Journal marks 60th anniversary of the first serious nuclear accidents

4 Sep 2017

The Windscale piles in 1985. Photo: Chris Eaton CC BY-SA 2.0

This year sees the 60th anniversary of the world’s first serious nuclear accidents – the “Kyshtym Accident” in Russia and the “Windscale Fire” in England.

The accidents happened at nuclear weapons production sites within two weeks of each other in the autumn of 1957, and required measures to protect the public.

To mark the anniversary, Journal of Radiological Protection is publishing papers addressing these accidents.

The paper by Professor Akleyev and his colleagues from Russia describes the Kyshtym Accident, when a radioactive waste tank at the Mayak complex in the Southern Urals exploded, leading to major environmental contamination and evacuation of 10,000 people.

At Windscale, part of the Sellafield site, a fire broke out in a nuclear reactor and the release of radioactive iodine was large enough for a milk ban to be introduced in a 500 km2 area. A closed official inquiry, chaired by Sir William Penney, produced a report just two weeks after the accident.

The Kyshtym Accident was not officially acknowledged by the USSR until 1989, while in the UK the “Penney Report” remained a classified document until 1988. Now, the Journal of Radiological Protection is publishing in full the Penney Report, taken from the original held at The National Archives.

Journal Editor-in-Chief Professor Richard Wakeford said: “At the time of the Windscale accident, the UK Government was involved in delicate negotiations with the US government about re-establishing nuclear co-operation. The Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, took the view that the Penney Report should not be made public because the failings that led to the accident – identified clearly in the Report – could jeopardise the chance of nuclear co-operation resuming, which it did the following year.

“These accidents occurred in nuclear plants that were primitive compared with those of today, but lessons can still be learnt 60 years on from Kyshtym and Windscale, which is why the wide availability of information on these accidents is still of importance.”

The Society for Radiological Protection has an FAQ section on the Windscale Fire.