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The Windscale reactor accident50 years on

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IOP PUBLISHING J. Radiol. Prot. 27 (2007) 211215

JOURNAL OF RADIOLOGICAL PROTECTION doi:10.1088/0952-4746/27/3/E02


The Windscale reactor accident50 years on

The policy of the government of the United Kingdom to independently manufacture nuclear weapons in Great Britain was formulated in the mid-1940s and implemented in the late-1940s and early-1950s; full details are to be found in the monumental treatise on the subject by Margaret Gowing and Lorna Arnold [1]. A signicant component of this implementation was the construction of a plutonium production factory on the remote coast of the then county of Cumberland (now part of Cumbria) in north-west England. The site chosen was that of the former ordnance factory at Sellaeld, which, with its sister factory just down the road at Drigg, had produced TNT during the Second World War. Construction began in September 1947, and the site was renamed Windscale to avoid confusion with Springelds Works, the uranium processing and fuel manufacturing establishment near Preston. Plutonium was initially created in the uranium fuel of two nuclear reactors (the Windscale Piles), chemically separated from untransmuted uranium and the waste by-products of nuclear reactions in a reprocessing plant, and then converted to metallic form before being sent to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, near Reading, for machining and assembly as a weapon. The speed with which the policy was put into practice is truly remarkable: Windscale Pile No. 1 was operational in October 1950 followed by Pile No. 2 in June 1951, the rst reprocessing run took place in 1952 and the extracted plutonium provided the explosive material in the UKs rst nuclear weapons test (in Australia) on 3 October 1952, just ve years after building work commenced at Windscale. This speed, however, was achieved at a premium, as we shall see. The Windscale Piles were each fuelled by 180 t of uranium metal fabricated (at Springelds Works) into >70 000 aluminium-clad elements positioned in 3440 horizontal channels within nearly 2000 t of graphite moderator. The reactor core was cooled by blowing a large volume of environmental air through the channels and out of a 120 m high chimneyin contrast to power reactors, in the Piles the heat generated by nuclear ssion was purely incidental to the creation of plutonium for military use. Although the primary purpose of the Piles was the production of weapons-grade plutonium, the reactors were also used to generate other nuclides through the neutron irradiation of appropriate materials fabricated as isotope cartridges that were suitably placed in channels within the core. Thus, the -particle emitter 210 Po, used in combination with 9 Be as a neutron source to trigger nuclear ssion chain reactions, was produced in bismuth oxide cartridges (codenamed LM cartridges) and tritium was manufactured using magnesium lithium alloy cartridges (codenamed AM cartridges). (Other nuclides, such as 232 Th, 237 Np and 59 Co, were also irradiated in the Piles at various times during their operational lives.) These isotope cartridges depressed the neutron ux in the core, and, when uranium enriched in 235 U became available from Capenhurst Works (near Chester) in 1953, low enriched uranium fuel was used in the Piles to counter the adverse effects of the isotope cartridges on the neutron economy of the reactors. The Windscale Piles posed problems to their operators throughout their service. Indeed, even before construction was completed Sir John Cockcroft, on the basis of information received from the USA, insisted that lters be installed to remove radioactive material potentially present in the exhaust cooling air, which, since construction of the stacks had already commenced, necessitated the building of lter galleries (Cockcrofts follies) towards



