The Tuohy who saved England...what the hell was he thinking?
On October 10 1957, Tuohy - then deputy general manager at the country's first nuclear reactor - took responsibility for extinguishing the blaze. It had started on a small scale, but tore through many of the main buildings, raging at 400C, and spread to the core which housed one of Britain's first two nuclear reactors - the Windscale Piles - built to produce plutonium and other materials for Britain's secret nuclear weapons programme.
Despite attempts by Tuohy and his technicians to quench the fire, particles of radioactive material were released into the atmosphere and spread across Britain and Europe. Not only was the surrounding area of Cumbria contaminated, with winds blowing the radioactive cloud back on to the mainland, but the government was forced to destroy milk production within 200 miles of the stricken reactor.
Tuohy was confronted by a terrifying dilemma. Had he allowed the fire to burn out on its own, the entire north of England might have been blanketed with radioactivity. Instead he decided to shut down the air flow - a decision that prevented Windscale becoming a disaster on the scale of Chernobyl.
At the risk of causing an explosion the size of a nuclear bomb, Tuohy also ordered up gallons of water. Careless of his own personal safety, Tuohy donned full protective equipment and breathing apparatus, hauled himself 80ft to the top of the reactor shield 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.
At one point, Tuohy found that the inspection plates were stuck fast, the result of the fire trying to suck air in from wherever it could. Eventually he managed to pull the inspection plate away and was greeted with the unfathomable sight of the fire dying away. "I went up to check several times until I was satisfied that the fire was out," Tuohy recalled. "I did stand to one side, sort of hopefully," he went on, "but if you're staring straight at the core of a shut-down reactor you're going to get quite a bit of radiation." Water was kept flowing through the pile for a further 24 hours until it was completely cold.
There was a government investigation into the incident, and its final report was highly critical of the technicians who put their lives on the line trying to contain the blaze. The accident, it concluded, had been caused by "an error of judgment" by the Windscale workers themselves. But the prime minister of the day, Harold Macmillan, had realised that if the Americans knew that the fire had been the result of reckless decisions by the British government to try to produce the H-bomb at Windscale, Congress might veto Macmillan's and Eisenhower's plans. For this reason, according to his grandson, Lord Stockton, Macmillan covered up what really happened. Asked what he thought of officials who let his opposite numbers in America think that his staff had been responsible for the fire, Tom Tuohy weighed his words with care. "I thought they were a shower of bastards," he said. In the aftermath of the incident, Tuohy himself was promoted to general manager at Windscale, the name of which was later changed by the government to Sellafield.
Tuohy was born on November 7 1917 at Wallsend and educated at St Cuthbert's grammar school, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Reading University, where he read Chemistry. During the Second World War he worked as a chemist in various Royal Ordnance factories. In 1946 he moved into the expanding nuclear fuels industry, and was appointed deputy general manager of Windscale and Calder Hall reactors in 1957.
After seven years running the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority's production group, Tuohy joined British Nuclear Fuels as managing director, a post he held between 1971 and 1973. He ended his career as managing director at Urenco, which supplies enriched uranium to the nuclear industry, and took early retirement in 1974. He was appointed CBE in 1969.
2010: Jack Tuohy is the Executive Director of the American Nuclear Society