Today, there are 16 operational nuclear reactors at eight plants in the UK. The continuing debate over sustainable clean energy and nuclear power generation may seem a long way removed from a time, some 30 to 40 years ago, when there were more than 200 coal and oil powered stations also in operation across England. Many were closed down by the 1980s, a few continued up to the 1990s and there are still one or two still in existence today.

Tragically, there are also men who worked at the plants who continue to die from mesothelioma as a result of their exposure to the asbestos containing materials used to line parts of the machinery and equipment. A recent victim was a 79 year old former worker at a Suffolk power plant who was diagnosed with asbestosis, which eventually claimed his life. Now his wife is seeking answers as to the cause of the lung disease, which left him increasingly struggling for breath for two years before passing away.

Expansion coincided with British industry’s peak period of asbestos use

The first hydro electric power station was constructed in England in 1868, followed in 1882 by the world’s first coal-fired public power station, built in London. A small number were opened from 1920s through to the 1940s, which significantly increased from the 1950s through to the 1970s. Their expansion coincided with British industry’s peak period of asbestos use when around 170,000 tons was imported each year to be used in insulation and fireproofing products.

Along with the construction of oil refineries, a number of power stations, such as those at Battersea, Didcot Ferrybridge, Eggborough, Drax and Aberthaw were almost certain to have been built with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).

The construction of power plants could involve three primary areas in which asbestos was commonly used – the buildings themselves, the machinery and electrical wiring. Asbestos insulation was used to lag 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.

Failed to prevent workers from being exposed at their workplace

The main type of power plant employee who was most vulnerable to asbestos exposure included those were responsible for running and monitoring the boilers, generators and turbines. The workers actually operated 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.

The wife of the former Ipswich power station worker recalls that her late husband “worked with asbestos” while employed at the plant in the early 1960s, and at time, she says, when the considerable health risks were “unknown”.

From the early 1930s onwards, legislation had been introduced into the main asbestos manufacturing industries to prevent “the escape of asbestos dust into the air of any room in which persons work”. However, it failed to prevent workers from being exposed at their workplace in numerous other industries, notably shipbuilding, rail and vehicle assembly, construction, and power generation.

The absence of asbestos awareness to the health dangers by employees was often accompanied by the lack of any protective masks, equipment or safety information by the company employers. The growing medical evidence eventually led to the first mid 1980s ban of the most dangerous crocidolite and “brown” amosite fibre types

The wife has asked for former colleagues who may have worked during the same period when her late husband was employed at the power plant to come forward with their accounts of how and where asbestos was present.

Frequently worked in “air thick with asbestos dust”

As with many other industrial buildings, once power stations had been constructed, the testing and maintenance of equipment continued and asbestos lining needed to be physically removed by cutting, sawing, etc. Asbestos fibres were also mixed by hand with water in large buckets to form a paste and then manually applied. Insulators, pipefitters, electricians, welders and other workers often worked in close quarters, and the manual working with asbestos released volumes of fibre dust particles into the atmosphere.

As a result, the exposure to asbestos and the breathing in of fibre dust could also simply occur because of being in the vicinity to where insulation lagging / maintenance was being carried out – even if the material was not being actually handled by a worker. Many mesothelioma victims comment in their written statements that they frequently worked in “air thick with asbestos dust”, which would stick to their skin, hair and clothes.

At the inquest of another former power station, a 76 year old electrician described how the annual maintenance schedule required the removal and replacement of asbestos material used for pipe lagging and equipment linings from the boilers and turbines. A statement written by the deceased read out at the inquest mentioned the “huge amount of asbestos” released would surround him in an asbestos “snowstorm”.

It wasn’t until the Asbestos Regulations,1969,  which aimed at extending worker protection, that employers were required to ensure that those also employed in factories, power stations, warehouses, institutions and other similar premises were protected from the dangers of working with asbestos. Sadly, cases are still brought to today which clearly show that the safety of those working with or around asbestos was still being neglected right up to this present day.