the top of the chimneys. It was predicted at the design stage that occasional failures in the aluminium cladding of fuel elements could lead to releases of ssion products into the cooling air, and radiation detectors were installed to locate channels where a burst had occurred so that the affected channel could be cleared of fuel before the core was contaminated. Such bursts did occur throughout the period that the Piles operated, and kept the workforce busy. It was also anticipated that the ow of cooling air would be sufciently great that fuel elements would be buffeted and might move along the channels, and steps were taken to attempt to prevent this; but it was found that, in practice, elements were being blown out of the core, leading to a re-design of the arrangement of elements in a channel. The fuel element blow outs were accompanied by other, unforeseen, events: some elements were found to have become stranded, on discharge, in locations where the irradiated metallic uranium fuel became oxidised in the cooling air and radioactive particles were being released from the chimneys into the environment. The magnitude of these particulate releases varied over the lifetime of the Piles, but they were a constant problem for the operators; these fuel particle releases have been described in detail by Andrew Smith and his colleagues in the June issue of this Journal [2]. Another unexpected operational challenge was Wigner energy stored within the graphite moderator. When graphite is bombarded by neutrons, carbon nuclei are displaced in the lattice, which, at the relatively low operating temperature of the Piles, increased the potential energy of the graphite. This stored Wigner energy could, if released in an uncontrolled manner, lead to localised high temperatures and the possibility of a re. The rst Wigner energy release in the Windscale Piles took the operators by surprise, but once the process was understood, controlled releases of Wigner energy were conducted in regular annealing procedures. It was the ninth anneal in Pile No. 1 that led to a re in the core during 1011 October 1957 and the consequent release of radioactive material from the Pile chimney that is the worst accidental discharge of radionuclides that has been experienced in the UK; a comprehensive description of the accident has been provided by Lorna Arnold in her highly impressive book on the subject [3]. The Windscale re had profound political effects and the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) that ran the British nuclear facilities was never to be the same again. The two Windscale Piles were permanently closed, although this did not greatly inuence the weapons production programme as eight UKAEA-owned Magnox reactorsof a much more sophisticated design than the Piles, and which were also used to generate electricitywere coming on-line at Calder Hall, adjacent to Windscale Works, and at Chapelcross, in southern Scotland. An inquiry into the Windscale accident, chaired by Sir William Penney, was instituted by the UK Government within days of the accident, and the Penney Committee submitted its report to Government on 26 October, a remarkably short time after the accident. The Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, whose government was involved in delicate negotiations to reestablish nuclear weapons cooperation with the USA, decided that just a summary of the Penney Report should be published [4], and the full report was only made public 30 years later (and is included as an appendix in Lorna Arnolds book [3]). A committee chaired by Sir Alexander Fleck then investigated the wider implications of the accident, which led to, among other things, the establishment of the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) in 1971 (since 2004, subsumed within the Health Protection Agency as the Radiation Protection Division). The Penney Committee guardedly concluded that an uncontrolled localised release of Wigner energy during the ninth anneal had led to a re in a fuel element that had then spread to involve about 10 t of uranium. At the time, some senior and experienced people in the UKAEA expressed their doubts over this explanation, and pointed to evidence that an AM cartridge (made of magnesiumlithium alloy) was likely to have been the initiator of the re



[3]. Evidence that accumulated after the Penney Inquiry and which was presented to the Fleck Committee, such as the seriously damaged AM cartridges that were removed from Pile No. 2 in 1958, tended to support this alternative view; but one gains the impression that the somewhat battered UKAEA wanted to move on after the accident, and that the cause of the accident as identied by the Penney Inquiry should be regarded, if at all possible, as the nal word. Whatever the actual cause of the re, it is difcult to disagree with Lorna Arnolds view that the operation of the Windscale Piles was an accident waiting to happen [3]. The rst reports of the activities of radionuclides released during the accident, and of their travels, were published during 195859. It was clear from these reports that the primary radiological hazard arose from 131 I, although the major emissions of other ssion products were also quantied. Three reports [57] made mention of the release of 210 Po (from the affected LM cartridges), although no quantication of the activity discharged was offered, and no reference was made to tritium having been released (from the affected AM cartridges) although this was likely to have been of relatively minor radiological signicance. Given the sensitivity surrounding the re and, in particular, the involvement of the LM and AM cartridges, it may be that the 210 Po discharge was only acknowledged because it was known that the radionuclide had been detected in the Netherlands [8]. The release of 210 Po was not even mentioned in the next ofcial report, published in 1960, of the environmental aspects of the accident [9]an omission that Lorna Arnold describes as incomprehensible [3]encouraging the inference that the authorities did not want to unnecessarily shine a spotlight on difcult issues that might conveniently be considered closed. Without doubt, the high security classication assigned to the production of weapons materials at that time, together with the need-to-know principle, would have offered little assistance to any comprehensive external investigation of the radioactive materials discharged during the re. Against this conspiratorial interpretation is the unclassied UKAEA report published in 1959 [10] which examined the -activity found on air lters at Windscale, at the Harwell nuclear research establishment (south of Oxford) and in Belgium and concluded that this was principally due to 210 Po, and a further Harwell report written in 1961 and declassied in 1962 [11] which makes extensive reference to 210 Po activity in air concentrations measured in the UK and the rest of Europe using data gathered under the auspices of the Advisory Committee on Nuclear Radiation of the International Geophysical Year (IGY; July 1957 to December 1958). These two UKAEA documents make the failure to estimate the magnitude of the 210 Po activity discharged during the accident in reports published during the years immediately following the re even more perplexing. J R Beattie [12] and Roger Clarke [13] later re-evaluated the activities of the ssion products released from the uranium fuel during the accident, but the next thorough examination of the quantities of all the radionuclides emitted during the Windscale re was conducted almost a quarter of a century after the accident by Arthur Chamberlain of Harwell [14], who was heavily involved in the original assessment of the environmental impact of the accident. In addition to ssion product activities, Chamberlain quantied the releases of 210 Po and 3 H. Unfortunately, Chamberlains report relied on some material which was still classied at that time, so that his report was also classied (it was declassied in 1983) and not known to Malcolm Crick and Gordon Linsley, two scientists from the NRPB who were investigating the risks to public health posed by the Windscale accident. As a consequence, their rst assessment [15] did not consider 210 Po, a fact that was pointed out by John Urquhart [16]. In an extension of their original study, Crick and Linsley [17, 18] examined the risks resulting from the release of both 210 Po and 3 H, as well as a number of minor radionuclides. Interestingly, Crick and Linsley [18] concluded that although the risk of thyroid cancer from exposure to 131 I remained the greatest radiological impact of the re, the predicted health effects of exposure to 210 Po came in a close second. Roger Clarke [19], using updated cancer risk coefcients, estimated



