Windscale, England, 1957

Britain aspired to become a nuclear power after the Second World War. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Americans had demonstrated their capabilities for nuclear power. While the Americans and British were close allies, in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 the Americans prohibited the sharing of any nuclear information with anyone outside the United States, including Britain. The Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 and the detection of the first Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949 exacerbated the military insecurities felt by the British. Undeterred by the cold shoulder given to them by the Americans, the British pushed ahead amidst great secrecy with a facility to produce plutonium, a necessary ingredient in the making of an atomic bomb. The British nuclear facility, originally known as Windscale and now known as Sellafield, was located in Cumberland on the Irish Sea, at the foot of the hills leading to the Lake District. Construction of Windscale began in 1947, and operations at the plant began in 1950. Using plutonium from Windscale, the first British atomic device was exploded in 1952 on Monte Bello Island, off the coast of Australia. Windscale enjoyed an auspicious start.

Windscale’s finish was notorious.  A routine maintenance procedure led to the release of radioactive materials onto the British countryside, and beyond.  While the plant operators desperately attempted to identify and resolve the growing crisis, the public was kept uninformed so as not to undermine British ambitions to enter the nuclear club.  Eventually the government banned the drinking of milk from the area.  Recent estimates of the risks associated with the releases from Windscale indicate that between 120 and 300 deaths and 250 cases of thyroid cancer resulted from exposure to radioactive materials.

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