cover image Mother Country

Mother Country

Marilynne Robinson. Farrar Straus Giroux, $18.95 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-374-21361-9

Few Americans are aware that the world's largest commercial producer of plutonium is Great Britain, which also, according to the author, leads the world in environmental pollution. For 35 years, the British government has manufactured and reprocessed plutonium at Sellafield (formerly called Windscale) on the northwest coast of England. The plant accepts radioactive wastes from other countries, extracting usable materials and flushing the remainder into the Irish Sea or venting it through smokestacks into the air. As Windscale, the plant was the site of the most serious nuclear accident (1957) before Chernobyl. Reports of other accidents, a high incidence locally of childhood leukemia and contaminated area beaches have been closely monitored or denied by the government. In her pursuit of this story, Robinson ( Housekeeping ) becomes an incendiary: How, she asks, can a country ostensibly devoted to human welfare show such wanton disregard for the lives of its people. To answer the question, she delves into British economic and social history, examining the Poor Laws, Karl Marx, the Fabians and the welfare state. She draws a parallel between those who operate Sellafield and the industrialists, colonizers and slave traders of past centuries: their chief interest, she concludes in this convincing, explosive expose, is profit. (June)