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The BBC looks inside Sellafield

Nuclear physicist Jim Al-Khalili uncovers the story of Sellafield for a BBC documentary

For the community in West Cumbria, hosting the most complex nuclear site in Europe – perhaps even the world – is something they’ve grown used to.

Be it through public engagement meetings, local media stories or – most likely – either working there or having a friend or relative who does, local people have gained an understanding of the site’s rich history, at the centre of the global nuclear industry since that industry was born in the 1940s.

I have always been fascinated by Sellafield – it was a place I always wanted to visit and to better understand

Author's image
Prof. Al-Khalili
Nuclear physicist

But for the rest of the UK…

But for the rest of the UK, Sellafield remains a mystery. An often maligned name that is neither understood nor completely trusted.

Or at least it did – until Sellafield Ltd invited the BBC to go behind the razor-wire fence and tell the world the really story, Inside Sellafield.

Broadcast in August to hundreds of thousands of people across the UK, and with a potential future audience of millions in other territories around the world, Inside Sellafield tells the story of the UK’s nuclear industry through the prism of Sellafield, the nuclear pioneer.

It was presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili, an acclaimed author and trusted broadcaster who is also a theoretical physicist at the University of Surrey. Jim and a team of producers, cameramen and directors spent weeks at the site, learning about it in intricate detail.

The documentary dispelled myths, explored science and confronted history in glorious high definition, but what looked slick on screen was the result of months of planning, production and patience.

The project was over two years in the making – requiring government and regulatory approval before it could even be begin. So highly guarded is the security of the site that each member of the filming crew, including Prof Al-Khalili, had to submit to intensive background screening before they could be granted access.

We spent over two weeks on the site and everyday I saw something that made me go ‘wow’

The result was an unprecedented level of access, which made for a great documentary. Prof Al-Khalili said: “I have always been fascinated by Sellafield – it was a place I always wanted to visit and to better understand.

“We spent over two weeks on the site and every day I saw something that made me go ‘wow’. It was an amazing experience, and I am very proud of the documentary we made.”

The programme came about after a chance conversation between a member of Sellafield Ltd’s communications team and an independent television producer.

Senior communications manager Karl Connor, explained: “When we would engage with people, particularly London based journalists, and tell them about the site and about the history of the place, you often find yourself quoting facts and figures which they simply refused to believe.

“I‘d quote things like a Sellafield worker gets a lower radiation dose in a year than a pilot gets, or mention that if you took our radiation monitors – the ones which rarely pick up anything above background here at all – to Grand Central Station in New York they’d go off the scale because of the granite there.

BBC4 at Sellafield_2196

“Locally people get it, but we found that nationally the message is still difficult to land. If you mentioned Sellafield in national media space people instantly ask about leaks – even though the last one here with any off site consequence was over 30 years ago.”

Karl and his team had been trying to think of a way to get some of that information out there, to dispel some of the myths and mystery, when he took a call from a Mark Tattersall, a producer from an independent film company called Artlab Films.

The pair met and each was impressed with the other’s commitment to finding a way to work together.

Karl said: “Making a programme like this was always going to be difficult. The project represented a risk, not least from a security perspective in terms of granting access to the site to a film crew, over a prolonged period of time.

“Mark had just returned to the UK from making a documentary for ITV inside Camp Bastion in Afghanistan – so I knew he’d understand those sensitivities. We were very honest with each other about what was achievable and I was clear from the start that, even though I thought a TV show was a great idea, there might well be some senior people, either within Sellafield Ltd, the NDA, or even DECC or one of our regulators who might, for very good reason, not approve.”

We wanted to offer the general public some context, so that the next time they read about Sellafield they know a bit more

Months of meetings and workshops followed. Hurdles were presented, a very short pilot was even made, but it looked like nothing would come of the idea.

Mark said: “At one stage we thought we had reached the end of the line. Our original idea had been to tell the story of the site through the people who work there – to spend the best part of a year working from a base at Sellafield, following different workers as they went about their day to day routines. The BBC, and others, were very interested in commissioning a show like that, on the back of some successful ones that had been made in hotels and other industries.”

But the project, at that stage, could not get approval. Karl explained: “Our collective view was that a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ type show wasn’t the right way to go. There were two main issues – the security aspect of having this crew on site for so long was an obvious one, but we also had to consider the time and resource we would have had to dedicate to making a programme like that, and wether it was the best use of taxpayers’ money.

“The overarching principle of communications at Sellafield is that we are open and transparent, and that still stood. That’s a stance which is supported by the NDA and by DECC – we all wanted to find a way to make something work.”

BBC4 at Sellafield_2183

In collaboration with the NDA and following a workshop with DECC, Sellafield Ltd went back to Artlab with a proposal for a science based programme, tackling the history of the nuclear industry at Sellafield and shot over a much shorter time period. Mark pitched the idea to the BBC – who loved it.

Mark said: “What the show became was a much more reasoned and adult discussion about the history of the industry in the UK, told from the site which has been at the heart of it. With hindsight that had always been the right thing to do. The story is almost too complex to tell on BBC 2 or in half hour segments on satellite TV. When we talked to the BBC again we agreed that a BBC Four documentary would be the perfect place to tell this fascinating story.”

That wasn’t the end of the process – vetting had to be carried out and filming dates agreed and managed – not to mention a complex contractual agreement covering everything from when and where meals would be provided to rights to use archive footage. But after so much preparation and planning the filming passed off without any major issues.

When I saw the genuine look of wonder on Jim’s face each time we took him into somewhere he hadn’t been before, we knew we were on to a winner with someone who really understood what we wanted to get across in the show.

“Of course, the BBC retained editorial control, and they covered the history of the site ‘warts and all’, but without that the programme would have lacked authenticity, and we know that there is far more for the site to be proud about over the past 60 years then there is for us to regret.

“We wanted to offer the general public some context, so that the next time they read about Sellafield they know a bit more. We hope the programme dispelled a few myths, not least the one that the site is secretive or inaccessible.

“Of course, the average member of the public can’t come on a day trip – but we do lots to make information about the site accessible, releasing reports and keeping people up to date. MPs and key stakeholders also come to visit frequently.

“Looking at the initial viewing figures, we believe that the show achieved our aims.”