Friday, August 9, 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of tre World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

Adam Higginbotham's detailed history of the 1986 Chernobyl reactor explosion, Midnight in Chernobyl:  The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster, was a must read for me.  I've been hooked on all things nuclear since I first debated nuclear arms control in high school.  I couldn't have been more than 16 or 17 when my study of the topic convinced me that only a species hellbent on suicide would allow these civilization ending weapons to continue to exist.  As decades slipped by, despite occasional progress on arms control, my early optimism has waned.  What was and is evident to a kid seems to be na├»ve foolishness to the adults.  The world has reduced its warhead count from about 70,000 at the time of Chernobyl to some 14,000 today.  Oh joy!  Considering it would only take 100 Hiroshima size bombs to cause a nuclear winter lasting 10-25 years and causing many millions to die of starvation and cold, what would be the impact of using the larger, more powerful weapons of today?  The use of one megaton bombs (of which the US and Russia have thousands) in an exchange of only 100-300 weapons, might be enough to kill most of the humans on the planet through the initial blast, radioactive fallout, and the environmental and infrastructure damage that follows.  

Most folks would say that humans are too wise to let these weapons get out of control.  These are cards no one ever intends to play, so don't worry.  For these people I can only say, "Read Higginbotham's book."  Part of the book is the minute-by-minute account of a disaster unfolding, the kind of page turning prose that those obsessed with disasters love.  You know it will end badly, but you love the pseudo-suspense created by the identification of moments when a different decision could have changed history.  Higginbotham helpfully explains these events for those of us who are less educated in the nuclear physics necessary to understand this massively complicated atomic machine.  Higginbotham then describes the history of the giant reactors used at Chernobyl, the RBMK-1000 model, containing some 190 tons of enriched uranium in 1600 heat resistant zirconium pressure tubes, moderated by some 1700 tons of graphite blocks.  Producing some 1,000 megawatts of electricity, the RBMK is twenty times the size of Western reactors.  The Russians, like  Texans, are attracted to size.

Unfortunately, the RBMK-1000 had some flaws designed in.  These flaws, once discovered by the USSR's atomic authority, were dealt with by traditional bureaucratic methods:  denial, obfuscation, and crossed fingers.  If the reactor were properly operated, the folks who designed the reactor told themselves, the circumstances that lead to disaster would never come about.  Correcting the RBMK-1000's problems could only be done at enormous expense and would cause career ending outages of power.  Best to tighten the blinders around the eyes and have some good vodka to drive away the demons.

Once a reactor is operating, it uses neutrons created by colliding uranium atoms to sustain the reaction that creates the heat driving the turbines producing the electricity.  Starve a reaction of neutrons and the reaction stops.  It's that simple.  Unhappily for nuclear engineers, all neutrons are not created equal.  Ninety-nine per cent of them are too fast to be controlled in any effective manner.  The remaining one per cent are the slow neutrons which can be stopped by dropping boron control rods into the heart of the reactor.  This uncomfortable fact of physics makes producing energy a delicate proposition.  You can only play around with a tiny fraction of the process.  There really is no room for error because you have so little real control.  It's like riding an elephant:  you may think you're in charge, but the beast will go wherever it really wants to go.

Which is what happened on April 25-26, 1986 in Chernobyl.  Thirty-one people died from acute radiation poisoning within a few months of the accident.  Sound like a small number?  It is.  Basically, the government decided to stop counting after that.  The World Health Organization says four thousand children developed thyroid cancer after the blast, killing nine.  Still too small a number to worry about?  WHO thinks about five thousand fatal cancers will develop in the most heavily contaminated regions of the former USSR, as well as some twenty-five thousand additional cancers in the whole part of Europe downwind.  All that is, the UN scientists conclude, statistically insignificant in the population of the more than five million people exposed.  All this tells us is that this is not a problem for scientists.  We're talking unnecessary death and suffering.  Without the political decision to go for broke to produce nuclear power no one would have died, or had to suffer from cancer.

