One of the pleasures of archival research is discovering stuff that is charged with atmosphere. At the National Archives in Kew, London, right next to Kew Gardens, I frantically grabbed and copied all that I could about the near-catastrophic reactor fire at Windscale, next to Sellafield, the big semi-military atomic reservation on the northwest coast.
It’s all arcane measurements and process steps, but on two pages some of the drama of that fire jumped out at me. “Charge wall plug removed and all channels found to be glowing red hot (17/53)” was one observation. When the operators realized something was wrong, they sent workers up to the front wall of the reactor, which was dotted with “plugs” looking onto four fuel channels each. Radioactivity was pouring out. Later: “An attempt was made to discharge some hot metal but the canes charred.” Normally they manually pushed uranium fuel out the back of the reactor, into watery storage, with bamboo canes. These were useless in a fire situation. They ended up scavenging scaffolding metal poles from a nearby building site. Then, at the height of the crisis, they decided to pump in water, something hitherto regarded as very dangerous. The log book reads: “Area evacuated at 09-15 except for Fire Brigade as the pumping of water into the Pile started.” Great stuff, isn’t it? Unfortunately I’ve ended up using none of it because I have even more compelling eyewitness testimony.