COCKERMOUTH RESIDENT, DAVID STATON: ONE OF THE WINDSCALE HEROES WHO DOUSED THE FLAMES OF THE 1957 FIRE
In 1957, at the age of 27, David Staton was an Electrical Engineering graduate working at the Windscale and Calder works (now known as Sellafield) near Seascale in Cumbria, where one of the ‘piles’ – primitive nuclear reactors, making plutonium for Britain’s first atomic bombs overheated and caught fire, setting in motion a terrifying series of events.
Now living in Cockermouth, and aged 90, David recalls the moment he was called at about 7.00 pm while staying at the Greengarth Hostel– a place where many of his fellow graduates would bunker-down after a day’s work, and being told to “Come at once. Pile One is on fire.”
Undeterred at the time, David rushed to the scene. Guided by Tom Tuohy, the Deputy General Manager who led the heroic efforts that day, David joined five or six other personnel who were tasked with extinguishing the unprecedented fire. David donned his protective gear before coming face-to-face with the red glow of the uranium which was burning inside the pile.
The first task was to determine the extent of the fire by removing the uranium channel shield plugs one at a time to see if the uranium cartridges had overheated. After completing this work it was decided to create a firebreak by discharging fuel elements around the fire.
“At the time, I didn’t see myself as ‘brave’. We did what we had to do and it was all hands on deck to get on top of the fire”, said David.
David left the site in the early hours of Friday morning, six hours after he first arrived on the scene.
On returning back to the office again later that same morning, and after just a few hours’ sleep – not that David was able to rest much with the thoughts of what was happening; he was told that efforts by the team to extinguish the fire by carbon dioxide had failed, and so had hosing water onto the reactor core.
He explains: “Finally the decision was made to switch off the shutdown fans to stop air entering the pile, which to everyone’s delight was enough to starve the fire of oxygen, and allow the water to extinguish it.”
On the day of the fire at about 4.00 pm David had been in the Separation Group and went to get his hands and clothing monitored for radioactivity before leaving the area. He found that all the monitors in the Changing Room gave high readings. There were no members of the Health Physics Department available at the time to ask, but he thought it might be due to a high background reading. On leaving the site about 5.00 pm he noticed puffs of smoke coming from the Pile One’s chimney and he thought: “There is no smoke without fire.”
After the events, neither David nor any of the men alongside him that day, were recognised for their heroic actions.
A white paper into the incident - known as the Penney report - was published two weeks later but remained classified until 1988.
Windscale was home to the UK's atomic bomb project and secrecy shrouded the facility in the years of Cold War paranoia.
David says: “Discussions were being had with the United States at the time about sharing its nuclear secrets with the UK scientists, and it was thought that any embarrassing revelations about Windscale could put this at risk.
“Both Piles were permanently shut down and never used again.”
The report blamed "an error of judgement" and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan ordered that it not be released to the public.
The operation of the two piles was made more difficult by the build-up of Wigner energy in the graphite moderator, the unreliable burst cartridge detection equipment, and the limited amount of temperature measurements.
It was Britain’s worst nuclear disaster and rated at level five on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. The highest level is seven which was given to Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan.
Reminiscing about the events David concludes:
“I’ve not spoken about the events publicly, except with friends and family in all my 64 years since the accident.
“I was actually reminded last year by my Son-in-law. Coincidently he also works in the nuclear industry and has supply connections to Windscale. I was asked if I might like to give a talk about what happened and I suppose the very idea brought back all of those memories and I thought, I must not let what happened be forgotten.”
He continues: “I thoroughly enjoyed my time working at Windscale. I met my beloved wife Eleanor there of 59 years – she worked in the salaries and wages department and later we would have our two beautiful daughters.
“It was interesting work and whilst I left Windscale behind in 1961 moving to Scotland, I continued to work in the nuclear industry right up until I retired in 1994– I wasn’t put off at all!”
David’s long and varied career saw him work as a Design Engineer, Operations Engineer, Instrument Engineer, Deputy Chief Engineer, and Works Engineer. Outside of work, he has always been a dedicated husband and father. Sadly David lost his wife Eleanor in 2019, just before the couple were due to move back home to Cumbria, to start a new chapter of their lives together.
In 2018 David and Eleanor went to a presentation at a Cockermouth hotel of the new apartments being built in Cockermouth by McCarthy Stone. They had been to see many properties but this was the one that Eleanor liked the best as it would be brand new and well worth waiting for.
David describes: “From the minute we saw the presentation it felt like a great ‘fit’ for us. Everything is so modern and clean. You can really put your own stamp on your apartment and they’re very spacious too.
“I was never in doubt that I would continue to move to Lancaster Court – it was what Eleanor wanted. She wouldn’t have thought kindly of me ‘staying put’. I chose a garden apartment and now every so often a pesky pheasant comes into the garden and it taps on my French door for food, or attention? I’m not sure which…All I know is he’s very insistent!
“I often wonder what Eleanor would have thought of the little pheasant…”
He continues: “I definitely made the right decision choosing a McCarthy Stone property. I have as much privacy as I wish, but there’s also lots to join in with if I choose, and plenty of like-minded people I really get on with. I’ve got everything I need right on my doorstep – it’s so convenient getting into town and I’m not far from my youngest daughter either.
“Best of all, both my daughters are able to come and stay with me in the development guest suite. It is such a joy having them under the same roof as me and to be able to spend some quality time together. Better still, everything is taken care of so I don’t have to worry about getting the bedding or laundry ready”, David jokes.
Now that David is settled in his new home at Lancaster Court he is contemplating writing his memoirs, including that of the Windscale Fire, into a book.
He explains: “Now that the public is aware of the full extent of what happened there, I am glad to tell my own story. It’s taken many decades but the record has finally been put straight.”