But we've learned our lesson, right?  The atomic power industry, chastened by Chernobyl and the Fukushima disaster in 2011 is on the decline in the western world.  New industrial scale reactors may be planned in China and other non-western countries, but they will utilize new, ground breaking, atomic technology like liquid fluoride thorium reactors.  These "forth generation" units are so much safer that you don't even need a containment building.  They are more efficient and produce far less radioactive waste, with half-lives of a few hundred rather than thousands of years.  Oh, please.

Which brings me back to my initial rant about the danger of nuclear weapons.  Look, folks, the same scientists and politicians, generals, admirals and CEO's in the same massive bureaucracies control nuclear arms that control nuclear power.  Why do we continue to trust them with all this?

I hope Higginbotham's book is read by many.  I hope enough of us get the message to demand change.



Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Impeachers: Racism Then and Now

I suppose most will pick up The Impeachers out of curiosity about the precedent of presidential impeachment considering all the talk of impeaching President Trump (this being 2019).  Although anyone who reads The Impeachers through will certainly be given a lot to chew on in this regard (especially concerning the similarities of personality of Donald Trump and Andrew Johnson), this book is really about something broader than the post-Civil War Catfight in the Capitol.

The history I was taught in high school in the 1960's, uncontradicted by introductory college history and political science, was that the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson was about whether a president could dismiss a cabinet officer (in this case Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War) who had been confirmed by the Senate.  The Senate failed to convict.  Johnson remained president.  Stanton resigned.  End of story.

O my, what they left out!

It's hard to describe the hate and violence that seized the southern states after the end of the war.  Massacres killed hundreds of black citizens (they were now citizens, although without the vote, yet) in Memphis and New Orleans.  Rivers of what we would now call hate speech flowed from southern politicians, uncowed by defeat on the battlefield.  The Ku Klux Klan intimidated and murdered not only blacks but white Republicans who advocated for them.  In some areas (Texas) Union officers couldn't walk the streets without armed guards.

Congress, dominated by Radical Republicans, passed reconstruction act after reconstruction act, all vetoed by President Johnson, then passed over his veto.  Johnson appointed military commanders and governors in the south who were favorable to the most lenient terms for the readmission of southern states to the Union.  He pardoned any and all of the former Confederates and ratified their state constitutions just as they were before the war.  He told anyone who asked, and quite a few that didn't,  that ours was a "white man's government."  Stanton tried to mitigate the impact of Johnson's actions.  Johnson mightily wanted Stanton out of his way so he could totally bring the south under his control, readmit those states who had rebelled, and bring southern congressmen back to DC to support him and insure that blacks never would have any influence in politics beyond being counted for congressional districting.  The Congress affirmed that Stanton, appointed by the assassinated president Lincoln, could not be fired by Johnson.  Johnson fired Stanton, anyway.  Stanton locked himself in his office, surrounded the War Department building with troops and refused to turn over the keys.  Impeachment ensued.  A long, mostly boring trial took place, with plenty of intrigue on all sides.  Andrew Johnson was acquitted by one vote.

It was hardly over, though.  Johnson spent his remaining months in office insisting he was right, appointing racists, and issuing general amnesties to the former Confederates.  Congress continued trying to reign him in.  When U.S. Grant came to office in 1869 he faced mighty hurdles trying to establish some sort of justice in the reconstruction of the south.  What he and the Republicans managed to accomplish in the 1870's was a weakened version of what might have been done in the 1865-69 period, had not Andrew Johnson, accidental president and full-blooded racist, been president.

It's no coincidence that this book is being published as impeachment talk ramps up.  Sadly, it's no co-incidence that race hatred buried deep in this country's history and heart still dominates the back story.      

