Disasters: Making Sense of Windscale

Interpreting a Disaster: Public and Private Knowledge

Find FIVE historical news articles from the 1950s-70 in the Times of London on the Windscale disaster. Compare them with what we know today, and look at the speed with which information was (and wasn’t) made available at the time.

Write a narrative of what a reasonably informed member of the public would have thought about Windscale, and the safety of nuclear power, on the basis of what you find. Search not only on Windscale, but on nuclear power, nuclear weapons, etc. and narrow down your searches by looking at specific things you found interesting from the documentary.

Length: around 800 words. Due by Oct. 29th at 11pm, uploaded as a comment on this post. Please remember to add a line of white space between your paragraphs as the commenting system strips out paragraph indents.


  1. HIST 374: Disasters!
    October 29th, 2015
    Windscale Disaster and the Public Access to the Knowledge

    In the time during the time of the Windscale project in London, the availability of information to the public was incredibly limited. Before the knowledge of the radioactive leak, the people who lived in the area were incredibly excited to have people in their town who were famous scientists, physicists, and engineers. At one point in the documentary we watched in class, someone described a point in time where these men “of the future” would be basically advertised to appear somewhere to raise attendance, almost like they were some kind of rock stars.
    The Times (London) database was very useful in discovering the information that people were aware of. The first article I found was from March, 1959 and was titled “Meeting Danger of Radiation”. This small article almost seems to be a theoretical and speculative piece that highlights the potential issues of the nuclear plant at Windscale, Cumberland. It talks about how “the safety branch is responsible for the whole field of radiation hazard[s]” but it doesn’t address how the safety drench would handle those hazards. It goes on to list some potential problems and hazards that the nuclear plant might cause. Plus this article was published released in 1959, two years after the Windscale Fire. People must have known of the long term effects and more disasters to come of such a disaster, yet little evidence from The Times suggests that to be true until much later. (http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.gl.iit.edu/ttda/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=TTDA&userGroupName=chic7029&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&docId=CS237460592&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0)

    In the year 1963, in the month of November, “the atomic energy plant at Windscale, Cumberland, was cleared and access of non-essential staff restricted when … an assembly of short fuel rods was unshielded.” These fuel rods, with little explanation to the public, were basically Uranium rods surrounded by an Aluminum binding to “stop” potential ration leaks and cool the entire system so it doesn’t catch fire while the bouncing neutrons transform it into Plutonium. This article from 1963 expresses multiple times that there was no gamma radiation leak and that no workers were exposed. Realistically this couldn’t have been further from the truth (as those men who worked there were exposed to radiation everyday they came into work), but who knows if that was newspaper propaganda or if it was the official release by Windscale’s head management, both to keep the masses calm about one of the UK’s largest source of nuclear energy and a massive investment for all of Britain. (http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.gl.iit.edu/ttda/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=TTDA&userGroupName=chic7029&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&docId=CS169043316&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0)

    Time passed, almost seven years in this particular case, for a small portion of truth to come out of the whole Windscale fiasco. In September of 1970, “small building at the… nuclear fuel processing plant at Windscale, Cumberland, [was] sealed after a leak of radioactive material”. The incident actually occurred almost two weeks before the seal of the building and the publication of this article, happening on August 24th, and the publication on September 4th. The people of The Times (London) seem to make it very clear to the public in this article that the leak “did not appear very large” and that the “main production at Windscale was not affected”. This almost seems as if they are playing off that the sealing of a building at Windscale was not a big deal and that even though the two workers who noticed the leak were “examined for contamination but were found to be unaffected and are back to work at the main plant” it doesn’t mean that this couldn’t or won’t happen in the future. The media and/or officials at Windscale seem to know much more than they are letting out to the public. (http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.gl.iit.edu/ttda/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=TTDA&userGroupName=chic7029&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&docId=CS35222308&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0)

    A few years later in 1974, an article was published in The Times (London) titled, “Radioactive leak ‘went undetected’”. At first glance it appears that the media might have uncovered some deep dirty secret that has been being hidden from them by the officials at Windscale, but upon further reading, it seems as if they are just noticing small traces of plutonium in the lot and parks surrounding the plant. They make a great point though that the alarms, detection systems, and preventative measures should go off in the plant when any, even the smallest amount of, radiation has leaked from the plant. If these are truly as effective as Windscale says they are, why did they not for this incident? (http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.gl.iit.edu/ttda/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=TTDA&userGroupName=chic7029&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&docId=CS17136501&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0)

