At the time when Robinson wrote this book, the largest known source of radioactive contamination of the world's environment was a government-owned nuclear plant called Sellafield, not far from Wordsworth's cottage in the Lakes District; one child in sixty was dying from leukemia in the village closest to the plant. The central question of this eloquently impassioned book is: How can a country that we persist in calling a welfare state consciously risk the lives of its people for profit.
Mother Country is a 1989 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction.
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.