Here’s another audiobook I grabbed pretty much at random.
The first long section details the scientific discoveries leading to the
development of nuclear power: chemical elements, magnetic fields,
subatomic particles, radioactivity, quantum mechanics, and more.
I am not very scientifically inclined but I was able to follow most of
The second long section is about the Manhattan Project, the story of
which I have already heard a number of times, but my memory being what
it is, another recitation didn’t hurt.
The third and final long section is mostly about the further development
of nuclear technology, which includes weapons, power stations, and other
uses ranging from the practical (e.g., medical isotopes) to the
impractical (e.g., plans to dig canals via a chain of nuclear explosions)
to dreams of the distant future (e.g., crewed interstellar
Mixed in with this are a lot of colorful anecdotes about the author’s
own career as a nuclear engineer and some polemic about the importance of
keeping nuclear power as part of the global energy portfolio if we are to
have any chance of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.
Oddly, though, most of this section is actually devoted to telling stories
about nuclear accidents, and after Fukushima, the author expanded on this
theme for his next book:
The accidents detailed in this book break down into three main
Early on the author discusses incidents that can be broadly classed as
experimental, ranging from scientists sticking their heads into
X‑ray machines just to see what would happen to patent medicine
salesmen encouraging people to gulp down bottles of radium water on the
theory that, who knows, it might cure impotence or something.
Later he writes about military accidents: planes that crashed while
carrying armed nuclear missiles, that sort of thing.
But most of this book is about mishaps at nuclear power plants.
The most famous of these are Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima,
but treatments of these disasters are saved for the end of the book.
Before reaching those we get detailed accounts of a bunch of more obscure
accidents, interminable recountings of what the consoles reported moment
by moment and what actions those on duty took in response.
This explosion happened because a control rod warped!
This one happened because a valve failed!
It is about as interesting as listening to a mechanic drone on and on
about what exactly is wrong with your car’s engine, or rather,
somebody else’s car’s engine back in
In retrospect sticking with the first book would have been fine.
Four bullet points about these two books:
As noted, Mahaffey is in favor of nuclear power, which makes it
counterintuitive that he would write an entire book, and a third of
another book, all about disasters at nuclear plants.
The point he repeatedly makes is that, time after time, something
goes catastrophically wrong and a reactor explodes and takes out
$500 million worth of equipment…
and yet no one is injured.
Or maybe a handful of workers are killed, but there’s no
radiation release into the countryside.
Compare this to the billions who will die due to climate change, either
directly (heat stroke, flooding, famine) or indirectly (wars over scarce
resources), he says, or even compare the nuclear record to good ol’
clean hydroelectric power, with dam failures that kill tens of thousands
Learn all the details of nuclear accidents, he suggests, and you’ll
see how trivial they are, relatively speaking!
I understand his thinking.
It’s still counterintuitive.
When things do go wrong at nuclear plants, people learn from the
mistakes that were made, and install failsafes to keep them from happening
So why do they happen again?
In large part, because people override the failsafes.
A lot of the catastrophes after about 1960 can be
chalked up to
a technician sees that the core temperature in
sector 7G is rising, says “Why did the
stupid computer close the vents? We need to cool that down!”, opens
the vents, and whoosh, everything’s on fire.
Mahaffey argues that we could actually improve nuclear reactor design
much more dramatically than by merely adding a few more failsafes, but
that we don’t for the same reason that most people still type on
Qwerty keyboards: people would rather stick with something that is
demonstrably worse than put in the effort to learn something new.
We still use designs based on nuclear subs of the
1950s in part because if we switched to thorium
reactors or something the old hands would have to relearn their jobs from,
if not square one, then square two or three.
(I can see this both ways.
Like, I use a Dvorak keyboard… but I also plan to program any
future interactive fiction I might write in
It turns out that the verb for “to shut down a nuclear reactor
immediately” is “scram”.
It appears on just about every page of these books, it seemed like.
I was pleased!
See, there is a Made Out of Babies song called “Gunt” that has
been in the upper reaches of my Hot 100 for a dozen
years now, but I always kind of winced at its repeated use of the word
“scram”—it seemed like such a silly word to build
the lyrics of a song around.
It’s old‑timey slang, the sort of word the Sesame
Street writers give to Oscar the Grouch because that’s as
edgy as you can get and still pitch your show to toddlers.
But now that I associate it with engineers frantically stabbing a button
to shut a reactor core down, I can take that song more seriously!
"Gunt" (Made Out of Babies, 2006)
"It's the biggest darkest black beast—SCRAM You've got to make it Made of glass and full of thunder—SCRAM You've got to make it SCRAM"