Sellafield Story exhibition
at The Beacon, Whitehaven
One of the core parts of this museum in Whitehaven, Cumbria, northern England, Great Britain
. It replaces and partly incorporates the exhibition that used to be at the former visitor centre at the Sellafield site
itself. Unfortunately it lacks some of the more dramatic exhibits of the old exhibition, but on the plus side it offers much more background information. This is mostly in the form of slide shows presented on flatscreens that line the walls, which makes it quite time-consuming to take it all in.
More background info:
for the Sellafield site itself see its own separate chapter
(but ignore the outdated bits about the former visitor centre there).
The tower structure housing the museum may look like it could have been a lighthouse once (and the name could be interpreted as suggesting that too), but apparently that is not the case. According to their own website it was purpose-built as recently as 1996.
It is an ongoing development, and at the time of my visit (late March 2016) construction work was going on in the annexe; apparently when this is finished it will expand the museum's exhibition space further.
The reason the museum in Whitehaven now covers the story of Sellafield (rather than a visitor centre at the actual site) is the fact that the site provides jobs for quite a proportion of the town's population, as it is the closest larger settlement to the plant.
Given that link, it is perhaps not all that surprising that the current exhibition is actually much more celebratory of nuclear power and the decommissioning work currently ongoing than even the old visitor centre's exhibition was.
What there is to see: more than you would expect from a museum like this that looks rather small from the outside.
The main attraction from a dark perspective, of course, is the exhibition called “The Sellafield Story”. This is located on the second floor, so you might just as well begin there and decide afterwards whether you'd also like to see the rest of the museum.
The Sellafield Story kicks off with a bit of prehistory, mainly about WWII
and how it ended with the first atomic bombs
being dropped, ushering in the atomic age and the Cold War
. The British input to the Manhattan Project
is duly noted, as is the fact that despite the “special relationship” between Britain
and the USA
, the latter would not let Britain have its new tool of world power.
So, it is explained, in order to remain within the circle of world powers, Britain sought to develop its own atomic weapons. Enter Sellafield. The exhibition features several photos of the first “pile” reactors under construction in 1947, when the site was renamed Windscale. It's primary task was to produce plutonium for the British bomb.
The keyword Windscale also brings up the subject of accidents, and the Windscale fire
of 1957 is covered – as the only significant nuclear accident to have happened within the UK. However, reference is also made to the worst such accident that ever happened within Europe, namely in 1986 at Chernobyl
On one single panel there is also a brief nod towards the anti-nukes movement
, including a picture of a very smug-looking Bono (frontman of the Irish
rock band U2) drawing on a slimline cigarillo at a Greenpeace protest campaign simply called “Stop Sellafield” in the 1990s.
Otherwise, the tone of the exhibition remains rather more celebratory
of Sellafield and Britain's nuclear legacy at large, including the first tests
of a British atomic bomb
(at Montebello Island
, Western Australia
), made possible by Windscale.
The same goes for the construction of Calder Hall
at Sellafield, the world's first commercial nuclear power plant
generating electricity for the grid, which is accordingly hailed as the “peaceful use of atomic energy”. There are also references to the confidence in all things nuclear in the 1950s and 60s, when there were even toy “atomic labs” for children and Disney books with titles like “Our Friend the Atom” (see also under Sellafield
and National Nuclear Museum Albuquerque
All this information is conveyed in the exhibition through a mix of classic, static photo-and-text panels as well as, and more so, on rows of wall-mounted flat-screen monitors on which slide shows of yet more texts and photos play in loops. The speed of the slide shows is rather slow, so it takes quite a while to get all the info available.
But the exhibition also features plenty of hands-on exhibits. These are mostly aimed at a younger clientele and indeed are used primarily, and with panache, by children (who otherwise typically don't give much of a toss about the subject matter of the exhibition). You can make sound waves, use your hand to manipulate static electricity, find out what's magnetic and what isn't and so forth.
The more adult storyline of the exhibition meanwhile continues with Calder Hall and how its success sparked the construction of a whole series of further nuclear power stations all over Britain. This is mostly via slide shows and static panels again, but there is also a large interactive screen on which you can explore various aspects of the subject of radiation.
Moreover, there are also a few artefacts from the old visitor centre exhibition now on display at this museum. This includes a replica of a Magnox fuel rod (the type originally used first at Calder Hall), in which natural uranium is enclosed in a magnesium alloy tube.
Next to this you see a cut open fuel-rod
element of the sort used in the Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors, the first prototype of which was also constructed at Sellafield. Its iconic spherical reactor building quickly became known as the “golf ball”. I remember that from the old visitor centre's windows you could still see this golden ball in the distance. (See also Dounreay
, which has such an iconic golf ball reactor building too, albeit painted in pale green, not gold.)
