2007 - 2022

What language do we put on the door?

What language do we put on the door? From the Province of the Cat by George Gunn.

At the recent local elections three of the five candidates for the West Caithness ward listed on their leaflets building more nuclear reactors at Dounreay alongside complaints about potholes in the roads as their priorities. They all got in. None of them took up my suggestion that they could fill all the potholes in Caithness with nuclear waste. I suspect none of them had given much thought to nuclear waste at all, which is something they had in common with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority when they built Dounreay in the 1950’s. Unfortunately the waste problem is now critical, in more ways than one.

The Dounreay dome, the reactor protective casing structure, also known as the sphere and the golf ball, has been a feature of the north Caithness coast for almost 60 years. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has recommended that the DFR be decontaminated by 2022 (the schedule has slipped) so it can then be demolished. In 2007, Dounreay Site Restoration Limited (DSRL), the company that manages the site, released the results of public consultation on future uses for the dome. Suggestions included turning it into a hotel, museum and even a nightclub. However, because the structure is contaminated with worrying levels of radioactivity and due to high maintenance costs, it was decided to demolish it. So, sadly, no glowing raves or very long radioactive sleeps or trips back into a memory that begins in 1955 and will never end as the nuclear waste, dome and all, will be buried at a nuclear dump site at nearby Buldoo. What language, I wonder, will they put on the steel door of this addition to the ancient burial mound culture of Caithness?

At an underground facility, a bit like Buldoo, assuringly called “The Waste Isolation Plant”, the US government buries all kinds of nasty waste from its nuclear weapons production 600 metres below the rocks of New Mexico. In 20 years time, when the dump has been stuffed to the gunnels with nuclear crap, the US government will have to seal the steel and concrete entrances and place signs saying “Danger Zone!” all around them.

The problem, as Serhii Plokhy, the author of “Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima”, has pointed out, is that the underground store will still be contaminated in 300,000 years, and no one can predict what language our descendants will read or speak at that time, or what messages might convince them not to dig into the New Mexico rocks. In the 1990s nuclear security experts proposed symbols, earthworks and mounds of rubble designed to convey an appropriate sense of menace to anyone stumbling on the area. The intended message the US government wanted to broadcast was:

“This place is not a place of honour. No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here. Nothing valued is here. What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.”

The hard question Serhii Plokhy, who is also a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University where he also serves as the director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, asks is,

“If what we bury today in the New Mexico desert – the waste created by our nuclear ambitions – is so repulsive to us, why do we pass it on to others to deal with?”

His mind is on what is happening in his native Ukraine, with Russian squaddies recently digging deep trenches at Chernobyl and throwing up clouds of contaminated dust and, as he wrote in The Guardian on the 14th of May, worse was to follow,

“The world woke up to an even more nightmarish reality a week later, when news arrived from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine. Reports suggested that Russian forces had shelled the plant and set one of its buildings on fire. Russian troops left Chernobyl once they lost the battle for Kyiv, but they remained in Zaporizhzhia, further endangering the operation of Europe’s largest nuclear power station. On 26 April, Ukraine’s state-run atomic energy company reported that Russian missiles aimed at the town of Zaporizhzhia flew at low altitude over the reactor buildings.”

Perhaps the Russian military couldn’t read the signs at Chernobyl or at Zaporizhzhia? In 300,000 years who knows what the humans alive then will make of the signs and symbols the NDA have displayed on the nuclear dump at Buldoo? I imagine they will stare at them with the same fascinated non-understanding as we do at the oghams carved on the symbol stones at Ackergill in Caithness or at Brandsbutt in Aberdeenshire. It is generally thought that the earliest inscriptions in ogham date to about 4th century in Ireland but James Patrick Carney, the Irish Celtic Scholar, believed its origin is rather within the 1st century BC. The reality is that we know, or so we have convinced ourselves, what oghams say but we don’t really know what they mean.

