A COCKERMOUTH pensioner has spoken about the heroic part he played following the country’s worst nuclear disaster more than 60 years ago.

David Staton, 90, of Lancaster Court, was one of those who doused the flames of the 1957 Windscale fire.

He was 27 at the time, an electrical engineering graduate working at the Windscale and Calder works (now known as Sellafield).

One of the ‘piles’ - primitive nuclear reactors making plutonium for Britain’s first atomic bombs, overheated and caught fire, setting in motion a terrifying series of events.

David was staying at nearby Greengarth Hostel, where many fellow graduates stayed. He was called at about 7pm and told: “Come at once. Pile One is on fire.”

Undeterred at the time, David rushed to the scene where he joined five or six other personnel who were tasked with extinguishing the unprecedented fire.

He donned his protective gear before coming face-to-face with the red glow of the uranium which was burning inside the pile.

The first task was to determine the extent of the fire by removing the uranium channel shield plugs one at a time to see if the uranium cartridges had overheated. It was then decided to create a fire break by discharging fuel elements around the fire.

“At the time, I didn’t see myself as brave,” said David.

“We did what we had to do and it was all hands on deck to get on top of the fire.”

He left the site in the early hours of Friday morning, six hours after he first arrived on the scene.

When he returned later that morning, David was told that efforts by the team to extinguish the fire by carbon dioxide had failed, and so had hosing water onto the reactor core.

He explains: “Finally the decision was made to switch off the shutdown fans to stop air entering the pile, which to everyone’s delight was enough to starve the fire of oxygen, and allow the water to extinguish it.”

On the day of the fire, David had been in the Separation Group and went to get his hands and clothing monitored for radioactivity before leaving the area.

He had found that all the monitors in the Changing Room gave high readings. There were no members of the Health Physics Department available at the time to ask, but he thought it might be due to a high background reading.

On leaving the site about 5pm he had puffs of smoke coming from the Pile One’s chimney and thought: “There is no smoke without fire.”

After the events, neither David nor any of the men alongside him that day, were recognised for their heroic actions.

A white paper into the incident was published two weeks later but remained classified until 1988.

Windscale was home to the UK’s atomic bomb project and secrecy shrouded the facility in the years of Cold War paranoia.

David says: “Discussions were being had with the United States at the time about sharing its nuclear secrets with the UK scientists, and it was thought that any embarrassing revelations about Windscale could put this at risk.

“Both piles were permanently shut down and never used again.”

The report blamed “an error of judgement” and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan ordered that it not be released to the public.

It was Britain’s worst nuclear disaster and rated at level five on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. The highest level is seven which was given to Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan.

“I’ve not spoken about the events publicly, except with friends and family, in all my 64 years since the accident,” said David.

“I was actually reminded last year by my son-in-law. Coincidently he also works in the nuclear industry and has supply connections to Windscale.

“I was asked if I might like to give a talk about what happened and I suppose the very idea brought back all of those memories and I thought, I must not let what happened be forgotten.”

He has many happy memories of his time on site: “I thoroughly enjoyed my time working at Windscale. I met my beloved wife Eleanor there of 59 years – she worked in the salaries and wages department and later we would have our two beautiful daughters.

“It was interesting work and whilst I left Windscale behind in 1961 moving to Scotland, I continued to work in the nuclear industry right up until I retired in 1994. I wasn’t put off at all!”

Sadly David lost his wife Eleanor in 2019, just before the couple were due to move back home to Cumbria, to start a new chapter of their lives together.

“Now that the public is aware of the full extent of what happened there, I am glad to tell my own story. It’s taken many decades but the record has finally been put straight,” he said.