More artefacts are the various nuclear waste containers, or models thereof, in the next section that deals with a) reprocessing, and b) the issue nuclear waste storage. Accompanying these is an almost glamorizing account of the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) that started operating in 1994. By reprocessing Japanese nuclear waste as well, Thorp washed plenty of yen into British coffers. So this massive operation is, economically, deemed another success story.
The issue of nuclear waste is portrayed with an almost rose-tinted view of optimism. The problems of radioactivity is rather played down, as are the risks involved in handling and transporting nuclear waste containers.
One element of reassurance in this regard is a film of a drastic test set-up, when an unmanned train was hurled at high speed to collide head-on with a nuclear waste container placed against a concrete wall right on the tracks. The footage, in slow motion, of the train hitting the container is indeed very impressive. And at least visually the container appeared to have survived, only slightly bent, but more or less intact and in one piece. So we have nothing to worry about, I presume, is the message.
The crucial question of ultimate storage
of nuclear waste is only briefly picked up and rather brushed aside. All it says about this is that all the (high-level) waste at Sellafield will be stored “safely” (oh, but of course!) at the site “until a permanent Geological Disposal Facility” becomes available (e.g. like those planned at Forsmark
as well as in Finland). Proposals for such a facility nearby, namely in the bedrock of the Lake District, were thrown out by the local government, however.
The storage of waste from older operations at Sellafield is still in open ponds. This is obviously an undesirable form of storage, and it is part of the current clean-up operations at the site to empty and demolish these old open-air facilities. How difficult it is to move the waste containers inside such ponds by remote-controlled apparatus can be experienced at one of the hands-on simulators in the exhibition.
And if you're really worried you can even test for any contamination of your hands by means of an original machine designed for that purpose.
The safety of those working at the site is also the topic of a separate section. Dummies are wearing different levels of protective clothing. And panels reveal details of the security management at the site (which makes me very doubtful that visits by members of the public could still be possible). The sections about Sellafield as an employer are yet again almost bordering on the glorifying.
More sobering are the sections on what still needs to be done for a complete clean-up of the Sellafield sites in the future. It's not just all that nuclear waste in storage ponds, the old reactors and associated facilities will also have to be dismantled.
Some parts that were relatively easy to get rid of, such as the Calder Hall cooling towers, have already been demolished. You can watch an impressive video of the controlled dynamiting of those formerly iconic structures. Taking apart the chimneys of the old Windscale Piles will take more effort and time, though … work on this is ongoing.
The final section of the Sellafield Story exhibition strives ostensibly to finish on a really positive note, though. Keywords such as excellence, experience, knowledge, and investment are thrown around heavy-handedly. The relevance of nuclear expertise for the future is demonstrated further under the key word development, e.g. for nuclear power supplies for space vehicles or radiological monitoring devices.
The rest of the museum is of less particular interest to the dark tourist, although there are a few (completely non-nuclear) other dark aspects woven into the general exhibition about the Copeland region of Cumbria and its history, e.g. the involvement of Whitehaven in the slave trade, mining (and its concomitant deadly disasters) and there is also a section on working class poverty in Industrial-revolution-era housing estates, or, even worse, in so-called workhouses. The skull seen in the photo gallery, however, is only a local “ghost show” artist's prop.
The rest is a mix of local lore, geography, and history, going back to prehistoric times and also including the period during which this part of England, just south of Hadrian's Wall keeping out the Scots, was part of the Roman Empire.
At the top of the tower-like museum building, on the fourth floor, you can enjoy good views of Whitehaven and its harbour/marina. On a mezzanine level there was an additional hand-on exhibit about pop culture, but it was so crowded at the time of my visit that I didn't get to see this.
Nor did I have time for any of the current temporary exhibitions or special events. At the time of writing there was a special exhibition about “aliens” featuring Sci-Fi movie props and costumes.
Finally, there is also a small shop and a canteen/bistro on the ground level with views of the harbour.
Overall, I found the Sellafield Story exhibition both quite informative as well as a little bit disappointing at the same time. I must say that on balance I preferred the old exhibition at the former Sellafield visitor centre, as it was both more open and balanced on its nuclear subject matter and at the same time had a stronger focus on actual artefacts.
At the Beacon Museum, in contrast, most hands-on exhibits were more for the kids, while the information for adults makes too much use of a format that I found odd and unnecessarily time-consuming: namely those slow-moving slide shows. You cannot influence their speed or the order in which the screens change, so you are bound to the given presentation and I found myself getting a bit impatient at times.
Still, as the successor to the former Sellafield visitor centre, this part of the Beacon closes an important gap. The rest of the museum is less for the dark tourist, but quite nicely presented and worth a look.
right on the harbour quays very near the centre of Whitehaven, Cumbria, England, Great Britain
, ca. 35 miles (60 km) south-west of Carlisle.
