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Windscale Reveals Radiation Danger

(December 1976)

From Militant, No. 336, 31 December 1976, p. 5.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Controversy has been raging both in scientific circles and the media on the proposed £600 million expansion of the nuclear reprocessing plant in Windscale. This has dramatically intensified with the publication of the post mortem results of two men John Troughton and Harry King, revealing that they both died from cancer type diseases.

Both men had been working with plutonium, one of the most toxic poisonous substances ever produced by man. In fact plutonium was found in Harry King’s brain!

Almost simultaneously has been the announcement by two leading British medical researchers that, of 3,883 workers of the American nuclear plant at Hanford who died between 1944 and 1973, 2,288 were exposed to the lowest permitted dosage of radiation and resulted in the deaths of 781 workers from cancer. The cancer was officially classified as myeloid leukaemia, which is known to be induced by radiation. This represents 20% of the workers!


If the figures are translated in terms of the British work force this would represent a total of 1,400 workers who would die of cancer!

The production of plutonium as a by-product of the nuclear reaction is not only an enormous threat, for the production of nuclear bombs but worse, the ultimate destruction of man by its sheer toxicity.

News now filtering out from the Soviet Union has revealed that a terrible explosion occurred at a plutonium production plant in 1957. Hundreds of scientists and workers were killed. This was confirmed by Dr. Zhores Medvedev, a dissident Russian scientist now living in exile in Britain.

The population in an area of 183 square miles was immediately dispersed over the whole of the Soviet Union and forbidden to reveal anything of the magnitude of the disaster. Since no register was made and because cancer is a long, slow, agonising disease, the total number of people whose death was precipitated by this disaster will never be known. The 183 square miles will remain sealed off for thousands of years!


A nuclear reactor uses as its fuel uranium – in its pure form or an oxide of uranium (any metal that combines with oxygen is called an oxide). When neutrons strike a uranium atom it splits into two parts releasing two more neutrons and a huge amount of energy. These two neutrons go on to strike two more uranium atoms splitting them into four particles and four neutrons. This process represents the initial stage in the chain reaction which results in a tremendous amount of heat energy being liberated. This heat is used to generate steam and the steam used to drive a turbine which in turn rotates a dynamo which generate electricity.

The very early nuclear reactors used uranium metal and later a ceramic oxide of uranium. A product of the chain reaction is plutonium. In the early 1950’s it was felt that because the world’s uranium resources were limited, the design and constructions of the new type of reactor was needed that was not dependent solely on uranium.

The answer was the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR). This uses as a fuel a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides, the latter being obtained from the early nuclear power station. A typical FBR consumes 20 tons of this mixed oxides per annum of which 20% is plutonium. The chain reaction produces a complex mixture of fission products of which plutonium predominates. These products interfere with the chain reaction and once a year must be removed from the reactor core and must be stored under water for 6 to 8 months.

It has been estimated that as much as one third of the reactor core must be so removed. These fission products are then transferred to the reprocessing plant in Windscale where the various short lived radioactive substances are easily separated.

The major problem involves plutonium. Plutonium has a half life of 24,400 years that is, it take 24,400 years for the amount to decay by half. In other words if left to become harmless it would take millions of years. It is extremely toxic and is officially classified as a “bone seeker”. If ingested, inhaled or absorbed through a cut or abrasion even in the most minute of quantities, it will deposit itself in the bone and remain there for millions of years. It has been demonstrated that a particle as small as 100 millionth of a gram can cause cancer which would result in death. Workers who come into contact with plutonium are 20 times more likely to die from leukaemia.

Official UK projections for the year AD 2000 show that Britain could have 50 FBR power stations. It has also been calculated that this would involve 1,700 cross country shipments of upwards of 80 tonnes of plutonium per year. This introduces not only problems of handling, storage and security, but ultimately disposal. These are by no means restricted to Western capitalism.

In an extraordinary article in the New Scientist academician Peter Kapitza, the Director of the Institute of Physical Problems, Moscow, proposes that the nuclear waste can be disposed of by simply blasting it into outer space. He goes on to say that in the interest of safety and security the reactor should be sited on some small uninhabited oceanic island!

This statement by Kapitiza crystallises the bankruptcy of available methods for the disposal of plutonium and demonstrates the extreme measures that are being contemplated in the interests of capitalism and the irresponsible bureaucratic elites of Russia and Eastern Europe, to preserve this profitable form of energy.

The Managing Director of Nuclear Fuel, unperturbed by the revelation of the post mortem results have called upon the Secretary of the Environment to stop vacillating about the plans for expansion of Windscale. Any delay he says, might lose them the Japanese contract worth £300 million.

This statement was made on the 22nd of November. On October 16th excavation of an underground silo revealed a leakage of 100 gallons of radioactive water per day. This news was suppressed for two months. Even Energy Minister Tony Benn was not informed until two workers were contaminated!

It is clear that nuclear energy represents an enormous potential danger to mankind. In the case of Harry King scientists were faced with the ghoulish tasks of finding a safe way of disposing of his body! If Kapitizas advice is followed we will saddle future generations with enormous problems. In their travels across the galaxy they could come across the misdemeanours of this generation. This is really an example of science gone mad. This is only possible because at the moment it is harnessed to an insane and irrational system. The labour movement has the most vital interest in developments which will affect the future. The trade unions in the nuclear power industry are obviously concerned that their members jobs will be affected if a halt is put on the extension of Windscale and other nuclear power stations.

Nuclear dustbin

The workers in the industry must be guaranteed against redundancy, nobody wants to add to the one and a half million already on the dole. Their jobs can be assured by a socialist fuel and energy plan. There are more suitable and much less harmful forms of energy. A socialist planned economy would provide the necessary resources to develop for instance solar and other forms of energy. In the meantime the labour movement should oppose the madness of uncontrolled and completely irresponsible extension of nuclear power plants which will make Britain the nuclear dustbin of the world.

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