that the accident had caused, or would cause, 100 fatal cancers (of which <10 are thyroid cancers due to exposure to 131 I and 70, mainly lung cancers, are due to exposure to 210 Po) and 90 non-fatal cancers (of which 55 are thyroid cancers due to exposure to 131 I and 10 are due to exposure to 210 Po)the release of the now notorious polonium-210, which was largely ignored in early environmental assessments, was considered by Clarke to have had the greatest radiological impact of the radionuclides discharged during the Windscale accident. Recently, John Garland, the late Arthur Chamberlains long-time colleague at Harwell, has rened the estimates of the quantities of radionuclides released during the re [20], using original documents and information on the travel of radioactive material provided by the Met Ofce using the NAME atmospheric dispersion model and detailed meteorological data for October 1957 [21]. The half-century that has elapsed since the Windscale re has provided some perspective on the accidentthe quantity of 131 I released was 1000 times less than that released from the Chernobyl accident almost 30 years later. Nonetheless, the Windscale accident can hardly be considered as trivialit is rated as a Level 5 accident on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) [22]and it could have been a lot worse. The extensive environmental monitoring that took place during and after the Windscale re provided the evidence upon which the authorities decided that a milk distribution ban should be enforced in the west Cumbrian coastal strip running from 10 km north of Windscale Works to some 20 km to the south. Iodine-131 had been quickly identied as the major radiological hazard arising from the accident, although the health physicists had little guidance available as to what constituted an acceptable limit for the level of 131 I activity in milk, and they derived, essentially from rst principles, such a limit (0.1 Ci/L) to constrain thyroid doses, particularly to infants and young children. A milk ban based on these ad hoc calculations was a courageous but wise decision, which prevented a signicant enhancement of the local collective thyroid dose and limited individual thyroid doses. The environmental monitoring programme was described in detail by John Dunster and his UKAEA colleagues from Windscale, Huw Howells and Bill Templeton, at a large international conference organised by the United Nations and held in Geneva in 1958 [7]; but this conference paper is not now readily accessible. Hence, it has been decided to reproduce the paper in this issue of Journal of Radiological Protection as a tribute to the substantial efforts of John Dunster, Huw Howells, Bill Templeton and their many co-workers to swiftly understand the potential radiological consequences of the re and, where possible, limit its impact. This reproduction has been made possible by the goodwill of the United Nations (and the good ofces of Malcolm Crick) and Rose Dunster, John Dunsters widow, to whom thanks are due. References
[1] Gowing M and Arnold L 1974 Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy 19451952 2 vols (Basingstoke: Macmillan) [2] Smith A D, Jones S R, Gray J and Mitchell K A 2007 A review of fuel particle releases from the Windscale Piles, 19501957 J. Radiol. Prot. 27 11545 [3] Arnold L 1995 Windscale 1957. Anatomy of a Nuclear Accident 2nd edn (Basingstoke: Macmillan) [4] Atomic Energy Ofce 1957 Accident at Windscale No. 1 Pile on 10th October, 1957. Cmnd. 302 (London: Her Majestys Stationery Ofce) [5] Stewart N G and Crooks R N 1958 Long-range travel of the radioactive cloud from the accident at Windscale Nature 182 6278 [6] Crabtree J 1959 The travel and diffusion of the radioactive material emitted during the Windscale accident Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 85 36270 [7] Dunster H J, Howells H and Templeton W L 1958 District surveys following the Windscale incident, October 1957 Proceedings of the Second United Nations International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic



