RogerBW's Blog

Windscale 1957, Lorna Arnold 29 May 2015

1995 non-fiction. In October 1957, the core of Windscale's Pile 1 caught fire, burned for three days, and spread radioactive contamination across what was then Cumberland. This is the official history of the incident and its aftermath.

This is a comprehensive and deeply frightening book. It gives a detailed account of the decisions that led to the incident (principally an external demand to produce tritium as fast as possible for the British hydrogen bomb, combined with an ignorance of Wigner energy at the design stage), the incident itself, and (the bulk of the book) what happened afterwards.

The annealing process is described in some detail, and it's clear that this was always rather experimental; there was only very limited information about what was happening inside the pile, for practical reasons of access.

This is not Arnold's story, though she was working on site at the time; but although it is an official history, deliberately dry in style, it is nonetheless a very personal story, dealing with individuals, their decisions on the basis of limited information, and their heroism. (And their reward, in many cases, was to be collectively blamed for the accident so that the Americans wouldn't realise just what had been going on, would continue to take Britain seriously as a nuclear power, and would agree to Harold Macmillan's plans for joint nuclear weapon development.)

The story is frightening because all the decisions are understandable. This isn't some melodrama of evil men in suits banging their fists and saying "give us tritium now" while the technicians say "no, no, it's not safe". Yes, there were technical objections; but more importantly there was a general lack of understanding of detailed risks, both before and after the incident. (Even now, the primary cause of the fire is not known, and almost certainly it never will be.) This is blundering around in the dark, trying to concoct nitroglycerine.

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog. ["As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases."]

Comments on this post are now closed. If you have particular grounds for adding a late comment, comment on a more recent post quoting the URL of this one.

Tags 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s 3d printing action advent of code aeronautics aikakirja anecdote animation anime army astronomy audio audio tech aviation base commerce battletech beer boardgaming book of the week bookmonth chain of command children chris chronicle church of no redeeming virtues cold war comedy computing contemporary cornish smuggler cosmic encounter coup covid-19 crime crystal cthulhu eternal cycling dead of winter doctor who documentary drama driving drone ecchi economics en garde espionage essen 2015 essen 2016 essen 2017 essen 2018 essen 2019 essen 2022 essen 2023 existential risk falklands war fandom fanfic fantasy feminism film firefly first world war flash point flight simulation food garmin drive gazebo genesys geocaching geodata gin gkp gurps gurps 101 gus harpoon historical history horror hugo 2014 hugo 2015 hugo 2016 hugo 2017 hugo 2018 hugo 2019 hugo 2020 hugo 2021 hugo 2022 hugo 2023 hugo 2024 hugo-nebula reread in brief avoid instrumented life javascript julian simpson julie enfield kickstarter kotlin learn to play leaving earth linux liquor lovecraftiana lua mecha men with beards mpd museum music mystery naval noir non-fiction one for the brow opera parody paul temple perl perl weekly challenge photography podcast politics postscript powers prediction privacy project woolsack pyracantha python quantum rail raku ranting raspberry pi reading reading boardgames social real life restaurant reviews romance rpg a day rpgs ruby rust scala science fiction scythe second world war security shipwreck simutrans smartphone south atlantic war squaddies stationery steampunk stuarts suburbia superheroes suspense television the resistance the weekly challenge thirsty meeples thriller tin soldier torg toys trailers travel type 26 type 31 type 45 vietnam war war wargaming weather wives and sweethearts writing about writing x-wing young adult
Special All book reviews, All film reviews
Produced by aikakirja v0.1