Nuclear Books

July 18, 2012
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

I’ve read that 18th century author Samuel Johnson cautioned against trusting anyone who had written more than he had read.

Johnson’s words kept coming back to me in recent weeks as I was introduced at symposiums and conferences marking the anniversaries of the Fukushima and Three Mile Island accidents. The introductions of other presenters and I invariably included any books we’d authored. While I remain proud of the two books I have authored and was flattered by that recognition, Johnson’s warning suggested that the audiences might have been more interested in the books I had read than the few I had written. In that spirit, here are some of the many books that I have read that I found especially insightful:

Controlling the Atom: The Beginnings of Nuclear Regulation 1946-1962 by George T. Mazuzan and J. Samuel Walker (1984) and its companion, Containing the Atom: Nuclear Regulation in a Changing Environment 1963-1971 by J. Samuel Walker (1992) provide amazing insights into some of the Atomic Energy Commission’s decisions and indecisions. Although working for the NRC as its historian, Walker calls them as he sees them. Some of his calls don’t reflect favorably on the AEC. The value of these books is in their detailing of what happened and why; not what any party might have wanted to happen or for revisionist motives.

Nuclear Reactor Safety: On the History of the Regulatory Process by David Okrent (1981) is an invaluable resource. Bob Pollard, my predecessor at UCS, had a copy of the manuscript of this book before it was published. Bob handwrote this warning on its title page: “If you value your life, don’t even think about borrowing this.” I understand why Bob treasured this book so highly. There’s scarcely a month that goes by that I don’t refer to this book to find out why certain things did or didn’t happen. Okrent served on the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards when contentious issues like nuclear plant siting (there once was a proposal to build a reactor near the Brooklyn Bridge as well as one in Malibu, CA), emergency core cooling system performance, containment reliability, and reactor pressure vessel integrity. Okrent lays it all out. I encourage reading this book, but I won’t lend you my copy either. It’s available online for free here.

The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA by Diane Vaughn (1996) is not a book about nuclear power, but it describes similar situations faced by the nuclear industry and its regulator. Prior space shuttles experienced problems with the o-rings on their external fuel tanks. Rather than resolve the problems, their recurring nature led to their acceptance via what Vaughn termed “normalization of deviance.” O-ring damage was not supposed to happen, but because it happened frequently the abnormal became normal. As Challenger’s launch approached, NASA’s consultants expressed concern that the unprecedentedly low temperatures could make the o-rings even more prone to failure. NASA flipped the concerns around and asked the consultants for the minimally acceptable temperature. Lacking sufficient data with which to establish that limit, no line was drawn and the Challenger lifted off to its doom. The “normalization of deviance” also occurs in the nuclear industry (Davis-Besse in 2002 was an example) as does the issue of dealing with risk uncertainties.

Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic by George W. Hilton (1995) is although not a book about nuclear power, but it explains the quintessential unintended consequence that problem solvers everywhere seek so hard to avoid. Following the April 14, 1912, sinking of the Titanic and the deaths of 829 passengers and 694 crew members, laws were passed in America requiring vessels to carry enough lifeboats for all persons aboard. On July 24, 1915, while still tied to the dock in the Chicago River, the day steamer Eastland capsized, killing 841 passengers and 3 crew members. The Eastland disaster was caused by the Titanic disaster – the weight of the lifeboats and davits added to the Eastland made the ship more prone to tipping over. Thus, a law with the good intention of preventing deaths like those of the 829 passengers aboard the Titanic had the misfortune of causing the deaths of 841 passengers fewer than three years later.

The Whistleblowers by Myron Peretz Glazer & Penina Migdal Glazer (1989) uses case studies of whistleblower cases in several industries, including the nuclear industry, to reveal the systemic factors that often polarize issues. Any single case could easily be dismissed as being caused by a disgruntled worker or overbearing manager. But the collection of cases reveals how common workplace dynamics often compel the emotional actions and reactions that can make bad situations far worse.

Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies by Charles Perrow (1984) may not have been the first to explore the high risks associated with complex technologies, but it remains among the best. Covering a number of accidents across a number of industries, Perrow identifies the recurring factors that need to be better managed to avoid becoming candidates for the sequel.

