Alex Lockwood: How the story of Chernobyl reveals our mindless attachment to nuclear weapons


Writer Alex Lockwood, who is joining the Nae Nukes Anywhere! march and rally on Saturday 22nd September, explains why he chose to write his anti-nuclear novel centred on the Faslane naval base and the debate around Trident

IT DIDN’T take me long to learn about the dangers of Trident when researching my new novel The Chernobyl Privileges.

Hansard, the record of what happens in the Houses of Parliament, is a good place to start. Written on 6th May 2009, Early Day Motion 1442 documents at least 40 radioactive leaks from the base at Faslane and its war machines over the last three decades. Based on investigative journalist Rob Edwards’ Channel 4 News report, the call was to urgently “tighten safety standards at Faslane” and “consider urgently the benefits to the economy and the environment of abolishing Britain’s current nuclear weapons”.

A simple Google alert adds daily updates of the costs, threats, and fears of the Trident nuclear missile system. Sadly, that Motion from 2009 went ignored by successive British governments. But those involved in the campaign for nuclear disarmament know well the dangers, and the counter-arguments to those who support Trident replacement. As a writer of both nonfiction and fiction, the material available for making a powerful story out of these nuclear incidents on our doorstep almost wrote itself.

Yet I didn’t begin writing a book about Trident. Back in 2015 I realised, as a long-term environmental campaigner, and although I’d lived through it, I didn’t know enough about what happened at Chernobyl. I felt as if I should.

On April 26th 1986, number 4 reactor of the nuclear plant at Chernobyl exploded after a safety test went wrong. Reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize-winning book Chernobyl Prayer that documents the stories of the victims and survivors left me shocked and broken-hearted. The incompetence and hubris of men in power destroyed so many lives (human and nonhuman), left so many suffering lifelong diseases, and wrecked a large swathe of our planet. This was with only 3-4% of the radiation that could have been released, being released.

I knew I wanted to write about it. But I also knew that Chernobyl was not a historical anomaly. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, and my first real fears were of nuclear holocaust. I remember Threads, and When the Wind Blows. A long-time supporter of the anti-nuclear movement, the idea that my country would pay out billions to renew a nuclear weapons system that is both world-destroying and irrelevant for today’s real issues such as climate change and water depletion, made my blood boil. Learning more about the links between the UK’s civil nuclear energy programme and military nuclear weapons convinced me this book needed writing.

So I combined the stories. I chose to use the drama of Chernobyl to explore the ongoing tragedy of our mindless attachment to nuclear weapons.

READ MORE: Poll: Majority believe Scottish Government should have final say on Trident

The arts have a long and celebrated protest history, including in anti-nuclear campaigns: for example, take a look at the art of Peter Kennard’s anti-war images that he made for CND, currently on show in Sheffield. And the power of a book or story to communicate the horrors of the nuclear threat have been present at least since Nevil Shute’s 1957 On the Beach, in which the last submarines circle the planet looking for life following nuclear war, only for the radioactive cloud to finally engulf the last survivors.

I decided to bring together the two pressing threats—civil nuclear energy production, and Trident—through a story of a Chernobyl survivor brought over to the UK on the church’s mercy mission convoys, who grows up to be a radiation monitor at the Faslane naval base. Unable to free himself of the trauma of humankind’s worst environmental disaster that led to the deaths of his parents, the protagonist, Anthony, has a decision to make when a radioactive incident on the base triggers those memories. Does he toe the Navy line, or does he break ranks as a whistleblower?

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon signs pledge in support of Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty

Faslane, Helensburgh, the Peace Camp and the base are the central locations of the novel, around which the memories and flashbacks of Chernobyl circle. Of course, this is fiction, and for the purposes of the story I had to simplify much of the complex, praiseworthy and vital lives of the campaigners. But the book is as much dedicated to them (you) as it is to the friends and family who helped me write the book over the last three and a half years.

I’ll be joining the march and rally on Saturday 22nd. After spending so much time inhabiting the imaginative world of Faslane, the Peace Camp, and Chernobyl, it has become a part of my work to help counter these nuclear threats. A book cannot save the world. But as nature writer Robert Macfarlane recently said, books (and rallies!) catalyse “uncountable small unknown acts of good” by perhaps inspiring its readers to know more. “In this way,” Macfarlane continues, “we might think of writing as like the work of a coral reef, slowly building its structures through many small interventions.”

I hope my book can be one small intervention in this march toward nuclear disarmament. See you on the road.

Alex Lockwood is a writer, activist and academic based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Chernobyl Privileges is published by Roundfire Books in March 2019, but you can pre-order your copy now or see Alex at the NaeNukes rally on Saturday 22nd September. 

Picture courtesy of Alex Lockwood