Wednesday, October 10, 2007

50 years at Windscale

Posted by goatchurch at 3:21 AM

In 1969 Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his book Slaughterhouse Five:
"I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.

"I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that."
Fifty years ago today people were playing with a huge nuclear reactor on the west coast of England attempting to manufacture atomic bombs. Records show that it had more to do with their desire to be just as good as the Americans than anything related to national defence.

If fiction has a point, it is to teach us about the morality of our tiny insignificant struggles for life within the greater context of the world. Unfortunately, Science Fiction usually white-washes the things that Government scientists and engineers generally get up to. They always seem to be investigating strange phenomena for the benefit of mankind, rarely demonstrating their amazing ability to transfer their consciences wholesale to organizations with a record for mass murderer.

The worst example for this is Gernot Zippe who -- after working as an engineer for the Nazis, spending 10 years building Uranium centrifuges for Stalin in Russia, and then recreating his work for the United States military, before finally returning home repeat his technological feats for the powers in Europe from where it proliferated throughout the rest of the world through the Pakistani government -- excused himself thus:
"With a kitchen knife you can peel a potato or kill your neighbour, it's up to governments to use the centrifuge for the benefit of mankind."
Everyone should have fallen over laughing. A more truthful summary of his life's work might have been:
"A cannister of VX gas can be used to exterminate a room full of human beings, or as an object to prop open a door. Take your pick which you think is going to happen."
The disaster that occurred fifty years ago today on the west coast of England has been described thus:
Because they were built hastily and during a time when little was known about reactor design, the reactors had a number of serious design flaws that contributed to the disaster. Graphite is flammable in air and air was being fed into the reactors constantly for cooling, so there was a constant fire hazard. During the accident the graphite in the reactor did not actually catch fire. However, the reactor's fuel, metallic uranium, burns if it becomes too hot, unlike the uranium dioxide used in modern reactors.

Early in the morning on October 10, it was suspected that something unusual was going on... One thermocouple indicated that core temperature was rising. In an effort to help cool the pile, more air was pumped through the core. This lifted radioactive materials up the chimney and into the filter galleries where the monitoring devices were housed. The radiation monitoring devices at the top of the discharge stack read full scale, then showed a gradual decrease in radiation. The full-scale reading caused the shift foreman to declare a site emergency... There was no doubt that the reactor was now on fire...

Operators were unsure what to do about the fire. First, they tried to blow the flames out by putting the blowers onto full power and increasing the cooling, but predictably this simply fanned the flames. The engineers had already ejected some undamaged fuel cartridges from around the blaze and suggested trying to eject some from the heart of the fire, by bludgeoning them through the reactor and into the cooling pond behind it with scaffolding poles. This proved impossible and the fuel rods refused to budge, no matter how much force was applied. The poles were withdrawn with their ends red hot and dripping with molten metal. The engineer knew this had to be molten irradiated uranium.

Next, the operators tried to extinguish the fire using carbon dioxide. The new gas-cooled reactors next door had just received a delivery of 25 tonnes of liquid carbon dioxide and this was rigged up to the charge face of Windscale Pile 1, but the heat generated by the fire was so extreme that the oxygen was stripped from the carbon atoms and added to the blaze.

On the morning of Friday October 11 and at its peak, 11 tonnes of uranium were ablaze. Faced with this crisis, the operators decided to use water. This was incredibly risky: molten metal oxidises in contact with water, stripping oxygen from the water molecules and leaving free hydrogen, which could mix with incoming air and explode, tearing open the weakened containment. But there was no other choice. About a dozen hoses were hauled to the charge face of the reactor; their nozzles were cut off and the lines themselves connected to scaffolding poles and fed into fuel channels about a meter above the heart of the fire.

All cooling and ventilating air entering the reactor was shut off before the water was turned on. The engineer hauled himself atop the reactor shielding and reported watching the flames leaping from the discharge face slowly dying away. During one of the inspections, he found that the inspection plates were stuck fast. This was the fire trying to suck air in from wherever it could. Water was kept flowing through the pile for a further 24 hours until it was completely cold.

No air-cooled reactors have been built since. The final removal of fuel from the damaged reactor is scheduled to begin in 2008 and continue for a further four years.
The BBC produced an excellent documentary of this accident, the political inevitability behind it, and the reason why the engineers who bravely risked their lives to put the fire out rather than run away screaming took the blame.

Britain continued to pursue and test Hydrogen bombs. Now fifty years later the Government retains a policy of deployment -- nearly twenty years after the official excuse evaporated. New generations of scientists and engineers are being recruited.

What is motivating them? Nuclear weapons are no longer cool. Their geo-political malignancy is well-understood.

Are they doing it just for the money?

It is possible to pay someone to stand on top of 11 tonnes of burning Uranium, but only if they don't know what they are doing. Under those circumstances it's more likely to end in tears.

Before anyone accuses me of having an ideological hatred of private capital, I do in fact know about The Nuclear Threat Initiative which helped move 48kgs of highly enriched Uranium from Serbia where it had been abandoned by all the Governments of the world, to a place where it could be safely dealt with. They paid $5million dollars to get it done. The US presidential candidates will spend that in a week running TV ads about how they're going to fight nuclear terrorism. Looks obvious, doesn't it? Maybe they lack an imagination.


Anonymous bhauth said...

This problem is apparently passe.

IIRC there were some scientists in Germany at the time that figured out some things about making nukes work that they didn't tell anybody.

I'm sure you've read Feynman's description of the Manhattan Project.

You're being a little bit too smug, though. Nukes could have blown up every major city, but it's also possible they prevented several massive wars. The "dual use" defense is easier to use, but the reality is that any weaponry is effective enough, and what ends up mattering is which weaponry is better, rather than there being weaponry. The AK-47 has killed far more people than nukes, because it created more of an imbalance in power in the wrong places. In terms of potential damage, bioweapons research, esp soviet, is probably worse than nuke development.

10/10/2007 10:05:00 PM  
Blogger goatchurch said...

I sure have. I also remember Feynman's regret at not reconsidering his work in light of the Nazi surrender. Although it has been shoved deep down the memory hole, the use of nuclear weapons on Japan was deeply controversial, as you can read in Eisenhower's memoirs.

Many experts argue that the issue is far from passe as the command and control systems in the super-powers degrade due to lack of attention, and proliferation increases and is even knowingly encouraged.

Unlike most threats to human survival which anyone can mention, this threat is the most practically soluble. The necessary materials are limited and there is already a system of adequate treaties and non-corrupted governing bodies which could to implement them if they were allowed to work. That is why it's a tragedy.

10/12/2007 04:40:00 AM  
Anonymous bhauth said...

By passe, I meant out of fashion.

Tragedy? Everything's a tragedy. All you can do is laugh.

10/14/2007 08:53:00 PM  
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