Helen Caldicott: A Desperate Passion by Helen Caldicott (1996) is an autobiography of an amazing person. I first met Helen in 1997 following a keynote speech she delivered at a conference in North Carolina. It was the first, but not the last, time Helen scolded me for not doing more about nuclear safety. Her autobiography explains both her passion to address nuclear safety issues and its desperation. A true visionary who’d never be convicted of not seeing the forest for its trees, Helen sometimes make me feel like I can’t even see a tree for its bark. But it’s a fortunate feeling in that it inspires me to think bigger and aim higher.

Aunt Carrie’s War Against Black Fox Nuclear Power Plant by Carrie Barefoot Dickerson (1995) is a first-hand account of a citizen’s campaign against the operation of a nuclear power plant in her community. Reflective of many similar campaigns across the country, it explains the challenges faced raising funds to pay experts, translating obtuse jargon into plain English, and avoiding being overwhelmed by the closed-ranks cohesion between the power company and its regulator – all in one’s spare time carved from normal lives and jobs. It’s a good complement to Caldicott’s autobiography. Helen describes waging campaigns on the national and international levels while Carrie describes similar campaigning at the local and state levels.

Hostages of Each Other: The Transformation of Nuclear Safety Since Three Mile Island by Joseph V. Rees (1994) provides insights into the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), created by the nuclear industry in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident to be its peer watchdog. Rees describes how INPO works and some of the politics that give this watchdog less teeth than needed at times. Because INPO operates largely in the shadows, this book provides a rare peek behind the organization’s curtain.

Safety Second: The NRC and America’s Nuclear Power Plants by Michelle Adato, James MacKenzie, Robert Pollard, and Ellyn Weiss (1987) was authored by members of the UCS staff. But it was nearly a decade before I joined UCS, so it’s not self-promoting my work. And it’s out-of-print, so it’s not a fund-raising ploy (or at least, not one likely to be successful). This book covers four topics: (1) the NRC’s failure to resolve known safety problems, (2) the public’s limited capability to participate in the NRC’s processes in a meaningful way, (3) the NRC’s failure to enforce its safety regulations, and (4) the fraternal relationship between the NRC and the industry it regulates. To update this book, UCS need only provide some recent examples, change the date, and perhaps revise its title to Safety Third.

The Truth About Chernobyl by Grigori Medvedev (1989) describes the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine and its cleanup by someone who had worked at the plant during its construction and aided in its cleanup. The facts of what happened and why match many other books on the accident, but Medvedev provides insights into the culture as the plant was being built and in the wake of the disaster.

Licensed to Kill? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Shoreham Power Plant by Joan Aron (1997) covers the Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island, which cost nearly $5 billion to construct but closed permanently before ever operating above 5% power. It was the most expensive electricity never generated. Aron, who worked for the NRC, describes the legal and political battles involving county, state, and federal government agencies and many others.

Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America’s First Nuclear Accident by William McKeown (2003) explains how workers were preparing the SL-1 reactor in Idaho to restart on January 3, 1961, following a two-week maintenance outage. While moving individual control rods in and out of the reactor core to remedy longstanding sticking problems, a central control rod was pulled too far out of the core. Instead of about four inches, the control rod was pulled about sixteen inches. The reactor went from being shut down to over 100 percent power in a fraction of a second. That rapid power rise vaporized water inside the reactor vessel. The force of the resulting steam explosion lifted the reactor vessel nine feet out of the ground and expelled some of the control rods, one of which pinned a worker to the facility’s ceiling. All the workers at the plant that evening died. McKeown chronicles why it happened. He also describes the efforts of those who had to deal with the highly radioactive bodies of the workers and the cleanup of the facility.

Windscale 1957: Anatomy of a Nuclear Accident by Lorna Arnold (1992) covers the October 1957 accident involving a gas-cooled reactor at the Windscale nuclear plant in Britain. Arnold describes why that happened and how the radioactivity released from that accident caused cow’s milk to be dumped into the sea. Arnold also explains how filters – added to the plant’s vent system and called “Cockcroft’s follies” to ridicule their chief advocate – prevented that accident from having even greater consequences. This “back to the future” moment is timely as the NRC contemplates requiring vents at US reactors to be equipped with filters in the wake of the latest nuclear plant disaster, last year’s Fukushima.

