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     Scottish CND      Magazine

Windscale Accident 10 October 1957

John Ainslie

In 1945 Britain decided to build the bomb. The following year work began in Cumbria on the site of an ordnance factory building two atomic piles. These were primitive reactors whose only purpose was to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. The first of the piles went into production in 1950 making plutonium for Britain's first atomic bomb which was detonated in 1952.

On 7th October 1957 number one pile was shut down to allow energy which had built up inside the reactor to be released. The release of energy went out of control. The temperature inside the pile rose over several days. On the afternoon of 10th October there was a major fire.

The first attempts to control the fire were disastrous. Fans were switched on, but instead of cooling the uranium fuel rods, they made matters much worse. Next carbon dioxide was pumped in to cool the fire and this was also counter-productive. The temperature in the piles soared above 1000 degrees centrigrade. Engineers debated whether they could risk flooding the pile with water. There was a danger that this could lead to a hydrogen explosion, or even a nuclear explosion. In the end they decided to take the risk - the pile was flooded - fortunately this brought the fire under control.

At the time the government said that the wind was blowing the radioactive cloud from the fire out to sea. But in fact there was a temperature inversion, which meant that much of the radioactivity was blown inland in Britain. More radioactive fall out landed in Ireland. Around 2 million litres of milk were poured away. It has been estimated that around 95 people would be expected to die from cancer in Britain between 1957 and 1997, because of the fire. An official history of the incident published in 1987 admitted that the accident was inevitable. In the haste to make the bomb safety had been largely ignored. The Windscale piles and the way they were operated were highly dangerous.

It comes as no surprise that those who have built and deployed nuclear weapons have paid little regard for safety. The Windscale disaster is one of the clearest examples of how dangerous the nuclear weapons industry has been. But this is not just history. Trident submarines, which are designed to destroy a continent in half an hour, are also floating Chernobyl disasters. A fully armed submarine has 800 tonnes of high explosive, in the form of rocket fuel, next to the nuclear reactor that powers the submarine, and its atom bombs. The lessons of Windscale have still not been learnt.

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     Scottish CND      Magazine