Monday, March 24, 2014

Atomic Accidents: A Book Report

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozarks to Fukushima by James Mahaffey. Short review? Read this book. When I saw this book at the library, and saw the title, I said "How can I NOT read this book?"

I was not disappointed. Not only is Mr. Mahaffey superbly informative (holds my record for dog-eared pages), he does with a deadpan irony drenched sense of humor found mainly in the military and the parched Permian hills of West Texas. For a nonstop recounting of nuclear horrors, this is one of the funniest books I've ever read. How good of a book is it? I would probably consider adding to my personal library.

I wish I could quote all of the (invisibly) underlined passages within the dog-eared pages, but why spoil the book for you? (A sidebar here: I think it extremely rude to underline lines in a book that is not mine, and I also take pains to unfold all of the dog-eared pages. I respect books and treat them accordingly).

I would make two observations, perhaps three. The first is: it is a wonderful thing that we human creatures are such a primitive, savage and superstitious lot, believing in unseen influences and malevolent forces, invisible curses and evil spirits, witches and spells and ghosts and spooks, otherwise the planet would be a lot more blighted with radioactive debris than it is. This is not to say some of us haven't been cavalier around the stuff, but reading about how often meltdowns and spills happen... just be glad the industry was a little concerned about its public image.

My second observation is that almost every incident listed in the book is a case of Thinking Fast and Slow. Or rather, engaged in far too much clever monkey fast thinking to fix immediate problems (and thus making the situation worse), and not nearly enough slow fore-brained thinking on coming up with more sober solutions. I would go further, and suggest that this fast and slow thinking could be extended to the cultural level; for the fast, clever version of cultural ruminations has given us the industry we have today, which is not necessarily the right way we should have gone about this. The mid-20th century saw a kind of mad rush to get things going, the public was ready since the beginning of the 20th century for a solution to the energy crisis (yes, they realized back then that oil and coal wouldn't last forever) and there were two priorities to all this 1) make nuclear weapons, and a distant 2) make power for electricity.

The reactor of choice ended up being something that can make plutonium, and uses pressurized steam power. Problem is using water to moderate and cool reactors, and pressurized steam leads to steam explosions. Steam explosions... usually bad. Steam explosions with radioactive fissile materials... usually worse. The logic would suggest, therefore: nuclear power bad. (Well, no not actually, unless of course, it is allowed to rest in the clumsy paws of those drunken dancing bears known as the Russians... more on that in a minute).

Let me start from the rear of the book and point out that Mr. Mahaffey is solidly behind thorium reactors, either the molten salt variety or the liquid fluoride variety. It really is only a matter of time before we head that way because, let's face it kiddies, fission is here to stay. The beauty with thorium is the reactors can't melt down because they start out molten, and the waste is so much easier to process. (I don't include you can't make bombs with a thorium reactor, because you can make bombs with U233, it's just not very practical).

This is not to say that nuclear waste is, in any sense, really waste. The United States is the only country that does not process it's nuclear waste, and as a result, we plan on burying a huge amount recoverable fuel and valuable radionuclides - not to mention that gold mine known as plutonium. (There will come a day when, if we make it out to the outer Solar System, we are very much going to want to have all that plutonium to run thermoelectric power packs).

Mr. Mahaffey makes the case that we have fallen into the Rickover Trap. A small, almost toylike reactor used in nuclear submarines is safe, efficient, and easy to operate (the reactor control panel is no more complicated than the dashboard of a private jet). It is a wonderful nuclear reactor in the megawatt range. The problem is when you take this thing and turn it a gigawatt mountain, with a control room that is packed with dials and gauges packed floor to ceiling for dozens of feet, and with a nuclear core that is basically delicate lacework and feather puffs that would melt faster than a gallium spoon in warm tea, it's a wonder we don't have more accidents.  (Again, more on reactor cores in a minute). So, this is a case of immediate problem solving through design freeze far too early in the process just to get the dang things out the door, of fast thinking overriding slow.

Okay let's get to good stuff. The big one, the Mother Of All Clusterfucks: Chernobyl.

Let me preface this big doozy with quick summary of what the Brits did to get their bomb. The British built a large graphite pile in dairy land of Cumbria on the northwestern coast of England. It was called Windscale, and it's sole purpose was to produce plutonium for bombs. Due to passage of congressional security measures, the Americans were not allowed to tell them what to do. But in 1952, a visiting American delegation looks over the pile, and informed the Brits: "Whatever you do, do not let the graphite catch fire.  Once it gets going, water will not extinguish the fire. It will only burn hotter, as graphite pulls oxygen out of the water and leaves you with explosive hydrogen." (I leave it to the reader as to figure out how the Americans knew this).

