By Chet Yarbrough
By James Mahaffey
Narrated by: Tom Weiner
Listening to James Mahaffey’s Atomic Accidents, the first thing that comes to mind is point-of-view, second is author’s qualification, and third is writing ability.
Doctor James Mahaffey’s professional career is founded on the nuclear industry. Educated at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Mahaffey holds a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s in science, and a doctoral in nuclear engineering. Mahaffey is well versed in the science, engineering, and mechanics of nuclear energy. Because of education, one presumes Mahaffey is a proponent of the nuclear power industry. After dissection of several atomic accidents, a listener becomes unsure of Mahaffey’s point of view. By the end, his point of view is clear. Mahaffey’s book is historically fascinating, and enlightening. Happily, Mahaffey writes well with erudite understanding and little obfuscating jargon.
In history, America has purposely and accidentally dropped nuclear bombs around the world. The best known purposely dropped bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII.
Less known accidental nuclear bomb drops were in peace time. Bombs were accidentally released on remote military bases, in sparsely populated residential areas, and in the sea. Some dropped in the sea remain unrecoverable. None of the peace time bombs have exploded or been reported to have leaked any radiation.
After WWII, America chose to keep nuclear secrets from Great Britain because of concern over nuclear bomb proliferation. In part, because of America’s lack of cooperation, English scientists and engineers designed graphite nuclear power plants that are inherently dangerous. Graphite will catch fire at high temperature and is notoriously hard to extinguish. However, graphite nuclear plants became widely copied throughout the world. Mahaffey’s stories of nuclear mishaps range from dumb to dumber; i.e. from wind fans that feed graphite nuclear plant fires to technicians that ignore rules of reactor management. Nuclear accidents seem inevitable and insurmountable.
Mahaffey explains that the former U.S.S.R. ignored environment in their nuclear bombs race with America. They dumped plutonium in Russian waters and blew up a graphite nuclear plant that reportedly killed Russian workers in a steam explosion. The explosion contaminated miles of Russian homeland with radioactive fallout estimated to have killed 200 people. Later, the U.S.S.R. mismanaged Chernobyl’s nuclear facilities and created a nuclear meltdown that reportedly killed over 60 people from radiation and left an area of Russia uninhabitable for generations to come.
Mahaffey tells the story of Gary Powers, the American’ pilot shot down by the Russians in the 1950s. Powers is taking aerial pictures of plutonium manufacturing facilities in the U.S.S.R. Eisenhower is compelled to lie and then apologize to Russia for the clandestine operation. Mahaffey makes the story interesting by revealing the monumental effort made by the U.S.S.R. to shoot down Powers’ airplane and reassemble plane parts to prove Powers was spying.
In the end, Mahaffey discounts the many nuclear accidents and incidents he examines.
His conclusion is that nuclear power can be made probabiistically safe. Mahaffey argues for the design of nuclear energy facilities that are small and simple to operate. He suggests small nuclear power plants be designed and manufactured for specific industrial facilities. Small nuclear plants could meet industrial energy demands while reducing environmental carbon emission from other sources. With small nuclear energy plants, the potential for catastrophic Chernobyl-like’ events would not happen. With small nuclear energy plants replacing coastal nuclear behemoths, the 2011 underwater earthquake and concomitant tsunami would not have decimated Japan’s nuclear energy production. Evacuation would have been limited to the natural effects of a weather event rather than a potential nuclear disaster. Mahaffey implies proper design and training for small, simple nuclear energy facilities will mitigate a pending world energy crises. Mahaffey infers nuclear accidents are unavoidable, but human and environmental damage can be minimized with smaller self-sufficient nuclear energy plants.
Mahaffey explains that radiation is a naturally occurring phenomenon. He argues that shutting nuclear waste disposal facility like Yucca Mountain in Nevada is a mistake. Mahaffey’s point of view is that nuclear power generation accidents will happen but their consequences can be minimized with smaller plants and better planning for treatment of victims when accidents occur. He believes nuclear energy benefits far out way their risks.