Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book Review: "Atomic Accidents"

Points of Inflection has been silent for nearly two months.

I'm sorry about that.  It's been a helpful discipline to try to blog here regularly, but several unpredictable things have combined to consume a bit too much of my time recently.  I'm trying now to get back to a more regular (but probably still slow) posting schedule.

I recently read the book Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey.  Mahaffey was a senior researcher at Georgia Tech and his book is a clear-sighted, technically detailed and yet also readable and witty account of the quest to obtain safe, clean energy from nuclear fission and the numerous ways in which safety mechanisms carefully devised by human beings have been circumvented, undermined or just messed up by other human beings (or sometimes even the same ones); quite often with fatal consequences.  From the disasters of the radium-dial factories, through the Manhattan Project and the early attempts at civilian nuclear power, to the headline-grabbing accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, this book covers a lot of historical ground.  Many accidents are described in extensive technical detail - though nuclear processes have many frightening features, Mahaffy believes that the instinct for secrecy, arising from military nuclear programs, has not helped teh civilian nuclear industry, and that more information may reduce unfounded anxiety.  I wonder whether he is right?

Because, for all his encyclopedic knowledge of nuclear accidents and foolishnesses, Mahaffy is a (carefully qualified) proponent of nuclear energy.  His thoughts on this can be found throughout the book, especially in its final chapter, Caught in the Rickover Trap.  Admiral Hyman Rickover devised the propulsion system for US nuclear submarines and his water-cooled reactor design, scaled up by two orders of magnitude or so, is the basis for most nuclear power stations today.  "There have been trillions of problem-free watt-hours generated by scaled-up Rickover plants", writes Mahaffy, "but there may be a problem area that was not evident when submarine reactors were tiny 12-megawatt machines but that was revealed when the Rickover model was enlarged multiple times over for industrial use.  The reactor core, the uranium fuel pellets lined up in zirconium tubes and neatly separated from each other, is terribly sensitive  for such an otherwise robust machine... There have been many engineering fixes and modifications to correct these problems, but, ironically, these fixes can present new issues as they are complex add-ons, cluttering up an otherwise simple design... most of the plumbing in a nuclear plant has nothing to do with generating electricity.  It is part of the fix." 

The message of this final chapter is that the sheer bigness of the nuclear project may have led the nuclear industry to focus prematurely on one apparently effective design.  Perhaps there are other possibilities?  Mahaffy can tell us about the exotic reactor designs of the 1950s and 1960s (some arising from the crazy project to build a nuclear airplane).  Could these be revived as an alternative?  Some of them indeed do form the basis for the futuristic Generation IV nuclear plant proposals.   Some could perhaps be made much smaller - a large power plant would consist of many identical "modules" rather than one giant reactor.  Indeed, the message I took away from this book is that the major issues with nuclear power seem less technical than political: the size and complexity of the nuclear power process in relation to the societal "containment" within which it must necessarily operate.

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