Tickling the Dragon: Nuclear accidents in the US and Russia

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70 Responses to “Tickling the Dragon: Nuclear accidents in the US and Russia”

  1. holtt says:

    Reading these kinds of accounts reminds me of early steam engine development. Horrible explosions, being scalded to death, etc. Mind you when a steam engine blew up, it didn’t need as much cleanup…

  2. Anonymous says:

    I don’t think that the biggest problem people have with nuclear power involves meltdowns. Correct me if I’m wrong, but, the isn’t the safe disposal of spent nuclear fuel usually the sticking point?

  3. Anonymous says:

    People do realize that there are plenty of modern forms of nuclear power in which meltdowns or criticality are impossible? As in physically impossible under the laws of physics?

    Unfortunately, anti-Nuclear activists have prevented any new reactor designs from being approved in the last 35 years, so we are forced to use the old designs… or worse yet, use fossil fuels.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The last time I was involved in an accident with one of those new-fangled horseless carriages, it was pretty horrible. You would be wise to be afraid of them.

    Humans can’t be trusted to run nuclear plants. Nuclear plant operation requires attentiveness and intelligence, which are in short supply… just like common sense.

    • daev says:

      “Humans can’t be trusted to run nuclear plants. Nuclear plant operation requires attentiveness and intelligence, which are in short supply… just like common sense.”

      Ya know, they don’t just take some guy bored with his job at Mickey D’s and hand him a manual. The personnel involved with a nuke plant are quite a cut above your average industrial employee. They not only have to know their own job, but also those performed by their co-workers in different positions. When I went to school for this in ’84-’85, the Navy’s nuclear power school was judged the 5th toughest academic curriculum in the country. We were expected to know the material cold, and to extrapolate correct procedures for unfamiliar circumstances based solely on our knowledge of the principles involved. There were no multiple choice exams. A 20 question exam could easily take 6-8 hours to complete. If they wanted the cross-section for collision of a neutron and a U235 atom at a given neutron energy, you’d better be able to give them that flawlessly. If they wanted you to draw a schematic of a backup safety circuit, it better be correct down to the values of the components used. It’s an exhaustive array of data concerning every knowable aspect of the materials and conditions of the plant and the systems that support it. It’s not rocket science, it’s much harder.

      There is no better solution than a human being who has graduated from that school and spent several years putting that knowledge to use.

      @strangefriend:

      All due respect to Dr. Gofman, but he’s got a rather narrow view of the issue and I dare say his interpretations have been tilted to support his suppositions. Any damage done by radioactive gasses leaked into the environment pales in comparison to the damage done by breathing the results of fossil fuel combustion. The concentrations of the decay products from radioactive noble gasses, for instance, becomes so low, so fast, that anyone inhaling the decay products will receive a dose that is indistinguishable from background. It is a non-issue trotted out by the anti-nuke folks as a scare tactic that has no basis in reality.

      I think the jury’s still out on the cause of Gulf War Syndrome, but I agree with you that DU should not be used simply because it *is* radioactive (though only very slightly… it has a VERY long half-life and has not in any way been shown to pose measurable risk, AFAIK). Whatever the outcome on DU, it’s irrelevant to a debate on nuclear power.

      Still, fission is a band-aid. We need fusion and renewables.

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        The personnel involved with a nuke plant are quite a cut above your average industrial employee.

        The bigger concern is what happens in 20 years when Congress gets bored with nuclear power and cuts funding. Or private industry decides to cut corners.

        • daev says:

          Now THAT is a very real concern, but one would hope that the importance of maintaining something like a nuke plant would be self-evident, even to our appallingly uneducated electorate.

          The thorny issue of fission really isn’t the plants themselves, though, but the waste generated. It’s not nearly as scary as some would lead us to believe, nor as rosy as proponents of nuclear power propose. Yucca Mountain is the best thing going for now with regard to long-term storage, but the waste coupled with the fact that fissiles are not a renewable resource are what leads me to refer to fission as a band-aid.

        • AirPillo says:

          Well, when congress or industry decide to cut corners, then we can trot out the Soviet examples and shove in their faces what happens when you cut corners to do things cheaply.

          “Awfully nice summer in Chernobyl, senators, might I invite you to take a business trip and examine the results of your proposed funding cutbacks/deregulation?”

