ATOMS AND ASHES: A GLOBAL HISTORY OF NUCLEAR DISASTERS by Serhii Plokhy

(Clean up at Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 1986)

Recent newspaper headlines and reports on cable news have pointed to the threat of a nuclear disaster in the war in Ukraine.  It appears that the Russians have seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe.  They have forced Ukrainians to operate the massive complex and have turned it into a military base to fire missiles at enemy positions.  The Russians know full well that using the plant as a “shield” would preclude the Ukrainian army from firing its own missiles at the plant or even trying to retake it.  Western powers have requested that the International Atomic Energy Commission investigate, and finally after obfuscating for days the Kremlin has agreed to let inspectors into the plant today.  As the situation evolves it has placed Ukraine, Europe, and even Russia in a precarious position if a nuclear accident occurs.

In this environment Serhii Plokhy, the author of numerous historical works including THE GATES OF EUROPE: A HISTORY OF UKRAINE, LOST KINGDOM: THE QUEST FOR EMPIRE AND THE MAKING OF THE RUSSIAN NATION and THE LAST EMPIRE: THE FINAL DAYS OF THE SOVIET UNION has authored a timely narrative in his latest work, ATOMS AND ASHES: A GLOBAL HISTORY OF NUCLEAR DISASTERS.

Plokhy, the Director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University examines the dramatic history of Three Mile Island, the Chernobyl disaster, and most recently the Fukushima catastrophe in addition to three others.  In so doing Plokhy has provided careful and informative details of each event discussed zeroing in on the planning of nuclear tests and building of nuclear reactors, their implementation, the disasters that evolved, and concludes with a telling analysis of who was responsible.  Today a debate exists over the utility of solar and wind technology.  As this debate rages, Plokhy takes a fresh look at the history of nuclear accidents trying to understand why they have occurred, how impactful they were, and what we can learn from each event.

Plokhy states from the outset that he “examines not only the actions and omissions of those directly involved, but also the ideologies, politics, and cultures that contributed to the disasters.”  After each disaster, a commission was created to examine what occurred and what steps could be taken to prevent future accidents.  The problem is that these accidents keep happening and Plokhy tries to lay out the process and offers suggestions to maintain safety for all of humanity.

One of the strengths of Plokhy’s remarkable narrative is explaining the scientific information associated with nuclear testing, the quest to build hydrogen bombs, the development of nuclear power programs, and the catastrophes involved in a clear and concise manner that allows the laymen the ability to understand what normally very complex information is.  The author begins his presentation with a discussion of American nuclear testing in the South Pacific at the Bikini Atoll in March 1954.  Plokhy points out that nuclear testing in the 1950s was very dangerous no matter what governments said.  Scientists had little control over the power of explosions, the direction of wind at various levels of the atmosphere, and which direction fallout might travel.  The events of March 1954 involving “Operation Castle Bravo” were no exception particularly once American officials realized that their testing had gone awry there were no contingency plans for evacuations and the weather forecast relied upon was incorrect, despite these “warnings” they continued with further testing even though the first did not go as planned.  Of course, the American Atomic Energy Commission investigated and tried to reassure everyone there was nothing to worry about, a common theme in all incidents.  Further, secrecy and the need to keep as much information from the public and adversaries in the dark as to what occurred also dominates each incident.  In Castle Brava, many islanders felt they were “guinea pigs” for human radiation experiments and the American response was to throw money at them to deal with medical, social, and economic issues that beset survivors.  Problems that emerged included the possibility of future cancers, irradiated food sources, and retarding the growth of children.

(Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, PA)

Nuclear events in the Soviet Union seem to dominate Plokhy’s narrative.  First, the Kyshtym accidents, and the meltdown at Chernobyl.  In both cases even though the events are 42 years apart the same Soviet scientists had tremendous impact.  Nikolai Dollezhal developed a model of a graphite-moderated and water cooled reactor first used in Hanford, WA in 1944.  However, Dollezhal along with his colleagues changed the design of the reactor, impacting the future of the Soviet nuclear program and later nuclear industry which became a contributing factor to the Chernobyl disaster.  Plokhy takes the reader inside the Maiak nuclear complex and the repeated accidents between 1950 and 1955.  He carefully explains what went wrong and the mistakes those in charge made as an explosion at the complex created what one witness described as a “radioactive northern lights.”  The key here and Chernobyl in March and April 1986 were nuclear reactor design issues and who would be “blamed” for what transpired in both instances. 

“Blame” was the game that was part of the Soviet managerial culture which kicked in immediately in both cases.  Scapegoats were needed as upper management knew how to play the game and escape responsibility.  Interestingly Yefim Slavsky, the former chief engineer at the complex will reappear at Chernobyl over 40 years later.  Secrecy dominated at Maiak as Lavrenti Beria, in charge of developing a hydrogen bomb to match that of the United States pressured the Soviet scientific community to deliver a nuclear device.  In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev took his time in dealing with the reactor meltdown looking for scapegoats which of course centered on operators and engineers at the site.  The Cold War dominated 1986 as it had in 1954 and Gorbachev and his cohorts kept information from his domestic audience and the international community which were desperate for information as evidence of radiation began to permeate the atmosphere across Europe.  Authorities saw no reason to publicize what occurred as “radiation was harmful but invisible,” and one could pretend nothing happened – of course until an explosion occurred as in Chernobyl; which blew off the protective cover over one of the reactors.