    Finally, a good portion of the truth comes out in an article titled “Radioactive water leak at Windscale kept secret” published in December of 1976. Here we can see that the public would be have quite a bit more access to more information on the disaster at Windscale. They discuss how “information about the leak, which was detected on October 10th, was kept secret”. The Windscale nuclear plant knew about this leak almost two months prior to when the radioactive water starting to actually interact with the environment and the people of the surrounding areas. (http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.gl.iit.edu/ttda/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=TTDA&userGroupName=chic7029&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&docId=CS18317194&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0)

    It was a struggle for the people of this time in the Windscale, Cumberland area of England to truly get any information about the hazards of a project with so many possible repercussions and a ton of media and government backing. Only, now, that this incident is over can we clearly see all o the left out details of the past and how it changed the UK forever.

  2. The first nuclear disaster took place at Windscale in 1957. This was a post WWII era where tensions between the communist east and democratic west dominated international politics. In Britain, prime minister Harold Macmillan sought to raise his state’s international status to the level to that of the US since the US had been the only country with nuclear weapons and technology at the time. By developing a nuclear bomb for themselves, Britain would prove that they are a worthy ally of the US and a sense of security can be had in the event that the east attacks the west. This was the “prize” that Macmillan sought no matter what method[1]. Such politics would put the pressure on the engineers and dire consequences were eminent as safety was neglected in order to produce results. Newspapers in turn, would favor the British gov’t agenda to produce nuclear weapons.

    In 1952, an article from the London Times titled “Nuclear Energy as a Source of Power” discusses how viable nuclear energy could be by comparing it with coal. One interesting fact that the article states is that “If nuclear bombs were not used as weapons, the materials could be employed in making these reactors. Thus there would be no difficulty in ‘beating our plutonium into power plants”[2]. An average londoner at the time must have been fully aware that that the main use of nuclear technology was for weapons and not for the benefit of alternative energy. Though the article hints at using nuclear technology as energy instead of bombs, it nonetheless supports nuclear technology development. Despite the potential of one ton of uranium replacing 2-3 million tons of coal use[2], the priority of making bombs took precedence for Londoners.

    An article on April 3, 1957 takes a stand against the use of bombs. The article described the British Council of Churches being against the use of hydrogen bomb testing and wants Britain, the US, and Russia to come to an agreement to refrain from further use and testing of nuclear weapons[3] . When those elected into power express discontent with bomb testing, it must mean that there are constituents that also share the same sentiment. The population of London must have had a split among themselves almost in half as the vote for the council to declare their opposing stance was 39 for and 35 against[3]. This shows that Londoners must have held varied ideals in terms of nuclear technology that stems from beyond their basic foundation of religion. They must have considered other factors such as international politics for those in favor of nuclear weapons. Fear may have been a factor for those who opposed since they have witnessed the power of such weapons on Japan.

    Shortly prior to the Windscale fire, a world trade fair called the Hanover Fair was held in Britain. An article on April 29, 1957 that covered the fair expressed that nuclear power stations were for sale on the and stating “never before have they been offered such a revolutionary product-nor with such apparent casualness.”[5]. What this tells the public and the rest of the world is that nuclear technology in Britain is so advanced that it is being sold to other countries. The British people would take pride in the fact of its capability and concerns regarding the safety of nuclear technology may have been quelled. This event would further advance the British prime minister’s objective to become a US ally. However, such flexing of power by Britain would urge engineers to obtain more and more results which ultimately led to the fire.

    It has been shown that the development of bombs by the gov’t is apparent to the public. However, after the Windscale fire, newspapers started to publish information in regards to the cause of the fire that does not reflect what we know today. One article on Nov 11, 1957 outright denies the primary cause of the fire which is the cartridge design saying. According to a BBC documentary on the Windscale disaster, the cartridge holding the radioactive material in the reactor core incrementally traded safety design to increase output production because of gov’t orders. The cartridge gradually became designed to hold larger amounts of radioactive material larger but with less material composing the actual cartridge. Such design would lead to a break in one cartridge which sparked the fire at Windscale. It would not be until 1889 that the gov’t discloses the actual causes of the fire to the public in the Penney Report. The gov’t avoided prosecution at the time of the fire by blaming the fire on the engineers to hide the fact that they’ve forced the engineers to disregard safety for the advancement of political agenda.

