Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuclear Notes

Time, I figure, to reacquaint myself with other nuclear accidents. Back when I took a seminar about the Manhattan Project, that subject was an appendix to my studies. That was so long ago that Chernobyl hadn't happened yet, and previous Soviet nuclear accidents were mostly still secret, such as the one at the Mayak nuclear fuel reprocessing plant near the city of Kyshtym in 1957, when tons of nuclear waste overheated and apparently caused a non-nuclear explosion that released radiation in an amount second only to Chernobyl.

Chernobyl might have remained secret longer but for how far the radiation blew. Word got out, of course. The first I heard of it was at a little store, and post office substation, in the first floor of the building in Nashville where I worked at the time. The proprietor, a bearded, chatty fellow, told me that "a nuclear power plant blew up in Russia." Unlike the Challenger accident a few months earlier, I don't remember that we huddled around our small workplace black-and-white TV that day to find out more, and looking up information on line wasn't an option.

I haven't had time to make it all the way through "Meltdown in Chernobyl," an episode of the excellent series Seconds From Disaster, but what I've seen so far is good.

The Windscale fire of 1957 -- clearly a bad year for nukes -- is an incident that ought to be better known. Maybe it is in Britain, but not here. In those days, the British were eager to make plutonium and tritium for an assortment of nuclear weapons, and let's just say that corners were cut. I'm not any kind of expert on nuclear energy, but even I'm astonished that Windscale featured an air-cooled reactor. With a chimney. The accident involved a massive fire in the reactor and clouds of radiation going up and out through the chimney. It seems that the crew narrowly averted a much larger disaster.

The gruesome SL-1 accident in early 1961 in Idaho inspires morbid fascination. I might be misremembering, but I first saw it mentioned on a calendar I had at some point in the mid-70s (published by National Lampoon?). The theme of the calendar was something bad every day, and the January 3rd entry mentioned that three men had died in a nuclear accident that day, but details were sparse, it being a calendar.

"Three workers were reassembling the control rod drives on 3 January in preparation for startup the following day," notes a site called Johnston's Archive, which is maintained by a physicist. "At about 9:01 PM the three workers were on top of the reactor when one manually removed the center control rod as rapidly as possible, over a 0.5-second period. The reactor became supercritical... producing a steam explosion. The worker who extracted the rod was killed instantly, impaled on the building's ceiling by a control rod... [One] hypothesis is that the rod was intentionally withdrawn in an act of murder-suicide; this was the conclusion of the investigation of the incident."

So as not to end on such a glum note, here's an amusement from Johnston's Archive, "A TEXAN definition of a planet." Or maybe he's serious. But I'm amused.

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