Windscale: 1957 Calder Hall and  Windscale
(Calder Hall and Winscale power stations)

Anglo-American relations play an interesting role in at least one nuclear accident.  British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan desperately sought to maintain the United Kingdom as a major power.  Since the passage in Congress of MacMahon Act in 1946 the United States was no longer allowed to share nuclear secrets with the British, therefore London had to go it alone in developing a hydrogen bomb to show the US that they were worthy of cooperating on nuclear issues.  In 1957, fresh from the disaster of the Suez War and the collapse of the Eden government, MacMillan pressured British nuclear scientists to develop and test a hydrogen bomb.  At first, the bomb appeared to have had a successful test at Winscale, the US Congress rescinded the MacMahon Act, and MacMillan seemed to have implemented a successful strategy.  However, when it appeared that one of the reactors caught fire and was leaking radiation, MacMillan kept it quiet as possible so as not to endanger nuclear cooperation with Washington.  As in Kyshtym, Chernobyl, Bikinii Atoll, radiation levels in food and milk made it difficult to keep the accident from the public.  Plokhy correctly reminds us that Cold War pressure on the US and United Kingdom dominated the period as on October 4, 1957, the Russians successfully launched Sputnik causing fears of a nuclear armed missile with a warhead  reigning down on them.

The US had its own disaster on March 27, 1979 ,with the accident at Three Mile Island in central Pennsylvania.  The event which saw a meltdown of a nuclear reactor was difficult to accept by American leaders, because of all the safeguards built into the system.  As in all cases contradictory information dominated.  In this case Metropolitan-Eddison who owned the complex, Lt. Governor William Scranton III, the point man for Governor Richard Thornburg, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission could not agree on what had occurred and how dangerous the situation was.  I remember standing outside my house in Northern Virginia testing which way the wind was blowing once the accident went public.  The final report heavily influenced by Navy Captain Ronald  Eytchison who was the only member of the investigating committee with extensive nuclear knowledge blamed the accident on human error, not simple equipment failure.  The problem was that a reactor at the Davis Besse Nuclear Power Plant suffered an event in September 1977 that manifested the same problem that triggered the melt down at Three Mile Island meltdown in March 1979.  Eytchison states “the dynamite was that no manager or operator of the similar reactor at the Three Mile Island Plant had ever been informed about the Davis Besse accident.”

(The site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, 2011)

The last and most recent major accident that Plokhy discusses occurred on March 11, 2011, when the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant was hit with a 9.1 Richter scale earthquake followed by a level three Tsunami which flowed over all retaining walls flooding the plant.  As in all cases Plohky’s research is impeccable presenting the background of the Japanese nuclear industry, what went wrong, and what should have been learned from the accident.  In 2002 safety violations at the plant were falsified and TEPCO who owned and operated the plant would not institute the overall seismic safety measures for the entire complex.  The Japanese always build their nuclear facilities near water sources to save money in the cooling process.  With Fukushima located in Okuma, Japan on the Pacific Ocean, it was a disaster that was waiting to happen.

The Fukushima disasters present two aspects which Plokhy points out that are interesting.  First, is the major difference between Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan who invested himself in the crisis to a degree unprecedented for any leader under similar circumstances.  Eisenhower, MacMillan, Gorbachev, and to a lesser extent Carter all passed responsibility to others focusing more on withholding information and the domestic and international ramifications over what to do next.  Second, is the comparison between Chernobyl and Fukushima.  “Despite different levels of meltdown of reactor cores, no Chernobyl-type explosion of a reactor occurred at Fukushima-the result of the superior design of BWR reactors over RMBK type and the self-sacrifice of Japanese crews who worked overtime for days and weeks to supply water to the reactors.”  Further, fewer people died and were irradiated causing deaths years later at the Japanese site than Chernobyl.  Mortality at Fukushima rests around 10,000, while at Chernobyl the number reaches close to 50,000.  The refugee issue is also different.  Fukushima produced around 150,000 displacements, the Russian site 500,000.  An ancillary result from these catastrophes has been the decline in support of the nuclear industry spurred on by anti-nuclear protests in Japan, the United States, and Germany in particular.  However, the geo-political world, i.e., Russian invasion of Ukraine has called a halt somewhat in nuclear plant shutdowns because of the need for fossil fuels.  In Germany and Japan, we have seen a reversal and nuclear plants that went offline since 1986 and 2011 are now going back online.

(Fukushima nuclear disaster, 2011)

            

In the end I agree with  Jennifer Szalai who writes in  her May 18, 2022, New York Times book review that ATOMS AND ASHES shows how the nuclear industry requires vast amounts of trust in the establishment — in scientific experts, government officials and corporate figures, a number of whom didn’t exactly acquit themselves well in the dismal examples recounted here. Part of this has to do with the real limits of knowledge; for all the confident pronouncements and safety guarantees, the awesome power of nuclear energy doesn’t always behave in ways that are predicted. Not to mention that the effects of radiation exposure can vary wildly.” “The existing nuclear industry is an open-ended liability, Plokhy writes. With catastrophic climate change bearing down on us, nuclear power has been promoted by some as an obvious solution, but this sobering history urges us to look hard at that bargain for what it is.”

(The Chernobyl disaster a few week after it occurred)

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