Tracing the Implications of Things

            Some lessons to be learned from this story

Windscale, England, 1957

The bottom line at Windscale was not financial but geopolitical.  Britain’s aspirations to be among the nuclear powers after the war drove much of what happened at Windscale.  Authorities delayed the release of Wigner energy so that production would not be interrupted and the nuclear material for the next atmospheric test would be ready.  When the procedure finally started  considerable heat already existed in the system.  Any error or malfunction would and did have more grave consequences than if the release of energy had occurred earlier.

The government did not want the disaster at Windscale to become widely known, as it would jeopardize Britain’s efforts to obtain American technology to further develop its nuclear program.  These concerns impacted the way in which the government  managed the disaster.  Authorities failed to fully inform people living near the plant of the dangers and it underestimated the area of risk, allowing children to drink contaminated milk for several days. The official report on the incident minimized the dangers.  To this date, we still do not know the full effects of the event as it unfolded, as parts of the report have remained suppressed on the grounds of national security.

The postwar Cumberland area experienced difficult economic times and the nuclear plant represented an important source of jobs and benefits for the wider community.  Few allowed themselves to imagine what was happening at the plant when something seemed to go wrong.  Under the circumstances it was not difficult for the government to deflect attention away from this disaster, much as Chisso did in Minamata.  While there was some organized citizen activism in postwar London agitating for passage of clean air legislation, little citizen activism was found in the countryside in the 1950s.  

The destructive force set loose at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was obvious, but the peacetime risks from nuclear facilities were still unknown.  If the government had been more forthcoming about the real dangers that the incident at Windscale presented, we all might have been better prepared for what happened at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania some twenty years later and at Chernobyl almost thirty years later.


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