Access and costs: a bit off the main tourist routes but easy enough to get to; not too expensive.
Details: Getting to Whitehaven is probably easiest by car, although the town is also on a train line and buses connect it to the wider area too. The train station is located at the opposite, northern end of the harbour.
When coming by car follow the signs for the town centre from the main regional trunk road, the A595. The Beacon is signposted too within the town. The building is hard to miss, given its location on the south quay of the harbour and its walls' bright white colour.
Note that the car parks at the museum itself and right next to it are for local permit holders only. The nearest public car park, though, is just 150 yards or so to the south (it's a pay-and-display car park, though – make sure you put enough money in the machine to cover your visit … I paid for only 2 hours and had to rush to get back to my car bang on the minute my ticket expired).
Admission: 5.50 GBP (concessions 4 GBP, children 2 GBP)
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays, as well as holiday Mondays, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., last admission 45 mins before closing. (In fact there is conflicting information on their own website about Mondays – in a different place it simply says Monday-Sunday, but better check ahead if it's a regular Monday that you want to go on – phone: 01946-592302).
If you want to stay overnight in Whitehaven, there are plenty of options for accommodation, from simple B&Bs to plush country mansions. However, when I was there at Easter 2016, I couldn't find any rooms still available, so I diverted southwards a bit, having found a room at a seaside hotel in nearby St Bees.
Time required: if you want to read everything there is, either in static form or on screens, and also exploit the hands-on exhibits, then you'll need upwards of two hours, if not up to half a day. But I saw most visitors being much more selective and just skimming through the exhibitions in probably less than an hour.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
To see the real Sellafield
plant you can try to catch a glimpse of it from what used to be their visitor centre. Otherwise I suspect you can't really get anywhere near it … and trying to might alert the on-site security, which is predictably tight.
The nearest other place of some dark-tourism interest is the Ruskin Museum
in Coniston in the middle of the nearby Lake District.
For other dark sites further afield see under Great Britain
Whitehaven also has a link to a far-away site in Bulgaria
, namely Kozloduy
, with which the town is twinned, presumably because of both places' close links to the nuclear industry.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Whitehaven is a pleasant little harbour town worth a bit of exploring in itself. The harbour is no longer commercial but has been turned into a marina. Old warehouses have also been converted. And there is a unique Caribbean-themed “Rum Museum” in town too, to name but a few attractions.
In addition, the Lake District is within easy reach just a few miles to the east. It is one of the most scenic regions of Britain and very popular with hikers. The coast around Whitehaven is an attraction as well, especially just south of the town at St Bees Head, where the only sea cliffs on the English west coast between Wales and Scotland are to be found. St Bees itself is also worth a look. And for those seriously into hiking: it is here that the coast to coast walk all the way to the Yorkshire coast on the North Sea begins (or ends, of course, depending on which direction you do it). The other end point is Robin Hood's Bay, just south of Whitby
. The path traverses the Peak District, the Pennines and the North York Moors.
Off the coast of Whitehaven you can, in clear enough weather, see the outline of the Isle of Man, lying in the Irish Sea about halfway between Cumbria and Northern Ireland
. The island is an oddity in as much as it is not part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but a self-governed Crown dependency. That is: it is not part of the Kingdom, but the Queen is still officially head of state (sounds paradoxical? … well, welcome to the mad Manx world of Man). The island's government is independent with regard to all domestic affairs, but foreign affairs and defence are the responsibility of the UK. And as a kind of tax haven the island has never been part of the EU. Furthermore it has one of the last surviving (but critically endangered) Celtic languages, Manx, and is home to a weird breed of tailless cat (also called Manx).
To get there, however, you'd have to either get a ferry from much further down the coast (Heysham or Liverpool) – or fly.
- Beacon 01 - lighthouse-like museum building
- Beacon 02 - central theme
- Beacon 03 - how it all began
- Beacon 04 - exhibition
- Beacon 05 - hands-on exhibits
- Beacon 06 - history
- Beacon 07 - Magnox
- Beacon 08 - different type of fuel rods
- Beacon 09 - more interactive elements
- Beacon 10 - simulators
- Beacon 11 - work clothes
- Beacon 12 - test your hands for contamination
- Beacon 13 - nuclear waste
- Beacon 14 - nuclear progress
- Beacon 15 - WWII-era bomb shelter
- Beacon 16 - slavery
- Beacon 17 - poverty
- Beacon 18 - mining
- Beacon 19 - skull prop
- Beacon 20 - ancient Roman history
- Beacon 21 - maritime legacy
- Beacon 22 - marina
- Beacon 23 - Whitehaven
- Beacon 24 - Whitehaven seen from the panoramic windows on the 4th floor