· culture ·

It's the 50 year anniversary of the disastrous fire at the Windscale nuclear reactor, and there was an excellent documentary on BBC Two on Monday. I knew the basic story of the fire, but not the details, which -- it has to be said -- were fairly terrifying. It could easily have turned into a far more serious situation, but for the actions of staff at the site.

As they said in the documentary, because it was Britain's first nuclear reactor, they had no idea what to do when the fire broke out. The deputy general manager, Tom Tuohy, described climbing up on top of the pile, opening an inspection hatch and seeing a raging inferno inside the graphite core. I can't remember his exact words in the documentary, but he grinned and said something like, "I remember thinking, Blimey! What a mess." Classic British understatement strikes again... They took the brave step of running water through the pile, without knowing at the time whether it would put the fire out or cause a massive explosion. In the end, it did neither; the fire still burned because of the air blown through the pile which was also supposed to cool the uranium cartridges. Again, they had another terrible decision to make about whether to leave the fans running and risk spreading and feeding the fire, or turn them off and risk further overheating. They chose to turn the fans off, and luckily the fire went out.

The whole situation seemed to have been exacerbated by corners which were cut in the Government's rush to manufacture enough material to produce a H-bomb and convince the Americans that Britain was a genuine nuclear power, worthy of sharing their nuclear secrets. Parts of the aluminium cooling casings surrounding each uranium rod were trimmed to try to increase the output of plutonium, which probably contributed to the overheating problem. The safety measures also seemed laughable -- the workers were poking the cartridges out with old scaffolding poles at one point (reminiscent of something Homer Simpson would try to pull off), and they were only protected by flimsy looking plastic suits and rudimentary breathing apparatus. Macmillan's report covered up the poor decisions and pressure imposed by the Government, and blamed the fire on an "error of judgement", which was grossly unfair on all those who risked their lives to try to get the fire under control.