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Atomic accidents : a history of nuclear…

Atomic accidents : a history of nuclear meltdowns and disasters : from the… (utgåvan 2014)

av James A. Mahaffey

MedlemmarRecensionerPopularitetGenomsnittligt betygOmnämnanden
1996102,209 (4)5
From the moment radiation was discovered in the late nineteenth century, nuclear science has had a rich history of innovative scientific exploration and discovery, coupled with mistakes, accidents, and downright disasters. Mahaffey, a long-time advocate of continued nuclear research and nuclear energy, looks at each incident in turn and analyzes what happened and why, often discovering where scientists went wrong when analyzing past meltdowns. Every incident has lead to new facets in understanding about the mighty atom--and Mahaffey puts forth what the future should be for this final frontier of science that still holds so much promise.… (mer)
Titel:Atomic accidents : a history of nuclear meltdowns and disasters : from the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima
Författare:James A. Mahaffey
Info:New York : Pegasus Books, 2014.
Samlingar:Ska läsas


Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima av James Mahaffey


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Interesting, but not as interesting as I hoped it would be. The stories about the different nuclear reactors/power plants tended to smudge together after a while. Rather technical. ( )
  ElentarriLT | Mar 24, 2020 |
This is a highly readable account of the history of atomic power as seen through its accidents and safety failures. That might sound like it's anti-nuclear power, but in fact Mahaffey is a long-time advocate. His major point is that in fact significant accidents are fairly rare, and that with a few notable exceptions, serious casualties are even rarer.

His account starts with a bizarre episode in the Ozarks in the late 19th century, with the accidental discovery of what eventually proved to be a radium mine.

I will say that the discussion of radium and its various uses, not just for night-glow dials but its medical uses, both science-based and as "mineral water," is by itself worth the price of admission.

As he takes us through the development of the bomb, and the first reactors to produce bomb-grade material, and then the development of peaceful nuclear power, there are stories both terrifying and delightful. Initially, everything had to be learned the hard way.

The most terrifying detail, to my mind, is that for years the US military tried to develop nuclear-powered military aircraft. Surely they would never crash... Fortunately, that proved to be a technical bridge too far, and the program was cancelled.

A recurring theme is that while all of the power-plant and bomb transport accidents involved designs that failed to anticipate a potential technological vulnerability, the power plant accidents only became disasters when one worker or another overrode the automatic controls, often for what seemed like logical reasons. There's also discussion of how politcal and economic factors played into decisions, as well as the inertia of sticking with a known design that's been reliable and effective, even though there may be better designs and paths not followed, that might make nuclear power safer, more reliable, and less unsettling for a concerned public.

He does repeatedly hit a favorite theme of mine, the ways in which excessive secrecy to prevent public panic in fact fed public fear that there were dangers they weren't being informed about.

All in all, this was an interesting and enjoyable read, or rather in this case enjoyable listen, and Tom Weiner captures exactly the right tone in his reading of it.

Highly recommended.

I bought this book. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
Mahaffey is a nuclear engineer, and this book is apparently an attempt at reverse psychology. Mahaffey is pretty up-front about this. The introduction describes the curious development of an entertainment industry in train wrecks, which flourished primarily in the 19th century but didn't really come to an end until well into the 20th century. At the time, the steam explosion was the ultimate industrial disaster preying on the mind of the average American. A few showmen decided that they could play on the fascination accompanying the fear by staging train wrecks. No, really. You'd get a crowd together, perhaps charge them a fee or, as in the first such staged wreck, merely advertise the event in a remote location and charge people to transport them there ... by train. The crowd would be held back far enough to ensure not too many casualties if disaster struck, but close enough to be near the action. Then you'd get a couple of tired old locomotives to race at each other down an (often specially laid for the occasion) track and Boom! The first such staged wreck had a large crowd allowed to get very close on the assurance that an actual steam explosion was unlikely. Sure enough, at least one of the boilers exploded on impact, showering the crowd with shrapnel, killing three and injuring 40. It was a smashing success. The surviving crowd rushed into the wreck to gather souvenirs; the man in charge was loudly and publicly fired by the railroad, then quietly rehired the next day; and a precedent was set.