On or about Oct. 8, 1957, the Windscale graphite pile caught fire. They flooded the pile with water. The lazy red flames turned blowtorch blue. Finally, someone turned off blowers that were providing positive pressure - and fresh oxygen - to the core, and almost instantly the fire went out. It was a total loss.
"Over 10 tons of uranium was melted and five tons were burned. Very little of the uranium  or even fission products went up the chimney. A brittle oxide crust had formed in the extreme heat of the fire, and the heavy oxides were bogged down in it before they made it to the air outlet. The immediate concern was the volatile fission product iodine-131. The filter packs (in the chimneys), now no longer known as "Cockcroft's follies", were not expected to capture any of the 70,000 curies of iodine-131 that were present in the fuel when the fire began, but there was a fortuitous happening. The LM cartridges, containing bismuth oxide meant to activate into polonium-210, burned up, and the light bismuth oxide dust went up the stack and caught in the filters. This and some vaporized lead reacted chemically with the iodine".
Some 20,000 curies of iodine-131 were released upon the dairy farms of Cumbria, and the government had to buy a lot of milk. Luck of the British. But still, the problem had been the insistence of maximum production of plutonium had overworked the pile to the point that it burned down. Management was never held to account.

But, buck up readers, at Chernobyl, management died in agony from radiation poisoning a few days after the accident. So there's that to be cheerful about.

An observation about the Russians, though it is true that every other nation that has worked with nuclear materials has had more than their fair share of sheer folly, the Russians have to win hands down as the true brutish and crude barbarians of the industry. If there is anything, anything, bad that can happen or go wrong with anything nuclear, not only have the Russians done it, they've practically dared, goaded, and bullied each other to do it, like a fucking drinking contest or something.

Have you heard of the Kyshtym disaster? That was the world's first, and so far biggest, dirty bomb. A large underground tank farm near Chelyabinsk was built to hold plutonium extract in solution. A cooling-water pipe to one of the tanks broke, and rather than find the leak and repair it, the engineers in charge just turned the water off and forgot about it.

The tank heated up, the nitrate solution degraded into ammonium nitrate mixed with acetates. The water all boiled away and the now solidified ANFO, mixed with radionuclides, exploded with the power of 100 tons of TNT. 70 to 80 tons of radioactive waste was blown out in a plume covering some 200 miles long. (Didn't I tell you this was a funny book?)

And Chernobyl? That was what happens when you put the Austro-Hungarian Empire in charge of a safety test. You might as well just say "Klink, you idiot!". Here's a great passage:
 "Two men, Protosov, a maintenance worker, and Pustovoit, who was the "odd-job" man at the plant, were night-fishing on the bank of the coolant runoff pond, right where the plant outflow occurs, 1.25 miles from the plant. The fish really liked the warm water, and it was a clear, starry night. It seemed like the middle of the summer, and the fish were cooperating. They turned to look when they heard two low rumbling explosions, seeming to come from inside the plant. Then a third explosion reduced the top of the building to flaming splinters, and they watched with mild interest as steel beams and concrete chunks spun overhead. The turbine hall burst into flames and illumined an enormous column of black smoke. They turned back to their fishing rods. If they got excited every time something around here exploded or burned to the ground, they would never get any fishing done. 'They'll have that out in no time', opined Pustovoit. Whenever a steam relief valve popped off, which seemed quite often, it sounded like a Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber had crashed into the side of the building, and fires consuming switch yards or fuel depots were not rare at the Chernobyl plant".   
The tragedy of Chernobyl is that there is no lesson to learn here. Criminal incompetence and bullying on the part of the plant director, Akimov, played a role, but the plant was so poorly and wretchedly designed, that, well, unless rhesus monkeys decide to build a plutonium production plant, they may be the only ones to learn anything from this.

I could go on, but why spoil the book for you?

Alright how about this quote, because it applies to TMI and Fukushima:
"In major commercial reactor accidents, there always seems to be a single operator action that starts the downward spiral into irrevocable disaster."
That's Newman's Maxim: "No subsequent amount of steps will fix a profoundly fucked-up first step".

How is that different form any other industrial accident, or financial transaction, or political movement? Trying to solve the immediate problem, or trying to keep losses at a minimum, almost invariably invites the much, much worse problems behind it to step forward.

My thirds observation is that perhaps we've been going about it the wrong way. Chernobyl, right before it exploded, produced near 30 billion watts of power, and my suspicion is, rather than avoiding meltdowns, the most efficient way to use nuclear power is to encourage building reactors that like melting down, and that only work in a molten state. After all, you get the most efficiencies from the big temperature differences. The thorium reactors mentioned earlier like being in a molten state. Perhaps what we should be doing is investigating and developing refractory instruments, materials, sensors and processors that shrug off 2-3,000 , maybe even 5,000F degree temperatures. Maybe we should be building nuclear volcano reactors to get the most steam power out of them. It certainly couldn't be worse than what we've accomplished so far.


  1. If only the demands of the nuclear weapons "industry" hadn't dwarfed all other considerations. Deuterostem fuckery around this issue is/was liable to have been our great filter.