          Then again, even with as horribly cavalier as the Soviets were with nuclearpower *, there weren’t a lot of failures on a large scale. Admittedly there are likely to have been many more minor (compared to Chernobyl) failures than the world will ever know.

          *-they built cheap mobile nuclear power plants inside of trucks, intended to be left totally unsupervised… I’d call that amazingly ballsy.

  5. Anonymous says:

    People have a long history of taking deadly risks in “The name of Science”. Before the 1st atomic bomb was tested, a significant number of leading scientists worried that a chain reaction could spread to the surrounding atmosphere and actually incinerate the entire earth, but they pushed that button anyway..
    Right now, the Large Hadron Collider is gearing up for full operation, even though some learned people believe a destructive Black Hole could be produced which could eventually consume the earth…But thy will push THAT button too. “Happy Accidents” and downright tragedy are responsible for many scientific breakthroughs. Imagine the poor suckers who “discovered” that cyanide was deadly poison. I can Imagine the scene: A man is found dead next to his chemistry set… on the counter and on his hands is a white substance that smells like almonds. “Wow! I smell almonds” says body-finder #1, “Maybe it’s THIS stuff” says Body-finder #2. dipping his finger into the powder.
    He touches his fingertip to his tongue. “Yuk! It doesn’t TASTE like ARRGHgurgleLHGHGRGH!!!!!”……..

    We learn as much or more from our mistakes, IF we survive them.

  6. woid says:

    There’s an immediately post-war (1947) movie about the Manhattan Project called “The Beginning Or The End.” I saw it on late-night TV when I was a kid, and was freaked out by a scene that mimics the Slotin accident.

    The movie traces events through the dropping of the bomb in ’45, so it’s obviously not literally Slotin (he’s not listed as a character in the movie on IMDB). But the incident is the same, at least as I remember it. The thought still scares the hell out of me, in fact, though I haven’t seen the movie except for that one time.

  7. Kibble says:

    Fortunately it is now TOTALLY IMPOSSIBLE for silly accidents to occur. Nuclear energy is totally completely awesomely totally absolutely purely simply totally completely safe.

    • Anonymous says:

      “Safe” perhaps inside America, but outside America (including Japan), all bets are off.

    • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

      Ahh, the smell of sarcasm in the morning.

      Accidents aren’t totally impossible, obviously. But there are a ton of systems built in now that make them extremely unlikely. There hasn’t been a criticality accident anywhere in 10 years and, if it’s not clear from this, these accidents are of a size that affects one person, or a handful of people…we’re not talking about huge amounts of spillage.

      That’s a pretty high level of safety. Much higher than a lot of potentially dangerous things we use every day.

      • M says:

        “But there are a ton of systems built in now that make them extremely unlikely. There hasn’t been a criticality accident anywhere in 10 years. . . ”

        Ah, maybe you weren’t around the, 20 years ago when they were telling us “But there are a ton of systems built in now that make them extremely unlikely.”

        • Trent Hawkins says:

          Are you talking about Chernobyl? Because they had none of those systems in place at the time, or any systems in fact. It’s like a giant “format your hard drive” button on your keyboard with no “are you sure?” prompt.

          • M says:

            Not Chernobyl, no–I’m talking about the incessant advertisements trying to sell us “safe” nuclear power through the last quarter of the last century.

    • mdh says:

      in much the same way that burning petroleum has no side effects.

      • sabik says:

        Well, the equivalent thing for petroleum would be unexpected detonation / fire. I would suspect that we’ve had more than 60 cases of those in the last 70 years even if we exclude vehicle accidents, but I don’t have the figures.

        I’ve no idea why you’re bringing up “side effects”, since no side effects are even hinted at in the article.

    • chip says:

      All snark aside, there are new reactor types that are INCAPABLE of meltdown: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pebble_bed_reactor

      Like most hazardous technologies, nuclear power is only as dangerous as your lack of knowledge allows it to be. It’s thanks to early pioneers who did all the stupid-dangerous research that we now know what not to do.

  8. Eric Ragle says:

    This is really a great article. The picture is a bit eery to me because we pretty much knows what happens next.

