Poisoned legacy: why the future of power can’t be nuclear

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Serhii Plokhy — The Guardian — May 14, 2022

Mounting tensions with Russia, a global pandemic and a reckless scramble for nuclear energy: the echoes of 1957 are alarming – we would do well to heed them.

On 10 October 1957, Harold Macmillan sent a letter to President Dwight Eisenhower. The question he asked his US counterpart was: “What are we going to do about these Russians?” The launch of the Sputnik satellite six days earlier had carried with it the threat that Soviet military technology would eclipse that of the west. The prime minister was hoping to boost British nuclear capabilities, and was desperate for US cooperation.

On that same day, however, the UK’s most advanced nuclear project [Windscale, located on the coast of the Irish Sea] went up in flames – putting the knowledge and bravery of its best scientists to the test, and threatening England’s peaceful countryside with a radiological disaster.

Britain’s first atomic establishment had been hurriedly put together after the second world war. It had turned the small village of Seascale, on the Cumbrian coast, into one of Britain’s most highly educated places, brimming with nuclear scientists and engineers. At the centre of this rarified new world were two buildings: Windscale piles No 1 and No 2. They were Britain’s first nuclear reactors, on a campus that for decades afterwards would be used to produce energy for the grid, but their primary purpose was to produce the material for a British bomb.

One atomic energy official would later refer to the piles as “monuments to our initial ignorance”, and it was ignorance about one particular nuclear phenomenon that almost led to disaster. “Wigner energy” is the energy that accumulates in the graphite blocks that make up the main body of the reactor while the fission reaction is taking place. If it’s not released in time, the energy can build up to such an extent that it ignites the graphite. Periodically, a special operation called “annealing” has to be undertaken in order to release the excess energy.

Nuclear energy: A perpetually unstable and vulnerable technology that leaves behind mountains of radioactive waste that no one wants in their state.

Macmillan wanted Windscale to produce more plutonium and tritium for a hydrogen bomb as quickly as possible. But annealing required stopping the reactor. The Windscale Technical Evaluation Committee decided it would be safe to do it less often. Managers had scheduled the annealing of Pile No 1 for early October 1957, but it was long overdue.

It began at 11.45am on 7 October, under the supervision of physicist Ian Robertson. Everything seemed to go according to plan, and after a long day Robertson went home to get some sleep. He felt unwell. The whole village was feeling the impact of a global flu pandemic – a virus that combined strains of avian and human influenza that had emerged from Guizhou, China, the previous year. Many of Robertson’s colleagues and their families had fallen ill. But no attempts were made to quarantine, and people had continued to show up for work. After spending a few hours at home, Robertson was back at the pile for 9am the following day. It must have seemed as if the flu had not only infected Robertson but the reactor as well. The temperature in the pile was not behaving as predicted and it was a challenge to keep things stable. The operators managed to maintain control for the rest of the day and night, but on 9 October the temperature began to rise again. As the situation became critical, no one could tell what was going on inside the pile.

“Someone suggested that we actually have a look at the reactor itself,” Arthur Wilson, then a 32-year-old instrument technician, later recalled. “We thought: ‘What the hell.’ I opened the gag-port and there it was – a fire at the face of the reactor.” Normally it was dark, but now the channels were glowing bright red from the soaring temperature. “I can’t say I thought a lot about it at the time, there was so much to do,” continued Wilson. “I didn’t think ‘Hurrah, I’ve found it.’ I rather thought, ‘Oh dear, now we are in a pickle.’”

Read more… (on The Guardian website)

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