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The Toughest Irish Engineer of the 20th Century

 

 

Let me get this up while it's still Saint Patrick's day and we're still waiting to see what happens with those Japanese reactors. I'm taking my facts from an obituary notice written by David Fishlock that appeared in the British newspaper, The Independent, on March 26, 2008. It's about Tom Tuohy, the man who, at the Windscale reactor at Sellafield, in 1957, ordered everybody off the premises, threw away his radiation-dosage badge and climbed to the top of the 80-ft pile to direct the water flow that would quench the inferno beneath. I had always thought he died shortly thereafter. No. He lived another fifty years.

In 1957, Wikipedia, says, Tuohy "stood atop the reactor lid to examine the rear of the reactor, the discharge face. Here he reported a dull red luminescence visible, lighting up the void between the back of the reactor and the rear containment. Red hot fuel cartridges were glowing in the fuel channels on the discharge face. He returned to the reactor upper containment several times throughout the incident, at the height of which a fierce conflagration was raging from the discharge face and playing on the back of the reinforced concrete containment—concrete whose specifications required that it be kept below a certain temperature to prevent its disintegration and collapse."

At that time, Fishlock says, Tuohy was 39 years old. He'd been born in Newcastle on Tyne, of Irish parents, he had a chemistry degree from Reading, he had a wife and two kids, and he was deputy to the general manager at the nuclear plant, which was primarily engaged in making Plutonium for bombs.

After several hours of watching what was happening below, Tuohy estimated, from the colour of the flames, "that the fire must be approaching the melting point of steel. He continued his inspections throughout the night. Around dawn, he had all the available carbon dioxide gas pumped into the core to try to quell the inferno, but to no dramatic effect. There were signs, however, that the fire was abating."

Good news except for the concern that the concrete shield that was containing the radiation from the core might begin to collapse under the heat. Earlier, Tuohy had used CO2 to cool things down, but now it was time to use water, even though there was a chance of blowing the pile apart with an explosive mixture of water, gas and air.

Wikipedia says Tuohy, "then ordered everyone out of the reactor building except himself and the Fire Chief. All cooling and ventilating air entering the reactor was shut off. Tuohy once again hauled himself atop the reactor shielding and ordered the water to be turned on, listening carefully at the inspection holes for any sign of a hydrogen reaction as the pressure was increased. Tuohy climbed up several times and reported watching the flames leaping from the discharge face slowly dying away. During one of the inspections, he found that the inspection plates—which were removed with a metal hook to facilitate viewing of the discharge face of the core—were stuck fast. This, he reported, was due to the fire trying to suck air in from wherever it could.

"Finally he managed to pull the inspection plate away and was greeted with the sight of the fire dying away.

"'First the flames went, then the flames reduced and the glow began to die down," he described, "I went up to check several times until I was satisfied that the fire was out. I did stand to one side, sort of hopefully," he went on to say, "but if you're staring straight at the core of a shut down reactor you're going to get quite a bit of radiation.'"

I had heard that part of the story in college, a few years after the event, and had formed the erroneous assumption about Tuohy's inevitable unpleasant death. Actually, the man stayed on the job. In 1964, when weapons production ceased in the UK, he kept the plant going.

In 1970, Fishlock's obituary column says, the government created British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) and Tuohy was made managing director responsible for production, running factories at Windscale, Springfields and Capenhurst. Then BNFL became part of Urenco, a nuclear fuel centrifuge project with Dutch and and German partners, and Tuohy was eventually appointed Urenco's managing director. The obit implies that he was more of a fighter than a diplomat there. I'm not surprised. He resigned in October 1974, still only 54. It would be the end of his career in nuclear energy.

He moved to Australia, a country that no doubt better suited his style, and lived there until he died in New South Wales' Newcastle on March 12, 2008.

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