Government records destroyed in cover-up

Government records altered in cover-up

Winds over Windscale 1957:
Changing the name to Sellafield was not the only rewrite

The 1957 reactor fire at Windscale was possibly the most serious nuclear accident to occur outside the Soviet Union. Large amounts of assorted radio-isotopes were released. Where did they go, and who was affected?

The fire began at midnight on 9th October and was finally brought under control on the 12th. Radioactivity in the plume from the later part of the event was tracked south east across England and into Europe. But what happened in the early part? Accounts of the wind direction differ. Reports at the time said that it was blowing out to sea (1). This is supported by a meteorological analysis (2) showing a cold front lying NE to SW across the Irish Sea from Galloway to the Isle of Man and beyond to Dublin. Accompanied by heavy rain it was moving eastwards; light winds were blowing towards it.

But in 1974 Roger Clarke (now the Director of NRPB) disagreed. He says (3) that winds were from the NW throughout, blowing the radiation inland. Thus there could be no significant dose to Ireland or the Isle of Man.

LLRC went to the Meteorological Office Archives in Bracknell to find out the truth. We found that the original reports of wind speed and direction had been tampered with.
Record sheets for 1957 had been removed from the Met. Office's Windscale station volume and replaced with new sheets of a slightly different colour from the sheets for previous and subsequent years. The pages for 1957 read: NO RECORD -- MAST DISMANTLED The mast "reappeared" in November. When we pointed this out to the archivist he had a good laugh.

A good cover-up is hard to do
It had not been possible to cook the books entirely - the archivist showed us the Air Ministry synoptic charts. These show the entire weather picture for the British Isles. Every three hours they used to draw up a new chart (each one is as big as a dining table) based on reports for wind speed, direction, and precipitation from all the dozens of weather stations around the country. A researcher can easily trace the movement of weather events, like the Windscale Front, as they change and move. Rewriting history as recorded by the charts would be a big job - a matter of inventing new charts covering several days and making sure that at the start and end of the invention features like fronts, and areas of high and low pressure were in the right place to merge with reality.

Air Ministry synoptic chart for 0000GMT 11 October 1957 (10KB) Air Ministry chart for 0000GMT 11 October 1957 - two days after the fire began.
The front is lying NE - SW and travelling eastwards. It has yet to reach the site of the fire. On either side of the front light winds are blowing towards it and rain is falling along it, depositing the radioactivity the wind is carrying.

The synoptic charts we saw clearly agree with the early reports and show that Clarke is wrong. It was only in the later part of the fire, as the front passed over Cumbria, that the wind began to blow from the north west; for at least the first half of the fire radioactive clouds were being blown towards the front; radiation was raining out over Galloway, Man and the eastern seaboard of Ireland.

People living in those areas would have received a serious exposure which NRPB (set up in 1970 and quickly identified as poachers turned gamekeepers) would have wished to diminish. In the Isle of Man there was an immediate increase in mortality; there were also effects in the east of Ireland, like the Down's Syndrome mothers in Dundalk, reported by Patricia Sheehan and others (see Sutcliffe page 179.)
(9KB) mortality rate trend Isle of Man 1950-1995

Mortality rate trend Isle of Man 1950-1995
Windscale fire is arrowed


1 Dunster H J, Howells H, Templeton W L, (1958) District Surveys following the Windscale incident October 1957 in Proceedings of 2nd Conference on Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy Vol. 18, IAEA Geneva

2 Crabtree J, (1959) The travel and diffusion of radioactive material emitted during the Windscale accident Quart. J. Royal Meteorological Soc. 85, 362

3 Clarke R H, An analysis of the 1957 Windscale accident using the WEERIE code Ann. Nucl. Sci. Eng 1 73-82

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This page was last updated May 2001