Troubled Waters: Cumbria’s Drinking Water and the Nuclear Industry

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Land of Lakes.

Land of Wandering Clouds,

Over Wild Mountains

Rushing Gyhlls and Forces,

Becks and Streams,

Rivers Rushing (once) Brimful of Fish

To the Sea To the Sea To the Sea,

Why Then,

Plastic Bottled Water for You and Me?


Here in Lakeland, there are troubled waters. The land of lakes and wandering clouds over wild mountains are as spectacular as they ever were. The ghylls and forces are rushing, the rivers, becks and streams are bubbling as merrily as ever. So why have sales of bottled water gone through the roof in West Cumbria? West Cumbria is home to the two most iconic lakes: Ennerdale Water and Wastwater. These two lakes and their river systems have long been slaves to an industry whose 24/7 thirst knows no bounds….nuclear.

A Tale of Two Lakes

This is a tale of two lakes and the battles to try and stop the nuclear industry taking ever-more quantities of Lakeland’s fresh water. Other industries have of course taken Lakeland water but they have come and gone while the expanding mountain of radioactive waste is ours, it seems, to flush with fresh water for ever.

The Battle Begins

In the 1982 Friends of the Lake District publication, A Tale of Two Lakes, The Fight to Save Ennerdale Water and Wastewater,  by Geoffrey Berry, it stated how in 1978, the North West Water Authority (NWWA), having looked at a variety of solutions for an increased water supply for the Windscale nuclear plant, applied for permission to abstract additional water supplies from Ennerdale.

Ennerdale already supplied much of West Cumbria’s drinking water. Local farmers along with most countryside and environmental organisations, both national and local, united in vehement opposition to the nuclear industry taking more fresh water. The Save Ennerdale campaign was launched and proposed that an alternative source of fresh water could be used, namely from the River Derwent at the Yearl Weir near Workington. This had been considered by the NWWA, but rejected on grounds of cost.

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By the spring of 1979 there were rumours that BNFL were going to sort out their water problem by taking an increased supply from England’s deepest and most iconic lake, Wastwater, from where they already abstracted four million gallons a day. Wastwater was first used as a fresh water resource under emergency powers in the Second World War.

The Royal Ordnance Explosives Factory at the farming hamlet of Sellafield was established to produce TNT (trinitrotoluene). Production of explosives started in March 1943. Emergency War Powers allowed four million gallons a day to be drawn and this continued when the explosives factory became the Windscale nuclear plant producing plutonium for Weapons of Mass Destruction. BNFL’s new plan to quench its growing thirst in 1979 was to abstract 11 million gallons, three times the amount already being used. A Wastwater Defence Fund was set up asking people for donations in order to “put up a worthy fight and be properly represented at a public inquiry.”


The Secretary of State rejected both Wastwater and Ennerdale proposals in December 1981. The nuclear industry was however, handed a get out of jail free card:

“The Secretary of State notes that at the inquiry BNFL indicated that in the event of their Wastwater proposals not being approved they would wish to have a temporary consent for increased abstraction of 11Ml/d from Wastwater…the Company’s additional requirements in the short term are for top quality (R1) water.”


Fast-forward 36 years and the domestic supply of fresh water from Ennerdale to West Cumbrians is to cease by 2022. This is (so the official narrative goes) to safeguard water levels on the River Ehen flowing from Ennerdale Water that provides a “delicate habitat” for one of the last populations of endangered fresh water pearl mussels.

The pearl mussels are truly remarkable and very long-lived creatures and saving them is undeniably the right thing to do. However, the huge expense of a £300m pipeline from Thirlmere to West Cumbria “to protect the pearl mussels” has been criticised by water bill payers in the Lake District. The enormous sums of money and effort to save the pearl mussels are meaningless while the integrity of the River Ehen is being trashed by the nuclear industry. The volumes of fresh water abstraction from the River Ehen by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority for Sellafield’s cooling and processing is staggering (remember they take four million gallons daily from Wastwater as well as other sources too).


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The nuclear industry is understandably coy about its water usage from the River Ehen but they have been unwittingly rumbled by the National Grid. The National Grid in its documentation on the plan to provide pylons to and from the proposed new nuclear reactors (adjacent to the River Ehen) have published Sellafield’s unmentionable fresh water abstraction rates.

They are truly mind-blowing. 36 mega litres daily. That is eight million gallons every single day i.e. twice as much as is abstracted from Wastwater. To appease the Environment Agency, the nuclear industry abstracts borehole water which it then puts into the River Ehen as “compensation flow”.

Why doesn’t Sellafield use the borehole water direct on site? Because it needs good quality (R1) water, and borehole water from West Cumbria may well be tainted from decades of mining, not to mention decades of Sellafield.

Don’t Drink the Water

The Thirlmere pipeline won’t be in place until 2022 (to coincide with construction of the proposed diabolic new nuclear reactors ?) United Utilities have however been keen to start using less water from Ennerdale and have started using borehole water “in the mix” for West Cumbrians to drink.

This mix has caused reported illnesses, including hair loss, skin rashes and stomach upsets all of which have been documented on a facebook group ‘West Cumbria Water Supply – Save our Water Services’ of over 6000 people.

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Following  complaints, UU have “considerably reduced the percentage of borehole water” which “is now approx. 4Ml/d of borehole water (20%), mixed with approximately 16Ml/d of Ennerdale Water (80%)”.

It’s worth repeating the amount that Sellafield is licensed to take from the Ennerdale/Ehen system every day: 36M/l. Sellafield takes eight million gallons of water a day from the Ennerdale/Ehen river system. West Cumbrian domestic consumers use approximately half that amount.


Given that the industry is taking so much water from the River Ehen and is lining-up its ducks to build unnecessary new reactors on the floodplain of the river, it is hardly surprising that people are suspicious. People are beginning to suspect that they are not the top priority for good quality fresh water in Cumbria.

Is the Thirlmere pipeline and the stopping of domestic water use from Ennerdale to benefit the freshwater mussels?  It could only be argued that this was the case if the Moorside plan was scrapped and Sellafield stopped accepting nuclear waste for reprocessing.

There is a desperate need for an independent public inquiry into the nuclear industry’s ongoing excessive fresh water use and the priority it is given over and above the public’s needs is long overdue. The fresh water pearl mussels are in the same boat as the rest of us: on troubled Lakeland waters.


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