  9. AirPillo says:

    … is there really going to be a Part II or is that just a joke? =p

    • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

      I assure you it is not a joke. Come back Friday if you want to hear nuclear researchers speculating on the connection between criticality accidents and comic books.

  10. voiceofreason says:

    An accidental criticality could ruin your whole day…

    To Maggie Koerth-Baker might I interest you in a small farm in the town of Chernobyl. Very, very reasonable price.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Ya wanna know how the USA checked the equations to determine a critical mass of various radioactives, including plutonium?

    The lab tech dropped heavier and heavier balls of material through a ring, and checked the temperature afterwards. When the sum of the ring and ball were a critical mass, they got warmer from the brief fission that occurred during the drop. The experiment was repeated with progressively finer margins until nothing more could be learned.

    You think I’m making this up, but I’m not.

  12. o.burlaka says:

    read another story about man vs a “thousand suns”- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatoli_Bugorski

  13. wasii says:

    “Today, nobody would attempt that experiment except from a safe distance.”

    Actually, the darwin-award-sheer-idiocy of doing just that was well understood at that time and at that place.

    My grandfather was a scientist, and one ex-Manhattan Project physicist in particular was a good friend and thus a frequent dinner guest when my father was growing up. That physicist – and, I’m told, his circle of friends from the project – firmly believed the Slotin had to be mentally unbalanced or perhaps out-and-out suicidal on the day he, in effect, killed himself.

    We all know this wasn’t a basement science project: even in 1946 it was still a well-funded mini-city of a staggering mean IQ. When that sort of potentially dangerous testing might be required, there were top-notch facilities at Los Alamos to fabricate experimental equipment.

    And the experimentalists were not ahead of the theorists here – remember, the war was over; two nuclear bombs had already been detonated as a result of the project’s research. As you mention in your post, Slotin pulled the hemispheres apart because he understood what was happening. The consequences of that screwdriver slip were not unanticipated, just very avoidable.

  14. Griffin says:

    Well, I’m pretty sure she mentioned lots of safeties being in place “now”. Clearly poorly built and supervised russian reactors built over 30 years are necessarily in the same realm of safety. Even then, the areas around Chernobyl are actually recovering pretty amazingly. People are slowly returning, though its still very much a ghost town. There’s still some Strontium-90 and Caesium-137 around, which isn’t the most healthy thing ever (thyroid cancer and leukemia are more common, for example), but even they wont be much of an issue in a couple dozen years. And this is in a mere 23 years. Not too bad for the worst meltdown in history, and one that’s not likely to occur again. Nuclear power certainly has a far lower fatality rate than the invention of the automobile, at least.

    Also, wouldn’t it be a farm in the town of Pipyat, not Chernobyl?

    • Kibble says:

      Chernobyl was not a meltdown, it was an explosion. The area around Chernobyl is not “recovering nicely” because some crazy people decide that they’ll go ahead and move back into the area. And the glowing core under tons of concrete at Chernobyl is still glowing, unstable, and extremely dangerous. And nobody, not even the most pie-eyed optimists, have any idea what to do about it.

  15. cubby96 says:

    Interesting story, and I really appreciate the added science content that you bring to BB. IMO, it was an excellent decision to add you as a regular member/contributor.

    Do you have any links for further reading?

  16. knutmo says:

    The Chernobyl accident was not a criticality accident.

  17. daev says:

    I’m an ex-Navy nuke operator, in case anyone wonders about the following.

    It’s interesting hearing mention of meltdown-proof designs. The old pressurized water design is still in use for 2 main reasons: safety and relative ease of construction.

    Three Mile Island was a worst-case scenario: complete destruction of the core. No injuries, and only a trace of radioactive noble gases leaked into the environment. Bringing Chernobyl into any argument regarding the safety of nuclear power plants serves no purpose other than to show a lack of knowledge of the physics and engineering involved in the type of nuclear plants used in the western world. Chernobyl was a graphite-moderated plant built in what essentially amounts to a tin shed; ie. no containment vessel.

    So what happens when you lose coolant pressure in that kind of plant vs the western design? The plant heats up rapidly because the moderator is still in place (the moderator slows down neutrons… they are emitted at too high an energy to sustain fission in U235 and must be “moderated” to a lower, more suitable energy). In plants such as Three Mile Island, which also lost coolant pressure, the moderator is also removed since the coolant and moderator roles are both performed by the water in the core. The reaction slows down and does not exceed the design parameters of containment. Three Mile Island’s design worked as planned to contain a total failure.

