The Guardian – “Risk of nuclear accidents is rising, says report on near-misses”

The Guardian – “Risk of nuclear accidents is rising, says report on near-misses

Most of what of what is in this is old news and a lot does indeed look recycled from Eric Schlosser’s excellent book “Command and Control“. For decades the military has wrestled with huge compromises in the design of nuclear weapons; many missiles were liquid fueled for a greater part of the Cold War making them inherently dangerous. Maintaining positive control of nuclear forces and making that survivable under attack has always been particularly hard to maintain. In fact I’m fairly certain that even today the British Trident fleet still does not have true positive control and a submarine commander could order an unauthorized launch. The US submarine fleet however is under positive control I believe. It was rumoured that during the 1970s the USSR looked into a Fail Deadly (Dead Hand) system of nuclear retaliation in response to US missiles’ improved accuracy and invulnerability thus presenting the USSR with the threat of a decapitating first strike.

If you want and keep nuclear weapons the fallibility of the design, the engineers, the operators and the command structure means that an accidental detonation is absolutely inevitable. The right combination of factors through accident, human error or even belligerence will result in such an explosion. It may take many more decades or even centuries for this to happen but it has to; already the proliferation of weapons and fissile material make this more and more inevitable. Ageing weapon systems, poor maintenance and the threat of terrorism add to these problems – not least the enormous former Soviet stockpile (here | here) which has provoked widespread concerns regarding condition, security and safety.

There has never been a weapon invented that is as potentially dangerous to its user than as to its adversary. However given the yield of modern weapons any criticality accident could range from injuring personnel to a catastrophic detonation. There is no safe threshold.

Radioactive Incident Monitoring Network (“RIMNET” – UK)

One of the lesser known networks in the United Kingdom is Radioactive Incident Monitoring Network or “RIMNET.” This network was set up in 1986 following the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear station in the Ukraine as part of the National Response Plan.

Rimnet is designed to monitor radiation dose across the entire United Kingdom (a map of all sites can be found here [PDF]) and relayed to a computer in London at the Department for Energy and Climate Change for near-immediate alerts to rises in radioactivity. It is managed by the Met Office. There are 92 sites spread across the UK in all areas both close to major cities, in rural areas and near or in MoD properties.

Rimnet was developed in three stages:

  • An initial system, RIMNET Phase 1, was installed in 1988 as an interim solution
  • The Phase 2 system operated until January 2005
  • Phase 3 went live in 2006

There was a detailed article in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry in 1993 detailing Phase 2 (Radiat Prot Dosimetry (1993) 50 (2-4): 171-176.) (see http://rpd.oxfordjournals.org/content/50/2-4/171):

The article gave a technical summary of the systems in use:

System Configuration
Monitors Type: Geiger-Muller
Measurement range: background to 3 mGy.h -1
Temperature –20oC to +40oC
Windspeed: up to 100 knots
Humidity up to 95%
Main CDF (“Central Database Facility” Configuration: two Digital VAX clustered processors
RIMNET workstation terminals, System Manager console and data storage
Communication Links Combination of leased lines, public data network (packet switched network for PCs), local Ethernet connections

In some ways RIMNET was a civil companion to the UK Warning and Monitoring Organisation before it was disbanded in 1991. However by Phase 2 of RIMNET it was much more sophisticated in collecting and transmitting radiation doses than the UKWMO ever was. RIMNET consisted of 90+ collection sites, fully automated than did not need personnel to man them. RIMNET, now at Phase 3, continues to monitor for radiation levels to this day.

