Windscale nuclear disaster: 60 years on

11 October 2017 12:26PM

Sixty years ago today, the world's first major nuclear plant disaster rocked West Cumbria.

On Thursday, October 10 1957, the 400ft No 1 pile at the Windscale works caught fire.

Since 1951, in top secret, the twin Windscale piles had been producing plutonium for Britain to make its own atomic and hydrogen bombs.

The explosive material from the operation of the first reactor was used for the UK’s first nuclear weapons test in Australia on October 3, 1952.

"There was no drill for a reactor fire because it was not in anyone’s mind that it could catch fire"

Radioactive fallout from the 1957 fire spread across the region and there was an immediate ban on the distribution of milk from an area covering 200 square miles.

That release of radioactivity from the accident would eventually be responsible for up to 190 cancers – 100 of them fatal, although studies have since claimed that these figures have been underestimated.

Neither of the Windscale Pile reactors ever worked again.

On October 17 1957, The Whitehaven News reported "it will be a long time before they regard the atom plants with the same complacency as they have done for the past seven years".

The first sign that something was amiss came when between 2,000 and 3,000 men employed at Windscale and Calder Hall returned to their homes in buses and trains on Friday morning.

A strict security guard was placed on the entrance gates to both Windscale and Calder Hall, but there was no restriction on access as far as the boundary fence.

Gradually, the picture emerged of what was happening inside the Windscale works.

The heat of uranium cartridges in the centre of the pile had shot up to 500 degrees centigrade, almost double the normal temperature.

The uranium was oxidising rapidly and radioactive particles escaped through the filters near the top of the chimney.

These particles were in the form of a vapour. Most of it fell within the precincts of the two atomic plants but some escaped into the atmosphere.

Just how far that vapour travelled was not to be definitely discovered until five days later.

Monitoring vans toured the district testing vegetation and air and returbed with disturbing reports.

For an area of 14 square miles around Windscale the health staff had detected an increase in the radioactivity of grass.

Milk Marketing Board officials toured the district from midnight on the night of the disaster, farmers were called from their beds and told not to dispose of their milk.

It was not to be fed to stock, drunk by the farmers' own families or sold off the farm.

The works' fire brigade and pile staff fought throughout the night to cool down the overheated pile.

General manager Mr HG Davey, with the agreement of his scientific staff, decided that the best method was to deluge the interior of the pile with water.

Mr Davey said afterwards: "We had to ensure a real torrent of water. Too little water could have resulted in the release of hydrogen, so we pumped water in at the rate of 1,000 gallons a minute and kept on pumping it."

This treatment went on continuously for three days and gradually the temperature inside the pile began to fall.

Speaking at the time of the 50th anniversary, Vic Goodwin, who was a young physicist sent to Sellafield to work directly on the Windscale Piles exactly one year before the accident, admitted it was a baptism of fire at the start of a distinguished nuclear career.

In the course of events he was part of an heroic Sellafield team under Tom Tuohy, Windscale’s deputy general manager at the time, which fought day and night to put out the blaze.

Mr Goodwin was finishing his shift at midnight on Wednesday, October 9, 1957, when he became aware of the unusual temperatures in part of the core.

Mr Goodwin said: “You could see it was red hot at first, white hot later. In the area where we could not discharge the fuel, the fire was getting worse.

"Carbon dioxide did not do anything, so Tom Tuohy took the decision that water had to go on.

"There was a good big flow of water which just carried away the heat and doused the fire. “In the first place an awful lot of hard work was done by the discharge team in getting about 90 per cent of the fuel away from the fire into a canal or pond, but then we had to find some way of dousing the fire which wasn’t easy either.

"My own task was to get a water injection system made. I already had some tubes for another purpose but they proved ideal for making long lances which Eddie Davies and his little engineering workshop quickly lashed on to conventional fire hoses.

“We got water injection points installed up near the top of the reactor core and connected to a fire engine to give a jolly good flow.

"There was a well-established emergency procedure at the site, but no drill for a reactor fire because it was not in anyone’s mind that it could catch fire."

By Sunday night the pile had cooled off to such an extent that only a small volume of water was necessary to keep it at a safe level.

Pile 2 was temporarily shut down so that experienced personnel could join the operations, but it was restarted later and gradually worked up to normal.

Pile 1 would be out of commission for several months. it was reported but normal working at Windscale and Calder Hall was resumed on the Monday.

Some weeks later at a meeting of the county National Farmers' Union in Gosforth worried farmers expressed their concerns, but were reassured when the regional controller for the Ministry of Agriculture said there would be no ill effects to their calves.

By late October the milk ban was lifted in some areas, and totally lifted within a few more days.

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Lanky   Giraffe , Barrow, Lancashire Tuesday, 10 October, 2017 at 6:36AM
West Cumbria didn't exist 60 years ago so how was it rocked? The disaster occurred in Cumberland.
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