back to article Nuclear accident messier than we thought

The amount of radioactive fallout from the Windscale nuclear accident half a century ago was grossly underestimated, according to new research. In 1957, a fire broke out at one of two nuclear reactors on the Windscale site when its graphite control rods overheated. The fire was extinguished with water, deemed necessary to limit …


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  1. Adam Wynne

    Air cooled and made of carbon

    I always liked the Pile 1 & 2 designs at Sellafield. An air cooled reactor, made from carbon. What could possibly go wrong?

    As for this no longer posing a danger to health, tell that to the poor sods decomissioning it! Unfortunately I can't reveal any more or I might be shot several times in the head (cf iPod fire...)

  2. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Graphite control rods?

    Errr no, the control rods weren't to blame, and certainly weren't made of graphite.

    Instead, the fire was caused by the reactor's graphite moderator overheating. A real problem for graphite reactors is that energy becomes trapped in the crystal lattice of the graphite blocks. This not only causes them to distort, fouling the fuel and control rod channels; but it can also be spontaneously released as a blast of heat that could wreck the reactor.

    This Wigner energy can be released by allowing the reactor to heat up above its normal operating temperature, the graphite blocks expand slightly and settle back into their normal shape, the excess energy being released gradually as heat.

    However, this annealing was botched, the operators didn't know that parts of the graphite had become far too hot, and they allowed the process to continue, during which some of the cans of metallic uranium fuel split open. Uranium burns fiercely in air - which is unfortunate since the Windscale reactor was cooled with the stuff.

    The later Magnox and AGR reactors continued to use graphite moderators but removed the risk of fire by using uranium oxide fuels and carbon dioxide coolant.

  3. Andrew Heenan

    Surprise, surprise.

    What on Earth would you expect?

    Openness? Honesty?

    Wake me up when you have a 'Man Bites Dog' story; statements of the mind-numbingly obvious don't take us forward!

  4. heystoopid

    Shock / Horror

    Oh the horror of it all a democratically elected government , that told it's own people some small white lies some 50 odd years ago and then another since the dawn of the new 21st Century literally will not stop telling lies and propaganda !

    How well they learn from their fathers indeed !

    Saddest part was then in those days they were accusing all evil godless communists one party rules of telling lies and propaganda to their own people and now in the new century the so called democracies of all parties do the very same to the trusting people who elect them so life truly moves in a fixed circle !

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    But what are the real figures?

    "More contaminants mean more cancers. The volume of material originally thought to have been released would have caused roughly 200 cases of cancer. The level of radioactive material the team now thinks was released probably caused more than 240 cases, the researchers said."

    So it would have caused roughly 200 cases on the original figures and possibly more than 240 on the new figures.

    So how many "additional" cancer cases have been reported in the area above the average for the area in the 50 years before the accident and compared to the general average in the 50 years since the accident

  6. Ted Treen

    The Good Side..........

    I went to Sellafield for my summer holiday, and came back positively glowing..........

    <exit procedure>

    Get Coat

    Don Coat

    If Taxi_arrived=1

    Enter Taxi

    </exit procedure>

  7. Dave

    I live just down the road...

    It just so happens that i live just down the road from the BNGSL site, i have worked there, as have all of my family at one point or another!

    Ok so the reactors were badly designed - air cooled, botched filters, the realty was particles were escaping for years before the fire - the reason they bulge at the top is because air filters were added as an afterthought!

    Although they had filters they still took them out to clean - while the reactor continued to operate, there were also gaping big holes in them too!

    The reactors were built quickly and cheaply to produce plutonium for the MoD, after the fire both reactors were shut down.

    At least we learnt from our mistakes in 1957, Chrenobyl occured nearly 30 years later and was far more disasterous.

    Mistakes happen, it is inevitable, the UKAEA took the action it deemed necesscery at the time, this did involve alerting the public as well as destroying contaminated food sources - milk being the prime example from the farms surrounding the Sellafield Site.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hardly surprising...

