Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima

4.8 5
by James Mahaffey

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A gripping narrative of nuclear mishaps and meltdowns around the globe, all of which have proven pivotal to the advancement of nuclear science.From the moment radiation was discovered in the late nineteenth century, nuclear science has had a rich history of innovative scientific exploration and discovery, coupled with mistakes, accidents, and downright

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A gripping narrative of nuclear mishaps and meltdowns around the globe, all of which have proven pivotal to the advancement of nuclear science.From the moment radiation was discovered in the late nineteenth century, nuclear science has had a rich history of innovative scientific exploration and discovery, coupled with mistakes, accidents, and downright disasters.
Mahaffey, a long-time advocate of continued nuclear research and nuclear energy, looks at each incident in turn and analyzes what happened and why, often discovering where scientists went wrong when analyzing past meltdowns.
Every incident has lead to new facets in understanding about the mighty atom—and Mahaffey puts forth what the future should be for this final frontier of science that still holds so much promise.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 01/13/2014
Mahaffey (Atomic Awakening), a former senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, employs his extensive knowledge of nuclear engineering to produce a volume that is by turns alarming, thought-provoking, humorous, and always fascinating. He begins his mostly chronological work in the era before nuclear power was even imagined, when the engineering community’s greatest fear was steam engine boiler explosions—a fear that has carried through to the design of nuclear power plants to this day. Between his accounts of early boiler explosions and the big three nuclear disasters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, Mahaffey covers an array of mishaps and blunders, nearly all attributable to human error. This history reminds us that the first two people “to die accidentally of acute radiation poisoning,” Haroutune Daghlian and Louis Slotin, both died conducting criticality experiments by hand on the same sphere of plutonium. More pointedly, despite the anxiety generated by disasters and media hype, fossil fuel power generation can be directly linked to 4,000 times more deaths than nuclear power, and contributes heavily to global climate change. Mahaffey’s goal is not to alarm or titillate but to underscore that there is a steep learning curve in understanding these disasters and that they are a natural consequence of increasing our knowledge of nuclear engineering. (Mar.)
“Mahaffey guides us through more than a century of atomic research, including misadventures with radioactive elixirs and long-forgotten accidents along with show-stoppers such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Mahaffey quickly identifies each accident's turning points, and argues for a return to smaller reactors, reasoning that accidents are inevitable, so they had best be small. He extols the virtues of safe designs such as the thorium molten-salt reactor. If these change are made and lessons are leaned, accidents like Fukushima should be behind us. Entertaining and thought-provoking.”
Nuclear Street
“Part detective story, part documentary, part diabolical murder mystery, James Mahaffey’s latest non-fiction thriller, Atomic Accidents details the mistakes associated with all sorts of atomic devices, designs and decisions gone awry. As much a pleasure to read as it is instantly educating, Atomic Accidents is essential reading for anyone curious about the inherent intricacies involved with unstable atomic reactors, how they got that way and what should be done about them. Travel back through time and relive the history of the nuclear timeline with the inimitable Dr. Mahaffey as your competent guide. Atomic Accidents belongs at the top of your “Books To Read” list if you want to know what really happened way back then, now and what will likely happen in the future. Enjoy.”
Nuclear News
“The book aids in the understanding of how atomic science is far from the spawn of a wicked weapons program and how nuclear power will shape the twenty-first century.”
Past praise for James Mahaffey - Nature
“Persuasive and based on deep research, Atomic Awakening taught me a great deal.”
Mark Peplow - Nature
“Mahaffey guides us through more than a century of atomic research, including misadventures with radioactive elixirs (“The radium water worked fine until his jaw came off,” reads a 1932 headline) and long-forgotten accidents at enrichment plants…The compelling tales unravel like slow-motion horror stories, spiraling towards disasters we know are coming.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-02-06
Having delivered a delightfully astute history of atomic power in Atomic Awakening (2009), nuclear engineer Mahaffey goes over the same ground with the same combination of expertise and wit, this time describing what happens when things go wrong. The author opens with a disaster that destroyed a power plant, killed 75 and contaminated a wide area. It was a hydroelectric plant; nothing is perfect. Pure uranium and plutonium are well-behaved and barely radioactive. Under the right circumstances, their atoms fission (split), producing immense heat and radiation. However, there would be no nuclear explosion without the addition of complex technology. Fission heat and radiation by themselves can wreak havoc, and beginning with the first reactor in 1942, experts have worked hard to make them safe—though an automobile is more than 1 million times more dangerous to a bystander than a nuclear reactor. Much of this progress arose from painful experiences, which the author happily recounts. Human error and stupidity are not in short supply. Movie heroes never go by the book, but real-life nuclear plant employees should stick to it. Many of the mishaps that fill the book were ordinary industrial accidents: fires, conventional explosions and toxic leaks. No matter. Hundreds have occurred besides the big three (Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island), and Mahaffey takes readers on a 400-page thrill ride. Despite this litany of disasters, the author remains fond of nuclear power plants, which have "killed fewer people than the coal industry." However, he shows no mercy toward workers or engineers who have, at times, forgotten their vast capacity for harm. The most comprehensive and certainly one of the most entertaining accounts of atomic accidents.
“From clueless hunters wandering into caves teeming with radon-222, to fervid dreams of nuclear jets, and reactors bucking like steeds unused to human contact, Mahaffey keeps things appropriately dramatic. Truly valuable.”
“Mahaffey guides us through more than a century of atomic research, including misadventures with radioactive elixirs and long-forgotten accidents. The compelling tales unravel like slow-motion horror stories.”