    The Penney report was a document that interviewed the foremen of Windscale in order to investigate the cause of the fire[1]. The public however, was not to know the specific cause of the fire for “security purposes” as an article on October 16, 1957 describes. A Londoner at the time must have thought that the accident had been caused by a design flaw if the specifics of the cause were made confidential. However, what is not known would be the underlying cause of the design error which works in the favor of the gov’t. In turn, the gov’t pressure on the engineers to recklessly maximize results was covered up.

    At the time of the Windscale disaster, an average British citizen would have been fully aware of the push for nuclear weapons and technology for Britain. What they would not know is the desperation that the gov’t had in order to develop technologies such that bold risks were made that endangered those who worked in the reactor.

    Windscale: Britian’s Worst Nuclear Disaster. Dir. Sarah Aspinall. BBC, 2012. Film.
    Nuclear Energy As Source Of Power. The Times (London, England), Friday, Jun 13, 1952; pg. 6; Issue 52337. (321 words)
    Churches Deplore Britain’s Hydrogen Bomb Tests.The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Apr 03, 1957; pg. 6; Issue 53806. (745 words)
    Output Of H-Bomb Ingredient.FROM OUR SCIENCE CORRESPONDENT.The Times (London, England), Monday, Nov 11, 1957; pg. 5; Issue 53995. (523 words)
    Atom Power Initiative.From Our Special Correspondent.The Times (London, England), Monday, Apr 29, 1957; pg. 10; Issue 53827. (973 words)
    Inquiry Ordered At Windscale.From Our Political Correspondent.The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Oct 16, 1957; pg. 10; Issue 53973. (760words)

  3. Emma Wittle
    October 29, 2015
    HIST 374 – Distaters
    Paper 2- Windscale Disaster

    In the early 1950’s the Windscale nuclear power plant was opened in order to create Plutonium for atomic bombs. The public was under the impression that this plant was solely for making nuclear energy and hoped that it would create enough energy for the surrounding communities and eventually the entire country. Throughout the life of the plant, there was so much political pressure on the plant management and workers that some risky decisions were made in an attempt to create more materials for the weapons. In 1957, this resulted in a fire that emitted radiation to the surrounding towns and could have caused an explosion in the plant. This information was covered up and the public was ill informed on the matter in an attempt to make the plant workers seem at fault. This deception was created so that the United States would not repeal its decision to create a nuclear partnership with Britain.

    Towards the beginning of the life of Windscale, there were many worries about the dangers of a plant and the safety of creating nuclear power. The public was told that the Windscale power plant and Calder Hall were completely safe and that radiation levels being emitted were low. In order to prove this to the public, they were allowed to take tours through Windscale and see the processes by which the plutonium is extracted, showing that any previous safety concerns had been addressed (Times London, “An Atomic Power Station by 1956,” 7 May 1954). This created a false sense of security with the public. In reality, as seen in the documentary, the plant was having issues with accidental energy releases and with radiation emission during the cool down procedure. When Windscale’s neighbor, Calder Hall was opened, the public was again told it was going to supply nuclear power. They were again deceived. Calder was yet another plutonium factory that would fuel the creation of more bombs. An article in the Times describes the Queen being at the opening of Calder Hall and states that as “the world’s largest atomic power station, it will supply 92 megawatts of electricity and produce plutonium as a by-product for use at the neighboring atomic plant at Windscale” (Times London, “The Queen to Open Calder Hall,” 6 January 1956). The Queen’s presence at the opening, as well as the news of new energy, helped to keep the public from worrying about the dangers of the plant. Once Windscale and Calder Hall were up and running and public fears were beginning to calm, The Times brags that Britian was the first to have an atomic power plant that was a “model for the first nuclear power stations” and also that “while the United States and the Soviet Union [were] building many different types of nuclear power stations experimentally, Britian [was] committed to a program planned by stages,” (Time London, “The Promise of Calder Hall,” 17 October 1956). This furthered the idea of safety in terms of the plant and even implied that because there was more planning and less experimentation, the British plants were safer than those of the United States and the Soviet Union.

