The unacceptable toll of Britain's nuclear disaster

An important new study revises upwards the death toll from the Windscale fire, says Dick Ahlstrom

An important new study revises upwards the death toll from the Windscale fire, says Dick Ahlstrom

Studies conducted here in the later 1980s after the widespread contamination across Europe including Ireland caused by the Chernobyl fiasco confirmed that while Chernobyl fallout polluted our environment, the Windscale discharges didn't reach us.

The new Windscale study is important however because it forces a revision upwards of the amount of radioactivity released in that catastrophic fire, the world's first major nuclear accident.

The study by visiting Professor at the University of Manchester's Dalton Nuclear Institute, Richard Wakeford and by former UK Atomic Energy Authority researcher, John Garland, is published in the current edition of Atmospheric Environment. Wakeford is an accomplished epidemiologist with particular expertise in the health risks of low dose radiation.


He and Garland re-evaluated data on weather and on radioactivity levels recorded across Britain and the continent in the days and weeks following the Windscale fire.

Their study suggests that the actual amount of radiation released in the fire could be double the current estimates. The real importance of the finding however is not this number but the number of cancers likely to have been caused by the Windscale discharges.

The original estimate was that on the basis of radiation exposures caused by breathing in radioactivity or ingesting it on food or in milk, the fire would have caused 200 extra cancer deaths. The Wakeford and Garland study indicates that up to 240 extra cancer deaths would have arisen because of Windscale.

This is an unacceptable toll given the Windscale plant was of no benefit to the people who subsequently succumbed to its radioactive discharges.

It would have been impossible however to confirm whether there were 200, 240, zero or 300 extra cancer deaths given the high number of deaths this disease causes.

The annual cancer death toll in the UK stood at almost 153,500 in 2005 and was higher at 210,500 in 1975.

It was undoubtedly higher again in 1957 and the extra deaths caused by Windscale would have been masked completely by the existing cancer death rate.

The new study does not have any impact for Ireland, something confirmed because of a number of studies conducted both before and after the Chernobyl disaster which took place on 26th April, 1986.

Many people still hold the mistaken belief that Windscale was somehow implicated in either excess cancers or in Down's syndrome cases in Ireland, focused on the Dundalk area. Dundalk lies directly west of the Windscale, later Sellafield nuclear complex.

In part this is attributable to an important study that identified a cluster of six Down's syndrome cases in children born to mothers who had attended a school in Dundalk in 1956-57, overlapping the time of the Windscale fire. While the report was significant for identifying the cluster it wrongly attributed the cases to Windscale radiation.

Later research conducted by Trinity College Dublin's Prof Ian McAuley and colleagues confirmed that Chernobyl radioactivity had reached Ireland and was detectable in the soil.

This work also identified other radioactivity left by the 1960 nuclear bomb tests but it could find no trace of radioactivity left by Windscale.

A subsequent study of the weather pertaining on the day of the Windscale fire also found that wind conditions would have driven the radioactive plume eastward and not towards Ireland.

The definitive study of whether Windscale was implicated in the Down's syndrome cluster came from epidemiologist Dr Geoffrey Dean and colleagues.

His 2001 study found that three of the six women involved in the cluster had left the Dundalk area before the Windscale fire and so their Down's children could not have been attributed to radiation released by the fire.

The Wakeford Garland study is much more important within the UK where most of the Windscale radioactivity came to earth.

There was a six week ban on consumption of milk produced within 200 miles of Windscale and traces of its radioactivity can still be detected in the soil there.

And as was seen after the Chernobyl disaster, those living downwind of nuclear facilities have no way to protect themselves should the worst occur.

It is for this reason that Ireland must continue to campaign for the closure or limitation of UK nuclear facilities with the potential to cause damage here.