Windscale fire: ‘We were too busy to panic’

The government was equally tight-lipped about the radioactive
fallout – although the authorities banned the sale of milk from
local farms.

A new study by John Garland, formerly of the UK Atomic Energy
Authority, and Richard Wakeford, a visiting professor at the
University of Manchester, suggests there was roughly twice the
amount of radiation released than initially assessed because the
radioactive plume actually travelled further east.

Vic Goodwin received a radiation dose, although “it was not
significant by the standard of the day”, he says, and has
suffered no known side effects.

It is estimated that the accident caused an estimated 100 deaths
in Britain. But it remains hard to link individual deaths to the fire.

The worst part of the tragedy, says Goodwin, is that the fire
happened in two reactors that had been obsolescent since August
1956; the neighbouring station, Calder Hall, was already safely
generating both plutonium and electricity.

“The Windscale reactors were allowed to run on a year too
long,” he says. “It needn’t have happened.”


Kyshtym Incident, September 1957

A high-level waste tank exploded in the Mayak complex, one of
the Soviet Union’s bomb factories, in the Chelyabinsk region.
The radioactive fallout contaminated 15,000 sq km of land and
prompted the authorities to evacuate more than 10,000 people. The
disaster, named after a nearby town, was hushed up and the health
effects remain unclear.

SL-1 Incident, January 1961

The first fatal US nuclear reactor accident, at the
experimental plant SL–1 in Idaho. Three operators were killed when
the facility exploded.

Three Mile Island, March 1979

When the core of the nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania partly
melted down, it was the most significant incident in the history of
the American commercial nuclear power-generating industry. However,
there were no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of the
nearby community.

Chernobyl, April 1986

The Chernobyl reactor explosion in the Ukraine released 1,000
times as much radioactivity as Windscale. It is thought to have
caused 47 deaths among the workforce and killed nine children with
thyroid cancer. WHO also estimates there may have been up to 9,000
further related cancer deaths, but there is controversy over these
estimates due to poor health records and secrecy.


Today, there are 439 nuclear reactors worldwide, including 19
still operational in Britain. Could Windscale happen again?
“No,” says Dr Paul Howarth of the Dalton Nuclear
Institute, Manchester, “there are much greater levels of
safety, our level of understanding is greatly improved and the
technology is fundamentally different.”

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