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A glimpse into nuclear disaster.

A team of engineers has used an endoscope to carry out the first visual inspection of Windscale 1 nuclear reactor for more than 50 years. In October 1957, it was the scene of what was the world's worst nuclear accident when it caught fire and released radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Just over 50 years ago, British nuclear scientists, under political pressure from a succession of Prime Ministers, had been pushing the reactor to and beyond operating limits in an attempt to develop the UK's own independent H-bomb and achieve an "alliance of equals" with the US.

When the fire occurred, the scientists were faced with a choice: let it burn, and contaminate Europe, or dump water on it, and potentially die in a nuclear explosion. They chose the latter, risking their own lives to save people who didn't even know there was a problem.

That sounds heroic, but the official report into the incident blamed the scientists for the accident, rather than let the US find out about the H-bomb programme just in the days before signing a treaty to share their existing knowledge with the UK.

Windscale (now known as Sellafield - the name was changed after the accident) is now in the long process of closing down. Along with jobs, buildings that marked the dawn of the nuclear age are being slowly demolished and moved ... somewhere else. They don't know where, yet, but it will probably end up remaining on site in deep holes (down in the porous sandstone that carries the local water-table).

The original piles were shut down immediately after the accident, and the site's AGR reactor was closed down 27 years ago, but it is only recently that they figured out what to do with them, and they are now being decommissioned as a "UK's demonstration project (meaning; "we've never done this before, we'll work out the bugs in remote Cumbria before we try it on a reactor near a city").

As part of the decommissioning work, they now need to see what is left in the ashes of the world's second reactor disaster before working out what to do next.

I don't know about you, but I'm not convinced that a paper boilersuit would be enough protection. Maybe that's why the chap on the right looks like he's crossing himself...

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I thought Chernobyl was the worst Nuclear disaster in history...?
"it was the scene of what was the worlds worst nuclear disaster..." I think Chernobyl took over first place when it happened.
OTOH, that was an era when multiple countries were doing atmospheric testing of all sorts of bombs, so I'm not sure that it really qualifies as the "worst disaster" for any reason other than being accidental...
Kiteman (author)  westfw8 years ago
The various tests were being done away from populated areas. Windscale did (and still does) share a boundary with the village of the same name (Sellafield is a village on the other side).

There are hundreds of thousands of people living within half a day's drive, it (was) a massively important agricultural area, and the prevailing winds would have blown the fallout over most of Northern England, and on over Europe.

As it is, the site is still a massive radiation hazard. The local police are actually an independent force, and the only force in the UK to carry automatic weapons on routine patrols on public streets.

The whole place is a sieve as far as radiation is concerned. I have had several family members work there, and I have friends who work for the nuclear authorities, so I hear things...

They've lost tonnes of radioactive waste. There are rows of sealed bunkers with completely unknown contents. They have caught workers sitting on scaffolding over the cooling ponds, eating their packed lunch, dangling their bare feet in the water. One worker drank liquid waste to prove he could get it off site. When one of their larger leaks turned the local cows' milk green, they disposed of it by pouring it down the public drains, which emptied onto the public beaches.

A family member taught in a school a few miles up the coast, and went to the beach to collect a bucket of saltwater and sand for a class practical, and site police turned up and confiscated his bucket.

The site is supposed to be cutting-edge, but if anybody asks me if nuclear power is safe, the answer is very, very simple: NO.
westfw Kiteman8 years ago
  • if anybody asks me if nuclear power is safe, the answer is very, very simple: NO.
Are you basing that mostly on the failure of a 50s era weapons reactor, or on the apparent inability of the management to operate the (ongoing) reprocessing facility in a reasonably safe manner?
Kiteman (author)  westfw8 years ago
There are several reactors on site, including an AGR. They are all being shut down.

I base my opinion on a lot of things - humans being what they are, similar stupidity will occur at any similar plant.

I have heard of other, similarly bad things happening at other sites in the UK (a uni friend went to work for UKAE, he went to one job in Scotland, and he got five year's safe dose from an incident he wasn't allowed to talk about (except to say that he wasn't allowed in processing areas for five years because of the dose).

It is a fact of life that no system is infallible. They will eventually break down. No suitable storage area has been found for the stuff they need to throw away from nuclear plants, so it's just... piled up.

My home town was a steel town. Workers dealt with molten metal all the time, yet they still took stupid risks (like the man who decided to jump over a channel full of molten steel because he couldn't be bothered to walk around it, and fell in up to his waist).

If that's how experienced workers deal with highly tangible hazards, that you can see, smell and even feel from a distance, then how much more is going to happen with a hazard that is wholly intangible without specialist equipment?

This is just a partial list, of "major" public incidents. There are other that aren't made public (say, if they happen in the weapons-grade areas, they are immediately subject to the Official Secrets Act), and a lot of "minor" incidents that "only" irradiate small numbers of people to "limited" extents. Even quite small doses will cause chromosomal damage, which sometimes does not express itself until the victim has children.

I know I sound uncharacteristically emotional and possibly even "anti-science", but until you've talked to people who actually work in the industry, or have been damaged by it directly or indirectly (there are still farms in Cumbria that are not allowed to sell their sheep because they are too radioactive following Chernobyl, even though none of the sheep on the farms were alive in 1986 ), then you only get the clean, sanitised story from politicians, text-books and those with a vested interest.

