Monday, March 28, 2011

A dose of the hard stuff

News of the nuclear accident at Fukushima has awoken memories from my childhood.

In 1957, 8-years old and living near Manchester, I recall the time our daily school milk was suddenly stopped.  One morning we were all given milk tablets (white and around the size of a pound coin) and told that we had to chew them as there wouldn't be any fresh milk that day. They weren't very nice and some of us (not me, of course) used to drop them quietly behind the radiators. I can't remember clearly, but I think this went on for about two weeks.

Looking back on these events, the pieces slowly begin to fall into place.

In 1957 there was a serious nuclear accident at Windscale in Cumbria resulting from a desperate drive to produce plutonium for Britain's atomic bomb. The accident led to the accidental release of significant amounts of radioactive iodine, caesium and xenon.

I remember the strictness with which we were instructed we must eat the tablets and can recall, even after all these years, how it all seemed a little strange. After all, would it be all that serious if we missed our school milk for a week or two? But then recently, on recounting this story to a friend, he said: "They were probably iodine tablets."

On reflection, I think it's quite likely they were. Of course nothing was said; there were no letters home, no pronouncements from government. I doubt even our teachers knew what was going on.   The decision to distribute iodine tablets would have been made by some anonymous Whitehall civil-servant at the Home office or Ministry of Defence and enacted via the civil-defence, command and control procedures in place during the Cold War

Incidentally around the same time, I recall looking out of my classroom window to see the setting sun disfigured with huge sunspots.  And, as if that wasn't enough, we had atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, luminous watches and x-ray machines in shoe shops to check our feet had room to grow.

All in all, I reckon I must have got quite a dose.


  1. Be glad that you got iodine tablets. After Chernobyl the soviet authorities didn't distribute any, and the result has been a significant increase in childhood thyroid cancer.
    Given that the radioactive iodine has a half-life of ~8 days, topping up your thyroid with non-radiaoctive iodine is very effective.

    -- Jim

  2. Iodine tablets Dave, you were lucky! We had to suffer rancid warm milk in summer and stuff cold enough to hurt your teeth in winter.

  3. It's only recently that I've understood how iodine tablets work. The thyroid (apparently) is inclined to take up any iodine that's around. When some of this is radioactive (as can happen after a nuclear accident) the best strategy is to stuff your thyroid with the benign variety. Radioactive iodine has only a short half-life so you don't have to take the tablets for very long.