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami

The 1527 Spanish expedition headed by Panfilo de Navaez was intended to explore and colonize the southeastern portion of North America that now is part of the United States and Mexico.  It did neither, at least not in any way useful to the Spanish empire.  About six hundred people landed in Florida, but only four men, three Spaniards and a black North African slave,  survived an eight year treck across the continent.  One of the Castilians, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, wrote an account of the men's ill-fated journey which is the only version of what happened.  It is an account of virtuous Europeans (virtuous with the exception of the incompetent de Navez, who seems, according to de Vaca, to have doomed the whole enterprise by ignoring de Vaca's wise advice) set upon by vicious and inhuman Indians who exploited the white men for their metal implements and their unpaid labor.

De Vaca's self-serving account is a perfect set up for the novelist Lalami to tell the story from a different point of view, that of the Moor slave, whom she calls Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori.  That the slave can produce a longer moniker than even the proud Spaniards should alert the reader that this version of events will be very different.

It is, and in a surprising way.  Mustafa is a merchant who becomes improvised by war and famine and sells himself into slavery to feed his widowed mother and his brothers.  He knows what he's letting himself in for because he, too, in his more prosperous days dealt in slaves, rejoicing at their profitability.  He bears up well enough with the indignity and hopelessness of his situation until, with the collapse of the expedition on a storm ridden gulf coast, the survivors find themselves at the mercy of the indigenous peoples who first treat them with some kindness, then make them into virtual slaves.  Now the Castilians and the Moor become comrades, sharing the misfortunes of their situation together.  As the layers of European and Muslim civilization are striped away they discover that indeed they are brothers under the skin. Near the end of their strange journey they again encounter their own kind on the Pacific coast.  Mustafa dares hope that his one time master will, once they are returned to Spain, honor his promise to free him.

Lalami portrays the plasticity of the human character.  Faced with the demands and contradictions of an  alien culture and environment, human beings are capable of surprising adaptations. The proud Spaniards survive only because they can put pride aside and allow themselves to be used as beasts of burden, to be whipped, even killed by their Indian masters.  The Moor is able to combine his knowledge of healing from another continent with the indigenous methods and herbs and become something of a 16th century Park Avenue doctor.  In the end the four survivors are able to put their newfound lives behind them and pick up their old ways and roles with little effort.

What is constant throughout is the will to survive, no matter what privations, indignities, and horrors are forced on them.  And they retain what even slavery cannot take away:  hope.    

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Crash Course

When I came across Julie Whipple's Crash Course in the new book section of my local library it struck me with a double impact.  First, I'm a retired air traffic controller, so this type of book reels me in as surely as a Siren's song.  Second, a headline pictured on one of the first pages under a photo of the torn and crumpled cabin of a jetliner didn't really need boldface to get my attention:  Friday, December 29, 1978;  United DC-8 Crashes at E. Burnside, 157th; 10 Killed, 175 SurviveFor the last eight-and-a-half years I've lived four blocks from that location.  I had no idea.  Conversations with neighbors, many of whom lived in the neighborhood for over forty years had never veered off into reminisces over what must have been an overwhelming and terrifying experience.  (Believe me, as a controller in Vietnam I witnessed large aircraft crashing a few hundred feet from me.  It is terrifying and overwhelming.  You never forget the sound.  You never forget the bodies lined up neatly to the side--it's real.)  

Whipple, a journalist with extensive reportorial experience, is well equipped to write this type of investigative book.  She has the added advantage of being the daughter of Stewart M. Whipple, an attorney who represented Elizabeth Andor, a three year old child who survived the crash with extensive life-changing injuries, and also lost her parents and two sisters.  The elder Whipple provided his daughter with seven boxes of notes from the trials that resulted.

The first four of the standard five W's of reporting, Who, What, When, and Where, are easily presented in this type of book.  The last W, Why, is the hard one.  It turns the book into something that shares features with the True Crime genre.  This is introduced on the cover with the subtitle:  Accidents Don't Just Happen.  Not in the United States anyway.  Federal Law dictates that all aspects of aviation be accident free.  Properly designed, properly maintained and operated, aircraft will not crash.  That's the law passed to reassure commercial aviation passengers that they are perfectly safe.  So, if an airliner crashes, it is because someone didn't do his job right.  In American aviation there are no accidents.

