equally outraged at Americans’ ignorance that “the largest commercial producer of plutonium in the world, and the largest source, by far, of radioactive contamination of the world’s environment, is Great Britain.”

Like Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, Sellafield, on the Irish Sea in Cumbria, is a dual-purpose reactor, a complex that produces plutonium at the same time that it generates electricity. It absorbs wastes from reactors and transforms and reprocesses them, in part, into salable materials. From its construction in 1949, Sellafield, known as Windscale until 1981, converted portions of its fuel, uranium, into plutonium which could be extracted in weapon-grade quality. In 1956, Sellafield began to supply electricity to Britain. Also in the late 1950’s the plant began to accept spent fuel, from which the electricity-generating heat had been removed, from other countries. What the government-owned company could not reprocess, it stored, and Japan and Western Europe continue to avail themselves of Britain’s costly services in getting rid of their nuclear wastes as well as its own. Sellafield is, then, a highly profitable complex charging other countries for waste disposal while at the same time enjoying a monopoly for a very expensive product, electricity, in Britain.

It is both the obvious profits and the dangerously hidden costs of this operation that concern Robinson: “The British nuclear industry creates leukemia in the young and hypothermia in the old, and yet it is profitable. Clearly bookkeeping is as expressive of cultural values as any other science.” The plant pours radioactive wastes into the Irish Sea, making of it in part an underwater “lake” of contaminants, “including, according to the British government, one quarter ton of plutonium, which returns to shore in windborne spray and spume, and in the tides, and in fish and seaweed and flotsam, and which concentrates in inlets and estuaries.” As the plant expands and more and more wastes accumulate there, the Cumbrian coast and the sea become increasingly “hot,” since what is not flushed into the sea is spread by Sellafield’s smokestacks. Leaking waste silos and shallow earth trenches compound rather than lessen pollution from the too-abundant waste products of Sellafield’s chain reactors. Until 1983, when the National Union of Seamen refused to man the ships, barrels of nuclear waste were dropped routinely in the Atlantic.

Yet because of Britain’s Official Secrets Act, the public is not allowed to know how much plutonium the plant produces or for what purposes. The government controls the only information about the plant or about the health problems it causes, and Robinson has had to rely for source material on reports in the press that have been allowed to filter through a publicity-conscious bureaucracy. Even so, what she has found and what she makes of it are damning. One fact alone should be enough to frighten even the most stalwart supporter of British nuclear power: “Sellafield has had about three hundred accidents, including a core fire in 1957 which was, before Chernobyl, the most serious accident to occur in a nuclear reactor. That an accident-prone complex like this one should be the storage site for plutonium in quantity is blankly alarming.”

As the author of the highly regarded novel Housekeeping (1980) and a frequent writer on literary matters, Robinson may seem an unlikely source for such a vigorous discussion of a subject generally obscured by the technicality and complexity of its language. Cutting through this technocant with admirable precision, she makes the dark mysteries of Sellafield accessible and understandable to any reader willing to follow closely her initial arguments that Britain’s government finds a rationale for its mindless poisoning of its people in its own history.

It is, perhaps, an overlong argument, one which covers fully one-third and more of the essay. Robinson spans six centuries of British social, economic, and political history in a freewheeling, all-out assault on the institutions and theories developed to care for and to govern the nation’s people. She traces the source of the present-day British government’s blithe disregard for its own citizens’ welfare to the fourteenth century Poor Laws, which, she argues, institutionalized poverty, made it legally and morally offensive, and constituted the basis for the continued repression and exploitation of the working class. The Poor Laws formalized a tradition of wage slavery that the class system perpetuated and encouraged, to the point that even today anything above subsistence earnings is often...

(The entire section is 2059 words.)


Library Journal. CXIV, May 1, 1989, p.96.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 23, 1989, p.1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, May 5, 1989, p.59.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, November 23, 1989, p.51.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, July 16, 1989, p.7.

The Times Literary Supplement. January 5, 1990, p.9.