    We also learned a lot from SL-1 that affected engineering considerations in subsequent designs. The main design flaw there was that the core could achieve criticality with the removal of a single control rod. Later designs can not go critical with even the most reactive control rod removed.

    Anyone out there who fears the construction of new nuclear plants really should make an effort to learn about what they fear. It’s akin to being afraid of those new-fangled horseless carriages.

  18. sconklin says:

    Here’s a lengthy report of criticality accidents:

    http://www.orau.org/ptp/Library/accidents/la-13638.pdf

  19. Anonymous says:

    Criticality accidents are from too much concentrated fissile material in one spot. Concentrated as in weapons grade.

    Non-weaposn grade stuff takes a pretty big pile (which is the origin of the term nuclear pile) often with something to moderate the neutrons to achieve criticallity. You have to really work at it.

    Chernobyl was not a criticallity accident. It was a working reactor and had acheived intentional criticallity years before. Chernobyl was a “hey, let’s turn off all the safeties and see how high we can crank the power” accident.

    • Anonymous says:

      Minor correction: the disastrous test at chernobyl involved dropping the power to extremely low levels, not high levels.

      They wanted to see what would happen if the reactor output dropped at the same time that the external power (from the grid) failed, but before the back-up diesel generators (for pumping coolant) could come online.

      Without coolant being pumped through, the reactor overheated, and this led to a steam explosion which, because there was no containment structure, spread radioactive material over a large area.

  20. Tommy Hobbes says:

    Man, you’ve got nothing on the Russians. NOTHING. It doesn’t involve criticality, but unbelievable stupidity in handling nuclear waste…

    http://www.damninteresting.com/in-soviet-russia-lake-contaminates-you

  21. Adam C says:

    Pebble Bed is one type of “safe” reactor, there’s also Liquid Sodium Fast Breeder, Cask systems, and a few others. The world needs power. Solar, Hydro, Tidal, Geo-Thermal, and Wind are all location specific and will either: destroy animal habitats, interfere with migratory patterns, and/or require billions of gallons of fresh water to operate. That leaves the lowest polluting choices to be nukes, fusion, deep ocean thermal exchange, or beamed microwave from power-sats. All of those except for fusion all currently technically quite possible. All the rest except for nukes need to be actually be designed for construction and implementation.

  22. ackpht says:

    What might be interesting is a history of medicine’s understanding of the biological effects of radiation. Was Slotin’s accident a result of ignoring existing protocols, or did they come afterwards?

    • Lilah says:

      Yes, Slotin was ignoring protocol when he was killed. Spacers were placed between the spheres to prevent them from accidentally sealing like that. Slotin had deliberately removed those spacers in favor of the “screwdriver method”. Also, he was lowering the top sphere down onto the bottom one when he should have fixed the top sphere in place and raised the lower one, so if a criticality accident did occur the spheres would have fallen apart. He was one of the most senior guys at Los Alamos (he actually assembled the very first a-bomb). Sometimes it seems like the most experienced workers have the poorest technique, because they’ve desensitized themselves to the danger. But, like Maggie said, even though he started it, he saved everyone else at the expense of his own life.

  23. Anonymous says:

    The Morning of the Magicians, 1960, Pau
    wels & Bergier.

  24. jahxman says:

    My father was in the room with Slotin, and if Slotin hadn’t done what he did I would not exist.

    He described a brief blue glow in the room when Slotin lifted the plutonium sphere, and quickly leaving the room. He was about 20 feet away from the plutonium at the time, and Slotin was standing between the sphere of plutonium and the group watching him. My father’s radiation badge (a square of photographic film sealed inside an envelope) showed a significant exposure that day, but fortunately not a dangerous one.

    Some have questioned whether a Cerenkov radiation flash (the blue glow) could have ocurred under the conditions there that day, but my father believed it was due to the neutron radiation interacting with the water in his eyeballs.

    • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

      That is an amazing story! Thanks for sharing!