Mahaffey apparently believes that lurid and detailed descriptions of the worst that can happen in a nuclear accident, along with a healthy dose of snark, but ending with assurances that we've really learned a lot about safety, will have a reverse psychological effect of allowing people to start thinking rationally about nuclear power. I'm not sure he's much of a psychologist, but the book is certainly perversely entertaining.

The introduction is preceded by a short author's note. This is more of a prologue, describing a terrifying power plant accident that killed several workers, demolished a very expensive industrial investment, and spread carcinogens into the environment, all without the least involvement of nuclear technology. The plant was the Shayano-Sushenskaya dam in Siberia, and it self-destructed when a log got past the trash rack into the penstock for one of the generators and jammed shut the water inlets. The generator, deprived of water, suddenly became a motor, which quickly self-destructed. The explosion destroyed the penstock, causing the lake behind the dam to start draining itself into the generator hall. Worse, the generator that had blown itself apart was the governor for two other generators, which soon blew themselves apart as well. The flooding shorted out the other three generators with predictable results. And a lot of PCBs (whose toxicity I suspect Mahaffey exaggerates) were released into the flood waters now thundering downstream.

All the other accidents are at least nominally nuclear. This prologue is by way of noting that the modern world is full of dangerous technology.

Mahaffey starts with what he claims may be the earliest case of radiation sickness, a story so lacking in credibility I think it was a mistake to include it in the book, especially near its beginning. The claim is that a couple of hunters in the Ozarks followed their dog into a cave whose walls were lined with a silvery metal, then staggered out of the mine disoriented, hallucinating, and sick. They came back to mine what they thought was silver ore, only to get sick again, but the mine was later mined for radium. The claim is that they got disoriented from anoxia due to radon (!) displacing the air in the mine, and then got radiation sickness. Um, no. I almost quit at this point, but the book rapidly got better, though I found Mahaffey's brand of snark just a little irritating throughout.

The next section relates the story of the Curies poisoning themselves, and discusses the wider topic of radium poisoning in the early days. Many of you will have heard of Radithor, the wonder snake oil based on radium. Most such remedies were frauds containing no significant amount of radioactive substance; Radithor, as Mahaffey dryly notes, was no fraud, being genuinely toxic. Its victims included a very wealthy playboy who drank two or three bottles a day, and his girlfriend, who he pressured to also drink two or three bottles a day. The guy marketing the stuff also drank two or three bottles a day (points for sincerity?) but, oddly, he died at a ripe old age of non-radiation causes in spite of accumulating enough radium in his jaw to make a Geiger counter sing. There seems to be some significant genetic variation in susceptibility to chronic radiation poisoning.

Less well known is the case of one of Edison's assistants, who tested X-ray machines by waving his hand in front of the X-ray source while watching the fluorescent screen. His hand developed a lesion that would not heal, and it was eventually amputated. Undeterred, the assistant continued waving the stump in front of the X-ray tube. Eventually he lost the other hand, then both arms, then died an agonizing death, and Edison stopped working with X-rays.

The radium girls get due coverage, but it's a familiar story. What I did not realize is that the reason their jaws fell apart first was not because the radium got into their mouths and stayed there; it was because the jaw bones are the most stressed bones in the body, due to the tremendous pressures generated by chewing, and so the jaw bones are the most rapidly renewed bones in the body. Ergo, they soak up the most radium from the bloodstream.

We then get to the topic of criticality accidents, beginning with the famous two accidents at Los Alamos with the Demon Core. Both were cases of researchers getting a little too relaxed around radiation, but the Slotnik case was especially egregious. Slotnik comes across in this account as something of a reckless young man with a bit of a death wish. Ironically, in both cases, the instinctive reaction to the criticality only made it worse: Daghlian responded to dropping a tungsten brick on the core by snatching away the brick, and Slotnik to letting a tamper shell slip onto the core by snatching away the tamper. In both cases, the approach of their hand to the core provided additional reflection of moderated neutrons and actually increased the reaction. Mahaffey believes that if either man had simply turned and run, he might have survived, and the assembly would have blown itself apart, creating a mess but not killing anyone.

We also learn that Heisenberg succeeded in blowing up his first reactor. Just as well.

