Glowing in the dark

I get a lot of hostility in Cardiff whenever I depart from the authorised hymn-sheet and express critical views about the city. This hostility is dished out by a range of very different people from very different backgrounds, but always has certain features in common: it is enraged, outraged and inarticulate, exploding with an incoherent fierceness that often comes as a surprise to the people themselves. Moreover, these defenders of Cardiff invariably end up arguing themselves into the rather scary corner that advocates the silencing of dissent. Why are they so insecure? If Cardiff is so wonderful, why do my irrelevant pip-squeak scratchings hit such a raw nerve with these authoritarian Pollyannas?

Every student of A-level psychology knows that those who feel obliged to be forever upbeat and ‘positive’ are invariably deeply depressed behind the fixed grin, the bubbly personality and the gushing veneer. The clinically depressed have to make a major emotional investment in all’s-well-with-the-world and happy-ever-afters, or otherwise their fragile sense of well-being would shatter at the slightest undercutting of comforting narrative arcs. Cardiff, being a dysfunctional and sad city, is awash with depressives. Just stand on the same spot in, say, Queen Street for 10 minutes, look carefully at each person who passes, and see for yourself the grim, joyless, angst-ridden misery carved into the off-guard facial expressions. Dim conformity is all that can be expected when life is a daily struggle to do any more than cope, and Cardiff’s brew of small-town provincialism, deluded pretentiousness, frantic overcompensating for a gigantic inferiority complex, anti-Welsh bigotry, demotic self-mythologizing, massive levels of deprivation, poverty, disease and dispossession, rampant profiteering and exploitation, and profound small ‘c’ conservativism has been particularly effective in nurturing thousands upon thousands of desperately unhappy and fucked-up people.

Only the truly optimistic and loving dare to face the truth and tell it like it is, since the very act of criticism is an assertion that improvement is not only desirable but also possible, as well as an expression of intrinsic affection and concern. To turn off critical faculties and don rose-tinted spectacles is to give up on Cardiff and state it deserves no better. The louder these professions of ‘love’ the clearer the opposite emotion lurking beneath is displayed, because blind love, inappropriate love and undeserved love add up to an actively damaging indifference and negligence – and that, in practice not theory, amounts to hate.

Yes, hatred for Cardiff and Cardiffians is everywhere manifest and is most prevalent among those continually telling us how marvellous everything is. They are like the nutty believers in ‘faiths’ that refuse medicine when a child is sick, doing nothing while the supposed love object dies. They are the admass bots, too bewildered, brainwashed and beaten to imagine things could ever be other than how they are presented by far-right media barons. They are the bourgeois centrists begotten by Blairism, ‘liberal’ in culture and lifestyle trappings where it doesn’t matter, deeply rightwing economically where it does matter. They are the stunted drones of technology, so welded to a glowing screen they have lost touch with reality. They are the servants of crony capitalism, the pimps of corporate power, the apologists for unforgivable injustice and inequality and the reactionary stooges of the status quo. They lack the intelligence, the ethics, the historical perspective and the courage ever to do more than bow to prevailing values. Their gurgling endorsement of each and every disaster and humiliation inflicted on poor Cardiff by a combination of British venality, successive councils, property developers, speculators, hedge funds and off-shore crime syndicates is as plausible as the hollow marketing-speak of glossy TV commercials for unaffordable luxury cars, gliding on empty roads through pristine landscapes: lies, damn lies and advertisements.

The point I try in vain to get across to Cardiff’s lobotomised free-market militia is this: however much I have criticised every aspect of Cardiff’s affairs for years, in actual fact I have hardly scratched the surface of the true horror. Yes, things are far, far worse than even I can say.

