With conflicting reports of the state of the reactor at Fukushima Daiichi following an explosion this afternoon, my mind went to the 1957 fire in Pile No. 1 at Windscale and Calder (now known as Sellafield).
Already in use as a production site for plutonium to use in Britain’s covert atomic weapons programme, higher temperatures were required to enable the piles (primative nuclear reactors) to produce tritium for the next generation of nukes. Because of a Heath Robinson style conversion programme, hot spots in the pile went unnoticed during the testing phase.
When the annealing process began on 7 October 1957, localized overheating would have begun almost immediately with the scientists relying on overly optimistic readings from the sensors. It was not until three days later that scientists realized all was not right, and a visual inspection revealed the horrifying sight of fuel rods glowing cherry red.
At the time, Thomas Tuohy was the deputy to the General Manager, and at home a few miles away. On being recalled to the site, he discarding his dosimetry badge so no-one could say he had exceeded his recommended dosage.
His efforts to subdue the fire culminated in his, in full protective gear, being perched atop Pile No. 1 as he directed firefighters below.
The subsequent Penney Report concluded that the fire was due to “an error of judgement” by Windscale workers. Alexander Macmillan, however, has stated that his grandfather and then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan had arranged with President Eisenhower to cover-up the root cause in the untested and flawed attempts to produce tritium. Had this been known, the US Congress may well have vetoed the pair’s joint plans.
For the 2007 documentary Inside Windscale: Britain’s Biggest Nuclear Disaster, Tuohy was asked for his views on this. “They were a shower of bastards” he replied, and it is hard to disagree.
He died in 2008, more than half a century after, by his own recollection, looking into a naked nuclear reaction for an extended period.
I bet he smoked as well.