Atomic Accidents

Although I was six years old when the Three Mile Island accident happened, I clearly remember grownups talking about it and being worried: the house my family lived in was only about 60 miles away from the meltdown. In those days there was also plenty of free-floating nuclear angst due to the cold war; this would occasionally condense into something like The Day After or Edge of Darkness. The latter remains one of the best things ever to be shown on television, I re-watch it every couple of years (the 1985 one, not the 2010 one).

James Mahaffey’s Atomic Accidents covers not only Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, but also pretty much everything else that has gone wrong when humans tried to exploit nuclear fission or fusion. It’s a fascinating book as well as being — perhaps oddly — quite funny, and I had trouble putting it down.

I was surprised to learn how many nuclear reactors have been destroyed on purpose, and I was also surprised to learn how many nuclear weapons were temporarily lost by the US military: something like 60 in total. That’s really scary. But perhaps the most chilling image painted in Atomic Accidents is the criticality accident where a small nuclear reactor is accidentally created, usually by someone working in a fuel processing facility. Imagine doing something innocuous like turning on a stirrer or pouring a liquid into a different container, seeing a bright blue flash, and realizing that you’re dead on your feet. This fascinating report contains a lot of details.

The accidents in large reactor facilities have some depressing common elements. First, the situation is inherently dangerous due to this large system that, under certain conditions, will get into a runaway positive feedback loop. Second, the thing can’t just be shut down to zero power: residual radioactive decay generates heat that has to be gotten rid of, necessitating extraordinarily complex cooling systems and backup power systems behind those. Third, visibility into the operating reactor is often poor: in one early accident, a reactor core had been on fire for several days before this was realized. Finally, humans, caught in between all of these factors, don’t seem to reliably do the right thing at the right instant.

A lot of pop science is written by people whose understanding of the issues seems to be shallow, but that is not the case here: Mahaffey is clearly a real expert on the subject matter. On the other hand, he is not unbiased. For example, on page XIX:

To keep the industry alive, thriving, and growing, it is imperative that the general population not feel threatened by it.

On page XXI:

The purpose of this book is not to convince you that nuclear power is unsafe beyond reason, or that it will lead to the destruction of civilization. On the contrary, I hope to demonstrate that nuclear power is even safer than transportation by steam and may be one of the key things that will allow life on Earth to keep progressing…

The best we can say is that it’s nice that he is up-front about this. Mahaffey’s slanted point of view caused me real stomach trouble only once: by page 33 he has twice asked the question: “Could we eventually evolve into a race that can withstand high levels of radiation?” What? For the human race to evolve in such a fashion, those who cannot withstand high levels of radiation must die — or be sterilized — before they can reproduce, repeatedly, over a period of hundreds or thousands of years. This is what might happen if the entire surface of the earth became dangerously radioactive. What was going on in Mahaffey’s mind that made this disturbing idea seem so appealing that he had to mention it more than once before the end of the first chapter?

16 thoughts on “Atomic Accidents”

  1. I happened to finish reading a book (The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond) where the author pointed that most people tend to overestimate the lethality of “rare” disasters (such as nuclear accidents) and underestimate the lethality of “common” ones (such as car accidents). In fact, pulling together some facts on Wikipedia, apparently ~1 million people died in 2004 in car accidents. The total number of people that have died due to nuclear power–including radiation deaths from Chernobyl and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (those two events are the only significant contributors)–is perhaps as high as 600,000. So more people have died due to cars in a single year than have died due to nuclear power in all of human history. And yet we treat cars as a basically safe mode of transportation in our lives and nuclear power as a very threatening proposition.

  2. I did some math a while ago and the ~200 people Fukushima killed at the end of it’s 100 gigwatt-hour life was about equivalent to the number of people you’d normally expect to die over the course of generating 100 gigawatt-hours using coal.

  3. I’ll start out by being just as up front: I think the best thing that could happen to the modern energy situation is for people to *quit being afraid* of nuclear power (and the simplest way to do that would be to build a nuclear power as close to the center of every major US city as you can find real estate to put it on).

    From at least one practical standpoint (released radiation under normal condition) nuclear power is safer than coal power, sitting in front of a CRT or eating banana[1]. As for the failure case, we already know how to build passively safe reactors.

    Furthermore, if I’m understanding my sources correctly, the the only power source that even has the potential to maintain the current total energy consumption for more than a generation or two is nuclear (likely a thorium cycle). Keep in mind that the world population is not projected to return to it’s current 7B so the per capita consumption even with maintained production will decline.

    You mentioned fusion? The first page of search results for “fusion accident” are all reference to RPGs (i.e. fiction). And last I checked, nobody had any clue how to build a fusion reactor that could have any failure mode other than a safe shutdown (the total thermal energy in an operating reactor isn’t enough to significantly heat the walls and the containment is used more to keep things running than to keep them from melting anything) let alone the h-bomb like failure modes SF authors so love to use.

    In short, nuclear is better and safer than coal. For the safety of the people working in the industries (mining accidents anyone?), the people living around them (pollution?) and the people who have to deal with the scars in the landscape they leave behind (strip mining?) all favor nuclear.


    p.s. Andrew Cloug’s comment suggest that nuclear v. coal would be a break even proposition even if we had 50% total containment failure rates over the lifetime of each reactor.

  4. Rational argument is rather missing the point, isn’t it? When people oppose nuclear power, they do not usually do so because they’ve carefully reviewed the available evidence and added appropriate weighting factors — they do so because radiation is scary. And it will remain scary because the prospect of getting harmed by an invisible, imperceptible force (except through the eerie clicking of a Geiger counter) that can potentially give you cancer if it doesn’t kill you outright doesn’t reduce in scariness by being told you are spectacularly unlikely to actually be harmed in this way, or that coal plants also kill people (they don’t use scary radiation to do it) or that cars kill even more people (we feel we are personally in control of cars, while we do not feel in control of nuclear power plants — and as criticality accidents demonstrate, this is unpleasantly close to the truth sometimes even for the people who are nominally in control).

