Windscale Reactor Fire
In spite of agreements made during the Manhattan Project to cooperate on nuclear technology after the war, and the ‘special relationship’ between the USA and Britain, the Americans legislated to ban sharing information on the nascent science. The technology at Windscale in Northumberland , the remote site chosen for the development of Britain’s nuclear capability, was thus not state-of-the-art, some techniques and phenomena poorly understood.
On October 10 1957 it was found that a fire had started in Windscale Pile No. 1. There were probably not enough sensors to give the complete picture of what was happening in the reactor, and some equipment malfunctioned.
The methods used to cope with the emergency showed invention and bravery, but also desperation. Men in radiation suits physically examined the reactor; scaffolding poles were used to try to eject some of the fuel cans; air was blown across the burning radioactive fuel to try and blow out the flames, with the opposite effect being the consequence; when carbon dioxide was tried in a hastily cobbled-together way the heat was so intense the oxygen in that gas was stripped off and further fuelled the blaze. Eventually the extremely risky option of using water was the only remaining practical and immediate step. Potentially this could have caused a hydrogen explosion that would spread the radioactive material far and wide. But it worked.
The Macmillan government understated the extent of the potential danger, and the subsequent health risks from radiation. Committees were formed to study the problem, and how it had been handled. The reactor and its twin were mothballed. And it has been estimated more than 200 people died from thyroid cancers directly triggered by the iodine-131 released during the emergency. Had rudimentary filters not been fitted to the reactor chimney as an afterthought the consequences would have been far more significant.
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