Disasters Class: Windscale

We’ve spent a fair amount of time in this class talking about how perception plays a major role in defining a disaster. For the unit on Windscale, the class did an experiment: initially, you found historical, contemporaneous news stories on this nuclear accident in the Times of London , without knowing any details of the event. At that point, I asked you to come up with an argument about what happened based on the 5 most interesting articles you found, which also formed a coherent narrative or had a similar theme. The idea was for you to put yourselves in the shoes of someone in Britain encountering the event as it unfolded and see what impression you got.

Next, you will read recent articles and watch a documentary about Windscale to see how only recently has the historical narrative of what happened started to solidify. For many years, what the public knew about the event was partial, incomplete, and inaccurate. At this juncture I want you to think big: what kind of a disaster was this? What caused it? And, would you have gotten this impression if you hadn’t watched the documentary or a similar historical narrative, but only seen the event unfold in news media at the time? What do your answers to these questions tell us about disasters that we might not already have understood?

These are all questions I want you to keep in mind as you write your next essay in the blog comments. For that essay I want you to focus on the following: How did your impression of the incident at Windscale change between the time you did your article search in the London Times and after seeing the documentary? Use specific evidence from your news articles (cite the article title and date of publication using parenthetical citations) and specific details from the film to support your argument. (500-600 words, due Monday, October 7th by 10AM.) Be mindful of the advice and comments I gave you with your grade on the first essay post.


  1. chemedin

    “This is the story of political spin before the term was even invented.” The following statement is one of the opening lines of the Windscale documentary, and describes the disaster perfectly. This is evidenced when comparing the narrative told from newspaper articles from the time of the disaster, and the narrative told by the documentary. The newspaper articles cover up the true extent of the disaster, the root cause, and the real reason for Windscale. The documentary portrays a more ominous picture of the real motives behind Windscale and the cover up of the disaster.

    The newspaper articles show a very pleasant, noncalamitous side of nuclear technology. The public had its concerns and safety, health effects and nuclear waste removal. But, experts such as Charles Hinton dismissed such worries and carried on with nuclear research (Britain’s “Daring” Atomic Plans, 1955). The pleasant side of nuclear technology was seen with Calder Hall, built just yards away from Windscale. The electricity produced by the plant was touted as being too cheap to meter, but the documentary does go on to tell what the real purpose of the plant. One of the scientists in the documentary states that Calder Hall often times consumed more power from the grid than it supplied. The media also grossly understated the severity and cause of the disaster. The incident was described as a reactor getting too hot, a fire with no flames, but easily contained with water (Windscale Atom Plant Overheats, 1957). The cause of the fire was spun as an “error in judgment” (Causes of Windscale Mishap, 1957). As the documentary later shows, this is completely untrue. A fitting description of how the disaster was portrayed at the time came from a scientist in the documentary—it was like a minor car accident, there was some damage, but everyone made it out alive.

    The documentary shows the true reasons for the disaster, the severity of the disaster and how the government covered the whole thing up. The disaster was caused by extreme political pressure on the scientists and engineers to produce an atomic bomb and then later an H-bomb. This extreme pressure came from the decision of the US to end its nuclear research with Britain. The British did not want to fall behind the US and the Soviets, so a group was recruited and secretly commissioned to recreate American research and create an atomic bomb. Thus Windscale was born, but its true purpose was hidden from the public. Britain did succeed in its goal of restoring its partnership with the US, but not without a disaster occurring at the same time. Safety was reduced and ignored all together at times in the interest of producing more plutonium and tritium. This was not a decision made by the scientists, but rather politics–the true cause of the disaster. Because the restoration of the nuclear agreement and the disaster occurred at the same time, the British needed to cover up the disaster. This is why Harold Macmillan edited William Penney’s report, and spun the disaster to the media as “errors in judgment.” This placed the blame on the men who worked at the plant rather than the politics of the situation. This is evidenced by the newspaper articles described above. The disaster truly was a political disaster in every aspect rather than a scientific one.

    The political spin played an important role in the way the narrative of the Windscale disaster is told. The accounts from men and women who lived through the disaster tell a very different story from that told of the government and the media. This disaster shows the way that politics can spin an event and hide potentially damaging facts.

  2. Zp

    Nuclear secrets have always had a way of slipping past their barriers. From spies to foreign scientists, secrets left the Manhattan Project bound for distant lands, but they never seemed to stay wholly intact when doing so. Even with the aid of William Penney, the English scientists at Windscale were unable to recreate the success of the American-lead endeavor. Their short-comings and deviation from safety procedures would end up causing Britain’s first major nuclear disaster.

    From a civilian standpoint, the fire at Windscale could have never happened, considering all the media attention it received. For those who were not privy to inside information, the Windscale fire meant very little: the land surrounding Windscale was radioactive (Wolff 1959), the milk supply might be dangerous (there were some doubts whether it was even harmful to infants) and workers at the facility were, for the most part, unharmed (BMJ 1957). Public sources seemed to have little to say following the event, but how could the scope of such a major event at the country’s most important nuclear facility go almost completely unreported?

    In hindsight this question is easily answered with information which was kept secret from the public. The answer lies in the nuclear arms race in which Britain believed itself a combatant. As a declining world power, England wished to ally itself with the United States. While England hadn’t successfully created a hydrogen bomb, the United States could produce the force of over a Megaton of TNT. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan would see Britain rise to the occasion and share nuclear technology with the United States, and he was not about to let a fire stop him from convincing Eisenhower.

    Macmillan would make his primary goal concerning the Windscale fire not to investigate the issues, but rather to obscure the failures of his hasty efforts. Investigations would be held, led by William Penney, but instead of a national inquiry into the safety and efficacy of the country’s nuclear program, the proceedings would be held in relative secrecy. Macmillan kept negotiations open with President Eisenhower, in an effort to finally persuade the leader of the United States to make a nuclear alliance with Britain.

    Only years later did all of this information come out. How otherwise effective scientists cut corners (or fins) and ignored protocols because of their government’s haste: filters were mocked as “folly” when proposed, alternative solutions were used for cooling the core when there were safer, proven methods, and Wigner Releases were performed when they would only exacerbate the fire. None of this would be known to the public for decades to come.

    On the surface the Windscale fire looked like a case of spoiled milk, but below that was a global politics. The Nuclear Arms Race of the Cold War had brought about one of many disasters that would come, but in a country most would not expect. It may be facile to understand the Cold War as a conflict between the United States and the U.S.S.R., but it was truly a global conflict. A shell of its former self, Britain sought to keep up with the most powerful nations on the planet, and in doing so, learned a harsh lesson about playing with fire.

    British Medical Journal. Accident at Windscale. 1957 November 16; 2(5054): 1171–1172.

    Arthur H. Wolff. Milk Contamination in the Windscale Incident. Public Health Reports, Vol. 74, No. 1 (Jan., 1959), pp. 42-43

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