Fifty seven years after the UK’s worst nuclear incident, the skyline in West Cumbria is set to change forever as Sellafield Ltd tackles the crucial task of bringing the second and final ventilation chimney of the Windscale Piles to the ground.
Standing at 110m tall – taller than the Statue of Liberty – some 5,000 tonnes of concrete, steel and brick will be carefully dismantled, monitored to check for any remaining contamination and disposed of safely.
The Windscale Piles, with their two distinctive ventilation chimneys, were built in the early days of the Cold War to provide the Government of the day with plutonium for the production of a nuclear deterrent, helping the UK retain its seat at the top table in the global power struggle that followed the Second World War.
Sellafield was at that time at the forefront of pioneering nuclear technology, but the plants built back then had few of the safety features which would now be deemed as essential requirements in modern day nuclear facilities. In October 1957, a fire took hold in Pile 1 reactor, it reached 1,300C and threatened the much of the North of England with nuclear contamination.
Thankfully Nobel prize-winning physicist Sir John Cockcroft had insisted that the Windscale Pile chimneys be fitted with high performance filters. Since this was decided after the chimney barrels had been designed and partially built, they produced iconic bulges at the top of the structures. Known locally as ‘Cockcroft’s Follies’, because of the additional expense of installing them so late in the process, it was the filters which prevented the Windscale fire from becoming a major catastrophe, with most of the radioactive contamination being captured by the filters.
To commemorate the removal of the filter gallery on the structure, Sir John Cockcroft’s son and grandson went on site, climbed the chimney and helped with the removal of the final part of the 530 tonne ‘Folly’.
Christopher Cockroft, now 72, was just eight years old when his father worked on having the filter gallery installed. He said: “It’s a huge honour to be here to see this work being carried out. We should remember the exemplary courage and devotion of the Windscale men who fought to control the fire back in 1957. My father would be extremely proud to know that his legacy of safety in the nuclear industry lives on at Sellafield today.”