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What happened at Thornton in 1968?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
(December 15, 2000) Following letters from Shell's lawyers, the internet service provider Easyspace recently shut down a web site alleging that Shell decommissioned a radioactive research facility at their laboratories at Thornton (Cheshire, UK) in a highly irregular way. The web site was moved to another provider, and contains extensive details of the allegations together with Shell's statement of what happened at Thornton in 1968. Both, however, give rise to questions.

(540.5227) WISE Amsterdam - At the Sunlight Conference (parallel to COP6) in The Hague on 21 November 2000, a Shell International spokesman said that it was "not for nothing" that Shell is no longer significantly involved in nuclear activities. At one time, Shell was very enthusiastic about nuclear energy. In 1973, Shell invested US$200 million into General Atomic, a joint venture with Gulf Oil to develop high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGR). However the joint venture was a financial fiasco. Shell cut its link with General Atomic on 1 January 1982 after losses totaling billions of Dutch guilders (hundreds of millions of US dollars).

In 1998, Shell was accused of trying to cover up dumping of radioactive waste from the Brent Spar oil storage platform. The platform had been moved to a Norwegian fjord after Greenpeace activists had occupied it in protest against Shell's original plans to sink it in the sea. Shell's plans to transfer 50 cubic meters of radioactively contaminated pipework from Brent Spar to the Dounreay reprocessing plant were disclosed to The Observer, and admitted by Shell spokesman Eric Faulds. However a Department of Trade and Industry spokesman "could not explain" why no public announcement had been made, as would have been usual with nuclear waste imports.

The recent web site, however, concerns events in 1968 at Shell's Thornton Research Centre in Cheshire, UK. Journalist John Dyer received information that the decommissioning of a "nuclear reactor/testing cell" at the research establishment in 1968 was carried out in a highly irregular way. According to this information, a large cash sum was paid to a demolition contractor with a dubious background, who then hired subcontractors to carry out the actual work. The plan was that radiation workers from the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) laboratories at Harwell would remove the radioactive materials and the demolition workers would dismantle and dispose of the concrete biological shielding. However, according to Dyer's information, things did not go according to plan, and the whole installation was broken up and dumped. The wives of two of the demolition workers subsequently gave birth to a number of abnormal babies who died shortly after birth.

Although Dyer started to obtain information in 1971, it was not until 1988 that he realized the significance of the allegations. He then researched the allegations for five years, and in 1993 a television program was commissioned for Carlton Television. Shortly before the program was due to be transmitted, in February 1994, Shell responded with a "Narrative" giving their version of the events at Thornton in 1968. This Narrative led to Carlton canceling the program.

In its Narrative, Shell claimed that the structure demolished in 1968 was a "Cobalt-60 labyrinth", which had been used to test the effects of radiation on lubricating oils. According to Shell, workers from Harwell removed the Cobalt-60 sources in 1967 before the 1968 demolition. During demolition, a minute quantity of Cobalt-60 was found (with radioactivity of 2 kilobecquerels), which was well within the UK limits for dumping in an ordinary landfill site.

Dyer, however, obtained a separate report of the demolition of the Cobalt-60 labyrinth, which was a relatively simple job. Shell's Narrative appeared to consist of a mixture of this report and the report of the "nuclear reactor/testing cell" decommissioning. Dyer claimed that Shell's Narrative was a deliberate fabrication, and carried on with his investigations.

After correspondence with various Shell departments, a meeting was held between Dyer and senior Shell staff at the Thornton site on 12 January 1999. The senior Shell staff said that they would investigate the allegations. Over a year later Dyer was not satisfied with their responses to his questions about the progress of their investigations. He drafted a "Statement of Claim" containing the allegations and demanding damages from Shell, which he sent to Shell. Shell then appointed lawyers to deal with the matter, who pointed out that Dyer's draft Statement of Claim was badly drafted and would probably be "struck out" by a court. After an exchange of letters, Dyer decided to publish his information on the Internet as a web site entitled "Nuclear Crimes", having first sent copies to Shell and Shell's lawyers and inviting them to take legal action against him.

The lawyers then sent a letter to Easyspace, Dyer's Internet provider, warning them that they could be held liable for the defamatory allegations contained on the web site. Easyspace then shut the web site down on 1 November 2000. Dyer moved the web site to another Internet provider, who also received a letter from Shell's lawyers. When the second Internet provider failed to shut down the site, Shell's lawyers then tried to have the provider's entire domain shut down. At the time of writing, however, the site is still operational.

What really happened at Thornton in 1968? Dyer's identification of sites utilized in the course of decommissioning could give a clue. Testing these sites for the presence of radioactive materials would seem to be an urgent priority, both for the sake of the residents and Shell's reputation.


  • Web site
  • Financieele Dagblad, 23 December 1981
  • "UK: Shell nuclear dumping cover-up exposed", The Observer, 12 July 1998

Contact: WISE Amsterdam