    • xrayspx says:

      @JAHXMAN:

      If Slotin hadn’t moved quickly, you may not exist, however if your father hadn’t been in the room, you may not have been an XMAN, so I guess trade-offs have to be made?

  25. Anonymous says:

    Yes, interesting, sometimes eloquent comments. I am ANTI nuclear for commercial energy generation for one reason: We are leveraging our future based on the toxicity of radioactive materials we- to this day- have no viable storage or disposal methods for.

    We do not have fusion reactors. We cannot safeguard anything for 134,000 years. Civilization barely has existed for 8,000 years. Until we are able to cost effectively shoot our waste products into the sun, we should not use nuclear power. It’s a simple financial equation:

    Did 3MI pay for their clean-up? Did Chernobyl? This place has been removed from use by humans for several thousand generations to come.

    We have to carry the burden of accidental mishaps, however with nuclear materials, it’s a different time line. Understand this. Know that everything USED in nuclear reactors still represents extreme toxicity to humans for a long, long, long time, and we cannot hold to the promise of its safekeeping over the time suggested.

    Are we clear on this?

  26. Anonymous says:

    This is a fascinating area. In fact, I did some personal research on this a few years back after hearing about the Slotin debacle. The history in this area is rife with the unthinkable happening – another incident that comes to mind is when a big, churning, vat of water with plutonium ions went critical, because it happened to form the right topology for reaction while undergoing mixing. Crazy stuff. Humans are not designed for this amount of attention to detail, with this kind of impact if things go wrong. We need to place as many technical and procedural safeguards in place as possible.

  27. Brainspore says:

    “Oh, ‘meltdown.’ It’s one of those annoying buzzwords. We prefer to call it an ‘unrequested fission surplus.’”

    —M. Burns

  28. daneyul says:

    OK, maybe I’m dense here, but what exactly happened when the screwdriver slipped? Was there an explosion (and if so, how could he had time to lift the hemisphere–or did it happen after that?) or just a burst of high level radiation that eventually killed him? (And if so…no one else in the room was affected?) Was it heat? Was there other damage to the room?

    What actually transpired after the screwdriver slipped?

    • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

      No explosion. Just a lot of radiation released. Witnesses also say they felt a heat wave and saw a blue glow.

  29. catinthelap says:

    One commenter said there have been no criticality accidents in 10 years- I would add – that we know of. This is not encouraging:
    http://blogs.knoxnews.com/munger/2009/10/criticality_safety_issues_surf.html
    We see stuff like this or articles about radiation leaks once every 4 months or so, it seems. Of course the article always says it was a small amount, no danger to the public.

  30. GeekMan says:

    Also interesting: the plutonium sphere that was involved in Louis Slotin’s criticality accident had previously been involved in another laboratory criticality accident, which killed physicist Harry Daghlian. It was subsequently nicknamed the Demon core, and became part of the ABLE nuclear test at Bikini Atoll.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Small correction to “when heat energy produced by the reaction builds up enough that it makes the atoms–which are most unstable at room temperature–less likely to split.” The atoms, that is the nuclei, all split or don’t split practically independent of the temperature (unless it’s kind of the center of the sun, and actually cold neutrons do better). What is meant that when the stuff explodes, the atoms are not close by, and any neutrons flying around will not so easily find a nucleus to hit, which slows down the nuclear reactions incited by neutrons.

  32. ADavies says:

    Couple of things…

    This is another example of how transparency is a good thing. Better transparancy leads to better safety practices, better policy making and better emergency response.

    But the nuclear industry isn’t very good at transparency.

    Other thing is to check out our blog Nuclear Reaction for more recent nuclear weirdness.

    Fair warning: The blogger is a Brit, and very very sarcastic.

  33. Anonymous says:

    Nice article. For those that are interested, checkout a small video explaining the science behind this here:

    http://tinyurl.com/yzxgxcl

  34. Ito Kagehisa says:

    It seems to me that all reports of US nuclear accidents date from from a time when we did not have the current restrictions on publication and dissemination of information harmful to the US government.

  35. TotalForge says:

    This has nothing – zip, zero, nada – to do with nuclear power. Nothing.

    And though I am not anti nuclear power, I can’t help sharing Harry Shearer’s funny line from his ‘Le Show’…

    “It’s too safe to meter!”

