Atomic Deserts A Survey of the World's Radioactive No-Go Zones

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The Soviet nuclear testing site in present-day Kazakhstan is just one of many places in the world that remain dangerously radioactive to this day.

The Soviet nuclear testing site in present-day Kazakhstan is just one of many places in the world that remain dangerously radioactive to this day.

Part 13: The First Big Accident


AP

The first large nuclear power plant accident -- and the largest until Chernobyl -- took place at Windscale, now Sellafield, in October 1957. There, by the Irish Sea, the British had hurriedly built two atomic reactors after World War II for power production and to make weapons-grade plutonium.

The speed of construction carried a great cost. In 1955, 251 workers were exposed to radiation during repair work. Then, on Oct. 10 1957, a reactor core began to burn. In an attempt to extinguish the fire, a radioactive cloud was released, followed by a second one the next day. The radiation reached as far as Switzerland. The fires were only brought under control after two days.

The authorities attempted to cover up the accident, initially saying only that there had been an incident, but that the workers involved had been able to scrub away the radiation with soap and water. The only warning was that cow's milk in a radius of 200 miles from the reactor should not be consumed. In reality, the population surrounding the reactor received radiation doses 10 times higher than that seen as permissible for a lifetime.

According to official figures, 33 people were killed by the after-effects of the disaster, with more than 200 diagnosed with thyroid cancer. To this day, 15 tons of damage fuel rods are still stored on site as is radioactive ash and mud, leftover from the fire. The reactor is now to be dismantled using a robot built exclusively for the project. In all, it is set to cost some 500 million pounds.

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