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Saturday, 20 December 2014

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Windscale: an accident that was waiting to happen

better to have shut the piles down: Vic Goodwin, who was a physicist at Windscale at the time of the fire John Story

IF WINDSCALE had not been a bomb-making factory, the fire of 1957, which in the years ahead caused potentially hundreds cancers, would not have happened.

According to at least one expert in the field, it was an accident waiting to happen.

Since 1951, in top secret on an isolated part of the Cumbrian coast, the twin 400ft Windscale piles had been producing plutonium for Britain to make its own atomic and hydrogen bombs – until October 20, 1957, when the first of the piles caught fire, spewing radioactivity over the countryside in the general direction of Lancashire.

This week it was even revealed that the radiation might have spread much farther than previously thought.

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, but five years later came the Windscale disaster, at the time believed to be the world’s most serious nuclear accident.

Nearly 200 cancers, half of them fatal, resulted but although neither of the Windscale Pile reactors ever worked again, the accident did not stop the government from continuing to use the site as its bomb factory – Calder Hall, in the national interest, was a close-at-hand alternative for Britain’s defence in the cold-war arms race. But most of the nuclear industry experts generally agree that weapons production could have been switched over to Calder at least 12 months sooner.

With the cause of the fire not entirely unexpected, one of those experts, Lorna Arnold, concluded that “the operation of the Windscale Piles was an accident waiting to happen”.

Others agree, including Vic Goodwin, who as a young physicist was sent to Sellafield to work directly on the Windscale Piles exactly one year before the accident.

He readily admits it was a baptism of fire at the start of a distinguished nuclear career but in the course of events he was part of an heroic Sellafield team under Tom Tuohy which fought day and night to put out the blaze.

Was it really an accident waiting to happen? – “I am afraid that while it might not have been true when the piles were first built I fear it was true in ’57.”

If that was so why weren’t the warnings heeded? – “I think there was growing unease, the military programme tended to be dominant. Capable and successive men at Sellafield called for improvements and changes, particularly in measuring temperatures.”

Was there a case in 1956 for shutting down the piles? – “Oh, hindsight is a wonderful thing but I am sure that with the knowledge we have now and obtained fairly quickly after the fire, it would have been better if these old piles had been shut down after the Queen opened Calder Hall, which had a much more secure design. But, as I said, the military programme was very demanding, the country decided it would go nuclear in the sense of making its own bomb.

“Collaboration with the Americans had stopped at the end of 1946, as they thought we were riddled with spies. So the Atlee administration decided it would make a do-it-yourself bomb. The British researchers who were in the States came back here and they effectively repeated what they had been doing over there, designing these Windscale Piles with more than a glance at the Handford reactors which had had some problems. Not much of that was known to us at the time.

“So, yes it would have been very desirable I think to shut ours down in ’56 but the next administration (Harold Macmillan’s) was racing to get the hydrogen bomb going, because America and Russia had already done it. The military programme was paramount.”

So effectively Sellafield was a bomb-making factory long before it became a civil nuclear plant for peaceful purposes? – “Entirely. A great deal of effort was rightly put into work which would underpin the military programme. It was just that, in doing so, other work that should have been done to show how close to the edge the Windscale Piles were was not done until after the fire itself.

“Now one realises the military programme could have been met and the piles could have been shut down. Calder Hall and Chapelcross were in business with a better design capability for producing plutonium as well as producing electricity for the country. We came to realise that, while this particular design was really quite dodgy, Cinderella to some extent, we had no knowledge that it would actually catch fire in this way.”

On the build up to the fire, 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.”

Do you think the Windscale Piles helped in the prevention of a Third World War in what was a cold war arms race? – “That might well be a fact. We were really only a small country compared to America and Russia and I suppose could have been trodden underfoot in that respect. We could easily have been pig in the middle between American and the Russians, so going it on our own did enable us to have a say and stick up for ourselves at a time when the Soviet Union did appear to be terribly threatening.

