While debate continues over Government policy, which proposes to go ahead with building a new generation of up to eight new nuclear power plants, the human cost is still being counted from the first wave of nuclear power plants built during the peak years of asbestos use.
A recent example of the continuing tragedy from asbestos use was a 74 year old former test rig assembler who died just weeks after a confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma from an original exposure to asbestos between 1957 and 1959 during his employment at a nuclear power plant in Cheshire.
As is now known, a gestation period of up to 50 years or more can elapse from the period when asbestos fibres were inhaled to the emergence of mesothelioma or related asbestosis symptoms.
At the same time the first commercial nuclear power reactor began operating in 1956, the use of asbestos fibres as a highly durable insulation material able to withstand very high temperatures, was also at a peak of widespread use throughout British industry and construction, including the building of nuclear power plants. However, limited asbestos awareness to the long term health risks and restricted information meant those who worked with or around asbestos were often not given sufficient protection.
During the construction of power plants there were three primary areas in which asbestos was commonly used – the buildings themselves, machinery and electrical wiring. Asbestos insulation was used to lag (cover) pipes, while large generators, boilers, steam pipes and turbines were asbestos spray-coated or lined. In addition, pipe fittings contained gaskets made from asbestos sheets, often cut to fit at the time of installation.
Finally, moulded asbestos insulation protected the electrical wiring and large-scale conduits. At this time, blue asbestos (crocidolite) – one of the most toxic and dangerous of asbestos minerals – was in widespread use because of its particularly non-reactive and high resistance to electrical current. Blue asbestos (along with brown asbestos) was not banned from use until the mid 1980s.
The main type of power plant employee who was most vulnerable to asbestos exposure include those were responsible for running and monitoring the boilers, generators and turbines and the workers actually operating the equipment, such as converters, transformers and circuit breakers, which controlled the actual flow of current.
In addition, heavy duty blankets woven from asbestos fibres were regularly used for fire barriers and asbestos-containing protective clothing were also worn.
Across the north of England in counties such as Yorkshire or in towns such as Drax, Ferrybridge, and Eggborough, for example, countless numbers of construction workers involved in building some of the largest power stations in the UK were exposed to asbestos and the fatal consequences are still being felt today. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have estimated there are at least 4,700 asbestos disease related deaths recorded every year in the UK, which could reach over 60,000 by 2050.