How the Heroes who stopped the Windscale atom bomb fire got the blame for starting it.

How the Heroes who stopped the Windscale atom bomb fire got the blame for starting it.

How the Heroes who stopped the Windscale atom bomb fire got the blame for starting it.

Local Cockermouth author Paul Eastham doesn’t pause for breath it would seem, following on from his book release in 2022 ‘Secrets of the Lost Kingdom’ he is back again with another book exploring the deeper and hidden histories of Cumbria, titled ‘The Trophy at The End of The World’.

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This book looks at how, for 2,000 years recklessly ambitious people have ravaged Cumbria seeking trophies and what was the result? Invasion, massacre, famine, colonisation, environmental catastrophe, even the world’s first nuclear disaster. 

In a riveting new book, Paul tells how the history of this beautiful and intimidating border  province was written by people seeking revenge, status, fame and power.

But Cumbria had a knack of  confounding their expectations. 

On the night of 10 October 1957, a fire broke out in the core of the Windscale nuclear plant. It spewed radioactive dust into the surrounding Cumbrian countryside and pushed Britain to the brink of an unprecedented tragedy. The terrifying sight of deadly uranium burning like domestic coal in the heart of the reactor for three solid days faced the team of scientists with an impossible dilemma.  

How the Heroes who stopped the Windscale atom bomb fire got the blame for starting it.

The charge face, where nuclear fuel rods are being inserted

 If they let the fire burn out it would have spread radioactivity over a large area of Britain and Europe. But if they doused the atomic fuel with water to cool the reaction, they risked turning the Windscale plant into a nuclear bomb. That could have killed everyone working in the United Kingdom’s first atomic facility and families living for miles around. After a series of failed attempts to extinguish the inferno, all options seemed to have been exhausted. 

 Disaster was averted by deputy general manager Tom Tuohy who took a huge gamble: “I phoned the general manager, ”Tuohy recalled, “and said, look, I want to turn on the water.” By soaking the blazing reactor core and, crucially, also shutting off the air that fed the flames at the same time, he put out the fire and averted a tragedy. But twelve kilograms of uranium had already belched out of one of Windscale’s two 400-foot-high reactor chimneys. It was the UK’s worst-ever nuclear disaster. 

How the Heroes who stopped the Windscale atom bomb fire got the blame for starting it.

Two workers involved in extracting rods during the emergency.

 The incident is estimated to have killed thirty-two people and caused more than 260 cancer cases.  It was only the self-sacrifice of Windscale workers that prevented a truly catastrophic meltdown. That could have sent, not twelve kilograms, but potentially fifteen tonnes of plutonium up the chimney and into the atmosphere. The poison cloud would have killed thousands more people and blighted hundreds of square miles of land forever. Technicians had warned about escapes of radiation for years due to dangerous design faults and hasty construction. 

 But the then Tory Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, brushed aside these alerts. He ordered Windscale to produce more, not less,nuclear fuel to show Britain was a worthy partner for the vastly better-funded American atom bomb project. He ordered Windscale’s safety margins to be progressively eroded. Tuohy’s team spent three weeks trimming half a million aluminium fins off  uranium rod cases to speed up plutonium reactions.

Macmillan forced the risky changes to get enough fuel to build a convincing nuclear weapon, the minimum needed to get to the negotiating table with the Americans. Macmillan triumphantly signed the longed-for nuclear secrets sharing deal with President Eisenhower only days after the fire broke out in the Windscale reactor. But no one was allowed to know.

 Macmillan ordered a complete news blackout about the consequences of his recklessness. The Premier commissioned a secret report into the disaster which blamed Number 10. But Macmillan banned it. Instead, he issued a white paper wrongly blaming an “error of judgement” by the Windscale workers for causing the fire. Bitterness over Macmillan’s duplicity has never subsided.

By Paul Eastham

Paul Eastham The Trophy at the End of the World

This is a short extract from a new book by Paul Eastham called The Trophy at the End of the World. It is published on September 1, 2023. You can pre-order a copy by visiting Fletcher Christian Books Shop.

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