ATOMS AND ASHES
A Global History of Nuclear Disasters
By Serhii Plokhy
Illustrated. 345 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $30.
On Oct. 8, 1957, a Soviet newspaper reported that residents of Cheliabinsk, a city near the Ural Mountains, had spotted an “intensive luminescence, sometimes changing to pale pink and pale blue,” along the horizon. Cheliabinsk was located too far south to have had much experience with the aurora borealis, but the newspaper told its readers they happened to be seeing just that — a rare and gorgeous treat. “The Northern Lights,” the article concluded, “will remain visible in the Southern Ural latitudes.”
What readers were seeing would indeed remain visible, but the rest of the sentence was a lie. Those “Northern Lights” were in fact billions of irradiated particles that had been released into the air when a plutonium production plant exploded in nearby Kyshtym. It’s just one of many obfuscations, deceptions and outright fabrications recounted by Serhii Plokhy in “Atoms and Ashes,” his frightening new history of nuclear disasters across the world.
Plokhy, a historian at Harvard, has written previous books about Chernobyl and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the acknowledgments in “Atoms and Ashes,” he says the book began as a response to readers who wanted to know whether the Soviet response to Chernobyl was in any way “unique.” He notices some patterns in nuclear accidents, including the exceedingly common impulse among governments “to hide information and, later, to spin or distort it”; but Plokhy is too committed to the specifics of each catastrophe to succumb to the temptation of making a grand case. Every nuclear disaster is terrible in its own way.
“Atoms and Ashes” recounts six accidents in detail, the first three connected to “atoms for war” (bomb-making) and the last three connected to “atoms for peace” (energy production). There’s the radioactive fallout after the Castle Bravo nuclear test of 1954, when the United States tested a hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands; the explosion at Kyshtym, in 1957; the Windscale fire in Britain, also in 1957; the partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, in 1979; the meltdown in Chernobyl, in 1986; and the Fukushima disaster in Japan, in 2011.
Serhii Plokhy, whose new book is “Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters.”Credit…Kristina M. Conroy
The global scope of such dire subject matter means that the experience of reading this book is a formidable exercise in cumulative disillusionment. By the time you get to the Soviets’ lies about the “Northern Lights,” you will have already read about how their American adversaries tried to cover up the extent of radioactive fallout after the Castle Bravo test in the Pacific — insisting that the skin lesions suffered by some unfortunate Japanese fishermen nearby was the result not of radiation but “vaporized coral.” (As Plokhy notes, this coral dust was itself radioactive.) In a subsequent chapter on Britain’s Windscale fire, you will learn how an official report detailing the full scale of the disaster was suppressed by the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who “ordered the printers to destroy their type.”
Macmillan released his own interpretation of what happened at Windscale, when equipment problems and human error resulted in a raging reactor fire. He placed the blame squarely on the personnel, who felt enormously insulted, considering it was their skilled reaction that managed the fire and prevented an actual meltdown. (One of them recalls looking directly at the fire and thinking, “Oh dear, now we are in a pickle.”) Plokhy makes clear that human error certainly played a part — the reactor was “long overdue” for what is known as a periodic “annealing,” a process to release excess energy. But Windscale’s operators were responding to government pressure to produce more plutonium and tritium; it was also the government that pushed to build Windscale quickly and cheaply.
When Britain’s chief nuclear scientist, John Cockcroft, insisted that Windscale add some radiation filters during its construction, other officials gave only grudging approval, calling the filters “Cockcroft’s folly.” Those filters ended up trapping most of the radiation; without them, the lasting damage to the surrounding area would have been much worse. Plokhy adds that subsequent medical observation of the area suggested that the fire may not have been the only source of irradiation at Windscale. The pressure to produce more had also meant an increased risk of radiation leaks.
More than any spectacular explosion, radiation is the deadly stuff that lingers, both in actual fact and in the imagination. At Three Mile Island, technical malfunction combined with human error to generate a partial meltdown. Government officials worried that evacuating a 5-mile radius around the plant in an “excess of caution” would create runaway confusion and panic. As the governor of Pennsylvania put it, describing the terrors of fallout, “It is an event that people are not able to see, to hear, to taste, to smell.”
“Atoms and Ashes” shows how the nuclear industry requires vast amounts of trust in the establishment — in scientific experts, government officials and corporate figures, a number of whom didn’t exactly acquit themselves well in the dismal examples recounted here. Part of this has to do with the real limits of knowledge; for all the confident pronouncements and safety guarantees, the awesome power of nuclear energy doesn’t always behave in ways that are predicted. Not to mention that the effects of radiation exposure can vary wildly. One Windscale manager who had battled the fire directly lived until the age of 90, insisting until the end that being irradiated didn’t have any impact on him at all.
But other people have suffered horrifically, in secret. Contaminated milk, radioactive hot spots, mysterious cancers — the lag time between an accident and its effects can impede efforts to calculate the full scope of a disaster. And then there is the question of how to dispose of spent fuel, a problem that has been punted to future generations. “The existing nuclear industry is an open-ended liability,” Plokhy writes. With catastrophic climate change bearing down on us, nuclear power has been promoted by some as an obvious solution, but this sobering history urges us to look hard at that bargain for what it is.