The Accident by Hans Heinrich Ziemann (1978) is a novel following characters like the local elected officials, the plant manager and an anti-nuclear activist through the contentious days leading up to a nuclear plant in Germany operating for the first time. Before the dust of those battles settles, the plant experiences a major accident resulting in dust of an entirely different sort. Former antagonists unite in their struggles to survive the disaster. Ziemann develops his characters as humans all trying to do the right thing, albeit with different definitions of “right,” rather than as good guys and bad guys. Thus, the plant manager is not greedy and the anti-nuclear activist is not wacky.

We Almost Lost Detroit by John G. Fuller (1975) covers the October 1966 partial meltdown of the Unit 1 reactor at the Enrico Fermi Atomic Power Plant outside Detroit. It was viciously attacked by the nuclear industry at the time as being over-sensationalized speculation – criticisms that were blunted in the wake of the even larger meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. This book describes much of the internal debate over nuclear plant safety levels going on between the nuclear industry and its regulator at the time, the Atomic Energy Commission.

Fermi-I: New Age for Nuclear Power edited by E. Pauline Alexanderson (1979) explains how power companies formed a consortium to finance, build, and construct a liquid sodium reactor. It also describes how an 11th hour modification to the plant intended to make it safer in event of a reactor core meltdown actually triggered a partial meltdown.

Nuclear Power Goes On-Line: A History of Shippingport by William Beaver (1990) describes the two lives of this reactor – first as a pressurized water reactor and its later reincarnation as a light water breeder reactor. Shippingport was among the first nuclear power reactors to operate in the United States. It was also one of the first reactors to be dismantled. The former site of the plant is now an empty field and a parking lot adjacent to the Beaver Valley nuclear plant outside Pittsburgh.

Shouldering Risks: The Culture of Control in the Nuclear Power Industry by Constance Perin (2005) uses extensive on-site interviews with the workers involved complemented by exhaustive review of available documents to provide thorough case studies of safety problems that occurred at three US nuclear power plants. While not headline-grabbers like Three Mile Island and Fukushima, these problems nevertheless explained how schedule pressures, communication barriers, and other commonplace factors can conspire to lead well-meaning workers to undesired outcomes.

Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology by James R. Chiles (2001) examines several technological disasters, including Three Mile Island, to explain why they happened but also to draw recurring themes across them.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich (2005) is a collection of first-hand accounts of how the Chernobyl accident affected people’s lives. The book both puts the reader in the shoes of these people while at the same time making the reader glad to have worn different ones.

The Atom and the Fault by Richard L. Meehan (1984) provides the point of view of an insider during contentious proceedings regarding the seismic hazard and associated design features at nuclear power plants proposed in California.

Fallout by James W. Huston (2001) is a novel about terrorists attempting to use US assets to attack US facilities. Released shortly before 9/11, this book had the terrorists trying to attack a nuclear power plant on the California coast. And their target was not the thick, reinforced concrete containment building housing the reactor but the far less robust structure containing the spent fuel pool – and significantly more radioactivity than exists in the reactor core. Huston is a former US military pilot who applied this experience to determine the true weak spot at our nuclear plants.

Who Killed Karen Silkwood by Howard Kohn (1981) is about a worker at a nuclear fuel fabrication facility in Oklahoma who raised concerns about radiation protection for herself and fellow workers. On November 13, 1974, Silkwood died in a car accident while driving to meet a New York Times reporter. The documents she reportedly carried with her as evidence of her concerns were not in the car after the accident.

No Sacrifice Too Great: The Life of Lewis L. Strauss by Richard Pfau (1984) is a biography of a man who served on the Atomic Energy Commission at its beginning. Strauss is often remembered for uttering the infamous phrase that nuclear power would someday become “too cheap to meter” and for his role in removing the security clearance from Robert Oppenheimer. The latter incident came back to haunt Strauss – Washington politicians used it to deny him a position in President Eisenhower’s cabinet.

The Dorset Disaster by Alexander Sidar III (1980) is a novel that provides a fictionalized account of an accident at a nuclear reactor in Connecticut and the turmoil it causes company representative, elected officials, and the public. While the accident is fictional, the distress is causes so many people seems all too real.