“Earlier in the very same month of the Windscale Fire, Russia had launched a Sputnik. They had what nobody else had: an inter-ballistic missile, at least a year ahead of the Americans, so it made everybody sit up and think. So the Americans decided it would be good to have a bit of British know- how after all to help them catch up.”

The Windscale Piles and Calder Hall were operated at the time by the UK Atomic Energy Authority but the exacting task of decommissioning the reactors has been in the hands of BNFL.

One of the company’s former leading scientists, Richard Wakeford, now at Manchester University, has written a paper about the reactor accident in which he concludes that whatever the actual cause of the fire that it was one waiting to happen.

“The Windscale Piles posed problems to their operators throughout their service. Indeed, even before construction was completed, Sir John Cockcroft, on the basis of information received from the USA, insisted that filters be installed to remove radioactive material potentially present in the exhaust cooling air.”

Researchers concluded that the fire caused or would case 100 fatal cancers and 90 non-fatal cancers. Polonium-210, which was largely ignored in early environmental assessments, was considered to have had the greatest radiological impact of the radionuclides discharged.

Vic Goodwin, who was later to head up Sellafield’s environmental, monitoring and protection programmes, said the consequences of the fire would have been much worse but for “Cockcroft’s follies”. “Cockcroft was an amazing man who found out that things were not as good as they looked with the United States reactors. He said it would be highly desirable to put on filters to stop the possible release of radioactivity.

“The piles were at the construction stage and the funding of the filters would be awkward, having to go somewhere on top rather than at the bottom of the piles – not a simple matter in itself, but they would also have cut output of the pile. But in the end Cockcroft had enough clout to get the filters fitted top-hat style.”

Otherwise could the accident have been as bad as Chernobyl?

“Not quite, because the Chernobyl station was such a lot bigger. Nevertheless, for a small densely-populated county like ours it would have been a darn size worse but for the filters, which prevented a lot more radioactivity going out into the atmosphere.

Catastrophe?

“No I think that would be too strong a word but it was serious enough, obviously. We measured the radioactivity in the pile afterwards – I can’t remember how much there was but it was quite a lot, so if the filters hadn’t been there the stuff would have got out onto the grass and into the milk. Cattle were still outside at the time.

“The people up here knew it would take 48 hours for iodine 131 to start to show in the grass, so the decision to impose a ban on the consumption and distribution of the local milk was a good piece of work.”

Richard Wakeford wrote: “The half century that has elapsed since the Windscale fire has provided some perspective on the accident – the quantity of iodine 131 released was 1,000 times less than that released from the Chernobyl accident almost 30 years later. Nonetheless the Windscale accident can hardly be considered trivial, it is rated as a Level 5 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, and it could have been a lot worse.

“The extensive environmental monitoring that took place during and after the fire provided the evidence upon which the authorities decided that a milk distribution ban should be enforced in the West Cumbrian coastal strip running from 10km north of Windscale to some 20 km to the south.

“Iodine 131 had been quickly identified as the major radiological hazard arising from the accident, although the health physicists had little guidance available as to what constituted an acceptable limit for the level of iodine 131 in milk. They derived such a limit to constrain thyroid doses, particularly to infants and young children. A milk ban based on these ad hoc calculations was a courageous but wise decision which prevented a significant enhancement of the local thyroid dose and limited individual thyroid doses.”

But was the accident played down at the time?

Vic Goodwin: “Locally, people by and large knew what was going on, medical officers in white suits stood up and said things which, with the milk ban, was reassuring. You have to remember that for the rest of the county Windscale was a long way away. People had experienced worse things in recent memory: only 10 years previously 130 men were lost in the William Pit disaster, and further away industrial towns were still looking derelict from war time bomb damage. Rightly or wrongly, something that happened up here like a ban on milk did not really seem like big news.”

Do you think the operation of the Windscale Piles was justified?

“In the context of 50 years ago then ‘yes’ but if anyone suggested it now it would probably be ‘no’...it is just too dodgy.”

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