United Flight 173 crashed on a cold winter evening in 1978 because somebody messed up.  The question is: who?  United Airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Transportation Safety Board had no doubts.  Captain Malburn McBroom was the pilot in command that night and had total responsibility for the safe operation of the huge airliner.  He crash landed the big jet some 12 airmiles from the airport when the fuel tanks ran dry.  A pilot's first responsibility is to make sure he has enough fuel to land his flight at the intended destination.  McBroom didn't do that and it was his fault.  End of investigation.

Others, including the family of little Elizabeth Andor, weren't so sure.  McBroom had aborted his approach to Portland International that night when he put down his main gear and, instead of the reassuring "thunk" of the gear locking in place, was jolted by two shocks from the right main gear, intense enough to throw the massive plane from side to side.  He had good reason to believe the first shock was caused by a part failing in the piston that extended and retracted the heavy gear assembly.  But what was the second?  He suspected that the gear, unrestrained by the normal resistance of the hydraulic system, had free-fallen past the structural stops that kept it aligned properly for landing.  That might mean that the gear on the right side could be splayed, which would cause the aircraft to spin uncontrollably to the right on landing.  McBroom had opted to enter a holding pattern south of the airport while he and the flight crew "worked" the problem with the assistance of United Airline maintenance personnel on radiotelephone from San Francisco.  While working the problem the crew became distracted from monitoring the fuel situation and by the time their attention was brought back the plane lacked fuel to make it to PDX.  

Site of United Flight 173 crash today.  Two unoccupied
 homes were flattened.  One in the still vacant lot in the
foreground and one across Burnside street in the area now
occupied by apartments.  No one died on the ground.   

To United and the regulatory authorities that was the whole story.  But, wait a minute.  What if the part hadn't failed in the first place?  Then the approach would have continued normally and all 185 on board would have landed on time in Portland and proceeded with their plans for celebrating the new year.  And what if the part failure was not a unique event, but something well know to be a problem with the DC-8?  And what if that specific DC-8 was known to have a defective part and United had knowingly chosen to defer replacing that part, not once, but twice?  What then?  

Whipple's well written book journals the story of those what-ifs.  It presents a landmark lawsuit and the human lives forever changed by an avoidable accident.   

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

A Writer's Blog Is Back

It has been nearly five years since I've composed a post for A Writer's Blog.  It's not that I've lost interest in either my writing or the books I wrote my little reviews about.  I have continued to write and I've continued to read.  So, why stop blogging?  (It makes me smile that the spelling checker doesn't underline "blogging."  My trusty Webster's New World College Dictionary doesn't even have an entry for blogging, yet it claimed, when published in 1999, that it was "defining the English Language for the 21st Century").

Part of the reason was that I was indeed writing a new novel, my third.  Much of the time and energy I would have given to blogging was directed to what turned out to be a long and complex project.  Longer and more complex than I'd imagined.  That's finished now and query letters for A Dangerous Heritage, my Civil War novel, are being emailed to agents in three countries.  (The whole process of seeking an agent has changed a lot in the fifteen years since I had one.  I'm sure this will be the subject of future posts.)   Partly, the social media landscape has changed so rapidly with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a host of other ways to communicate, that blogging seems a relic of another time.  A Gentler, slower, and more generous time.

Blogging didn't disappear, however.  And, more importantly, interest in blogs didn't disappear, either.  When, after years of never having checked my Blogger Dashboard, I finally checked in, I was surprised to find that from August 2012 to today, 11,958 pageviews of my blog were recorded.  Unsurprisingly, the most popular posts where the ones Google Searches for "Amelia Earhart" led to (635).  The runner up, surprising until you think of our time's obsession with racial politics, was my review of A Black Prisoner Of War, by James A. Daly and Lee Bergman.  The fact that 3 people viewed my blog yesterday and 169 people last month, tells me that my work (and don't kid yourself, it is work) isn't entirely for naught.

So, my blog is back.  To celebrate that I'll post this and reduce the price of my two eBooks shown for sale to the right to 99 cents each.