Windscale, aka Sellafield today, was always going to struggle with its public image. Set up on the remote west coast of Cumbria after World War 2 by the Ministry of Supply (how Orwellian is that title?) its initial purpose was to produce weapons grade plutonium for the UK’s own atomic bombs. The US had pulled out of an arrangement to co-operate in the manufacture of atomic weapons, and with the Cold War hotting up, the British labour government made Windscale the centre of manufacturing operations.
Two “piles” were built, huge concrete chimneys that dominated the local landscape, each of which had their own little nuclear reactor at the base, and a whole load of fans to blow cooling air up and over them. The big lumps at the top of the chimneys were known as Cockroft’s follies, filters, which the Nobel prize winning scientist had insisted on adding midway through the build, to capture nuclear material in the event of a fire.
They weren’t called follies after the fire – which everyone else said could never happen – of October 1957. It was estimated that the filter had captured 95% of the nuclear material whooshing up the chimney, so that the discharge was “only” 1/1,000th the size of Chernobyl.
One of the piles had overheated and some of the fuel started to burn. Brave lads with scaffold poles – it was that unsophisticated – tried to push the overheating metal fuel rods out of the Swiss cheese-like core of graphite, with limited success. The plant manager took a fire hose to the top of the chimney and poured water down, with limited success. Closing off the base, and the the flow of air in, finally killed the fire.
Hard to tell the extent of the aftermath – several hundred cases of thyroid cancer were caused by one estimate, but there were no obvious immediate fatalities, unlike Chernobyl.
All milk produced in the area – for 300 sq. miles all around, was destroyed for a month – leading to an unprecedented increase in milk yield – as it would have potentially contained radioactive iodine, which the thyroid accumulates. (That’s why iodine tablets used to be dispensed to be taken in the event of a nuclear war – the non-radioactive iodine saturates your thyroid, so it isn’t interested then in taking in any more of the other, nasty stuff.)
My part in all this? I was on bottles of formula at the time as a 10 month old “Factory baby”, living locally in purpose built pre-fabs for the “Factory” workers, as Windscale was known by the locals. So I escaped any after effects. Although I do glow a bit at night.