There have been a number of criticality accidents since, and Mahaffey describes all of them in as much detail as he could research up. One that stands out occurred at the Idaho nuclear laboratory, where new reactor designs were tested. The Army wanted a small reactor suitable for remote bases (such as Greenland) that was so foolproof even a second lieutenant could run it. This was being tested in Idaho, and the night shift consisted of an overbearing Air Force sergeant, a Navy Seal, and an Army private with a very serious attitude problem. Sergeant Arrogant was holding the Geiger counter while Private Attitude was supposed to pull the main control rod up, just an inch, so that Mr. Seal could adjust a bearing on it. No one knows what Private Attitude was thinking; the Army speculated a suicide-murder, for once literally in that order, while Mahaffey thinks he just meant to play a prank on Sergeant Arrogant by momentarily spiking his counter. Anyway, the control rod was only supposed to come out an inch; four inches would make the reactor critical. Instrumentation showed the private managed to pull the rod 23 inches out of the core, making the core prompt critical with a doubling time of 2 milliseconds. The cooling water more or less instantly flashed into steam, blowing the top off the reactor; Private Attitude had to be quite literally scraped off the ceiling afterwards. Mr. Seal was also instantly killed; Sergeant Arrogant survived two hours before succumbing to a combination of massive head trauma and radiation exposure. All three autopsies had to be performed in hot boxes.

Another that stands out is the only civilian death to ever take place in the nuclear industry. The technicians at a reprocessing plant in New England had gotten tired of mixing diluted solutions of radionuclides by shaking them in polyethylene bottles, had swiped a large round mixing bowl from the cafeteria, and used a mixer to speed the process. Unfortunately, the bowl was both larger and more compact in shape than the bottles and was a fairly good neutron reflector. A technician mistook a bottle of concentrated U-235 nitrate for dilute solution and poured it in the bowl, which produced a critical mass. (He did not survive.)

Chernobyl, the mother of all criticality accidents, is in a class by itself; more later.

Then there is Atomic Man, an elderly chemical engineer called back to help train new technicians extracting americium from spent fuel for use in smoke detectors. The chromatography column had been sitting too long and something went wrong, causing the column to blow up in Atomic Man's face, embedding his head and neck with little bits of glass soaked in americium nitrate. This took place at Hanford, which for some reason has an excellent radiology unit at the local hospital. Chelation therapy allowed him to die of heart disease rather than radiation poisoning or cancer, but he was shunned by neighbors afraid of the abnormal levels of radiation he emitted throughout his remaining years.

Broken Arrow incidents: Most of the early ones involved bombs whose pits were not installed, fortunately. Some are almost comic. In one case, a bomber was returning to base and the crew hit the button to insert the lock pin, which keeps the bomb from accidentally being dropped. (This certainly seems like a good thing, as far as it goes.) Red light; no lock. The bombardier is sent back into the bomb bay to try to insert the pin by hand. The bay is a crowded place, with a huge bomb and cables everywhere. The bombardier loses his balance, grabs reflexively at the first thing at hand, and it turns out to be the manual bomb release. Mr. Bomb falls majestically out of the plane, taking the bomb bay doors with it, and the bombardier very nearly follows.

Eventually we developed one point safe bombs, which are practically impossible to get any yield out of even if the high explosive in the bomb accidentally detonates. This is a good thing, for the most part, but it does have the perverse effect of meaning that bombs were subsequently stored and shipped fully assembled, and the accidents that occurred thereafter were of bombs containing the pit with all its warm glowing goodness. This made for some rather messy accidents, including Palomares and a regrettable incident at Thule. In the case of Thule, the B-52 caught fire because a heating vent was blocked with foam rubber seat cushions brought aboard by a reserve pilot tired of the very uncomfortable metal seat in the tiny reserve cabin. Of such is disaster made.

Three Mile Island gets extensive coverage. Mahaffey duly notes that it is the only major industrial disaster with a death toll of zero.

Chernobyl: The death toll here was not zero, because the Soviets were idiotic madmen.

