On the precipice

Launching his new energy strategy in front of the scaffolding at Hinkley Point C this April, Boris Johnson pledged that he would build “one nuclear reactor every year, for eight years”, and declared the UK government was “bringing nuclear home”. Readers of Serhii Plokhy’s history of nuclear disasters, Atoms and Ashesmay feel that Johnson’s promise sounds more like a threat.

Plokhy won the Baillie Gifford prize in 2018 for his study of the accident at Chernobyl. In Atoms and Ashes he broadens the field to include five other serious incidents, from the Castle Bravo test on one of the Marshall Islands in 1954 to the tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011, by way of Kyshtym and Windscale (both in 1957) and Three Mile Island (1979). The story begins on Bikini Atoll, as US engineers arm the world’s first hydrogen bomb – the “gadget” – and start the countdown. Plokhy combines newspaper interviews, memoirs, government reports and secondary sources to give a vivid account of an explosion that is more than doubled the projected yield of six megatons. This unexpectedly powerful blast combined with changing weather patterns to spread radioactive fallout over a wide area, encompassing the inhabited atolls of Rongelap and Utirik.

A combination of arrogance, ignorance, complacency and the pressure to produce results exposed local people to between four and thirty-three times the accepted limit of radiation, a tragedy that can be read to this day in the increased risk among theers of leukaemia, as well as thyroid, stomach, colon and other cancers. The US government responded with obfuscation, obstruction and denial. When news of the evacuees leaked out and a contaminated Japanese fishing boat limped back to port, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission told the media that locals “appeared to me to be well and happy”, even though the doctors of the Naval Medical Research Institute had already begun a study that showed they were suffering from exposure. This study was later found to have offered “virtually no therapeutic benefit” to the people involved. Information about the impact of radiation after people returned to the islands was “kept secret for decades”, Plokhy writes, “protected by the US state authorities both from the Soviets and from the Marshallese themselves who went to the courts to defend their rights”.

Plokhy finds versions of the same lethal mixture at the core of all six catastrophes he describes. Each chapter opens with a map – the stain of radiation smeared across oceans, valleys and cities – then builds towards a gripping sequence where engineers bravely struggle to stave off disaster with inadequate systems, moving to a close evacuation with enquiries and the continuing legacy of contamination and ill-health.

If the reckless confidence of US, Soviet and British engineers wrestling with a new technology at the height of the Cold War comes as little surprise, the blithe assurance of managers at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima is harder to understand. Plokhy quotes a Japanese diplomat active in the 1980s who recalled: “There was no awareness in the government or the nuclear industry that Japan’s nuclear plants might be dangerous too, or that we could learn a lesson from [Chernobyl]“. And the lure of profit was no less deadly than the exigencies of the planned economy. “Just as in Chernobyl”, Plokhy writes, “achieving production targets trumped safety concerns.” Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency warned in 2006 that a tsunami could cause the plant at Fukushima to lose power, while the energy company’s experts concluded that a wave of 15.7 metres would leave the station flooded. But, as the chairman later explained, “The majority view in the company was that no major tsunami was likely”.

Perhaps nuclear power is just too dull to ever be truly safe. Human flourishing has depended on our ability to accommodate new ways of living and new technologies, a talent we have drawn on to an ever-increasing extent since the Industrial Revolution. Disciplines such as medicine, climbing and aviation, where hard-won safety cultures have recently become the norm, are notable for the obviousness and immediacy of their dangers – it’s hard to ignore the perils of hurtling through the air in an aluminum can at 30,000ft . The delicately poised menace of a sustained nuclear reaction may be easier to overlook, but with more than 400 reactors currently in operation, Plokhy argues we should pay it more heed, citing a study from 2018 that suggests “we are likely to see another accident before 2036″.

While each death, each cancer and each square foot of contaminated land is undoubtedly a tragedy, Plokhy offers little context to the tens of thousands of people who died as a result of these six disasters. Estimates suggest that about 12,000 people around the world die in mining accidents attributed each year, while 1.3 million deaths are caused by road traffic and 8.7 million can be to the air pollution from fossil fuels.

It’s difficult to argue when Plokhy takes Bill Gates’s call for a new generation of reactors, in which “accidents would literally be prevented by the laws of physics”, with “a grain of salt”. And many readers will agree with his suggestion that we should respond to the imminent threat of the climate crisis by gambling on battery technology and renewables instead of a technology that comes with “the danger of destroying the environment to the extent of those nuclear accidents of the past”. But the 29,000 cubic meters of high-level radioactive waste currently in storage already presents some risk. If integral fast reactors, which can consume nuclear waste as fuel, are judged too dangerous to pursue, then what are we to do with it all?

The delayed and outdated reactor at Hinkley Point will only contribute to this stockpile. UK citizens will be paying a premium for electricity generated by this £23 billion white elephant for years to come. Atoms and Ashes shows the need for stringent regulations to ensure that the plant can operate without deadlier cost.

Richard Lea is the editor of Fictionablewhich will be launched in June

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