    (kids and pedantic aspergers types: Before power reactors were built, nuclear power used to be touted in magazines, claiming the electricity of the mighty atom would be ‘too cheap to meter’. Ha!)

  36. strangefriend says:

    Thanks for this diary, Maggie. Don’t be so sure that all problems with nuclear power are worked out. For instance, every day a nuclear reactor operates, it releases radionuclides, usually isotopes of Argon, Xenon & Krypton. The nuclear industry & the NRC say this doesn’t matter since they are noble gases & are inert, but one of them, Xenon 135, decays into Cesium 135, which is radioactive for millions of years. And just because something is inert doesn’t mean you still can’t inhale it. Then the isotope is inside the body, releasing radiation. And what did John Goffman, Ernest Sternglass, & Thomas Mancuso have to say about radiation from nuclear plants?
    Numerous posters are gushing about new designs of nuclear plants. The NRC commented the new designs are ‘revolutionary, not evolutionary’ so they are concerned about whether they will actually be safer.
    More nuclear plants aren’t going to happen, since Wall Street still refuses to fund the technology. The recent cost overruns in Finland point out another problem. If done right, nuclear power is still too expensive. You can build ten wind generators or more for every nuke. And in a shorter amount of time.
    just $.02 from an old anti-nuke activist.

    • igm says:

      strangefriend said: “…but one of them, Xenon 135, decays into Cesium 135, which is radioactive for millions of years.”

      If something has a half-life of millions of years, that means it’s not very radioactive: per unit of time, not much radiation is emitted.

      Conversely, if something has a half-life of one minute, it would be intensely spewing radiation in order for half of it to decay in 30 seconds.

      Which is safer, something very very strongly radioactive for a short time, or very very mildly radioactive for a long time?

      • strangefriend says:

        So mildly radioactive isn’t a problem? John Goffman said there is no safe threshold for radioactivity. If something is mildly radioactive & it’s laying on the ground at your feet, sure, it isn’t a problem. But I was referring to inhalable gasses. if it is mildly radioactive inside the lungs, then there is a problem. Like DU shells. When they shatter/burn after hitting a target, DU micro-particles are dispersed into the air. That is what causes Gulf War Syndrome.

    • igm says:

      Wikipedia: “Caesium-135 is one of the isotopes of caesium. It is mildly radioactive, undergoing low-energy beta decay to barium-135 with a half-life of 2.3 million years.”

      I think the most dangerous stuff would have a half-life on the order of a human lifetime.

      Half-life of minutes or hours or days and it will be gone soon (well, decayed and no longer a danger); half-life of millions of years and you’ll not be harmed by it; but half-life of 20 or 30 or 50 years etc would be nasty and be around long enough to be encountered.

  37. jahxman says:

    @xrayspx

    Heh, that’s funny, I hadn’t thought of that. The XMAN in my handle isn’t a reference to the comic heroes, and I hadn’t ever noticed the connection before. I feel like Mr. Smoketoomuch in the Monty Python Travel Agent skit.

    I’m pretty sure the sperm that were exposed to ionising radiation at the time were not still around 19 years later when I was conceived ;)

  38. Anonymous says:

    SL-1 was an army reactor accident that killed 3 people in Idaho (and the reason the Amry wasn’t allowed to play with nuclear power) and so far has been the only fatal reactor accident in the United States.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SL-1

    • JamesPadraicR says:

      Actually the SL-1 didn’t stop the Army’s nuke power program. It was still going into the 70s. When I was about 8 my mother gave me a tour of the SM-1. Which had only been decommissioned for a few years at the time.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Army_Nuclear_Power_Program

      gee, according to the wikipedia page the SM-1 had first criticality on what would be my birthday a couple decades later.

  39. JamesPadraicR says:

    The worst US nuclear incident was the SL-1 meltdown, which killed three operators. I learned of it from my mother, who was an Army Health Physics Officer, and later Radiation Protection Officer (the first woman to attend the US Army Prime Power School in the late 70s). As she learned it, it may have been an intentional murder-suicide (probably apocryphal). Supposedly, one of the men was having an affair with the wife of another, who jammed a control rod up, causing a supercriticality. One of the operators was skewered to the containment roof by a control rod and the other two were killed by the explosion.

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