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Too Close For Comfort?

Aaron Hindes

October 10th, 2012

What makes Plymouth – a popular British University city – so unique? Not what you might think says student photographer Aaron Hindes whose time in and around the city led him to the discovery that it is the only place in the world with nuclear ‘activities’ right on the doorstep of local schools and homes.

I realised people were not concerned because they didn't know there was a nuclear dockyard on their doorsteps

Plymouth is an archetypal ‘city by the sea’. The start-point for all manner of historical voyages and trading relationships, the city, on a good day, has clean air and clear vistas. The city’s heritage is built upon the relationship with all things maritime, and its strategic location, and geographically sheltered deep-water moorings have made it a natural place for one of the largest naval dockyards in Europe. 

Partially as a result of the need to service the dockyard, Plymouth has grown to be a populous place: the largest conurbation in the SW Peninsula. The general perception is that the city is holding its own, and is a great place to be - despite economic pressures it still compares favourably against the national average according to the Centre for Cities. However, that general perception belies the fact that certain areas of the city are placed within the most deprived 3% of areas in the UK. 

In September 2009, I moved from London to Plymouth to study photography at Plymouth University. Before then, my projects were usually politically inspired by events like the G20 riots. As soon as I was settled in Plymouth, I started to research the local area to get to know the place, and went in search of local issues to help inspire my future projects. 

It wasn’t long before I came across a small protest brandishing ‘Stop the Devonport Dump’ signs. I followed the group (led by a gentleman called Tony Staunton) around with my camera and paid attention to the things being said. I knew Plymouth was a Navy town, but I had no idea there was a nuclear dockyard in this city of 250,000 residents. The main issues raised were to do with the health and safety of the public.


I did some bits of research on this from time to time, but it wasn’t until January 2012 that I really started to look in to it. What I found was quite disturbing, and I found the more I explored, the more significant it all became.

There is no other place in the world that has nuclear bases and operations within 400 yards of schools and with 70,000 people living within the ‘immediate risk’ zone.

The Ministry of Defence is now proposing to remove radioactive reactor chambers from decommissioned nuclear submarines at Plymouth, and then store the nuclear waste in land in the dockyard. Not only that, they also want to dramatically increase the disposal of Tritium into the River Tamar and Carbon-14 into the air.

Tritium has the tendency to bind with organic material when ingested, inhaled or absorbed, thus producing an internal radiation. Once in the body the consequences can, over time, be lethal. The radiation from Tritium has the potential to damage the DNA molecule and produce either a cancer in the individual, or other genetic mutation. And DNA damage to genes or whole chromosomes may lead to serious diseases in future generations. 

The problem Devonport Dockyard has with nuclear waste is that it has nowhere to go. Radioactive waste has been accumulating in Plymouth since the late 1980s. Most of the intermediate and low-level radioactive waste that comes off the nuclear submarine stays in the city. The high level waste is held at the dockyard until it is transported elsewhere. The storage of all this radioactive waste in Plymouth is a major issue, and can, say critics, be extremely dangerous for terrorist access, radioactive leakage, fires or just general accidents. 

It is estimated there is a 1 in 80 chance of an accident and there have already been nine radioactive leaks since 1997. If there was a Cat-3 nuclear emergency, it would put Plymouth residents at extreme risk, and the city would likely face a large scale evacuation.

Ask yourself a question. Would a city of a quarter of a million people with an average population density of 31.47 persons per hectare be the obvious choice for the site of a military nuclear facility? Your answer may depend on a number of variables: likely risk factors; suitable alternatives; regional economics; or local opposition. Each of these variables brings with it a further series of questions, or balances.

Let’s take risk as an example. Risk assessment takes account of probabilities of events occurring and the severity of damage should it occur. So far as probability is concerned, we are not un-used to nuclear facilities having ‘problems’ and releasing radioactive materials into the wider environment: Windscale (rebranded as Sellafield),Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and more recently, Fukushima, spring to mind, as does Aldermaston. 

I began to think about a photography project on the subject matter. I aimed to go to the ‘immediate risk’ zone and ask people their views on the Nuclear Dockyard, take a series of portraits and really try to get into the lives of the people in the area. I also wanted to support the portraits with some quiet images of the area within the ‘immediate risk’ zone.

After a couple of weeks of walking around taking photos and talking to people in the area, I realised I kept running into the same problem which was that most of the people I was interacting with and questioning did not have any concerns, opinions or views on this uncomfortable situation. I couldn’t gain a full understanding of their lives because they barely knew anything about the Nuclear Dockyard, and therefore had nothing to say about it. As an outsider, I felt like I knew more about the nuclear dockyard and the health risks than the local residents. The closer to the dockyard I ventured, the poorer the quality of life seemed.

This is what got me to start thinking about environmental justice and discrimination in Plymouth. In one area residents not only have to deal with the stress of the Nuclear Dockyard, but also the Camels Head Sewage Treatment works and now the Incinerator. These potential environmental hazards are all in built-up areas of the city, where the quality of living is already lower, relative to the rest of Plymouth. 

Even those people that did have an awareness of the hazards seemed to be very naive and almost chose to blissfully ignore the risk potential. Until residents understand the environmental risks they won’t be motivated to participate in environmental decision-making, aimed at improving their communities’ way of life. Without this, more and more residents will lose their say in what happens in their locality.

In America similar scenarios gave rise to the Environmental Justice Movement, which aims to counter such disparity of power and help avoid contentious developments being foisted on communities who are perceived as lacking the will or means to oppose them. 

It’s a lot more straight-forward to adopt a ‘not in my back yard’ form of resistance when a community has the wherewithal to organise itself, a good understanding of the issues and a strong political voice.


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