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 naïve 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.




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