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Atoms and Ashes—lessons from six of the world’s worst nuclear disasters

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Atoms and Ashes—from Bikini Atoll to Fukushima, the new book by Serhii Plokhy, is a compulsive but terrifying read, writes Amy Leather
Issue 2811
orange and yellow leaved trees surrounding the Chernobyl exclusion Zone

Chernobyl Exclusion zone, 36 years since the nuclear explosion  (Picture: Jorge Franganillo)

Standing in front of Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, Boris Johnson launched the Tories’ Energy Security Strategy in April. Nuclear energy was central to the plan. Johnson claimed the strategy would deliver “clean, affordable, secure power to the people for generations to come”. He called for 25 percent of our electricity to come from nuclear power by 2050—up from the current 16 percent. That means greatly increasing capacity, with Johnson bragging the first phase of the plan will involve building eight new nuclear reactors.

Reading Atoms and Ashes by Serhii Plokhy in this context is chilling. As Plokhy says at the start, his main purpose is to take a fresh look at the history of nuclear accidents. He looks at why they happened, how bad they were, what we can learn, and assesses if they could ever happen again.

To do this, he examines six of the world’s worst nuclear disasters—although he is very clear these are by no means the only accidents that have occurred. In fact, there have been hundreds of known incidents and probably even more that have been kept secret or covered up.

Plokhy starts with the Castle Bravo nuclear test that took place in March 1954 at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, in the Pacific. A miscalculation of the hydrogen bomb’s radiation yield and wind direction significantly damaged human health and the environment. The book ends with the Fukushima disaster of 2011, when a 43-foot-high tsunami crashed over the Japanese nuclear plant causing three reactors to go into meltdown.

In between these terrible events Plokhy explores the 1957 Kyshtym disaster in Russia’s Ural Mountains. The explosion of a nuclear waste tank released a massive amount of radiation into the atmosphere. He examines the reactor fire at the Windscale works in Cumbria in the same year. And then he looks at the reactor meltdowns at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979 and the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in what is now Ukraine.

It confirms in revealing detail what many of us who’ve campaigned against nuclear power already know—that it is neither clean nor safe. And, rather than a legacy of “secure power”, it will leave future generations nuclear waste, contaminated water and land, and the cost of clean ups, decontamination and decommissioning.

The catastrophic explosion at the Chernobyl plant made the entire region uninhabitable, with up to half a million people permanently displaced. A report in September 2005 put the predicted final death toll from radiation induced cancers at 4,000 people.  The Union of Concerned Scientists suggests it could be more than six times that. Recent estimates put the number of deaths from the Fukushima disaster at 2,202 with some predicting thousands more extra cancer deaths. Around 150,000 people had to evacuate the region.  

Lots of dangerous material is generated from nuclear power. One of the solutions is to bury high level nuclear waste underground.  The US government buries its waste from weapons in New Mexico. The land will still be contaminated in 300,000 years’ time. Meanwhile in Japan, the future of over one million tons of contaminated water stored in a thousand tanks on the site of the Fukushima nuclear plant is unresolved. Last year the Japanese government decided to start releasing the water into the ocean—a process that could last decades and cause environmental damage.

Plokhy charts how the race to make atomic and hydrogen bombs drove the development of nuclear power during and just after the Second World War. Nuclear plants were first built to produce the plutonium needed for bombs, not to generate electricity. The first nuclear bombs were dropped by the US on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945, with devastating consequences.

It wasn’t until the end of 1953 that the US launched the concept of “atoms for peace”. President Dwight Eisenhower claimed that the nuclear industry could produce “good atoms” for energy. It was an attempt to reassure people after concerns were raised about nuclear energy. He wanted to change public perception in the US in order to win support for more investment in nuclear arms and weapons.

In Britain the first nuclear plant was Windscale, built in the village of Seascale on the Cumbrian coast. Construction began in 1947 and it went operational in 1950. The purpose of the nuclear reactors was to produce the material for a British bomb. Successive prime ministers—Labour and Tory—wanted to boost British nuclear capabilities. In the context of the Cold War’s imperialist competition between the US and Russia and British imperial decline, they sought to prove Britain’s worth to the US. That meant developing a nuclear bomb as quickly as possible.

From the very beginning this competition between states to develop nuclear weapons meant great secrecy, cutting corners, taking risks and an often-cavalier attitude to safety. It becomes clear as each disaster plays out that—whether it was in the US, Russia or Britain—there was little care about the or the people affected by accidents and tests.

For example, when it came to the nuclear bomb tests in the Marshall Islands, those in charge proceeded despite knowing the risks. The people living on some nearby islands were not even told the tests were happening. The colonial mindset of the US meant the indigenous people of the Marshall Islands were either ignored or moved at will. And once suffering from radiation, they were subject to studies—not to help them recover but to help the industry assess the effects of radiation.

During other disasters workers were expected to take huge risks to solve the crisis. This included looking into the reactor core to assess what was happening during the Windscale fire, firefighters at Chernobyl operating without the proper safety equipment, and workers clearing contaminated ground and soil at Kyshtym. After the Fukushima meltdown authorities described those sent into the reactor building as the “suicide squad”.

