When experts are the problem

The atomic age began in 1945.

America was the only country with access to nuclear technology.

Even though Britain had helped them develop it, the US government wouldn’t share any information.

The UK would just have to go it alone, so they did.

In 1952, they began planning a massive nuclear establishment at Windscale in Cumbria, 30 miles from Scotland.

The pressure was on to build it fast.

As it was nearing completion, one of the physicists, Terence Price, questioned the safety of possible overheating, whether they shouldn’t have back-up safety equipment, like filters.

All the other experts involved on the project ignored the suggestion.

Things were moving fast and they were already mid-construction.

But Sir John Cockcroft was director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment and in charge of the project, and the question of filters stayed with him.

Then he heard that particles of uranium oxide had been found in the vicinity of the American X-10 graphite reactor at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

That convinced him, the chimneys on the nuclear reactors at Windscale must have filters to trap any escaping particles.

But the experts said it was expensive, time-consuming and unnecessary.

The reactors were perfectly safe, no particles would escape, and anyway the 360-foot-tall chimneys were already built.

The place to have put the filters would have been at the bottom, before they were built.

But Cockcroft insisted, if they couldn’t be added at the bottom, they’d be added at the top.

Even though Leonard Owen, the assistant controller of the Department of Atomic Energy Production, had said they’d have two tonnes of boiling hot air going up those chimneys every second at 20mph.

All the experts said it was a waste of time and money because the reactor was perfectly safe and the filters would never get used.

But Cockcroft insisted and two massive filters were added to the tops of the 360-foot-tall chimneys. 

They looked ridiculous, they could be seen for miles around and they became known as "Cockcroft’s Follies".

They were called that right up until 10 October 1957.

That night they discovered radioactive fuel in the reactor was on fire and had been burning at 1,300 centigrade for two days.

It burned for another three days before it could be put out, releasing the deadly iodine-131.

It held the record for 30 years as Europe’s worst nuclear disaster, up until Chernobyl.

But the filters on top of the chimneys ("Cockcroft’s Follies" the things the experts said would never be used) caught 95% of the radioactive particles that were released.

A 1987 survey showed that there were no deaths at Windscale, though a potential (but highly unlikely) 33 future deaths.

At Chernobyl, by comparison, there were 47 deaths and a potential 9,000 future deaths. 

Thanks to "Cockcroft’s Follies" (which the experts said were a waste of time and money) 1,000 times fewer particles were released at Windscale than at Chernobyl.

Sir John Cockcroft stuck by his principle and suffered ridicule for it.

But without his stubbornness, many more people would have been dead and a large part of northern England still uninhabitable.

Sir John Cockcroft didn’t listen to the experts, he listened to common sense.

Proving that sometimes we really do know better than the experts.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three


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