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1957 Accident Released Twice As Much Radioactivity

Britain's worst nuclear accident, the 1957 Windscale fire in Cumbria, released twice as much radioactive debris as was previously thought. 

'We have had to double our estimates of amounts that were released,' said former UK Atomic Energy Authority researcher John Garland. As a result of this re-evaluation, scientists say the fire - which sent a plume of caesium, iodine and polonium across Britain and northern Europe - may have caused several dozen more cases of cancer than had been estimated previously.

Britain's worst nuclear accident, the 1957 Windscale fire in Cumbria, released twice as much radioactive debris as was previously thought. 

'We have had to double our estimates of amounts that were released,' said former UK Atomic Energy Authority researcher John Garland. As a result of this re-evaluation, scientists say the fire - which sent a plume of caesium, iodine and polonium across Britain and northern Europe - may have caused several dozen more cases of cancer than had been estimated previously.

It was originally thought that little harm had been done by the blaze and that only a few cancer cases had been triggered. Then in 1990 radiation experts, using new epidemiological methods, calculated that up to 200 cases of cancer - including thyroid and breast cancer and also leukaemia - could have been triggered by the fire's emissions.

Now researchers say they may have to raise that estimate yet again. 'Several dozen more cancer cases may have to be added to our total,' said epidemiologist Professor Richard Wakeford, of Manchester University. However, Wakeford said it was impossible to determine which individual cancer cases might be linked to the incident at Windscale, now called Sellafield. 'We can only say an excess in cancer cases was caused by the fire.'

The fire, which took place 50 years ago this Wednesday, occurred when graphite rods used to control reactions in the nuclear plant's core caught fire. For two days the core blazed out of control. At one point workers used sledgehammers to try to knock the damaged, highly radioactive fuel rods out of the reactor before eventually managing to extinguish the blaze.

After the fire, the Government placed a six-week ban on consumption of milk from cows grazing within 200 miles of Windscale. However, the weather carried nuclear contamination far beyond that boundary and it covered much of England and parts of northern Europe. The reactor was left in such a dangerous state of intense radioactivity that it has lain undisturbed - too dangerous to decommission.