Reviewed 7/17/2014

Atomic Accidents, by James Mahaffey

Access to this book courtesy of the
San Jose, CA Public Library
A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters:
From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima
James Mahaffey
New York: Pegasus Books, January 2014




ISBN-13 978-1-60598-492-6
ISBN-10 1-60598-492-2 442pp. HC/FCI $29.95

By way of introducing the reader to the issues surrounding nuclear power, Dr. Mahaffey describes in excruciating detail the destruction of the Sayano-Shushenskaya power plant. Neither fossil-fuel combustion nor nuclear fission was the source of power here. It was the force of falling water, suddenly diverted out of its proper channels, that reduced the gleaming modern installation, the pride of the old Soviet Union, to rubble and ended the lives of 75 workers.1

From the misadventures of three hunters chasing a wildcat through the Missouri Ozark Mountains in autumn of 1879, through the tragedies of commercializing radium, to the disasters at Kyshtym, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, this book weaves a compelling and at times horrific narrative outlining the development of human understanding of the power of the atom. But, as painful as acquiring that understanding has been, there is an upside. The author, a nuclear industry veteran, has the experience to lend weight to his account, and with his elucidation of the potential of new reactor designs he provides a valuable assist to the movement bent on refocusing our development of nuclear power.

"In this book we will delve into the history of engineering failures, the problems of pushing into the unknown, and bad luck in nuclear research, weapons, and the power industry. When you see it all in one place, neatly arranged, patterns seem to appear. The hidden, underlying problems may come into focus. Have we been concentrating all effort in the wrong place? Can nuclear power be saved from itself, or will there always be another problem to be solved? Will nuclear fission and its long-term waste destroy civilization, or will it make civilization possible?"


In this age, in which we strive for better sources of electrical and motive energy, there exists a deep fear of nuclear power, which makes accounts of its worst moments that much more important. 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; but please form your own conclusions. The purpose is to make you aware of the myriad ways that mankind can screw up a fine idea while trying to implement it. Don't be alarmed. This is the raw, sometimes disturbing side of engineering, about which much of humanity has been kept unaware. You cannot be harmed by just reading about it.

– Page xx

There are, as everyone knows, truly horrific events in the history of nuclear technology. Chernobyl is one of them, and Dr. Mahaffey's account of it (pp. 357-375) is doubly harrowing, for his experience permits him to convey to his readers the technical tragedy as well as the human one. But what happened at Pripyat on 26 April 1986 was not the worst nuclear disaster in history — though, thanks to media hype, it may be perceived that way. The death toll may reach 4,000. This can be compared to other disasters2, 3 or to ongoing conditions like deaths due to traffic accidents in the U.S. (And, as Dr. Mahaffey notes, Chernobyl played a part in the collapse of the Soviet Union, which most regard as a good thing.) But for luck, the city of Goldsboro, North Carolina might be the location of that worst disaster. Goldsboro was where, on 24 January 1961, a B-52 broke up in midair and lost its two MK-39 thermonuclear weapons.

"The two bombs also abandoned the stricken aircraft. As it fell, the bomber broke apart between the fore and aft bomb bays. The bomb in the aft bay twisted slightly clockwise and slid forward, leaving the plane nose-first as it slipped out of its chain. As it rolled out of the bomb bay, the arming rods were jerked out, and it began the detonation sequence with actuation of the Single Pulse Generator, MC-845. Next, the MC-834 Explosive Actuator fired, then the MC-543 Timer ran down and stopped. The MC-832 Differential Pressure Switch, detecting that the correct altitude had been reached, closed all contacts. Two more steps to go, and the bomb would make Goldsboro into a large inland bay. The MC-640 Low Voltage Thermal Battery was turned on and warmed up. Fortunately, the MC-772 Arm-Safe Switch had not been turned to ARM. That would have required the radar navigator to pull out a knob on his control panel using both hands, shearing off a copper retaining pin, and turn it to ARM. The bomb did not explode."

– Pages 310-11

Every technology has a death toll associated with its development. Energy production technologies, by their very nature, have a greater mortality potential. Coal, between mine explosions and asthma deaths, may be the champion in this grim contest. Even hydroelectric power, apparently so innocent and pristine, can be a killer — as the account of Sayano-Shushenskaya shows. The nuclear industry certainly has its share of goof-ups, and some of them are tragic indeed. But they are also instructive: they demonstrate that in the main the safeguards designed into nuclear devices have in most cases functioned well; and their failures point the way to further improvements. This is Dr. Mahaffey's point, and in my judgment he makes it well. He is correct that nuclear power must be a part of our future energy strategy, and that the many alternative reactor designs should be investigated more thoroughly than they have been.

The well-researched account is factual, detailed, and insightful. It is heart-breakingly grim in places, but Dr. Mahaffey leavens the grimness of the tale with a dry wit, as when he discusses his own participation in diagnosing the problems of installing a data collection system at the E. I. Hatch Nuclear Power Plant in Georgia. He also throws in references to Forbidden Planet, Nevil Shute's On the Beach, and other media presentations.4 The only substantive defect I found is that, while he devotes space to the ANP program, he barely mentions NERVA.5 The text is well illustrated by 31 photographs and numerous diagrams. A unique feature is the author's identification of the coordinates or search terms for certain locations in Google Earth. (Yes, you can see both the remains of Chernobyl Unit 4 and the crater left by the unfortunate B-52 at the tiny North Carolina town of Faro.) There is a bibliography with 108 entries, organized in chapter sequence, and a good index. Top marks, and a keeper for anyone interested in the past or future of nuclear power.

1 I was totally unaware of this incident.
2 Bhopal, a non-nuclear disaster, killed 3,700 to 8,000 people. The worst nuclear incident has to be what's known as the Kyshtym Disaster. This took place in 1957 in Russia, but the details were unknown until the advent of glasnost in 1989. Briefly, one of the huge tanks where the USSR's bomb program stored all manner of its wastes lost cooling and exploded, showering the countryside with nuclides. The population exposed to dangerous levels of radiation may have reached 475,000. But records are lost or still hidden, so estimating the impact remains difficult. (See pp. 277-285.)
3 Fukushima, while very serious (both rated 7 on the severity scale of the INES), is like Chernobyl often described in excessively apocalyptic terms. Kyshtym is rated 6, no doubt because of those missing records.
4 Episode #69 of The Adventures of Superman has Perry White "exercising his inner scientist" by working on "formula U183," a process to extract uranium from sea water. (See note 117, page 157.)
5 Not to be outdone by the Navy's nuclear submarines, the Air Force pushed for and got its ANP (Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion) program in 1947. (See pp. 122-4.) Given the aircraft mishaps Dr. Mahaffey covers here (a small part of the total), he is properly grateful that it never flew. NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications) was considered a successful program, although it too never flew. It is different from ANP in that it would operate outside of Earth's atmosphere and its weight, while considerable, would not have been a show-stopper. (Dr. Mahaffey does allude to it on p. 75 but this is a bare mention.)
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