Some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago when the burial mounds and standing stones that constitute the rich built heritage of Caithness were constructed the North of Scotland was covered in a dense pine forest. For those Mesolithic and neolithic people Caithness was a very different place. They would not comprehend our contemporary society, almost treeless, full of fields and houses and with a great bog, the Flow Country, stretching South for 60 miles and as far West as the land allows.

In 1991 Ukraine voluntarily gave up her inherited nuclear arsenal, then the third largest in the world. Brexit Britain determinedly and against the interests of the state’s population hangs onto hers. Why? Is it simply a delusion of power and part of the Global Britain nostalgia dream where the only real direction is backwards? For Scotland there is no future in being part of this failed state and its imagined and manufactured past. The reason we in Scotland must get rid of the nuclear weapons on our soil and all of the nuclear reactors is because, like the people of Ukraine, we desire peace. Every nuclear installation in the UK is a military asset no matter what the NDA and the London government say. Every nuclear reactor, such as the two big ones at Dounreay, the DFR nad the PFR, present a toxic future no matter what language they carve on the doors of Buldoo. This present Tory government also presents a toxic future as they are addicted, despite all the evidence, to nuclear. This is a regime that suppresses democracy in Scotland and ignores election results in Northern Ireland. They cannot read the oghams of the peoples democratic desires. Like nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons they can only be got rid of through Scotland regaining her independence. The UK is unravelling in hunger and poverty for the majority and untold wealth and privilege for the few. That reality they cannot bury. Not through their micro-managed dictatorship of zero hours contracts or by enjoying their last supper of Partygate as a company of ghosts speaking in dead metaphors and broadcasting a pseudo-radical futurelessness on the BBC. Hannah Arendt was not only describing mid-20th century German and Italian dictatorships when she wrote,

“Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

As a young philosopher she examined, in her early published work, the eternal paradox of how to love and live with fear, observing,

“Fearlessness is what love seeks. Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future. Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”

A paradox in logic arises when you try to say those things that can only be shown. Through a referendum the Scots can show the world what we tell ourselves, in our best moments: that we can live without fear, that we can become an independent people, a modern European nation, with a “Now”, but also a future. Who knows, in a future Scotland we might even begin to treat people we don’t know in the same way we would treat those we love. We might be able to offer sanctuary to Ukrainian refugees and to all those who seek asylum from their oppressors.

The nuclear age started at 8.15am, 6 August 1945, with the release of a 4,400kg bomb from a B-29 over Hiroshima. It continued after World War Two. It has created, through its destruction and fear, strange images, disconcerting atomic oghams. The associate professor of history at Northwestern University in the US, and the author of “How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States”, Daniel Immerwahr, has written,

“In 1954, a detonation by the US at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific got out of hand, irradiating the inhabited atoll of Rongelap and an unfortunate Japanese tuna fishing boat. When the boat’s sickened crew returned to Japan, pandemonium erupted. Petitions describing Japan as ‘thrice victimised by nuclear bombs’ and calling for a ban collected tens of millions of signatures. Ishiro Honda, a film director who’d seen the Hiroshima damage first-hand, made a wildly popular film about a monster, Gojira, awakened by the nuclear testing. Emitting ‘high levels of H-bomb radiation’, Gojira attacks a fishing boat and then breathes fire on a Japanese city.” (The Guardian, 12.5.22)

In the West we know Gojira as Godzilla. In Scotland, I would suggest, we know Godzilla as Bojo, the Prime Minister monster who emits high levels of political radiation and breathes fire on our democracy. What the awakened monsters represent is that our nuclear consciousness is critically wasted. We’re left living in a world full of nuclear weapons but also in a world that is steadily emptying of people who understand their consequences or what they mean – they cannot read the language on the door of the dump.

Leonardo da Vinci once wrote that the eye does not know the edge of anyone, that it always arrives at a greater truth. So it must be that our future – social, cultural and political – does not live or die in the arms of a another atomic power or is destroyed by any Godzilla. These are the oghams we must learn to read. From the distant past we might learn about what could go wrong in the future, so that we don’t make the wrong choices again. Scottish independence will allow us at least to learn.