A hint of the horror came this month thanks to the efforts of feisty Plaid Cymru AM and Fairwater councillor Neil McEvoy. He has exposed well advanced plans for Cardiff to be the dumping ground for 300,000 tonnes of radioactive mud from decommissioned Hinkley Point A and B nuclear power stations, currently being dredged from the Severn for the construction of the new Hinkley Point C in Somerset. The Labour government in the Senedd, without debate or even notification, granted permission in 2013 and neither Natural Resources Wales, the government-appointed body which approved the licence, or the local council have any objections. So Cardiffians are shortly to be exposed to perpetual doses of the most harmful poisons known to man, with untold and unimaginable consequences for the health of generation after generation of Cardiffians to come. Whoops, there I go again: having an adverse impact on footfall!

It is beyond comprehension that a city should even contemplate doing this to its own people in the UK in the 21st century. Tim Deere-Jones, an independent specialist in marine pollution, has warned that the radioactive sediments earmarked for dumping on the Cardiff mudbanks just the other side of the Barrage can dry out and blow ashore and transfer to land as fine radioactive micro-particles in marine aerosols and sea-spray. The toxic by-product of the UK’s obscene atomic weapons programme, manufactured at Hinkley Point A for 50 years, is thus to be dumped on Cardiff to make way for England’s equally obscene latest nuclear energy plant, a totally discredited £20 billion project that has been incessantly mired in scandal. Cardiffians are now supposed to meekly accept the airy reassurances of owners EDF, 85% owned by the French government, that the mud’s radioactivity is “minimal”.  In that case, as it’s so harmless, why not just dump it in Bridgwater Bay rather than go to the expense and trouble of shipping it 20 miles across the Severn? As Neil McEvoy put it: “No dose of non-naturally occurring radiation is safe. What we have here is big business trampling over Wales, with a Welsh government doffing its cap to London and the nuclear industry. The Welsh national interest is not being served. The public is outraged that this material will be dumped in Cardiff’s waters and washed around the Welsh coast, with transfer of radioactivity from sea to land.” Well, the public should be outraged, unless outrage in Cardiff is reserved for those who dare to want better for the city. Everybody who reads this should sign the petition to the Assembly (closing date Oct 31) demanding the suspension of the marine licence. See: https://www.assembly.wales/en/gethome/e-petitions/Pages/petitiondetail.aspx?PetitionID=1243

I can’t wait to hear how the chorus of bootlickers spin this latest example of the appalling realities of Cardiff. How about “I loves the decay chain”? Or, instead of a ‘Year of Legends’, Visit Wales could hold a ‘Year of Leukemias’. One thing’s certain, if it were left to the sycophants who large it in Cardiff, for whom any protest, any opposition and any political activism generally is kinda uncool because it suggests one might not be ecstatically happy all of the time, then this frightening nuclear waste will definitely get dumped here. I can say that with complete confidence because precisely the same thing has already happened in this capital of complacency and apathy. Twice.

One unique Cardiff claim to fame you never hear trumpeted is the city’s current standing as the most radioactive city in the UK. Friends of the Earth Cymru have dubbed it ‘Tritium City’ because for 29 years tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, was discharged in huge amounts into the air, the sewers and the Taff from the Amersham International factory in Whitchurch. The factory opened in 1981 after lobbying by local Tory MP Ian Grist (1938-2002) persuaded the Thatcher government to build a state-run Radiochemical Centre in the middle of the wet woodlands at Fforest Farm. This was the pay-off to the loyal Tory voters of Cardiff North for their years of support: lots of well-paid jobs, lots of lovely economic growth, oh, and lots of carcinogenic particles to inhale, ingest and absorb.

In 1982 the UK’s Radiochemical Centres were the very first of Thatcher’s many privatisations, resulting in the formation of Amersham. Let’s not bother going into the now-forgotten scandal of the giveaway price put on these public assets, which allowed Amersham shareholders to make instant huge profits, and instead concentrate on the very nasty material which 60 times a year poured into Whitchurch Brook and every day wafted out of the three chimneys, chillingly called Ventilation Stacks W, X and Y.