References:

  1. http://archive.defra.gov.uk/evidence/statistics/environment/radioact/radrimnet.htm
  2. http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/publicsector/cbrn
  3. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20081105144808/defra.gov.uk/environment/radioactivity/emergencies/RIMNET/
  4. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/66034/4611-map-uk-rimnet-sites.pdf
  5. http://www.sepa.org.uk/radioactive_substances/what_we_do/emergency_response_planning.aspx
  6. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/66033/4610-rimnet-faqs.pdf
  7. http://rpd.oxfordjournals.org/content/50/2-4/171

SL-1– One of America’s Worst Nuclear Accidents

On 3rd January 1961 America suffered one of its worst nuclear accidents at the SL-1 experimental nuclear reactor at Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The accident killed the three men on duty, two almost immediately and one shortly after. The cause was a prompt criticality accident, a control rod in the reactor was removed too far causing a sudden surge in power.The power surge was later established to have jumped to 10 gigawatts in less than 4 milliseconds causing the water coolant surrounding the reactor core to form a water hammer and cause the entire pressure vessel, weighing 11.7 tonnes, to jump more than 9 feet.

The SL-1 disaster is important in many respects because it demonstrates human inability to confront the dangers of nuclear power, our creeping complacency towards the energy being unleashed and not to truly learn from these accidents.

In many respects SL-1 was an accident waiting to happen; the reactors were not inside true containment buildings, the reactor design allowed this accident to happen and its arguable whether the crew was experienced to enough to supervise the running of a nuclear reactor.

America, and most of the world’s nuclear powers had already experienced nuclear accidents before the one at SL-1. There was the disastrous fire at Pile no. 1 at Windscale in 1957 in the UK which revealed just how much wasn’t understood about nuclear power, there was also the Kyshtym disaster in the USSR when the cooling system for a tank of highly radioactive waste failed resulting in an explosion, also in 1957. Against this background of disasters, two young men in their mid 20s and a 22 year old trainee were allowed to operate the SL-1 reactor.

Further reading:

  • Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America’s First Nuclear Accident, William McKeown (not strictly the “first” accident, a criticality accident killed Harry Daghlian in December 1945 with what became known as the “demon core”)
  • Final report of SL-1 recovery operation, General Electric Company Idaho Test Station SL-1 Project, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Idaho Operations Office
  • Video: SL-1 The Accident: Phases I and II, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission at the Internet Archive

Government films accessioned by The National Archives

The UK National archives have a list of all government films they have accessioned – some 4800 films in total dating from pre-1939 almost up until the present day. The full list – available as a spreadsheet – contains a suprisingly small number of films that seem to be relayed to nuclear matters:

BRITISH NUCLEAR FUELS   COI + British Nuclear Fuels
FUEL FOR NUCLEAR POWER 1962 UKAEA
INTRODUCTION TO THE PRESSURE WATER REACTOR – NUCLEAR STEAM SUPPLY SYSTEM 1985 UKAEA
MANAGEMENT OF NUCLEAR WASTE 1982 DENE
NUCLEAR FUEL SERVICE 1985 UKAEA British Nuclear Fuels
NUCLEAR FUSION: ENERGY FOR THE 21ST CENTURY 1983 COI / DENE
NUCLEAR POWER REACTORS 1977 UKAEA
NUCLEAR POWER REACTORS 1961 UKAEA 
NUCLEAR POWER TODAY AND TOMORROW 1967 UKAEA
NUCLEAR SHIP SAVANNAH   COI
REPROCESSING NUCLEAR FUEL 1964 UKAEA
TECHNOLOGY OF NUCLEAR FUEL REPROCESSING 1986  
ZETA ZERO ENERGY THERMO-NUCLEAR ASSEMBLY 1954-8 COI

Civil Defence seems also not very well represented:

CIVIL DEFENCE CARTOON 1958 none listed
CIVIL DEFENCE IN 1962 (HOME SECRETARY’S BROADCAST) 1962 none listed
PROTECT AND SURVIVE 1976 COI/HOME OFFICE
SHOULD DISASTER STRIKE  1987 COI PRODUCTIONS (1977 – 1992)

Unfortunately there isn’t much in the way of a description and some titles don’t adequately describe the contents of the film so there is a chance much interesting material may be very hard to spot.