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Nuclear energy: Meltdowns, redux

Two accounts take contrasting lessons from nuclear accidents, finds Mark Peplow.

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters from the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima

  • James Mahaffey
Pegasus Books: 2014. 9781605984926 | ISBN: 978-1-6059-8492-6

Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman and Susan Q. Stranahan. The New Press: 2014.


How safe is safe enough? Dig into the nuclear-power debate, and you will soon reach that question. Two books offer answers — but arrive at utterly different conclusions.

Journalists visit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan ahead of the first anniversary of its meltdown. Credit: Issei Kato/Reuters/Corbis

In Atomic Accidents, James Mahaffey tries to persuade us that the mighty atom is our friend by showing how much nuclear engineers (he is one) have learned from the industry's mistakes. Whereas he puts accidents under the microscope to pinpoint where things turned nasty, in Fukushima, David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman and Susan Q. Stranahan blame the entire nuclear establishment.

Mahaffey guides us through more than a century of atomic research, including misadventures with radioactive elixirs (“The radium water worked fine until his jaw came off”, reads a 1932 headline) and long-forgotten accidents at enrichment plants. Along with show-stoppers such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, he covers milestones including the first weapons-test accident (in 1954, when the detonation of the compact US hydrogen bomb 'Shrimp' unintentionally contaminated 18,000 square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean) and the first meltdown (1952, at Canada's Chalk River reactor). The accidents are mostly reconstructed from official reports, and Mahaffey includes a lot of technical detail that serves as a useful introduction to nuclear engineering.

Entertaining anecdotes about foolhardy pioneers abound. In the 1940s, after diving into a spent-fuel pool to adjust an experiment, bomb-core-assembly expert Louis Slotin was moved from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, “where daring was better appreciated”. He was killed 18 months later, in a stupid accident with a screwdriver and some plutonium. The compelling tales unravel like slow-motion horror stories, spiralling towards disasters we know are coming.

A theme emerges. Accidents happen when operators do not follow the correct procedures, or because ambitious plant designers overlook glaring weaknesses — not because nuclear power is inherently unsafe. The disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant — triggered by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami — is afforded fewer than 30 pages. As with his other accounts, Mahaffey quickly identifies the accident's turning points. In the case of the plant's Unit 1 reactor, which suffered a complete meltdown, he singles out an operator who closed two crucial coolant valves, effectively overriding an automated safety system.

He takes the same approach to the whole industry, picking a little-known US accident in 1961 as the moment that led plant designers to take a wrong turn. When a control rod was inadvertently pulled from SL-1, a low-power military reactor in remote Idaho, it caused a steam explosion that took the lives of three people — the last to die in a power-reactor accident in the United States. The incident soured the industry on small, simple reactors, and pushed it towards bigger, more expensive ones that became ever more complicated as safety features were retrofitted.

Mahaffey argues for a return to smaller reactors, reasoning that accidents are inevitable, so they had best be small. He extols the virtues of safer designs such as the thorium molten-salt reactor. If these changes are made and lessons are learned, he concludes, accidents like Fukushima should be behind us.

On the contrary, say Lochbaum, Lyman and Stranahan. “Nuclear power is an energy choice that gambles with disaster,” they write. “The problems that led to the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi exist wherever reactors operate.” They unpick those problems in forensic detail, using multiple sources in a thriller-paced retelling. Fukushima takes a much broader view of the accident than Atomic Accidents, delving into political wrangling and the roles of international agencies. It shows how Japan's complex nuclear bureaucracy — involving power companies, an independent regulator and government departments — stymied the response. A vivid picture emerges of utter confusion in the hours and days after the tsunami.

The writers have impressive pedigrees. Stranahan was on the Philadelphia Inquirer team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for its coverage of the Three Mile Island accident. Industry insider Lochbaum and global-security specialist Lyman have both been heavily involved in the Union of Concerned Scientists' lobbying on nuclear power.

That may explain why the second half of the book becomes an attack on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which the authors argue is complicit in the industry's disregard for safety. According to Fukushima, the NRC refused to learn from Three Mile Island, and failed to mandate that the industry prepare for similar events. The commission, the book claims, had run simulations showing that Mark 1 boiling-water reactors, designed by General Electric and installed at Fukushima, were vulnerable to meltdown in a power blackout. If the NRC had been bolder about improving safety at home, in the authors' opinion, other countries would have followed — and Japan might not be facing a US$100-billion nuclear clean-up.

Lochbaum, Lyman and Stranahan disagree strongly with Mahaffey's stance on the benefits of smaller reactors, which would almost certainly be built in clusters: at Fukushima, simultaneous problems with multiple reactors complicated emergency-response efforts. “Nuclear power's safety problems cannot be solved through good design alone,” they write. Instead, they say, the NRC must accept the possibility that dam breaches, fires or terrorist attacks could trigger a nuclear accident worse than Fukushima on US soil.

Both polemics offer thought-provoking analyses. However much they differ, they are both right: if nuclear power is to have a future, it needs better science and better regulation.

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Peplow, M. Nuclear energy: Meltdowns, redux. Nature 506, 292–293 (2014).

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