You know how every Evil Overlord list talks about how stupid it is to have a self-destruct button on your ultimate weapon? Chernobyl had a self-destruct button. They wanted to test the robustness of the reactor, and they installed a button that literally shut down everything -- the emergency cooling system, the control elements, the turbines, the diesel backups, you name it. They wanted to see if the reactor could survive having a turbine suddenly drop off-line.

The experiment began with the reactor going to half power. The operator had some difficulty keeping the reactor balanced -- there would be too many neutrons on one side, requiring the control rods to go in there, but then the power would be too low, so rods would be pulled somewhere else -- then the whole reactor fell into the "iodine valley." If you reduce power too abruptly in a reactor, you can build up iodine-135, a potent neutron poison, faster than you can burn it off. This kills the reaction. The engineer in charge went on a screaming fit, ordering the operator to do whatever it took to get the plant running again. What it took was pulling almost all the control rods all the way out.

So now the reactor is burning again, with almost all the rods out, and the engineer in charge is ready to try his little experiment. Problem: This is a really, really lousy reactor design. It uses graphite moderator, which is about the best moderator there is. It uses light water cooling, and the light water is a mild neutron poison, so in this design loss of coolant actually increases the reactivity. (The opposite is true in the pressurized water reactors used in the U.S., where the water is the moderator.) The control rods are tipped with graphite to ensure they will slide easily into the core, and there's no actual control material except in the center sections of the rods, so inserting a rod actually increases reactivity by adding graphite and displacing cooling water until the rod is a good ways into the pile. This takes over 5 seconds.

The turbine was abruptly shut off for the test. At the same time, the destruct button -- no, they didn't call it that nor mean it to have that effect, but it did -- was pushed. With the turbine suddenly not drawing power from the core, its temperature jumped up. The water boiled out of the reactor, which begins going supercritical. The operator, horrified, hit the SCRAM button. All those control rods that were nearly all the way out started going back in, agonizingly slowly. The reactor went prompt critical just as the rods jammed because they were starting to warp under the heat. There was a few moments of ominous rumbling and shaking, and then the reactor blew up, throwing glowing debris hundreds of feet in the air as the 500-ton containment cap, a big disk of concrete, was thrown off the top of the reactor and crashed back into the ruined core on its side.

Understatement: The foreman, seeing the containment lid rattling as the explosion built up, sprinted to the control room and reported that "Something is wrong."

Incredible: The engineer in charge, looking at instruments showing there's no reactor there any more, ordered two operators to go see what's happening. They opened the door to the refueling floor and found themselves looking into a huge glowing crater where the core used to be. By the time they got back to the control room, they were tingling all over, they already had a deep brown "radiation tan", and they were apparently in a state of euphoria due to damage to their central nervous systems. They didn't last long after. Actually, no one at the plant survived very long after.

Two plant workers were off duty and were doing some fishing nearby. They heard explosions and saw bits of glowing hot reactor fly overhead. Mahaffey claims they went back to fishing, because if you got worked up every time something blew up at Chernobyl, you'd never get any fishing done. It's a comment on the miserable state of industrial safety in the Soviet Union, but I still don't believe it. These two supposedly survived, but only just. They got a massive dose of radiation from sky glow (gamma rays generated in the atmosphere over the plant from neutron capture on atmospheric nitrogen.)

The outside world first learned of this when a Swedish nuclear plant worker walked into his plant for his shift and set off all the alarms. The radiation was on his shoes and it was fallout from Chernobyl. Or that's the official story: Mahaffey claims the Finns actually detected it first, but said nothing for fear of upsetting their Russian neighbors. Apparently the Finns let themselves be persuaded to buy a similar reactor design to Chernobyl from the Russians as a show of neighborliness, were appalled when they looked it over, and quietly (a) hired Western engineers to rebuild all the control systems; and (b) even more quietly put a radiation detection network on their border to spot the radiation cloud they were sure would someday come out of Russia. The problem with the story, as Mahaffey himself admits, is the timing, which would require the radiation plume to move from Chernobyl to Finland at 100 mph. Well, it's not absolutely impossible, given how quickly the plume rose in the atmosphere and the possible position of the jet stream. Still.

