By Chet Yarbrough
Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters
By James Mahaffey
Narrated by: Tom Weiner
Listening to Atomic Accidents, the first thing that comes to mind is point-of-view, second is author’s qualification, and third is writing ability. Mahaffey’s book is historically fascinating, and enlightening. And happily, Mahaffey writes well.
Doctor James Mahaffey’s professional career is founded on the nuclear industry. Educated at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Mahaffey holds a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s in science, and a doctoral in nuclear engineering.
Mahaffey is well versed in the science, engineering, and mechanics of nuclear energy. Because of education, one presumes Mahaffey is a proponent of the nuclear power industry. After dissection of several atomic accidents, a listener becomes unsure of Mahaffey’s point of view. By the end, his point of view is clear.
America has dropped and lost nuclear bombs around the world. The best known nukes, Big Boy and Little Boy, were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII.
Less known bomb drops were in peace time. Nukes were accidentally released on remote military bases, in sparsely populated residential areas, and in the sea. Some of those dropped in the sea remain unrecoverable. None of the peace time bombs exploded.
America chose to keep nuclear secrets from Great Britain after WWII because of concern over nuclear bomb proliferation. Because of America’s secrecy and lack of cooperation, Mahaffey suggests design mistakes were made.
In reviewing the history of nuclear energy, Mahaffey notes English scientists and engineers designed graphite nuclear power plants that were inherently dangerous. Graphite catches fire at high temperatures and is notoriously hard to extinguish. However, graphite nuclear plants became widely copied throughout the world.
Mahaffey’s stories of nuclear mishaps range from dumb to dumber; i.e. from wind fans that feed graphite nuclear plant fires to technicians that ignore rules of reactor management. Nuclear accidents seem inevitable and insurmountable.
Mahaffey explains that the former U.S.S.R. ignored environment in their nuclear bombs race with America. They dumped plutonium in Russian waters and blew up a graphite nuclear plant that killed Russian workers in a steam explosion. The explosion contaminated miles of Russian homeland with radioactive fallout.
Later, the U.S.S.R. mismanaged Chernobyl’s nuclear facilities and created a nuclear meltdown that reportedly killed over 60 people from radiation and left an area of Russia uninhabitable for generations to come.
Mahaffey tells the story of the American, Gary Powers, the pilot shot down by the Russians in the 1950s. Powers is taking aerial pictures of plutonium manufacturing facilities in the U.S.S.R. Eisenhower is compelled to lie and then apologize to Russia for the clandestine operation. Mahaffey makes the story interesting by revealing the monumental effort made by the U.S.S.R. to shoot down Powers’ airplane and reassemble plane parts to prove Powers was spying.
In the end, Mahaffey discounts the many nuclear accidents and incidents he examines. His conclusion is that nuclear power can be made probabilistically safe. Mahaffey argues for the design of nuclear energy facilities that are small and simple to operate. He suggests that small nuclear power plants be designed and manufactured for specific industrial facilities. Small nuclear plants could meet industrial energy demands while limiting environmental carbon emission from other sources.
With small nuclear energy plants, the potential for catastrophic Chernobyl-like’ events would not happen. The massive underwater earthquake and tsunami would not have decimated Japan’s nuclear energy capability if the power plants had not been so massive and concentrated on the coast.
Mahaffey implies proper design and training for small, simple nuclear energy facilities will mitigate the world energy crises. Mahaffey infers nuclear accidents are unavoidable, but human and environmental damage is minimized with smaller nuclear energy plants.
Mahaffey explains that radiation is a naturally occurring phenomenon. He argues that shutting down nuclear waste disposal facilities like Yucca Mountain in Nevada are a mistake. Many in Las Vegas oppose President Trump’s resurrection of the Yucca Mountain waste site.
Mahaffey’s point of view is that nuclear power accidents will happen but their consequences can be minimized with smaller plants and better planning for treatment of victims when accidents occur. He believes nuclear energy benefits far out weigh their risks.
The 2020 Presidential election is over. President Biden’s campaign speaks to America’s gradual transition from fossil fuels to wind, water, and solar power. That transition is a potential source for thousands of new American jobs. Mahaffey persuasively argues there should be a place for nuclear energy in that transition.