Review: Atoms and Ashes, Serhii Plokhy, Allen Lane
Serhii Plokhy begins his new book on Six Nuclear Disasters by noting that in Pripyat, the town that housed the Chernobyl power plant workers and which is now deserted, there was a statue of Prometheus. It suggests, rather comically, that the meaning of the statue changed after the 1986 collapse. One wonders why whoever raised the statue didn’t think through the whole story of Prometheus. Has anyone had any reservations about erecting such a proud monument?
The power, evident in the explosions of nuclear bombs, is staggering. You can understand Oppenheimer’s comments about humans becoming divine. You can understand why this is irresistible to the proud, but they are playing with fire. A common theme through the chapters of Plokhy’s book is that while generally there was a lot of planning about how a nuclear power plant should operate, there was a lot of wishing that disaster would not happen, and a lack of disaster planning. . At Windscale in the UK, the site of a fire at a nuclear power station in 1957, there were plans for normal circumstances but no one, it seems, had thought through how a fire would be contained if he declared himself. It was all precaution and no contingency. More than once, tellingly, Plokhy quotes industry insiders saying, after the fact, that they thought the same way as the builders of Titanic. From Windscale to Chernobyl to Fukushima, there has been not enough information sharing, too much arrogance and denial. A strength of the particular format of this book is the message that people don’t learn. Indeed, Plokhy ends each chapter wondering if the modern Prometheuses wielding nuclear energy needed a disaster to realize the dangers.
Two of its chapters do not deal with the production of nuclear energy. His first concerns the 1954 test on Bikini Atoll, named “Castle Bravo”. It was a catastrophe in the sense of destroying the environment and contaminating the inhabitants of the region. The test was far larger than expected and hundreds of times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Equipment thought to be out of danger was unexpectedly destroyed by the size of the explosion. The radiation was twice what was expected. Residents of surrounding atolls were contaminated with radioactive ash – with hair loss, itching and later, much worse – as was a Japanese fishing crew missed during sweeps of the area. (Contaminated fish returned to Japan.) This, of course, was in addition to wiping out the region’s coral ecosystems. Part of the reason for the test was that the military simply didn’t know what might happen. We think of schoolchildren and matches.
The military continued with the test even though the wind conditions, according to their own estimates, were not ideal. In the United States, in what was to become a recurring theme, the chairman of the Atomic Commission downplayed the seriousness of the contamination. Shortly after, there were petitions for a ban on testing, as the fallout swirled around the world. The Marshallese people petitioned the UN, arguing that the United States was not doing what it should in its guardianship of the islands where the tests were taking place. (As if the United States cares about the well-being of residents.)
Cold War rivalries added to the dangers. In the Soviet Union, writes Plokhy, the choices of reactors, with their inherent instabilities, and the reduction of costs and savings, were not driven primarily by the demand for electrical power, but by a perceived need to keep pace with the United States, whose reactors were of a superior standard. At Chernobyl, the catastrophe was compounded by an internal culture of secrecy – the Soviets learned nothing from each other, as problems that might have prompted solutions were covered up. (The same problems that occurred at Chernobyl had already been observed at a plant in Leningrad.) Moreover, because of their rivalry with the United States, the Soviets were reluctant to admit their mistake. (A non-exclusive position, as we have seen.) The state sprang into action to evacuate and decontaminate, but, as with Windscale, “managing” the crisis meant not informing residents and the European community at broad sense of what was going on. The theoretical safety of a reactor is always potentially compromised by surrounding political, environmental, societal and economic factors.
In Fukushima in 1988, goals trumped safety protocols, and in 2002 there was a scandal over falsified safety reports. When disaster struck in 2011, the lockdown was heroic but punctual. The magnitude of the tsunami may not have been anticipated, but this was in a country prone to regular earthquakes and tsunamis. Fukushima was geographically positioned to take advantage of nearby seawater for cooling, but this proved a disadvantage. A dyke built for protection was breached (actually by a third wave, which was the slowest but also the tallest). While the reactors were well above sea level, the generators in the basement of the turbine halls were not. Unlike Chernobyl where evacuation was at least orderly, evacuations in Fukushima were not aided by the devastation caused by the tsunami.
There is a common argument that nuclear power generation is justified because of the relatively lower costs. Plokhy argues that this is simply not the case, and that while the daily costs once a plant is operational are reasonable, the costs of construction, decommissioning and disposal of radioactive waste are higher than those of fuels. fossil fuels and renewable energies. . Then there is the cost of post-crash cleanup, which in the case of the US incident at Three Mile Island is expected to continue in one form or another until the incident’s centenary. Proponents are quick to call out what they see as fear and take a utilitarian stance, pointing to the safe operation of many factories around the world, but the costs of disposing of waste both after normal operations and after a mishap are so high.
Among the philosophers there is a theory of a cosmological bent that in the universe there are probably many civilizations like ours but when these civilizations discover nuclear energy, they inevitably end up destroying themselves because it is too difficult to control. This would explain why we had no contact or were not visited by them. Put aside for a moment the question of whether the argument of other civilizations has any basis, from a probability point of view, and do what you want with it, but you can see the logic. One of the common responses, accompanied by a sigh of relief, to power plant failures or nuclear crisis, such as what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis, is that “it could have been much worse “.