books energy technology

Book review: Meltdown, by Joel Levy

Last month I read the pro-nuclear treatise A Bright Future, which I thought was a well-written case for nuclear power in response to climate change – albeit with a few reservations. For the authors, one of the biggest frustrations with nuclear power is the perception that it is unsafe, when it is in fact one of the least dangerous ways to produce energy.

I thought that was worth exploring a little further. Where does the fear come from? How grounded in reality is it? What can I learn from the times where nuclear power has gone wrong? So I read this book: Meltdown – Stories of nuclear disaster and the human cost of going critical.

The book covers every nuclear accident of any note, from the earliest incidents in laboratories to the most recent crisis in Fukushima. Levy retells the stories like pacy thrillers, describing the unfolding drama with just enough technical and biographical detail to get a sense of who is involved and what is going on. There are accidents involding scientists showing off, lost nuclear weapons, design flaws and cost-saving shortcuts. And it’s interesting to note how often bureaucracy is involved.

Windscale, for example – now renamed as Sellafield – was the site of Britain’s riskiest nuclear accident. The incident tells us as much about bad management as it does about nuclear power. There is petty cost-cutting, buck-passing, big decisions made by elected officials who don’t fully understand the science. Whistle-blowers aren’t welcome and so nobody takes responsibility. These same problems occur in Soviet accidents, and later on in Japanese corporate culture.

When an accident does occur, this same lack of transparency and accountability get in the way of managing the response, and then the public relations when it inevitably becomes a news story. As Levy notes, the actual harm to the public from Windscale was relatively low, but “effects were dramatic in terms of public opinion and the cultural and political discourse around nuclear energy.” In the United States, the Three Mile Island incident also “left a legacy of fear and suspicion out of all proportion to the actual harms that resulted.”

There are more genuine horrors too. There is a callousness to the Soviet disasters that isn’t present in the Western stories. Clean-up workers treated as disposable, the use of prison labour, problems hushed up and health anomalies officially denied. Whole villages evacuated without giving the residents an explanation. There is a chapter on the Kyshtym disaster of 1957, which is now classified as the third worst nuclear accident in history, and yet nobody knew about it for decades and I’d never heard of it myself.

Levy tells these stories with pace and flair, perhaps a little morbidly sometimes (there’s a chapter called ‘The grim death of Cecil Kelley’, for example). If you’re curious about nuclear technology or fascinated by incidents like Chernobyl, as many people are, then it’ll be worth a read. I certainly feel like I have a much better understanding of nuclear accidents, and also of how nuclear reactors have been designed and operated.

However, ultimately there’s little by way of context in the book, not much sense of where nuclear power is today or how the technology has evolved. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions and extrapolate lessons learned for yourself. I don’t feel like I answered the questions I had at the beginning, which are more to do with why nuclear accidents continue to fascinate and obscure debate, and the hold they have on the imagination. That’s no fault of Levy’s, as his book doesn’t promise any more than the stories. But in the end, Meltdown might be a book that compounds that curiosity without shedding any new light on the matter.

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