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Atomic Accidents

A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima

By James Mahaffey


Copyright © 2014 James Mahaffey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-4774-5



"In Ozma's boudoir hangs a picture in a radium frame. This picture appears to be of a pleasant countryside, but when anyone wishes for the picture to show a particular person or place, the scene will display what is wished for."

— from a description of a plot device in L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz, thought to be placed somewhere on the Ozark Plateau.

It was hunting season in the Ozark Mountains in November 1879. Sport hunters Bill Henry, John Dempsey, and Bill Boyceyer of Barry County, Missouri, were out to shoot a wildcat. They had left their hunting party behind, chasing a cat through the dense woods with their enthusiastic hunting dog. The dog, with his seemingly boundless dog-energy, ran full tilt down a gulley, then straight up the side of a steep hill, chasing the cat through previously untrampled territory. The cat looked desperate. Leaping around on the side of the mountain, he disappeared into a black hole, and the hound did not hesitate to dive in after him.

The three men, somewhat winded from the pursuit, knew they had him now. They cocked their pieces, aimed high at the orifice, and waited for the cat to come blasting out. The wait became uncomfortable. Fifteen minutes, and not only was there no cat, but the dog hadn't come back. They half-cocked their firearms and started to climb, but just then they heard the dog barking, somewhere on top of the hill. They whistled him down. He had obviously gone clean through the mountain and come out the other side.

Henry, Dempsey, and Boyceyer immediately found this hole in the side of the mountain more interesting than the wildcat. They had been around here before, but had never noticed the hole. It was oddly placed, and it would be easy to miss. It required investigation.

Cautiously, the three entered the opening. Shortly inside they saw along the wall what appeared to be a vein of pure, silvery metal, and dollar signs came up in their eyes. Could it be? Could they have stumbled into an undisturbed silver mine? It was growing dark, and they decided to retire to the hunting camp and do some planning. Nobody was to say anything to anybody about the hole, and they would return tomorrow for a more thorough exploration. The next morning they returned to the site, dogless this time but with a boy to help carry things. They lit pitch-pine torches and crawled into the opening, single file, with Henry leading. The cavern opened up, and everything in it looked strange and unfamiliar. At about two hundred feet in, the tunnel was partially blocked by what looked like a large tree trunk of solid silver. It was the strangest metal they had ever seen, with the bluish sheen of a peacock's tail. In the yellow glare of the torches it seemed faceted, like a cut diamond. In the tight, unfamiliar surroundings, imaginations ran wild. Henry selected a free rock on the floor and used it to bang on the mineral column. A few unusually heavy pieces chipped off, and they put them in a small tin box for transport.

Still feeling the tingle of adventure, they squeezed one at a time past the silvery obstruction and pressed on. At an estimated five hundred feet from the entrance they entered an arched room, and their perceptions started to veer into hallucinogenic territory. The walls of the room shone like polished silver, the floor was a light blue, and the ceiling was supported by three transparent crystal columns. Hearts raced as the oxygen level dropped. The men each knew that they had found their eternal fortune, and in their minds, gently slipping away, they were already spending it. They pressed past the columns, and the torches started to sputter and die. The walls were starting to get very close, and a blind panic gripped all three hunters simultaneously. They scrambled, crawled, and grabbed their ways to the cave portal as quickly as possible, with Henry dragging the box of samples.

Boyceyer was first out into the fresh air and sunlight. He took a deep breath, and his legs stopped working. He keeled over in a heap at the entrance, and shortly thereafter Henry tripped over him and passed out cold. Dempsey emerged in a strangely talkative mood, babbling and making no sense at all. The boy, left sitting out under a tree, had quickly seen and heard enough. He leaped to his feet and ran in the opposite direction, down the mountain in free fall, bursting into the campsite winded and trying to explain what had happened up there, pointing. Eventually calming him down and extracting a coherent message, the men quickly assembled a rescue team and hurried to the site.