Fukushima: No one expects a 45-foot tsunami. Yet other plants on the coast survived relatively unscathed. Turns out a technician disabled the cooling system for fear the rapid cooling of his rapidly shutting down reactor would create a vacuum and collapse some of his plumbing -- then the tsunami took out his power supply, before he could turn the system back on. This caused a chain of events that ultimately let hydrogen accumulate on the refueling floors and explode. The containment vessels themselves were unscathed, but there was an awful lot of fission product already accumulated on those floors, and it was a mess.

Conclusions? Maybe pressurized water reactors are not the way to go, though it's not like they've really been all that bad. Mahaffey really likes molten salt reactors, and he has me persuaded there's something to be said for them. Nothing on the nuclear side pressurized, you can't boil away the coolant -- because it's the same fluid as the moderator and the fuel -- and you just drain the fuel/moderator/coolant into a set of widely separated vessels designed to withstand full decay heat if something goes wrong.

Maybe in a better world. Nuclear power is dead in the U.S., will remain so, and it's a shame.

Mahaffey has some buckshot for Carter, believing Carter's decision to end reprocessing in the U.S. was sheer idiocy. Well, it was. It was the U.S. dropping its pants in hopes other countries would imitate us. And the fear, that plutonium would be diverted into nuclear weapons, is unwarranted, according to Mahaffey, who tells us that plutonium from commercial power reactors is way too contaminated with Pu-240 to be of any use in weapons. Carter is the only public figure I have publicly described as a turd, even six years into the Obama adminstration; I feel vindicated.

As for the book: The snark grates, the storytelling gets a little too tall sometimes, but the technical information is fascinating enough I'm still going to give it a thumb up. ( )
  K.G.Budge | Aug 8, 2016 |
I knew by looking over the well-illustrated, copiously sourced and footnoted text that this book would be informative. I never expected a book on such a serious topic to be entertaining and humorous as well. It's a rare book that will both appall and amuse the reader. Nuclear bombs dropped on North Carolina? Disregard of ancient tsunami warning stones when the location for Fukushima nuclear power complex was chosen? Both well-known incidents and others much more obscure are described. Initially I chose this book as an audiobook. Because of the technical nature of some of the material, I found it worth reading a print copy along with listening to the audiobook. And those footnotes? Don't skip them. (If you listen to the audio version of the book, they will be omitted.) ( )
  jtlauderdale | Nov 13, 2014 |
I picked this book up on Monday, it was listed on BookBub as being available from Amazon for my Kindle, for $1.99! It is easily worth the regular price of $13.99. The author breaks down most known accidents, mishaps,, and mishandling of of nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants, and nuclear technology. What makes this book different is that the author is a pro advocate of. The nuclear power, but breaks down what went wrong, how it went wrong, what should or could have been done differently,, and if possible what was learned from it, in terms that are relatively understandable, for a non nuclear physicist. Yes at time it is overly simplified or optimistic, but you still get a full clear story, of everything from the development of the first atomic bombs, the "tickling the dragon" experiment, the mishandling of nuclear weapons, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. You also learn about some of the mishaps and lax precautions at Hanford plutonium manufacturing plant, Rocky Flats plutonium trigger Manufacturing plant, and the bomb assembly plant Pantax in Texas.
There are many wonderful books that cover each of these case study subjects exclusively and far more in depth such as
1. The Making of The Atomic Bomb- Richard Rhoades
2. Full Body Burden- Kristen Iversen (Rocky Flats)
3. Command and Control- Eric Schlosser (Nuclear weapons development, mishandling and mishaps).
This book details each incident expertly and the reader gets a much better understanding of what is a nuclear reactor, what is criticality, what is a meltdown, what makes a bomb atomic.
This is a fantastic informative enjoyable book to read. ( )
1 rösta zmagic69 | Aug 22, 2014 |
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From the moment radiation was discovered in the late nineteenth century, nuclear science has had a rich history of innovative scientific exploration and discovery, coupled with mistakes, accidents, and downright disasters. Mahaffey, a long-time advocate of continued nuclear research and nuclear energy, looks at each incident in turn and analyzes what happened and why, often discovering where scientists went wrong when analyzing past meltdowns. Every incident has lead to new facets in understanding about the mighty atom--and Mahaffey puts forth what the future should be for this final frontier of science that still holds so much promise.

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