- Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters
- W.W. Norton & Company (2022)
As shells fall around Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear reactor station, Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters is all too timely. Author Serhii Plokhy is a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, and has published many books on the Cold War. His analysis of six nuclear disasters in the light of Russia’s war against Ukraine suggests that a new disaster is not far off — not by accident, but by deliberate intent.
The six disasters Plokhy describes are the first test of a U.S. hydrogen bomb in 1954, the Kyshtym explosion in the U.S.S.R. and the U.K.’s Windscale fire in 1957, and the meltdowns at Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011.
Plokhy treats each of these events as a kind of engineering whodunit: something terrible went wrong, and the cause was inevitably some kind of mechanical malfunction, design flaw or human error. But each disaster is also a “whydunnit,” examining the motives of the government that created the conditions for the disaster in the first place. In all cases, they stemmed from political decisions. The decisions in turn were affected by ignorance, arrogance, anxiety, and what one analyst called the “mindset” of the nuclear-energy community.
So when the U.S. began testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific in the 1940s and ’50s, those in charge were the world experts; their government, determined to keep ahead of the Soviets, supported them lavishly. The tests were also a way of showing the world who was boss.
But the 1954 “Castle Bravo” test of the first deliverable hydrogen bomb went wrong. It was about twice as powerful as expected, and it dumped appalling amounts of radioactive fallout over a large part of the Marshall Islands (and hundreds of their inhabitants). It also affected the crew and cargo of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon. Despite radiation sickness, the crew got home and sold their catch — including two radioactive tuna, which were soon consumed.
Radiation counted in 'sunshine units'
The political backlash was highly embarrassing for the Americans, and they did their best to spin the story to maximize the size of the blast and minimize the harm it had done to innocent bystanders. (I can remember when the United States Atomic Energy Commission tried to quantify radiation in “sunshine units.”)
Castle Bravo set the pattern for later disasters: strong government pressure on overweening experts, resulting in the coverup of the damage done to the people and environment nearby.
In September 1957, a tank containing radioactive chemical waste exploded in a secret site near Kyshtym in the Ural Mountains, where the Soviets were producing plutonium. Thousands had to be evacuated from a region that was sealed off for decades thereafter.
Just a few weeks later, a British nuclear reactor at Windscale caught fire and burned for days, scattering radioactive particles over the English countryside. A later study estimated 32 people died and 260 more had developed cancer as a result of the fire. In both cases, government pressure to maximize plutonium production led to cutting corners and postponing maintenance, with countless workers and residents contaminated by radioactive particles.
The experts responsible, however, suffered few consequences. They were simply too few and too valuable to be fired or jailed.
Big subsidies, big pressure
Part of the Americans’ pitch for atomic weapons was “atoms for peace,” proposed by then-president Dwight Eisenhower to develop reactors that would produce electricity “too cheap to meter." That involved big subsidies and still more pressure on the experts to deliver. So when Unit 2 reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station melted down in 1979, it was a shock to both the experts and the nation.
The Soviets suffered an even worse shock with Chernobyl, a huge power reactor complex in Ukraine. There, the disaster resulted from a misguided test of shutdown procedures on a reactor with serious design flaws. Hundreds of site workers and firefighters died to contain the meltdown, and the Soviet Union arguably collapsed in 1991 as a result of the loss of public support for an obviously incompetent government.
If these five disasters had been largely government-instigated, Fukushima was a public-private catastrophe. Japanese governments had supported nuclear power generation since the 1950s, and many sites were built by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. TEPCO had designed and built two reactors at Fukushima, north of Tokyo, and had included measures to deal with earthquakes and tsunamis. But they hadn’t counted on the 8.9 magnitude quake that hit on March 11, 2011, or on the 43-foot tsunami that would easily roll over Fukushima’s 19-foot seawall.
Over the next few days, four reactors melted down or set off massive explosions. Workers received enormous radiation doses, and thousands of nearby residents were forced to evacuate; many have yet to return because their homes are still radioactive. Then-prime minister Naoto Kan (who lost the next election) later wrote:
“Because Japan possessed unparalleled nuclear technology and superior experts and engineers, I believed that a Chernobyl-style accident could not occur at a Japanese power station.... I would come to learn that this was a myth created by Japan’s ‘Nuclear Village’” — the corporate and government groups with an interest in maintaining nuclear power.
Fukushima led to a widespread loss of faith in “atoms for peace.” Japan shut down its whole system for a time, and Germany declared it would wind down its own nuclear reactors by 2022, replacing their energy with renewables and Russian gas. The companies that built and ran Three Mile Island went bankrupt, and the plant closed in 2019. The cleanup will take decades more.
But the attractions of nuclear power remained. After Chernobyl, Ukraine for a time rejected reliance on nuclear reactors, but finally decided to keep Europe’s largest station at Zaporizhzhia. And that brings us to our present peril.
A new way to fight a nuclear war
The Russians occupied both Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia early in the current war, and the world belatedly realized that it’s possible to fight a nuclear war without dropping a single bomb. At Chernobyl the Russians stirred up a lot of radioactive dust, harming mostly their own soldiers and the locals. At Zaporizhzhia, shelling has threatened the reactors and destroyed the site’s firehall.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is clearly exploiting the hard-learned lessons of Chernobyl and other disasters. A nuclear reactor is a hostage to any enemy who can seize it, damage it, or shut it down. A threat to one is a threat to all others. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian security council, recently observed that “The European Union also has nuclear power plants. And accidents are also possible there.”
Russia and the West maintained an uneasy truce for over 40 years by deterring each other from a nuclear attack; the strategy was known as mutually assured destruction, or MAD. Insane or not, it worked. But if the West thinks Putin is insane enough to destroy a nuclear power station as a military move, how could we deter him? And if he did blow up Zaporizhzhia or Chernobyl, poisoning vast tracts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia itself, how could we respond?
Serhii Plokhy’s book is a kind of obituary for nuclear power. It will never give us electricity too cheap to meter, nor rescue us from climate change. But it will still tempt fools who think they can gain or hold political power by threatening to kill us with it.