It is now clear that the hunters were suffering the classic symptoms of oxygen deprivation. When the rescuers arrived, Boyceyer and Dempsey were coming around, but Henry was enfeebled, dazed, and unable to hike out. The men decided to cut the hunting expedition short and take him home. On the way his condition deteriorated. Fearing the specter of a new form of plague, they took him to a hospital in Carthage, Missouri. The doctors had no idea what was ailing him. His symptoms were puzzling. Sores resembling burns broke out all over his body, and his legs seemed paralyzed. Bill Henry remained hospitalized for several weeks, and he had time to plan for extracting his fortune from the hole in the mountain.

When he had recovered enough to leave under his own power, he staggered back to the cave to stake out a claim and work his silver mine, but the person who actually owned the land on which the mountain stood did not share his optimism, and no mining agreement could be reached between the two men. The guy wouldn't even come out and see the cave with its sparkling silver, just sitting there ready to be hauled away. Perhaps he knew more than he would admit about that mountain. He wanted no part of a mining venture, and he advised Bill Henry to find something else to do.

Exasperated and angry beyond words, Henry returned to the site and avalanched as much material as he could move into the portal, making a hole that had been hard to find impossible to see. He would come back later, once he had figured out some further strategy.

There is no record of Henry having returned again, and he disappeared into the murk of history. The cave location faded away, and the story became one of the colorful, spooky legends to be told around campfires after dark up in the Ozarks.

That's the story, but it was not written down until 34 years after the incident, and facts could have drifted. There are questions. The initial problem was obviously oxygen deprivation, but what had taken the place of normal air in this cave? It could have been methane, the scourge of coal mining, but the cave was not lined with coal and there was not a hint of tool marks anywhere. And what had caused the burn-like lesions all over Bill Henry? Was he alone allergic to some mineral on the walls? What was the bright, iridescent stuff lining the cave? That is not what silver, or even gold, looks like in its native state. Later explorations of the cave would provide unexpected answers to these questions.

Meanwhile, in the formal physics lecture theaters and laboratories in Europe in 1879, the danger of being in a certain cave in Missouri and what it had to do with anything were unknown. Scientists across the Continent and in the United Kingdom, working at well-established universities, were busy studying the interesting properties of electricity in evacuated glass tubing. A thrillingly dangerous piece of equipment called a Ruhmkorff coil produced high-voltage electricity for these experiments. They were essentially inventing and refining what would become the neon sign. Research was progressing at an appropriate pace, gradually unraveling the mysteries of atomic structure.

Working independent of any academic pretension in the United States was a highly intelligent, well-educated immigrant from Croatia, Nikola Tesla. He came ashore in June 1884 with a letter of introduction to Thomas Edison, famous American inventor of the record player and the light bulb. He was given an engineering job at $18 a week improving Edison's awkward and ultimately unusable DC electrical power system, but he quit a year later under intractable disagreements concerning engineering practice, salary, general company philosophy, and his boss's personal hygiene. He immediately started his own power company, lost control of it, and wound up as a day laborer for the Edison Company laying electrical conduit. Not seeing a need for sleep, he spent nights working on high-voltage apparatus and an alternating-current induction motor.

In Europe they were working with induction coils that could produce a ripping 30,000 volts, stinging the eyes with ozone wafting out of the spark gap and with a little buzzer on the end making the spark semi-continuous. In New York, Tesla was lighting up the lab with 4,000,000 volts and artificial lightning bolts vibrating at radio frequencies. Naturally drawn to the same rut of innovation as his Old World colleagues, he connected an evacuated glass tube to his high- voltage source in April 1887. It had only one electrode. He connected it to his lightning machine and turned it on, just to see what would happen. Electrons on the highly over-driven electrode slammed themselves against the glass face of the tube, trying desperately to get out and find ground somewhere. The glass could not help but fluoresce under the stress, making a weak but interesting light. Tesla had invented something important, but he would not know exactly what it was until years later. He applied for a patent for his single-electrode tube, calling it an "incandescent light bulb" as a finger-poke in Edison's eye.

In 1891 Tesla's fortunes improved considerably when George Westinghouse, Edison's competitor for the electrical power market, became interested in his alternating current concepts. He moved into a new laboratory on Fifth Avenue South, and he had room to spread out and really put his high-voltage equipment to use. One night, he connected up his single-electrode tube built back in 1887. He turned off all the lights so he could see arcs and electron leakage. To his surprise, something invisible was coming out the end of his tube and causing the fresh white paint on the laboratory wall to glow. Curious, he put his hand in the way. His hand did stop the emanations, but only partly. The bones in his hand were dense enough to stop it from hitting the wall, but not the softer parts, and he could see his skeletal structure projected on the paint. Tesla, fooling around in his lab after hours, had invented radiology. In the next days he substituted photographic plates for the wall, and made skeletal photos of a bird, a rabbit, his knee, and a shoe with his foot in it, clearly showing the nails in the sole.