    When the government which indirectly caused the accident by demanding more output to build the H-Bomb they so desperately wanted after warnings from the scientists was the one releasing the figures.

    This has only been declassified recently, and was covered so that the Americans didn't think the British government were cowboys, bit of pot calling the kettle black there me thinks anyway :)

  9. Rob Clive

    and the best bit is..

    .. that the design includes chimneys to vent the piles. The structure you see on top of them is a filter; added to the design later. Originally it was thought that the reactor wouldn't emit anything harmful to health. Just as well they don't 'build 'em like that anymore'

  10. laird cummings

    Who here is *really* surprised?


    It's old as the hills, and demoraies areevery bit as vulnerable to it as dictatorships. OTOH, in a democracy, you have a chance to exchange old, experienced liars for new, inexperienced ones every so often, so you catch the lies a liitle more frequently.

  11. Steve Sutton

    Is Adam Wynne suggesting...

    ... that owing to working on the decommissioning of Sellafield, his genitals or undergarments may subsequently spontaneously combust, whilst he is at an airport (or tube station)?

  12. Luther Blissett

    Interesting arithmetic

    "the accident may have generated twice as much radioactive material"

    "The volume of material originally thought to have been released would have caused roughly 200 cases of cancer. The level of radioactive material the team now thinks was released probably caused more than 240 cases,"

    Also, surely "Nuclear accident messier than.." they told us?

  13. Richard

    Windscale - 1957 inquiry

    The most amazing thing about this - having just read it on the BBC website - is the live transcript of the original inquiry. It was completed in a handful of days, seemingly on site (given the repeated access to key staff and data) before the reactor had cooled.

    Although it is common knowledge in an abstract way, it really brings one up short how, without computers, large amounts of the scientific data had to be calculated and plotted overnight by teams of scientists, to satisfy the demands for analysis from the inquiry board.

    At one point, they say the calculation is impossible without a digital computer (which could probably be done on a scientific calculator twenty years ago) and offer an "analogue" instead. Not an analogue computer, an analogue system (using water - rather like the old economic model at the LSE) :-)

    There is a real tension, as the physicists make bold approximations and the analyses are rushed to the board. It is masterful piece of scientific detection, and as gripping as a novel. Partly, this is our hindsight, making one hope that the inquiry do not follow blind alleys or grasp at the wrong data.

    I accidentally clicked on it in the morning and could not put it down until I had read all 250 pages. The last hurrah of the Edwardian public service generation, a handful of experts calmly, gently, politely and magisterially question the various UKAEA staff and very quickly assemble a picture of what went wrong.

    Read it and weep, for the hysteria, spin and ignorance with which it would be conducted today, by some grandstanding little shits.

  14. Jacob Reid
    Paris Hilton

    Yes, but...

    How does this relate to IT and/or Paris Hilton?

  15. Tim J

    Cumberland sausage anyone?

    It's fusion cuisine.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The most shocking thing is...

    That I have just watched the BBC2 documentary. That is: a science related documentary on the beeb that didn't give me the urge to put my foot through the telly. They seemed to get both the politics/current affairs and the science pretty much correct, if a little simplified, there was almost no dram-u-mentory, either sadly they did allow some reconstructed shots right at the end

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Dead Vulture

    Dont Build em like that anymore ....

    LOL .. pull the other one its got a whole orchestra attached

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Radiation does not necessarily cause so many cancers

    Not enough is known about the health effects of low levels of radiation. On the basis of the Japanese A-bomb casualties, scientists guessed at the effects of smaller doses of radiation. Recent evidence suggests there may be a threshold below which radiation is much less harmful than previously thought. There is even some evidence to suggest that it may have some beneficial effects. That makes sense, considering how much random radiation there is in nature.

    Check out the follwing URLs:

  19. laird cummings

    @Anonymous Coward

    << ...pull the other one its got a whole orchestra attached >>

    Yes, really. They DON'T build them like that any more. Quite literally. The design is not only old-fashioned, tempermental, and dangerous, but it's also *unprofitable.* Design moves to the money.

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