Workers gather outside one of the reactors that melted down in the 2011 Fukushima disaster.Credit: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty

Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters Serhii Plokhy W. W. Norton (2022)

In February, soon after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, they reportedly dug trenches in the radioactive soil at Chernobyl and drove heavy vehicles in the area, kicking up contaminated dust. Thirty-six years after a reactor core exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, fallout from the world’s worst nuclear accident still permeates the environment. Amid all the atrocities committed by Russian troops during the war in Ukraine, ignorance of this history does not rank high. But it underscores the lasting, dangerous and frequently unforeseen consequences of nuclear disasters.

One of the leading chroniclers of this nuclear legacy is Serhii Plokhy, a historian of Ukraine and author of Chernobyl (2018), a definitive account of that fateful day in April 1986. In Atoms and Ashes, he places that disaster in a broader, more global history of six nuclear accidents — from explosions at plutonium production plants to meltdowns at nuclear power stations. The result is a revealing tour of some of the most terrifying experiences involving nuclear power. It is also useful context for today’s discussions about whether nuclear energy deserves a major role in the push to decarbonize the global economy.

Atoms for war

Nuclear power is a child of war, birthed in the world’s first artificial self-sustaining nuclear reaction inside a stack of graphite and uranium bricks in Chicago, Illinois, in December 1942. That was a key early milestone in the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, and brought an end to the Second World War — and instigated the deadly competition between the United States and the Soviet Union as they built up their nuclear arsenals.

While global superpowers battled, remote communities with little geopolitical power often suffered the public-health consequences. Before the 1963 treaty that banned atmospheric nuclear tests, the United States, Soviet Union and United Kingdom regularly showered radioactivity into the air during test blasts. One of the most shocking was a March 1954 test in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Nicknamed Castle Bravo, it was the first US test of a hydrogen bomb using a new type of fuel; its designers badly miscalculated how big the blast would be. The bomb detonated over Bikini Atoll with a yield of 15 megatons, 2.5 times what was expected. And weather forecasters misjudged where and how strongly the winds were blowing.

Radioactivity spread over inhabited islands including Rongelap, 157 kilometres away. People reported a whitish substance resembling snow falling on them. It was irradiated coral, vaporized in the blast. Given no warning or advice by the US government, people stayed outside until their skin began to burn and itch. Hundreds were unknowingly exposed to radiation.

This theme of distance — of radioactivity traveling far beyond the supposedly secure confines of a nuclear testing ground or power plant — is part of what makes nuclear accidents so terrifying. Everything seems to be under control, until it’s not. That was what happened in two plutonium-production accidents in 1957.

At Kyshtym, a plutonium-processing facility in the Soviet Union’s Ural Mountains, a tank storing nuclear waste exploded and sent a plume of radioactivity drifting widely. Days later, the nuclear facility of Windscale in the United Kingdom saw thousands of tonnes of graphite ignite and release radioactive material. In both cases, delays to maintenance tasks involving complicated engineering, combined with stressed workers, led to cascading failures. In both cases, national governments covered up the scale and scope of the disasters.

Atoms for peace

These disasters all involved military “atoms for war” projects. Similar mistakes were repeated in civilian “atoms for peace” projects, starting in the 1950s, in which nuclear power was repurposed to provide energy. “Looking closely at what led to these accidents and the ways in which the industry and governments dealt with them,” writes Plokhy, “is the most effective way of understanding the perils associated with reliance on nuclear energy.”

At the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, a minor failure in a valve in 1979 led to a loss of coolant and the start of a reactor meltdown. Ultimately, plant operators vented radioactive gases into the air, at much lower levels than at Kyshtym but enough to cause widespread panic in local communities. (Here, as elsewhere, Plokhy valiantly attempts to be clear about public risk while juggling the many units of radioactivity exposure, from rems to roentgens to sieverts.) Then-US president Jimmy Carter, a Navy veteran who had worked on a damaged reactor in Chalk River, Canada, tried to take charge of the Three Mile Island response and messaging, but ultimately did not hold the US nuclear regulatory agency fully to account.

Plokhy excels in unpacking the human and systemic factors that contribute to nuclear disasters. At Chernobyl, it was a long-overdue test, conducted by exhausted workers around midnight, that led to the catastrophic explosion of reactor number four. Even that accident did not stem the rise of nuclear power in countries that had made it a strategic part of their energy portfolio, such as Japan.

And so, on the afternoon of 11 March 2011, reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were operating when a magnitude-9 earthquake rocked the eastern coast of Japan. Emergency generators kicked in to keep coolant flowing, but they were swamped when an enormous tsunami arrived. The plant’s designers had anticipated an earthquake but not a tsunami. Three reactors melted down.

Nuclear power is one of the most complex systems that humanity has tried to harness. What looks like a straightforward science and engineering project turns out to be an intricate interplay of commercial and government interests, with plenty of opportunities for bad decisions. Collectively, these six nuclear accidents are a cautionary tale for any Prometheus looking to play with nuclear fire.

They also raise questions about what part nuclear power should play in slashing emissions. Around 10% of the world’s electricity comes from approximately 440 nuclear plants around the globe. Industry leaders and supporters point to the long record of reliability for most nuclear power plants, and the importance of generating energy domestically instead of importing fossil fuels from nations such as, for example, Russia.

Yet Plokhy notes correlations between the fate of the nuclear industry and the history of nuclear disasters. In 1979, the year of Three Mile Island, the number of reactors under construction peaked. The year before Chernobyl, 1985, saw the peak of reactors starting up. And the industry has been in a slide ever since Fukushima.

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