Here in Suffolk, we have one of the newer reactors - Sizewell. When I moved here, I wrote and asked what resources they had that I could use in physics lessons. They sent me a thick pile of leaflets about pond-dipping. Not a thing about their reason for existence - the generation of electricity with a nuclear reactor. They act as if the reactor (one of the largest buildings in the whole area) is purely incidental to their real role of protecting newts.
I suppose newer reactors have a good shot at being safer but when you look at how long a reactor can stay in business they're not exactly generations old, sure there's been a lot of development but not much manufacturing compared to other technology... If there were places making them in huge numbers day in day out they'd probably have them to a fine art by now but as it stands there may well still be things that can go wrong that we haven't yet encountered, I'm sure the first time a steam engine's boiler exploded they were considered deadly and evil...

That said how exactly do newts and radiation get on... Are they growing super lizards?

Radioactive sheep sound kind of interesting, I wonder what kind of rates their sheep get on things like birth defects and other radiation associated illnesses, also how much sheep would you have to eat or wear to irradiate yourself...

People that get comfy with dangerous stuff get complacent, lazy and dumber. A guy that used to empty the waste water and from a private streetsweeper in to belfast lough drove up to the edge of the dock and dumped it for seventeen years, he could do it without looking, one day he drove off the edge and hasn't been found since, the sweeper was still in reverse gear when it was pulled out...
  • People that get comfy with dangerous stuff get complacent, lazy and dumber.
Well, yes, and what we're starting to realize is that we've gotten "comfy" with things like Coal-fired power plants that may actually be a lot more dangerous than nuclear plants. The question isn't "do we have a perfectly safe power source", but "how does a modern nuclear plant compare to the other alternatives, given our current state of technology and understanding."
I'd say any power plant using giant turbines is inherently dangerous, if you see a steam purge before they fire up it's breath taking, there's huge amounts of energy in the compressed steam...

In terms of current tech the risk of a nuclear meltdown probably wouldn't be that big with a good multi layer safety system, with multiple human and machine elements.

I suppose if someone built a barge big enough the nuclear plants could be built offshore, making the dangers of explosion much less of an issue, along with small leaks, however it could never be built under the sea and even on it could be a risk, simply because if fallout is the main worry adding giant tsunamis to the mix may not help the public concious... However if they want to bury the waste undersea it could be put over an old oil well or deep trench and buried safely, I'd say current mining tech is up to the job of making a safe place for it...

How safe are nuclear plants and coal plants? You don't hear about coal plants going in to meltdown, probably because they're not radioactive but you do hear about the acid rains and, which travels just like clouds of poison does...

Personally I think a more efficient power plant would use coal dust in a jet engine like machine that takes directly from the shaft, of course the excess heat could be used to make electricity aswell or for heating, it would be a pretty much complete combustion under optimal conditions. You would have to make coal dust rather than use chunks though small generators could use dust from mines quite comfortably... In terms of safety it's taking away one element of danger from a coal plant but it does increase the other one, that is that you'd have really big, really really fast spinning turbines... I suspect that some exhaust could be directed over a set of separate turbines to improve power recovery, then have the whole thing in a massive double walled tube that acts as a boiler, OK reintroducing steam but also recovering as much energy as possible, the warm water left over heats something or other for free in return for people not complaining about living in the vicinity of a giant jet engine...

Oh and if the exhaust was left under some pressure then it could possibly be directed through cleaning tanks or bubbled through a vat of water...

Of course the whole thing would be big and likely expensive but if you made it to run on liquid or any particulate matter it may well be money well spent...

alternatively a smelting plant could built atop of it and be fired by the exhaust, I'd say directing that through a furnace might even be hot enough to be used in a refinery...

I'm no lunatic, just like the idea of multitool power plants...
  • You don't hear about coal plants going in to meltdown, probably because they're not radioactive
Coal contains impurities including radioactive uranium and thorium, not to mention heavy metals like mercury. Unlike nuclear power plants, they're not required to take exteme precautions, and the quip among the pro-nuke crowd is that if coal plants were held to the same emissions standard for radioactive waste as Nuke plants, they'd be shut down (some of which is due to inappropriate level of regulation of the Nuke plants.) No explosion or meltdown necessary; coal plants are permitted to have the radioactive waste go up the smokestacks or be dumped as flyash pretty much anywhere anyone wants (fly ash being used as a filler in concrete, for example.)
http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste
http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/1997/fs163-97/FS-163-97.html
The effects aren't REALLY awful, but *I* certainly cringe every time people in the US talk about reducing dependence on foreign oil by building more coal plants because "after all, nukes are too dangerous." And that was before greenhouse issues...
Though people could argue that it's "natural background radiation" however would the ash resulting not be concentrated amounts since it's non burnable material and heavy. Mercury is a problem, being a neurotoxin and all, not to mention probably more threatening to people and wildlife than mildly radioactive concrete, unless your kitchen countertop was made of dangerous concrete and you managed to eat the odd chip... Nuclear stuff is way too regulated in my eyes, if the public were educated in nuclear safety it'd probably help matters, also even safe amounts of radiation can have a geiger counter ticking and scratching like a cat in a box and that alone makes people freak out, partly due to the media... I think coal plants should have more effective cleaning practices, it occurs to me that they could bubble waste gases through large tanks of water and periodically remove the nasty stuff, most of which would appear on the bottom of the tank as sludge, plus the sludge could be reclaimed to get the junk out of it, you also reclaim a fair portion of sooty materials...
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