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24 September 2014

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Nuclear Cumbria

You are in: Cumbria > Features > Nuclear Cumbria > The view from outside Windscale in 1957

milk depot

Destroying milk at the Egremont depot

The view from outside Windscale in 1957

While the staff at Windscale were trying to put out the fire in Pile 1, people living nearby were oblivious to what was going on.

There was no outward sign that there was anything wrong at the Windscale plant on October 10th 1957.

man in front of window

Ivor Nicholas today

Ivor Nicholas, a local photographer was out and about when he spotted a fire engine heading for Sellafield. He rang the fire control room and says they seemed unusually cagey. He headed for the nuclear site but when he got there, there was nothing to see.

He says he took a photo to be on the safe side and then went back to his scheduled assignments for that day.

The following day the Atomic Energy Authority issued a news release saying there had been a fire but that it had been put out and there was no risk to the public.

two men with geiger counter

Monitoring the fields for radioactivity

Even so there had been a release of radioactivity and they decided to ask some local farmers to pour away their milk as a precaution. The number of farms affected grew after more details emerged about the direction the wind had been blowing that day. It meant the radioactivity had spread across more of West and South Cumbria than at first thought.

Ivor Nicholas says he thinks he was partly responsible for the change of tack after the national newspapers highlighted this aspect having asked him, as the man on the ground, about the wind direction.

There were claims then and since that the AEA had deliberately mislead the public about the wind direction and about the public health effects of the radiation that was released.

Maurice Steele, who was 16 at the time, remembers his father pouring away the milk on their farm and them having to buy tinned milk to drink. He says no-one was unduly worried by the fire but as time went on he says they felt they were "being hoodwinked that there had been absolutely no danger".

Tom Tuohy, the deputy works manager and one of those who fought the fire says as far as HE was concerned there was no cover up. He says "I answered every question I was asked straightforwardly".

man with kettle

Stan Ritson

Ivor Nicholas took a lot of photographs over the next few days, supplying both local and national papers. These included milk being poured away, local fields being monitored for radioactivity and a man called "Radioactive Man" as he was dubbed by the national tabloids.

This was local man Stan Ritson  who had been on site helping to put out the fire. There were rumours that he'd had  his head shaved and was wearing a white protection suit. But when Ivor went to see him he opened the door with a full head of hair and asked him if he wanted a cup of tea.

No-one died in the fire but despite what the AEA said in 1957 about there being no risk to human health, it's now widely accepted that some deaths in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, could have been caused by the release of the radioactivity. But the figures vary depending on which study you look at. Some have suggested 30, others around 100 and some well over that.

Brian Wynne, professor of science studies at Lancaster University says the deaths are what are known as statistical deaths i.e not actual named people and it will be always difficult to prove whether any one person died as a direct result of an incident like the fire.

But it did change many people's views on the nuclear industry. Maurice Steele who went on to run his own farm says the combination of the Windscale fire and the Chernobyl disaster led to him becoming an anti-nuclear campaigner.

* With thanks to Ivor Nicholas for the use of photographs he took in 1957.

last updated: 08/10/07

You are in: Cumbria > Features > Nuclear Cumbria > The view from outside Windscale in 1957

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