10 October 1957

The Windscale fire results in Britain’s worst nuclear accident.

The Windscale fire, also known as the Windscale Pile No. 1 incident, was a significant nuclear accident that occurred in the United Kingdom in October 1957. It is considered one of the worst nuclear accidents in British history.

Windscale was a facility located in Cumbria, England, and it housed two nuclear reactors known as “piles.” These piles were used for the production of plutonium for the UK’s nuclear weapons program and later for electricity generation.

The incident began on October 10, 1957, when a routine cooling operation in Pile No. 1 went awry. The reactor experienced overheating due to a combination of design flaws and operator errors. As the temperature inside the reactor continued to rise, there was a fear that it could lead to a catastrophic explosion.

In a desperate attempt to prevent an explosion and the release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere, a decision was made to cool the reactor using forced air circulation. This action, however, resulted in a fire breaking out inside the reactor. Firefighters and plant workers struggled for several days to bring the fire under control, using various methods, including the use of water and carbon dioxide to extinguish the flames.

During the fire-fighting efforts, a significant amount of radioactive contamination was released into the atmosphere. Fortunately, the prevailing wind direction carried most of the radioactive plume out to sea, minimizing immediate health risks to the nearby population. However, there were concerns about potential long-term health effects for those involved in the response efforts and the possibility of contaminated milk from local farms.

In the aftermath of the Windscale fire, significant efforts were made to contain and clean up the contamination. The reactor involved in the accident, Pile No. 1, was permanently shut down, and it was later renamed Windscale Reactor No. 1. The incident led to a reevaluation of safety protocols and design improvements in nuclear reactors.