Energy (Geneva, 113 September 1958). Volume 18: Waste Treatment and Environmental Aspects of Atomic Energy (Geneva: United Nations) pp 296308 [8] Blok J, Dekker R H and Lock C J H 1958 Increased atmospheric radioactivity in the Netherlands after the Windscale accident Appl. Sci. Res. 7 1502 [9] Loutit J F, Marley W G and Russell R S 1960 The nuclear reactor accident at WindscaleOctober, 1957: environmental aspects The Hazards to Man of Nuclear and Allied Radiations: A Second Report to the Medical Research Council. Cmnd. 1225. Appendix H (London: Her Majestys Stationery Ofce) pp 12939 [10] Crooks R N, Glover K M, Haynes J W, Osmond R G and Rogers F J G 1959 Alpha Activity on Air Filter Samples Collected After the Windscale Incident. UKAEA Report AERE-R2952 The National Archives Catalogue Ref. AB 15/6193 (Kew: The National Archives) [11] Stewart N G, Crooks R N and Fisher E M R 1961 Measurements of the Radioactivity of the Cloud from the Accident at Windscale: Data Submitted to the I.G.Y. UKAEA Report AERE-M857 (Declassied 1962) (Harwell: UK Atomic Energy Authority) [12] Beattie J R 1961 An Assessment of Environmental Hazard from Fission Product Releases. UKAEA Report AHSB(S)R9 (Declassied and reprinted in 1963 as UKAEA Report AHSB(S)R64) The National Archives Catalogue Ref. AB 7/11617 (Kew: The National Archives) [13] Clarke R H 1974 An analysis of the 1957 Windscale accident using the WEERIE code Ann. Nucl. Sci. Eng. 1 7382 [14] Chamberlain A C 1981 Emission of Fission Products and Other Activities During the Accident to Windscale Pile No. 1 in October 1957. UKAEA Report AERE-M3194 (Revised and declassied 1983) (Harwell: UK Atomic Energy Authority) [15] Crick M J and Linsley G S 1982 An Assessment of the Radiological Impact of the Windscale Reactor Fire, October 1957. Report NRPB-R135 (Chilton: National Radiological Protection Board) [16] Urquhart J 1983 Polonium: Windscales most lethal legacy New Scientist 1351 8735 [17] Crick M J and Linsley G S 1983 An Assessment of the Radiological Impact of the Windscale Reactor Fire, October 1957. Report NRPB-R135 Addendum (Chilton: National Radiological Protection Board) [18] Crick M J and Linsley G S 1984 An assessment of the radiological impact of the Windscale reactor re, October 1957 Int. J. Radiat. Biol. 46 479506 [19] Clarke R H 1990 The 1957 Windscale accident revisited The Medical Basis for Radiation Accident Preparedness ed R C Ricks and S A Fry (New York: Elsevier) pp 2819 [20] Garland J A and Wakeford R 2007 Atmospheric emissions from the Windscale accident of October 1957 Atmos. Environ. 41 390420 [21] Johnson C A, Kitchen K P and Nelson N 2007 A study of the movement of radioactive material released during the Windscale re in October 1957 using ERA40 data Atmos. Environ. 41 392137 [22] Webb G A M, Anderson R W and Gaffney M J S 2006 Classication of events with an off-site radiological impact at the Sellaeld site between 1950 and 2000, using the International Nuclear Event Scale J. Radiol. Prot. 26 3349

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