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.

Chernobyl: The Final Warning

In 1991 a dramatised version of the Chernobyl disaster was made called “Chernobyl: The Final Warning” that had a cast of well established stars such as Jon Voight and Jason Robards (Robards was also the lead character in the 1983 nuclear war film The Day After).

The film centres itself primarily on the effects of the disaster on the Ukrainian housewife Yelena Mashenko (Sammi Davis) and her firefighter husband, Alexandr (Steven Hartley) and the rest of the Chernobyl firefighters – six died from the immediate effects of the accident. The other part of the story if the involvement of Dr. Robert Gale, a specialist in leukemia from California and the philanthropist Dr. Armand Hammer.

What sets this drama apart is that it tells the story of Chernobyl from an intimate perspective of those trying to cope in the aftermath; there have been many documentaries and films that speculate on the causes and wider aftermath such as The Battle of Chernobyl or the BBC “Horizon” documentary Inside Chernobyl’s Sarcophagus broadcast the same year as The Final Warning.

I found the film really quite good – the production is a bit dated but in telling the story of how devastating the world’s worst nuclear accident played out in the lives of individuals is a powerful and haunting experience. It demonstrated how this silent killer haunted the lives of utter innocents, from firemen, old people, children; people who had no responsibility for causing the accident were the primary victims of its effects.

The repeated message in the is the one from which it’s title is derived: that Chernobyl could be our final warning; that the accident was by no means unique or could not happen again.

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

Nuclear Madness | Gwynne Dyer.

“15 other people subsequently died of thyroid cancer in the Chernobyl holocaust”

via Nuclear Madness | Gwynne Dyer.

As much as I admire Gwynne Dyer as a great military historian, I genuinely also believe that repeating the 15 cancer deaths as a direct effect of Chernobyl is fundamentally wrong. The truth is that no one really knows how many people died as a result of the Chernobyl accident. 

The World Health Organisation estimated (PDF) there were 600,000 “liquidators” who worked at Chernobyl after the accident. In that same report, the WHO come to the conclusion there were many more deaths than just 15 and there is sufficient evidence to support the argument that the long term health effects of these many thousands of workers was never tracked in detail.

Your own common sense tells you the likelihood of “just” 15 deaths from the world’s worst nuclear accident is far too low and that arguments to minimise the apparent numbers of victims does the cause of nuclear safety no favours at all.