    When one of the graphite piles at Windscale caught fire in 1957, the temperature of the pile rose as more of the uranium caught fire. The workers had trouble finding a way to cool the pile down and therefore the fire was allowed to spread even further. Had the temperature gotten too high, there could have been an explosion. In The Times, this event was downplayed. A specific article briefly states that no one was harmed, there was never a chance of explosion and that after shutting down one of the piles, Windscale operations had returned to normal. The article also takes lightly the amount of radiation that was released during the attempted cool-down of the pile, saying that “the greater part of this has been retained by the filters in the Windscale chimneys,” (Times London, “Windscale Atom Plant Overheats,” 12 October 1957). The Times once again downplayed the radiation hazard when saying that “Viewed in relation to the total background of radioactivity, which is present all the time, it is infintesmal.” (Times London, “Second Pile at Windscale Closed Down,” 18 October 1957). In the documentary, we saw that the fire was a much more intense and serious matter than this article construes it as, and that the filters did not actually keep as much radiation from escaping as they would have liked. This downplay of the event served not only to keep the public calm, but to keep this disaster from being a well known one, so as to not interrupt the coming agreements with the United States over nuclear partnership.

    At the birth of Windscale and Calder Hall the information given to the public was that the plants were for creating nuclear energy, in order to ease fears of nuclear power and radiation. While eventually it was known that the plants were also being used to make nuclear weapons, the struggles with safety that the plant staff and government were aware of was not conveyed to the public. After the fire, the news downplayed events in an attempt to not only calm public fears, but also to make the disaster seem as though it was not a big deal. If the real magnitude of the event was known by the public, it would also be known by the United States and therefore ruin the coming nuclear partnership.

    “An Atomic Power Station by 1956”:
    “The Queen to Open Calder Hall”:
    “The Promise of Calder Hall”
    “Windscale Atom Plant Overheats”
    “Second Pile at Windscale Closed Down”

  4. Public on Windscale
    Nuclear power hasn’t always received the view of uncertainty it receives today. In fact, when Britain began its nuclear program in the 40’s most of the population was unaware of the dangers of the radiation and pollution that could be caused by nuclear reactors. With the new technology and available energy, most of the population viewed nuclear power and research as the future. As time went on the population began to be informed of the safety concerns from nuclear power and the main reason for the building of nuclear power plants: for the production of weapon grade plutonium. The public did not know about the immense pressure put on the plutonium factories for Britain’s atom and hydrogen bomb or how far Britain would push to be able to produce and test a bomb before the ban on nuclear testing in 1963.

    The uses of new studies about radioactivity and materials was exciting to a lot of the population. The creation of x-ray machines, and finding an electrical production factory that was just as cheap if not cheaper to coal made people open to the idea of nuclear power. After the dropping of the bombs on Japan by America, the British knew that they might no longer be a super power if they could not create their own nuclear weapons and introduce themselves as nuclear allies with America. They introduced nuclear power plants that would be able to make the main ingredients of nuclear bombs as a byproduct of making electricity and began their own research under the direction of the British scientist, William Penney, one of the scientists that worked on the United States’ Manhattan project.
    Britain’s first step towards becoming a world nuclear super power began with the building of their first nuclear power station, Calder Hall, in Sellafield. The media told the population about the first power plant and how it would be used to not only create electricity for the city of Seascale, but also to produce the element plutonium. One article in the London Times, “An Atomic Power Station by 1956,” that discusses the new Nuclear plant in Sellafield and how they’ve mastered safety states, “We believe that here at Windscale we are laying the foundations as a new industry safety, satisfactory, and efficiency.” The government however did not go all out on safety for this plant. Instead of building the commonly used water cooling plant, they decided to create a cheaper design that cooled the reactor core with air using a large fan.

