Windscale, Britains Biggest Nuclear Disaster

Windscale, Britains Biggest Nuclear Disaster

This is a fascinating documentary on many levels: during the Manhattan Project American and British scientists worked together on the atom bomb that was eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but after the war America stopped sharing information with Britain on its nuclear programme.

This was seen as an affront in Britain and the Atlee government decided to develop its own nuclear technology so as not to be left behind in the race for influence in the post-war world, and Dr William Penney, who had worked in the States on the A-bomb, was appointed as the person to oversee the development of Britain’s own bomb.

This film traces the development of the nuclear industry in Britain, with the power stations that were so critical in providing not only energy, but plutonium, and later tritium, for the bombs.

The interweaving of politics, science and energy development put enormous strains on the whole project and risks were taken which went beyond safety levels in order to meet limits set from outside.

This led to the first real nuclear accident, though to this day it is hardly known about, as it was covered up at the time, and information regarding the important incident was only recently declassified.

Throughout the history of the plant changes had to made to the machinery to increase the heat in the reactors and this had led to weakness in parts of the plant. In 1957, while trying to release energy from the core, part of the plant caught fire, and threatened to get out of control.

Once it was realised what had happened the first idea was to cool it with wind, but that only fired it up even more, then there was an idea to pour water on it to cool it down. The problem with that was that it could have led to an explosion, and nobody knew whether it would or wouldn’t.

They went ahead anyway and it didn’t explode, but it also didn’t have any effect on the fire. Finally the wind was cut off, also another risky thing to do, and this time eventually the fire went out.

The filmmakers themselves have their own take on the story, being concerned with the people involved and how they felt blamed and scapegoated for the accident, which really came about through political pressure and inexperience.

But for me what the film brings home is a number of things: how politics is always involved in these matters, and often in a dangerous way; how inseparable the production of nuclear energy is from nuclear bombs and the enormous risks involved if (or when) something goes wrong.

We saw in another documentary recently (Dumped Nuclear Waste in European Seas) that for the whole time of its operation Windscale (now Sellafield) and other nuclear plants in Britain and Europe have been spewing waste into the nearby oceans, a practice which continues to this day.

The problem with nuclear energy is not only its poor safety record, but the potential it has for polluting wide areas when an accident happens, and as accidents always do happen, we would be better off without it.


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