How Britain was saved from nuclear disaster


Imagine that tomorrow you are told that milk and beef are no longer available in your area, so for children no free milk at school, none for breakfast cereal, and no roast beef on Sundays. No explanation except vague hints at contamination, especially in relation to dairy and livestock farming. This actually happened in Cumbria, The UK Lake District, in October 1957; I was 10 years old at the time and attending Haverigg Junior School. 

What we didn’t fully know or appreciate was that the main reactor at the UK’s first nuclear power plant, Windscale, had caught fire …….. and nobody knew how to put it out! My home was just 12 miles from the reactor!

Can you imagine the panic today if this happened, the internet would be ablaze with frantic tweets and selfies from all and sundry. Locals would be trying to get information about fleeing or staying put; relatives would be contacting their kin with advice; the government would be calling for calm; and of course the BBC and Guardian newspaper would be apportioning blame and points scoring!

Enter Thomas Tuohy, the nuclear plant deputy manager and the hero of the hour.

img_7258 On that fateful day he got a phone call from his boss:

“Come at once. Pile number one is on fire.”

Tuohy told his wife and two children, living about a mile from the works, to stay indoors and keep all the windows closed. On arriving at the factory he flouted standing orders by discarding his radiation recording badge, so that no one could tell him that he had exceeded permitted radiation dose limits and lay him off work. He went immediately to the top of the 80ft pile and peered down vertical inspection holes in the concrete pile cap into the graphite core. He could see the bright glow from the fire near the pile’s discharge face.

Over the next few hours, he repeated his inspections, watching the fire grow. He reckoned that about 120 of the horizontal fuel channels filled with uranium slugs being converted into plutonium were ablaze. His workers were sweating away with steel rods, trying to shove the burning fuel cartridges, distorted by heat, out of the conflagration.

Can you imagine this, it would have frightened me to death, but Thomas chose not to wear his radiation badge as his first action.

Over the next few hours Thomas and his men tried to move 120 of the uranium rods out of the fire while all the time continuing the blasts of air over them to keep the temperature down. Around dawn the next morning he ordered the sites full supply of carbon dioxide to be pumped into the reactor core. No effect!

But now a new danger arose; the pending collapse of the concrete barrier protecting Thomas and his workers from the intense heat. Time for desperate measures.

It had been agreed that should everything else have failed the last hope would be to douse the uranium rods in water, but this was very high risk because of the potential explosive mixture resulting from the combination of gases, water and air that could have wiped Cumbria off the map!

img_7259

The hoses were slowly turned on at first together with the cooling air jets switched off. No effect, but no mushroom cloud either. So Thomas instructed the firemen to increase the flow of water steadily. Some five hours later the fire was out, but they kept the water flowing for another 30 hours. We had had a very lucky escape.

Despite the success in quenching the fire, particles of radioactive material were released into the atmosphere and spread across Britain and Europe. Not only was the surrounding area of Cumbria contaminated, with winds blowing the radioactive cloud back on to the mainland, but the government was forced to destroy milk production within 200 miles of the stricken reactor.

There was a government investigation into the incident, and its final report was highly critical of the technicians who put their lives on the line trying to contain the blaze. The accident, it concluded, had been caused by “an error of judgment” by the Windscale workers themselves. But the prime minister of the day, Harold Macmillan, had realised that if the Americans knew that the fire had been the result of reckless decisions by the British government to try to produce the H-bomb at Windscale, Congress might veto Macmillan’s and Eisenhower’s plans. For this reason, according to his grandson, Lord Stockton, Macmillan covered up what really happened.

Asked what he thought of officials who let his opposite numbers in America think that his staff had been responsible for the fire, Tom Tuohy weighed his words with care. “I thought they were a shower of bastards,” he said.

Although Thomas Tuohy was awarded the CBE in 1969, when I read his obituary in 2008 I felt it was miserly recognition when compared to the knighthoods of dickheads like Bob Geldof and many others. Tuohy’s bravery was as clear as that of soldiers awarded the Victoria Cross and he deserved more. I wrote to the U.K. prime minister of the day, Gordon Brown, making a case for a higher award and more public recognition. I received no reply!

(I acknowledge some of my post sourced from The Independent and The Telegraph, March 2008)

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