©George Gunn 2022


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Comments (8)

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  1. Squigglypen says:

    Excellent piece George. Cheered me up to know that others feel as I do….BUT…… Neil ‘Lord Haw Haw’ Oliver who on telly on Tuesday on GBNews ( boke) told us he LOVED England and that the Scots did not want Independence……How do we move forward with Scottish traitors like that who are allowed a platform to tell the English what we want.Answers on a hand grenade and I pass them on the correct recipient…

    1. Gordon Cuthbertson says:

      I think a haund grenade is a wee bit ower the score fer shuttin Mr Oliver up. A muckle gobstopper wad dae the trick Preferably a soor yin tae match his pus

  2. Meg says:

    Always truthful.The voice on the wind we should listen to.
    Fear has been used lately to deprive folk of their own common sense interpretation of events…we do not have a shepherd to lead us to safety..those that should care blatantly do not.The future depends on having our own choices respected.We do not have that governed by Westminstet.

  3. david says:

    Language. Or rather, vocabulary. ‘Nuclear waste’ is the product of our Nuclear Power industry, every bit as much as power. There is a problem with disposing of it. The problem is that there is only one thing you can never, ever, ever do with this so-called waste. Which is, dispose of it. You have to guard it for tens of thousands of years. But by clever use of vocabulary, you could persuade people that the problem of ‘waste’ has either been dealt with, or will be soon.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    A nuclear war would be the biggest book-burning in history, and a bigger literary disaster than the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria.
    Of course, a lot of poetry will go up in flames too. Not that unsold volumes would make a great pothole-filler anyway. Unless chewed up and brined with asphalt, or whatever.

    Large swathes of Scotland are already contaminated from heavy industry and the military with no obligation on the perpetrators to clean it up, on a scale and of a kind that makes it uncertain it ever will be. Nuclear waste is another failure of living generations, a toxic bequest to future ones (non-human and human), but only one of many.

  5. 220602 says:

    According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nordic countries are leading the way in the safe storage and disposal of high-level nuclear waste and are working to exploit the economic opportunities that the commercial disposal of high-level waste offers them nationally.


    I understand the process is thus: used fuel that isn’t reprocessed in order to recycle the uranium and plutonium it contains is stored in ponds or dry casks at reactor sites (as it is at present) to allow decay of radioactivity and heat, making handling much safer; it will then be transported to deep geological repositories (like the one in Onkalo in Finland), where the material will be put back into the ground whence it came, with the geology itself providing the barrier that prevents the radionuclides from reaching humans and the environment.. Once the elements are returned to the earth, no obligation to actively maintain the facility is passed on to future generations.

    And, of course, fusion reactors don’t produce harmful long-term radioactive waste as a by-product like fission reactors do. And fusion is the direction in which nuclear power generation in travelling in the 21st century.


    So, the disposal of high-level nuclear waste might only be a growth industry until all our current, old-fashioned fission reactors have been decommissioned.

  6. greenergood says:

    We’ve only recently found the first glimpses of our ancestors in Africa and Indonesia of 300.000 years ago, and their even earlier ancestors of 1-2 million years ago. Us ‘moderns’ have ‘discovered’ amazing paintings from the European Paleolithic of 40,000 years ago, and even more in Australia – but 300,000 years? The mockery/hubris of developing something like nuclear components so toxic that they will outlast 300,000 years is just astounding – and is testimony to our human dual existence of destruction and sustenance. And this time, probably destruction will win. A tiny number of humans survived out of Africa over a million years ago, and proceeded to populate the world – might happen again – though our forebears populated a relatively unpolluted world. Who knows what the potential survivors will meet this time … the folly of the idea of mounted metal signs, in indistinct languages on sites that will contaminate the world for 300,000 years is just extraordinarily ignorant, and an indication of just how stupid is the 20th/21st-century idea of ‘progress’.

    1. 220604 says:

      Like Noah and his Ark. Isn’t it interesting how the same reset narrative keeps recurring in our culture?

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