Feb. 23rd, 2016

purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
Windscale, 1957 is yet another book liberated from my father's shelves. It is an account both of the events that lead up to the Windscale fire in 1957 and the subsequent inquires which attempted to ascertain the cause and apportion blame.

It is mostly a fairly even-handed account. It recounts the pressures that were on the British Nuclear industry to produce large amount of weapons' grade plutonium using technology that was, at best, only partially understood and infrastructure that was barely in place. It talks through the design of the air-cooled graphite reactors at Windscale and, in particular, the regular need to shutdown the pile and then carefully reheat it in order to release Wigner energy: a process which, again, was only partially understood. It does its best to set out the causes of the fire though it seems that these will never be completely known since there wasn't adequate monitoring inside the core to really understand the sequence of events. It then talks through the aftermath, the monitoring of fallout, the milk ban, and then the subsequent inquiries.

Where it loses its impartiality a little is in its defence of the men conducting the Wigner release. The first inquiry, intended as a purely technical investigation had interviewed them on the understanding that it was purely an attempt to understand the sequence of events. Indeed the initial confidential report form the inquiry restricted itself to technical matters. However as the report made its way through the political process towards a public summary a sentence was inserted which spoke of "faults of judgement by the operating staff". This was obviously deeply resented by men who were over-worked and who were following standard procedures (insofar as anything can be described as standard when it has only been performed 9 times before and when the process it is controlling is only partially understood). Windscale, 1957 clearly considers part of its job to be setting the record straight on behalf of these men and offers little explanation of the opposing point of view which presumably felt faults of judgement had occurred.

This being the 30th anniversary of Chenobyl, there has been a lot of coverage recently of the far more serious Chenobyl disaster. One thing that has struck me in that coverage is that one of the root causes there was pressure from the Soviet government for the plant to produce ever more power, leading to the bypassing of safety procedures. While safety procedures were not bypassed at Windscale, it nevertheless seems fair to say that the the political pressure on the industry to expand meant that power stations were being built and operated right at the edge of our understanding of how this could be done safely.

It is easy to say that lessons have been learned and it is extremely unlikely that a fire like the one at Windscale could reoccur (if only because nuclear power station design has vastly changed), but I'll confess I'm not sure the general lesson, that politicians should be careful of placing too great demands upon dangerous technologies, has been learned.

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