Unfortunately, Tesla was pulled toward greater projects, and he failed to pursue the obvious application of this discovery.

Four years later, on December 28, 1895, the discovery of the unusual radiation was formally announced, not by Tesla, but by Wilhelm Röntgen, working at the University of Munich. Röntgen was also studying fluorescence, using his trusty Rhumkorff apparatus and a two-electrode tube custom-built by his friend and colleague, Phillipp von Lénárd. Like Tesla, he was startled to notice that some sort of invisible emanations from the tube pass through flesh, but are stopped by bones or dense material objects. In his paper in the Proceedings of the Physical Medical Society, Röntgen gave the phenomenon a temporary name: x-rays. Amused at reading the paper, Tesla sent Röntgen copies of his old photo plates. "Interesting," replied Röntgen. "How did you make these?" Not trusting his own setup to be kind, Röntgen covered his apparatus with sheets of lead, with a clear hole in the front to direct the energy only forward.

Tesla, on the other hand, put his head in the beam from his invention and turned it up to full power, just to see what it would do. Röntgen had jumped him on the obvious medical usage, but there had to be some other application that could be exploited for profit. After a short while directly under the tube, he felt a strange sensation of warmth in the top of his head, shooting pains, and a shock-effect in his eyes. Seeing the value of publication shown by Röntgen's disclosure, he wrote three articles for the Electrical Review in 1896 describing what it felt like to stick your head in an x-ray beam.

The effects were odd. "For instance," he first wrote, "I find there is a tendency to sleep and I find that time seems to pass quickly." He speculated that he had discovered an electrical sleep aid, much safer than narcotics. In his next article for 1896, after having spent a lot of time being x-rayed, he observed "painful irritation of the skin, inflammation, and the appearance of blisters ... , and in some spots there were open wounds." In his final article of 1896, published on December 1, he advised staying away from x-rays, "... so it may not happen to somebody else. There are real dangers of Röntgen radiation."

These writings were the first mention in technical literature of the hazards of over-exposure to the mysterious, invisible rays. For the first time in history, something that human senses were not evolved to perceive was shown to cause tissue damage. The implication was a bit terrifying. It was something that could be pointed at you, and you would not know to get out of the way. Some of the effects were even delayed, and at a low rate of exposure, which was completely undetectable, one could be endangered and not even know it. The effect was cumulative. Tesla's equipment was powerful. He was fortunate not to have set his hair on fire, but his health was never quite the same.

At the Sorbonne in Paris in 1898, Marie Curie, with some help from her husband, Pierre, discovered a new element, named "radium," in trace quantities mixed into uranium ore. It had invisible, energetic influences on photographic plates, just as her thesis advisor, Henri Becquerel, had found in uranium salt two years before. She named the effect "radiation." It was similar in character to Röntgen's x-rays, only these came streaming freely out of a certain mineral, without any necessary electricity. A clue to the relation was its curious property of encouraging the formation of sores on flesh that was exposed to it.

The Curies were among the finest scientists the world had known, and their dedication to task, observational ability, and logic were second to none, but their carelessness with radioactive substances was practically suicidal. Marie loved to carry a vial of a radium salt in a pocket of her lab smock, because it glowed such a pretty blue color, and she could take it out and show visitors. Pierre enjoyed lighting up a party at night using glass tubes, coated inside with zinc sulfide and filled with a radium solution, showing off their discovery to amazed guests. He got it all over his hands, and on swollen digits the skin peeled off. Surely, the cause and effect were obvious.7

In 1904 Thomas A. Edison, the "Wizard of Menlo Park," had been experimenting with x-rays for several years. Edison thought of using x-rays to make a fluorescent lamp, and he proceeded to test a multitude of materials to find which one would glow the brightest under x-rays. His faithful assistant was a young, eager fellow, Charles M. Dally, who had worked for him for the past 14 years.

Dally was born in Woodbridge, New Jersey, in 1865, and he had served in the United States Navy for six years as a gunner's mate. After discharge from the Navy he signed on at the Edison Lamp Works in Harrison, New Jersey, as a glass blower, and in 1890 he moved to the Edison Laboratory in West Orange to work directly for Mr. Edison. He was put to work evaluating the new lamp technology. Day after day, he held up screens of fluorescent material in front of an operating x-ray tube, staring directly at it to determine the quality of the light it produced. Nobody gave thought to any danger, but after a while Edison noticed that he could no longer focus his eye that he used briefly to test a new fluoroscope, and "the x-ray had affected poisonously my assistant, Mr. Dally."


Excerpted from Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey. Copyright © 2014 James Mahaffey. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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