Located on a flood-plain in a densely-populated city, Amersham became the 2nd largest nuclear polluter in the UK after remote Sellafield in Cumbria. It was licensed to flush radionuclide waste straight into the sewage system and thence into the Taff and proceeded to give Cardiff such a radioactive drenching that tests on flora and fauna by the sylvan riverbanks of Fforest Farm showed heavy contamination with tritium (the normal level is 0.5 becquerels per kg; Taff invertebrates gave readings of 73,000 becquerels per kg!) and world-record levels of tritium were recorded in birds out in the estuary five miles away. Among tritium’s unusual properties are its extremely rapid transport in the environment, its quick internal uptake by humans and its ability to bind with other molecules during cell formation and metabolism, making it a prime cause of leukaemia, congenital abnormalities and infant mortality. We know that these diseases occur at a statistically significant higher than average rate in Cardiff, but the authorities have been peculiarly reluctant to mount the comprehensive survey of the population that the alarming facts demand and you never hear the Cardiff fanboyz boast about this genuinely world-class feature of the city. Well, it would be negative and that’s a downer. Further contempt for Cardiff was shown in 1997 when Amersham constructed a storage facility for their nuclear waste in what was by then called Fforest Farm Country Park – making Cardiff the only UK city to have a nuclear dump within its boundaries. And soon there will be two! How vibrant!

Amersham was bought by American giant General Electric and renamed GE Healthcare in 2004, and the manufacture of radiochemicals in Whitchurch was phased out in 2010 when binding European targets finally made their reckless pollution of Cardiff illegal. The site is still used to store historic radioactive wastes in buried stainless steel drums for decades into the future. But all this pales into insignificance when one examines the legacy of the Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) 1½ miles to the east in Llanishen.

The ROF opened in 1939 during the frantic re-armament period prior to WW2 on what was farmland alongside Caerphilly Road, handy for the Cardiff Railway. In 1961, at the height of the Cold War and by then surrounded by the suburbs of Birchgrove, Llanishen and Rhiwbina, it was secretly converted into a nuclear facility to manufacture components for atomic weapons – a decision made by the Macmillan government in London without any Welsh input. Of all the ROFs in the UK only two dealt in nuclear material: Burghfield in the Berkshire countryside and Llanishen in the capital of Wales. Deemed far too dangerous to site in urban areas throughout the rest of the UK, but perfectly OK for Cardiff, the factory seeped the most lethal elements known to humanity into the city’s arteries for the next 36 years until closure in 1997. We’re talking uranium, plutonium and beryllium, the big beasts of radioactive toxicity. Had nuclear war ever been triggered during those tense Cold War decades, the presence in the city of a main Soviet target like the ROF would have meant meltdown for Cardiff. More by luck than judgement that never happened, instead Cardiff has been left with more subtle, insidious horrors.

Deep in the soil, spreading out via underground aquifers and recycled into the air by plant growth and carbon release, countless isotopes of depleted uranium bide their time – there’s no rush, they’ve got a half-life of 4 billion years to do their work. That’s why buildings along Caerphilly Road and in Tŷ Glas Industrial Estate still have radiation monitoring equipment on their roofs 20 years after the ROF closed. That’s why the housing hurriedly thrown up on the site by developers to cash in on a passing property boom is now a sea of ‘To Let’ signs. That’s why property surveys regularly draw attention to uranium’s wild child, radon gas. That’s why Geiger-counter readings in the proximity can reveal unnerving hot-spots. And that’s probably why the odious British Nationalist Labour government in Cardiff Bay nodded through London’s Hinkley Point instructions: Cardiff is already saturated in radioactivity, what’s a little more?

You see, how can there be anything positive to say about a city where such terrible things have been and are being done? If any Cardiffian you loved died of cancer in the last half century or so, the likelihood is that the environment was a determining factor. Angry? You bet I am! The only puzzle is why every other Cardiffian isn’t angry too. A lot of the blame for the all-pervading anaesthetised stupor can be laid at the door of the Cardiff hype merchants whose blustering bombardment of baseless boasts is such a useful tool to foreclose debate, limit options, halt progressive change and isolate resistance. It is the responsibility of all who really care about Cardiff to point out every single crime committed against the city and its people and wipe the smug smirks from the fake faces of those who sing Cardiff’s praises. They are just selling while Cardiff burns.