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Essay — From the June 2019 issue

Is Poverty Necessary?

An idea that won’t go away

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In 1989 I published a book about a plutonium-producing nuclear complex in En­gland, on the coast of the Irish Sea. The plant is called Sellafield now. In 1957, when it was the site of the most serious nuclear accident then known to have occurred, the plant was called Windscale. While working on the book, I learned from reports in the British press that in the course of normal functioning it released significant quantities of waste—plutonium and other transuranic elements—into the environment and the adjacent sea. There were reports of high cancer rates. The plant had always been wholly owned by the British government. I believe at some point the government bought it from itself. Privatization was very well thought of at the time, and no buyer could be found for this vast monument to dinosaur modernism.

Back then, I shared the American assumption that such things were dealt with responsibly, or at least rationally, at least in the West outside the United States. Windscale/Sellafield is by no means the anomaly I thought it was then. But the fact that a government entrusted with the well-being of a crowded island would visit this endless, silent disaster on its own people was striking to me, and I spent almost a decade trying to understand it. I learned immediately that the motives were economic. What of all this noxious efflux they did not spill they sold into a global market.

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is the author of the essay collections The Givenness of Things and What Are We Doing Here? She first wrote about the Sellafield nuclear site in the February 1985 issue of Harper’s Magazine. This material was presented as the Joanna Jackson Goldman Memorial Lectures on American Civilization and Government at The New York Public Library in February 2019. Made possible by a gift from the estate of Eric F. Goldman, the lectures are intended to stimulate discussion of contemporary issues that have a long-term significance for American democracy.

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