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18 December , 2007


The Windscale Disaster

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  Windscale, the world's first big nuclear accident occurred more than fifty years ago, in the days surrounding 10 October 1957, but first some comments on British Nuclear Fuels plc (BNFL). BNFL in the UK has a checkered history and we can find little to praise in its record, especially with respect to the Sellafield site. Sellafield was known as Windscale until 1981 and is situated in west Cumbria on the coast of the Irish Sea, close to the beautiful Lake District. A search reveals many criticisms of the BNFL operation, using emotive keywords like scandal, safety breaches, lowered safety standards, safety irregularities, falsification of data and so on. The criticisms stem from abroad as well as at home. For example Germany, Switzerland and Japan who receive plutonium products from BNFL, and Ireland, who (along with the Isle of Man) feel that the discharges into the North Irish Sea are causing dangerous marine pollution in their territory.
    The political background to the Windscale disaster is that Britain had developed a nuclear weapon in 1952 which gave them an important position in international weaponry but in the mid 1950s the USA and the USSR had developed much more powerful thermo-nuclear devices (hydrogen bombs). In order for Britain to sit at 'the top table', so to speak, the British governments over the following years worked desperately to prove that their technology was sufficient to make a thermo-nuclear weapon. The breeding ground for weapon's grade nuclear material is the ostensibly peaceful nuclear reactor. Reactors use uranium and produce plutonium and can produce tritium (the radioactive isotope of hydrogen). It is this last element which was one of the keys needed to bridge the gap to thermo-nuclear and this was the setting back in the 1950s when the Windscale reactor was working hard to provide the raw materials under demands from our political masters. At this time Sir William Penney was the chief scientist in charge of research in nuclear developments. Amongst other things he modified the fuel cartridges using lithium magnesium to increase the yield of tritium. It seems quite likely that the modification was largely responsible for the disaster which followed. [Disclaimer: we are not nuclear scientists and our account may not be totally accurate but we believe that this account describes honestly the gist of what happened.]
    The accident took place on 10 October 1957 when it was found that the reactor fuel together with the graphite moderator was on fire. The exhaust flowing up the chimney contained radioactive materials which obviously posed a threat to the surrounding countryside and its inhabitants. There were filters in the chimney, known as 'Cockcroft's Folly' because they were thought to be unnecessary but, in the event, no doubt contained some of the radioactive content.
    Tom Tuohy (deputy manager) appears to have been the key worker on site and his actions were absolutely heroic. The fire was unprecedented and as Tom said "mankind had not faced anything like this before", and there was no known way of controlling it. Reports at the time are confusing and contradictory but Tom was there and doing it so we favour his account. He claims that he tried to put out the fire, working from the top of the reactor, with water despite knowing that it was an enormously risky tactic and could have produced an explosion with nuclear fallout. The water did not cause an explosion but neither did it quench the fire. His second attempt was to deprive the fuel of air. The airflow was normally present to keep the fuel relatively cool so that tactic was also dangerous. In fact turning off the fans and removing he airflow was immediately successful. During this episode inhabitants were told to take cover; children were especially at risk and milk in surrounding areas was destroyed to avoid ingestion. Records show that the fallout covered enormous areas of the country, spreading as far as SE England. How many people suffered as a direct result of the disaster will never be known. Theoretical estimates ranged from 0 to nearly 300 of fatal and non-fatal cancers, however, these figures did not take into account that a canister of polonium 210 (remember the murder of the Russian dissident Litvinenko in 2006?) was burned in the fire. Consequently, estimates allowing for the polonium point to much higher figures.
    This accident was a severe embarrassment to the then UK Prime minister, H Macmillan, who was courting the US president, D Eisenhower, to get into a position of secret sharing with the Americans. According to a report produced by Penney it seemed that there had been a fault caused by the technology used in the design of the cartridges. Such an admission would have undermined the faith of the USA and jeopardised the accord. So Macmillan ordered a complete cover-up and the report was withdrawn. Later, Macmillan issued a distorted version of Penney's report in a white paper and this came out at the same time as Britain exploded its first H-bomb. This act was compounded when Penney went on air to declare that the accident was caused primarily by the operators at the time (thus making it look like a minor operational matter). Of course the workers involved were rightly incensed when clearly they were heroes. A post script was added when the Americans came round to investigate what had happened and the managers at Windscale took full credit for the actions in controlling the fire. Tim Touhy was present at this investigation but was not allowed to speak and afterwards when asked for his comments said "What a shower of bastards". We could not agree more but would extend his evaluation right to the top.
    From our studies of nuclear accidents we believe that it is usual to find a cover-up operation follows and presumably some of these have been successful so there are probably more instances than we know about. Further where the facts do eventually emerge there are conspiracies to understate the number and seriousness of resulting casualties.
[Footnote: we used many sources to produce this summary but the main one was a BBC 2 documentary, "Windscale: Britain's Biggest Nuclear Disaster", 8 October 2007. Another reference was "Contaminated Evidence", Jean McSorley, Guardian, 10 October 2007.]
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Originated: 18 December , 2007,  Last amended: 7 May, 2013