    The government was not only cutting corners on costs, but was also trying to produce more Tritium, an element that the plutonium factory was not designed to create. The London Times states in “Output of H-Bomb Ingredient”, “The Windscale reactors had been in use for some time to make the radio-active isotope of hydrogen, tritium”. It was clear to the public that there was a military production for an h-bomb, but the news was not blaming the military or government for the disaster. The general population also did not realize how much radiation was released from the fire, but the government tried to make it sound not as bad as it actually was by “Temporarily suspending the distribution of milk from certain farms in the area” (“Milk from Farms Near Windscale Stopped”). Cartridges burst releasing radiation up the chimney. The filter that the engineers and scientists at Windscale had named “Cockcroft’s Folly” had stopped a lot of the radiation that would have crept out of the chimney. Scientists checking the chimney 12 days after the incident “did not disclose what the various examinations revealed, but an official agreed that it was ‘a fair conclusion’ that radioactivity was now ‘at safe working levels’ at the chimney top (“Radiation Tests at Windscale”). By not disclosing information, the public most likely was suspicious of the claims by the officials. There is a sense of suspicion by the news because they stated they did not disclose the data from the observation.

    Today, we can see how the government tried to cover up the pressure they put on the Windscale plant. By blaming the scientists and engineers at the facility the military and government got away with over loading the reactor to the point of overheating and starting on fire. Cartridges burst releasing radiation up the chimney because the government needed more material for hydrogen bomb testing.

    “Cost Of Nuclear Power.” Times [London, England] 21 Feb. 1951: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
    Our Special Correspondent. “An Atomic Power Station By 1956.” Times [London, England] 7 May 1954: 8. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
    Our Special Correspondent. “Windscale Atom Plant Overheats.” Times [London, England] 12 Oct. 1957: 6. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
    Our Special Correspondent. “Milk From Farms Near Windscale Stopped.” Times [London, England] 14 Oct. 1957: 10. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
    Our Special Correspondent. “Radiation Tests At Windscale.” Times [London, England] 21 Oct. 1957: 10. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
    OUR SCIENCE CORRESPONDENT. “Output Of H-Bomb Ingredient.” Times [London, England] 11 Nov. 1957: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

  5. (The narrative is told in the first person by a very smart 8th grade teacher. No one believes what he says because they have not read it in the London Times directly or Heard it on the news and are unable to put the pieces together like him.)

    Allow me to elaborate on the trajectory of nuclear energy. The truth behind nuclear energy is that it is a cover up for making nuclear weapons. Yes nuclear reactors do in fact make energy and can possibly power entire cities. The truth of the matter is that countries us this excuse in order to get the people behind the idea that they can have electric energy from nuclear reactors. But of course they leave out all potential dangers associated with having a nuclear reactor in operation. No one told me this information; I had to dig it out myself from reading the Times of London. The truth is there! You just have to keep up with reading the paper and putting the pieces of the puzzle together. It will all make sense one day in the future.

    For example, on November 29th of 1957, only fifty days from the Windscale disaster and 12 years from the first atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has granted NATO commanders the liberty to use atomic weapons at their discretion. “Mr. Zilliacus asked if the Prime Minister was aware that N.A.T.O. generals had disclosed to the Defense Committee of the N.A.T.O. commanders were now being authorized to use nuclear weapons up to two and a half times the Hiroshima bomb on their own immediate decision” (Times of London, “N.A.T.O. Commanders Authority.” November 29,1957). We still don’t know what happened in the Windscale disaster on October 10th. “Mr. Anderson (from Whitehaven Lab) asked the prime minister if he had yet decided wether he would publish the report of Sir Alexander Fleck on the Windscale accident of October 10 and when the report was likely to be ready” (Times of London, “Windscale Inquiries.” November 29,1957). It was Christmas and we still didn’t know what happened. I knew exactly what had happened even though the Prime Minister wouldn’t tell the people. It made sense to me that the countries that had nuclear reactors, all of a sudden claimed to posses nuclear weapons.

    Soon we needed outside agencies to regulate the production of plutonium. I hear that in the future they will also enrich uranium to make more powerful nuclear weapons. It wasn’t until 1963 that we started adopting regulations for the countries that were or could possibly be producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. “The new Safeguard scheme, adopted by the agency’s board of governors and under discussion in the conference, provides for I.A.E.A. [International Atomic Energy Authority] controls over reactors that yield plutonium in sufficient quantities for the production of nuclear weapons” (Times of London, “Safeguards Plan.” September 28,1963). I keep telling people but they will not listen to me when I tell them what is going on in the world. The Windscale disaster will not be the last disaster to take place; I predict that in the future we will have more disasters because of nuclear reactors but even then the countries will not give up in trying to make nuclear weapons.

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