Thursday, 21 January 2016

Killing our own with polonium contamination

The media today have  been shocked at the exposure of details of the Russian Government's apparent murder of one of its own former spooks, Alexander Litvinenko,  by radioactive polonium poisoning
They may also be shocked that in the early years of developing the predecessor to the Trident nuclear WMD, our nuclear boffins  had a terrible accident at Sellafield ( then called Windscale) when trying to produce  polonium - by irradiating bismuth oxide cartridges - in the iconic Windscale piles, resulting in the widespread polonium contamination of north west England in October 1957.
The official history of the accident, by the late Lorna Arnold,  ( published in 1992), revealed ( at page 97) that following the accident polonium pollution was detected within days in northern Europe. Samples were collected in Copenhagen, Oslo, Bonn, and The Hague and analysed by the UK Atomic Energy Authority  scientists at Harwell  near Oxford.
A paper revealing this was published, ironically considering the purpose of Sellafield in the atomic bomb programme, by Dr John Dunster, chief health physicist for UKAEA at Sellafield, at the United Nations' Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy conference in Geneva, in 1958. Perhaps it was to smokescreen the real military nuclear materials production purposes of the Windscale piles.
Later medical analysis by the Medical Research Council suggested around 33 additional deaths could have resulted from this uncontrolled release of polonium across the country
As a BBC documentary  aired in  2007 suggested " "No-one died in the fire but despite what the UKAEA said in 1957 about there being no risk to human health, it's now widely accepted that some deaths in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, could have been caused by the release of the radioactivity. But the figures vary depending on which study you look at. Some have suggested 30, others around 100 and some well over that. Brian Wynne, professor of science studies at Lancaster University says the deaths are what are known as statistical deaths i.e not actual named people and it will be always difficult to prove whether any one person died as a direct result of an incident like the fire."
 "The view from outside Windscale in 1957". BBC 2 October 2007
So it is not only the Russians that have  had problems with dangerous polonium.

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