Atomic Awakening
James Mahaffey, 2009

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 this.  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 spacecraft).  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:

Atomic Accidents
James Mahaffey, 2014

The accidents detailed in this book break down into three main categories.  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 1961.  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 of people.  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 again.  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 human error: 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 Inform 6.)

  • 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!

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