In the 1979 film The China Syndrome, a TV reporter played by Jane Fonda witnesses a nuclear power plant going through an emergency shutdown. When a supervisor (Jack Lemmon) realises that the problem is a poorly welded pump, he faces denials when he alerts his superiors to the risk of a major meltdown. They stall because of the costs of remedying the fault, and harass Lemmon’s character as he seeks to work with Fonda’s reporter to expose the danger. The climax comes in the control room of the reactor, where he is shot by police, followed almost immediately by a major accident at the plant.
The leaders of America’s nuclear industry were furious with the film, dismissing its plot as fanciful. Their ambitious plans for lots of reactors in the US, spurred on by the desire to reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil, were already in trouble because of the costs involved and a reduced demand for electricity. The last thing they needed was fears being stoked about reactors exploding because of the industry’s indifference to safety issues.
Actually, the last thing they needed was a real incident that made the film seem prophetic. Less than two weeks after its US release in March 1979, there was an incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, about 10 miles from Pennsylvania’s state capital Harrisburg. The film included the observation that the radiation released by a reactor explosion “would render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable”. Might this now come true?
Three Mile Island is one of six cases analysed by Serhii Plokhy in this enthralling study of the atomic age and its perils. While it is a meticulously researched history written by the author of earlier books on the 1986 Chernobyl reactor disaster and the 1962 Cuba missile crisis, Atoms and Ashes is also a timely read.
Of course, current concerns are as much about nuclear systems designed to explode as those designed not to. Indeed, Plokhy is careful to distinguish between what he describes as “Atoms for Peace” accidents — connected with the drive to demonstrate the benefits of nuclear reactors as a vital source of civil energy — and those that preceded them: “Atoms for War” accidents, associated with the rush to acquire nuclear weapons during the first years of the cold war.
Whether for peace or war, the underlying technical and human factors that led to incidents were similarly complex. The Three Mile Island incident began when a night-time crew operating the reactors became aware of a problem with the coolant system, although they did not know why it had occurred. The operators had naval backgrounds, having worked on the US Navy’s pioneering nuclear submarine programme of the early 1950s. As they wrestled to regain control of the system, this led them to switch off the water supply, which might make sense in a nuclear submarine but not in this case. The reactor overheated.
After fraught discussions between the plant’s operators and government officials about possible evacuations of the local population, the effects in this case were contained.
But this was not so with the next major accident. The disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986 led to radiation being spread far and wide in Europe — western as well as eastern. A reactor became unstable during the course of a planned decrease in power as part of a safety test. This led to the core melting down and explosions that destroyed the building, leading to over a week of radiation being released.
Chernobyl remains the worst-ever nuclear accident, although Japan came perilously close when in 2011 a massive tsunami crashed into the power plant at Fukushima, flooding the reactors. The loss of power to the circulating pumps meant the reactor cores were not cooled, leading to meltdowns and explosions.
The last-minute drama of Fukushima, with water getting to the reactors just in time to cool them as one was about to explode, revived concerns about the safety of all reactors, and led to doubts about the wisdom of their construction. Over a decade has since passed without any comparable accident and countries, including the UK, are planning to add to or build new plants. Plokhy stresses the importance of the industry learning from past laxity, and understanding the human and organisational factors that can contribute to calamitous errors.
His book’s military-related near-misses start with a miscalculation of radiation effects and the direction of winds that led to a catastrophically bungled test of a thermonuclear weapon at the Marshall Islands in the Pacific in 1954. Then in 1957, a nuclear waste tank exploded at a plutonium complex near the town of Kyshtym in the Urals, releasing a large amount of radiation. In the same year a fire raged for three days in one of the reactors at Windscale in north-west England, built to produce plutonium and tritium fuel for atomic weapons. Although the catastrophe was contained, significant radiation was released.
The strength of Atoms and Ashes lies in Plokhy’s ability to explain the technical aspects of the unfolding disasters while also exploring the role of human and organisational factors, as well as the political demands that created the imperatives to meet ambitious targets — even if this meant cutting corners. In the case of the two Soviet disasters, the operators failed to follow their own manuals but also felt unable to disregard instructions from their superiors.
The disasters also largely occurred at a time when governments felt able to keep embarrassing news secret — the incident at Kyshtym was disclosed only in the late 1980s. But when there is a prospect of radiation sufficient to threaten nearby population centres and necessitate evacuations, governments must find ways of discussing the dangers with those potentially affected, and finding the balance between reassurance and panic. The early official silence on Chernobyl led to the illumination of not only the problems at the plant but the wider dysfunctions of the Soviet system.
The relevant technologies dated back to the 1950s and 1960s, a time when many of the risks were poorly understood and policy was driven by concerns about falling behind in the arms race or by the promise of plentiful supplies of cheap energy. While no technology is foolproof, the nuclear industry is now by necessity more safety-conscious and new reactors should not have the vulnerabilities of the old. While cost issues still loom large, nuclear energy is now seen as one way to address the challenge of climate change by reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima all led to governments rethinking their nuclear programmes and a downturn in orders. But all energy sources carry their risks. The then German chancellor Angela Merkel’s hasty response to Fukushima — an accident that had occurred in a modern, well-run country like her own — was to accelerate the phasing-out of her country’s reactors, with a greater emphasis on renewables.
In practice, however, the decision left Germany even more dependent on imported Russian oil and gas, and so less willing to challenge Vladimir Putin. Plokhy, a Ukrainian now teaching at Harvard, will have noted that when Russia invaded his country, some of the more alarming moments of the war came when the fighting reached Chernobyl.
Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima by Serhii Plokhy, Allen Lane £25/WW Norton $30, 384 pages
Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London
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