In introducing a document of this kind, the first thing to note is that the text speaks for itself. This is not a work of analysis or opinion, but a straightforward chronology of accident, incompetence and disaster spanning seven decades. The key unifying theme here is nuclear technology, roaring into modern history out of the blinding singularity that lit the sky over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
The twin industries of nuclear weapons and civil nuclear power hold a unique and forbidding place in our lives as the 20th century recedes and the forgotten struggles of the Cold War mutate into something more complex. Nuclear weapons slumber uneasily in our mass subconscious, an amnesia broken by irregular and violent cameo appearances in popular culture.
The hypnotic concept of a device small enough to fit in the boot of a sedan and capable of instantly obliterating a whole city will be with us as long as we give our collective consent to their continued existence. A vast multinational endeavour of atomic weapons design, maintenance and deployment grinds away far from the headlines, born out of the terribly flawed Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction. It is a work of calculated, unthinkable institutional violence all the more terrible for the way in which its existence has been sublimated and largely forgotten.
The enrichment plants and atomic reactors which gifted Manhattan Project scientists and engineers with their first precious traces of highly enriched uranium and Plutonium 239 have taken a different path since the first white flash sent shadows fleeing across the desert of New Mexico in 1945.
The formative weapons plants producing the world’s first fissionable material also shed colossal amounts of heat in operation. It took the US Navy to realise such a compact and energy-rich power plant could form the heart of nuclear powered submarines which could prowl the world’s oceans for months without needing to refuel. From there the race was on to engineer these plants to utility scale for electricity ‘too cheap to meter’. A few hundred tonnes of fissioning uranium would take the place of millions of tonnes of coal at the heart of steam generating power stations, and humankind would face a kind of liberation from the earthly constraints of energy poverty.
We shouldn’t underestimate the genuine intent of the policy makers and engineers determined to substitute horrific afterimages of mushroom clouds boiling into the stratosphere with something more benign: atoms for peace, an energy source big enough to fire the optimism of post-war industrialisation. While military planners knew full well that development of civil nuclear power would happily call forth identical industrial capacity to undertake a weapons programme, many saw the potential of an unlimited energy source that would free us from the 19th century fossil economy and eventually lift us into space.
This manual documents the fracturing and ultimate failure of this hopeful vision. It is a story of an unforgiving technology which never lived up to expectations but instead bequeathed a daunting legacy which will be with us for many generations. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima are familiar names to us now. But how many have heard of the fire at Narora, the horrific blast at Chelyabinsk, the ongoing and deadly gamble of Rokkasho?
If this manual can play even a tiny part in blowing away the mythology of a benign and proven climate saving technology, if it can turn even one critical thinker away from the seductive mythology of civil nuclear power, it will have been worth it. We owe a debt of gratitude to all those who have documented the accidents and crimes committed within these pages, those who came before, took a hard look at the reality of the nuclear industry, and chose not to look away.
As I write this, the campaign to ramp up uranium mining and introduce nuclear power to Australia is in full effect, blanketing editorial pages and filling conference venues. While the Australian Uranium Association cranks out glossy brochures with a strange desperation, the volcanic wreckage of four reactors at Fukushima Daiichi still smoulder a year on, and more than 160,000 radiation refugees have fled the world’s newest nuclear sacrifice zone. The impossible economics of domestic nuclear power will hopefully do some of the work in cooling pro-nuclear ardour in Australia, but it is the human story that most needs to be told.
We will not allow the terrible human and environmental costs of this flawed and obsolete technology to be forgotten.
Everywhere this industry touches down it leaves an imprint of misery and injury, and everywhere it goes it is challenged and fought. If each of us is called on to choose a side in the coming contest over nuclear energy on a warming planet, then at the very least, let the facts speak.