Competition and secrecy meant that scientists developing and building the new nuclear reactors could not properly learn from each other. For example, those building the Windscale Works in the 1950s only learnt of new developments piecemeal from the US. Often it was too late to incorporate them into the reactor design. Plokhy describes how the scientists and engineers at Windscale didn’t find out about the need for radiation filters to be fitted on the chimneys until after construction had begun.  Rather than start again, they were put at the top of the chimneys where they were less effective. Tellingly even this addition was nicknamed “Cockcroft’s Folly” after the man who insisted they had them at all. In fact, these filters helped trap much of the radiation when the reactor fire broke out.

From the start, Russia chose to use outdated and unsafe reactor designs. Safer ones would have taken longer to build and they had no time to spare when racing against the US. The operators and nuclear engineers at Chernobyl had not even been told about the previous accidents with this type of reactor. Similarly, no manager or operator at Three Mile Island had been told of problems with the type of reactor they were using. It had previously caused an accident at another plant.

The pressure to produce plutonium as quickly as possible meant cutting corners with safety. For example, something called “Wigner energy” builds up in the main body of the reactor while the fission reaction is taking place. This needs to be regularly released otherwise it ignites the graphite used to moderate the reaction. This special operation to release the excess energy is called “annealing”. But the procedure at Windscale required stopping the reactor, so reducing operational hours and productivity.  Under pressure from the government to produce more bomb fuel the Windscale Technical Committee had decided to reduce the number of anneals. By the time the anneal finally took place the day before the reactor fire in October 1957, it was long overdue.

At the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in order to meet the deadline of December 1983, the fourth reactor had gone operational before a key safety test.  It was not until April 1986 that plans were made to carry out this test. It meant shutting down the reactor. This is a very challenging operation and can lead to the reactor becoming unstable. What followed led to two massive blasts that flung off the shield that covered the top of the reactor. Masses of radioactive particles escaped into the atmosphere.

Prior to the disaster at Fukushima a scandal had broken out over the falsification of safety reports by the company—Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). According to Plokhy, from as early as 1977 “there were at least two hundred cases in which the company had supplied false information about inspections not carried out and issued reports that papered over existing problems”.

Nuclear power stations are often portrayed as calm laboratories where the experts are in charge. Bill Gates, a founder of nuclear innovation company TerraPower, has said that any problems will be solved by “innovation” and the “laws of physics”.

However, the descriptions in the book show the complete opposite of a calm, controlled environment. As Plokhy says, “Hazard is inherent in all nuclear power.” Atomic fission itself is dangerous, and nuclear reactors can be unreliable and unpredictable.  The book makes clear how competition, secrecy, lack of communication as well as miscommunication make it extremely unsafe.

Plokhy describes almost minute by minute the trajectory of each disaster. In all of them, there comes a point when the scientists, the operators, the experts simply don’t know what to do to prevent the accident from worsening. In the end, due to the conditions they are operating under, they sometimes make decisions that actually make the situation worse. Or, by solving one problem, another one is created. At Windscale, they simply did not know how to stop the fire. At Chernobyl one issue among many was that they did not know if the radiation would get into the groundwater. And at Three Mile Island, two scientists were having a raging argument about what next steps to take in the midst of the emergency. Meanwhile, in every case, the authorities delayed evacuation plans.

This is in no way to blame the individuals working at the time or those who had to deal with the accidents. They acted with immense bravery and sacrificed their own health, and even lives, to prevent greater disaster. Plokhy highlights how often the subsequent reports into accidents wrongly blame personnel and not the reactor designs. He illustrates how the conditions they were operating in and the nature of nuclear power led to such problems.

After each major accident, the authorities say they’ve learned the lessons and developed new technology that will prevent anything similar from happening.  However, Plokhy highlights that there was – and still is—an inherent safety problem with nuclear reactors being used to generate power. They were never designed for that purpose. The reactors were developed from military prototypes to produce plutonium or to power nuclear submarines. 

Many of the new, smaller reactors that have been designed from scratch to produce energy, are still at the computer-simulation stage and years away from construction. Plokhy predicts that the expansion in the number of plants now being proposed will increase the probability of accidents.  

Although it is not discussed in the book, it is worth remembering that nuclear power is not carbon neutral. While nuclear fission itself does not release carbon emissions, every other stage of the production process means greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere. More than almost any other form of energy generation nuclear power requires a complex cycle of mining, generation, storage and disposal. And in 2022 there are new risk factors. As Plokhy has written elsewhere, “Warfare, economic collapse, climate change itself—all of these increasingly real risks make nuclear sites potentially perilous places.”

This is a powerful and timely book. At a time when arguments for nuclear power are returning as a way to solve both climate change and the energy crisis, we need to arm ourselves with the arguments.  Not only is nuclear power not a solution to the problems we face, the lesson from this book is that it’s inherently dangerous and could have devastating consequences for life on earth.

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