Monday, May 07, 2007

Disasters that weren't: lessons not learned

Extraordinary heroism spared 1950s Britain from a "China Syndrome" catastrophe:
Damn Interesting: The Windscale Disaster

... Reactor Manager Tom Tuohy– thought to have been exposed to the most radiation during the event– is now in his mid-80s and is living with his wife in the USA. One study conducted in 1987 estimated that as many as thirty-three people may eventually die from cancers as a result of this accident, though the Medical Research Council Committee concluded that "it is in the highest degree unlikely that any harm has been done to the health of anybody, whether a worker in the Windscale plant or a member of the general public." In contrast, Chernobyl caused forty-seven immediate deaths and as many as 9,000 may die from related cancer.

Today, some areas of Cumbria still prompt a few clicks from Geiger counters due to lingering caesium-137 isotopes. While the Windscale reactors have been in the process of being decommissioned since the 1980s, the core of Windscale Pile 1 still contains roughly fifteen tons of warm and highly radioactive uranium, and the cleanup is not expected to finish until 2060.

Ultimately the unnecessary incident could have been avoided with a bit of knowledge from the Manhattan project. Had the American government opted to share the nuclear knowledge which the British had helped to gain, the mishap could have been avoided altogether. Fortunately the foresight of Sir John Cockcroft and the valor of men like Tom Tuohy and Tom Hughes
Tuohy and Hughes exhausted a lifetime supply of heroism in 1957. The article doesn't mention if they ever got any fancy medals, but it's not too late for Tuohy to pick one up ...

I suspect we learn far less from disasters averted than from disasters confirmed. If only we'd had ten thousand more years of cortical evolution before we went singular ...

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