    For policymakers, it is rational to look for alternatives — not because they are necessarily better from an efficiency or even a safety standpoint, but because the alternatives may be easier to get support for from the voting public. Of course, the alternative is to take away the fear somehow, but I wouldn’t even know how to begin doing that. Certainly “building a nuclear power plant close to the center of every major US city” wouldn’t be the way — that’s like trying to cure an arachnophobe by telling them a spider will be put in every room they visit from now on because they’re really not that scary. Even the specters of overpopulation and global warming likely will not help enough — I would wager a lot of people find the idea of freezing to death more appealing than the idea of getting even mildly ionized by a nuclear reactor. If it comes to that, there will likely be some violent conflict before the dust settles (in favor of reactors, make no mistake about that).

    Probably the best possible outcome for all involved would be to get nuclear fusion commercially viable, as it is superior to fission as a power production process in both yield and safety. Although it would still need to overcome the fear fission has built up, this is quite doable because the processes are demonstrably different. Unfortunately, while progress is being made (ITER and suchlike), it will still be years if not decades before fusion can be deployed on the same scale as fission, and we may very well need power solutions sooner than that.

  5. Actually, scratch that last bit — it will certainly be decades rather than years, even taking unexpected breakthroughs into account. We will all be lucky if it doesn’t stretch to a century.

  6. “For the human race to evolve in such a fashion, those who cannot withstand high levels of radiation must die — or be sterilized”

    Fortunately it’s not as bad as all that. You only need a relatively small competitive advantage for a gene to spread – e.g. if a gene for radiation resistance caused a fetus to be 10% more likely to survive, it would probably spread. Evolution is good at amplifying small effects if you give it time, which is handy because it rarely gets given large ones to play with.

  7. Thank you for the wonderful review of ATOMIC ACCIDENTS!

    For the human race to become immune to radiation damage my not require the draconian measure that you outlined. We are not, after all, bacteria. Human evolution is a bit more complex than the binary action of antibiotics on staff infections.

    The DNA damage, the cancer, and the tissue death from high-level gamma-rays, alpha contamination, or run-away reactors is identical to that produced by sunlight. As a trend, we are forcing ourselves into accelerated evolution by purposefully subjecting tissues to abnormal levels of ionizing radiation (higher frequency UV) by prolonged exposure to the Sun. Our UV shield, the very thin layer of ozone high in the atmosphere, may be in jeopardy from hydrochloric acid contamination. (Whether this is likely caused by loose Freon reacting with water vapor or excessive cat vomiting is open to speculation.) The danger of radiation from human technical activity is pitiful compared to that from natural sources of geologic, solar, and cosmic radiation.

    The scariest source may be cosmic rays, which produce showers of everything from muons to positrons, starting with near-light-speed proton collisions in the upper atmosphere at energies 100 times higher than what the Large Hadron Collider can manage. Our primary protection from this barrage, which is capable of sterilizing the Earth, is the polar magnetic field. It’s known to flip polarity on occasion (in geologic time), and the disturbance as the field is reestablished will kill anyone not living in a cave.

    I asked the question just to get the reader to think about it. It worked! Think some more. To write this book, I had to go deeper than your average nuclear accident account. Go deeper into human evolution. It’s fascinating.

    Thanks again, and look for my next book, the third in my “nuclear power trilogy, ATOMIC ADVENTURES.


  8. Looking at statistics, it’s pretty easy to decide a nuclear reactor in your backyard is an acceptable risk.

    When the local power company leaves fliers at your door telling you the reactor is perfectly safe and you should definitely vote yes on the reactor ballot proposition, now you have to decide if you trust them. Unfortunately, the historical tendency of nuclear operators to try to cover up problems rather than admit them immediately and mitigate harm makes them not very trustworthy. Once you’re dealing with a spokesperson (or just a faceless company), it’s much harder to accept an “acceptable risk”. I suspect this is a large part of the public resistance to nuclear power, in the same way that people prefer driving to flying because they’re in control and don’t have to trust the pilots, mechanics and airline.

    Also, we really should figure out what we’re going to do with spent fuel.

  9. What scares me more than the technology is the competence and motivations of the power companies who operate the reactors.

    Our local power company (SCE) decided to replace the steam generators at San Onofre with “upgraded” steam generators to let them generate more power and hid the fact from the NRC such that it didn’t trigger a full design review. Now this turned out to have been a very bad idea for them as they messed up the design on this 800 million dollar upgrade and the steam generators that were supposed to last decades wore out in 2 years. Now they’ve permanent shutdown the plant as a result. Perhaps a design review wouldn’t have been such a bad idea?

    This seems to occur more often than it should (i.e. bad design decisions at Fukushima). It seems to be a difficult problem to balance safety and profit for nuclear reactors.

    Then there is the entire spent fuel problem, which technically has seemingly reasonably good solutions but politically is a big problem.

  10. I’ve heard Pandora’s Promise is a good documentary on the topic of nuclear power (I’ve not seen it yet; it’s in my Netflix Queue). IIRC, one novelty of the film is that it reveals a shift in the environmental movement toward nuclear power, when the movement has traditionally been against it.

  11. Gentlemen – The willful ignorance here is quite breath taking. If you poke your head out of academia you’ll find that “follow the money” is the best course to discover the truth in the big outside world.
    Ask you friendly Lloyd’s of London representative why the congress, in the 1950’s had to pass a law which limited the nuclear power industry’s liability before the money people would finance even one?

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