Monday, July 25, 2011

The oh so slightly revised history of nuclear safety

This post dates back to the early history of Nuclear Green. Periodically I revise and update old posts and repost them. Because this post is related to the history of the Windscale fire, and I wanted to refer to it in my discussion of the Windscale incident. What I regard as important about this post is the notion of nuclear critics that nuclear power lies out of the scope of history. Thus my 2007 Harry's Place critic seems to believe that if something happened once in the history of nuclear power, it will happen again over and over. Critics of nuclear power seem to believe that it is imposible for nuclear safety related knowledge and practice to evolve and change.

One of the follies of my youth was to spend a couple of years being trained to be a Historian of Ideas. This gives me an unusual perspective as a nuclear blogger. I had a couple of guest posts on Harry's Place in 2007. In my second post, alas now lost, I discussed the positive secondary benefits of using nuclear power as an energy source. My post attracted an inordinate number of anti-nuclear responses. One of my most vociferous critics was an English woman who was chemist.

My Harry's Place critic focused on a number of events in the history of the British nuclear adventure. It is clear that everyone who was doing nuclear science in the 1950's cut corners, and covered up problems, and no one more so than the British. The Windscale fire was a major nuclear accident, and the British covered up quite a lot of the problems. My critic however, chose to attribute to something she called "the nuclear industry" all of the characteristics of what was the British quasi-military nuclear production establishment of the cold war 1950's.
In the 196'ss my father research fission particle release during the Windscale accident, because he was researching the movement of radioisotopes in the environment during and after reactor accidents. Lots of radioisotopes had escaped into the environment because of Windscale, so studying the Windscale accident was high on nuclear safety researchers interest list in the early 1960's. Several things about the Windscale reactors, and the 1957 Windscale fire caught researchers attention. First the design io the Windscale piles was primitive by American standards. They were graphite piles designed to produce bomb grade plutonium. unlike the Hanford Reactors, which were water cooled, the Windscale reactors were air cooled. The X-10 reactor was the only American large air cooled graphite reactor. Eugene Wigner had rejected the use of air or gas cooling in the Hanford reactors. The British did not have a Wigner, and ended up up with an unsafe reactor design. In addition to being badly designed, the Windscale reactors were poorly instrumented, and the British were having increasing problems managing the reactors graphite moderator. Those problems had significant reactor safety implications, which the British failed to identify and analyze.

Thus the history of the Windscale fire must include questions about why the British had in the late 1940's chosen a production reactor design that was already considered obsolete in the United States by the time it went into operation, and why they chose to manage it the way they did. The combination of the reactor design and the management style adopted by the British made an accident in the Windscale reactors quite probable. The Windscale reactors were being opushed beyond their designed capacity and operated om unsafe conditions. The British nuclear program was being directed to fulfill the military ambitions of the UK Government that had nothing to do with the national security of the UK. The purpose of the United Kingdom nuclear program was to convince the political leadership of the United States, that the UK was still a great military power. Of course there was a Windscale coverup because culpability for the accident ran to the top of the British Government and military.

Windscale delivered a message to the American nuclear research community, that nuclear safety had to be attended too. The British Nuclear Research community had not payed enough attention to nuclear safety issues, and had allowed the operation of the Windscale reactors under unsafe conditions without protest. There was a lesson for American scientists and it significantly impacted what American nuclear scientists thought they should be doing, and what they thought their responsobilities were.

Critics of nuclear power ignore the history of nuclear safety. The history of nuclear safety is both a history of ideas and of a technology and a socio-political history. The two are intertwined. My British critic on Harry's Place, however, took an ahistorical viewpoint. She refused to place the Windscale reactor fire into the historic context of the British states management of cold war related technology. It was her view that if something was true of nuclear technology at one time, and in one place, it was true everywhere and always. Thus what was characteristic of the Windscale reactors was true of every reactor. And thus she argued that the management of the consequences of the Windscale fire by the British government is characteristic of all aspects of nuclear safety at any time and in any place. Critics of nuclear power similarly ignore the history of nuclear safety.

An ahistoric views of the development of any technology is profoundly unsophisticated. Technologies evolve in socio-economic and historical contexts, and attitudes towards technological issues like safety, are in no small measure related to the context in which the technology evolves. Knowledge evolves and with that evolution comes a greater appreciation for risk and understanding of methods of controlling risk,. As knowledge evolves it can begin to change the social and political context, thus altering public attitudes and beliefs.

A historian would, of course,
* note changes in attitude toward nuclear safety,
* developing research on safety,
* the introduction of new safety concepts, conflicts within the research community,
* conflicts over safety involving scientists, interest groups, self styled experts, research funders, policy makers, and policy implementation establishments.
Partisans in a disagreement about the significance of a historic event might well take a less nuanced view. My British critic from Harry's Place surely took and extremely unsophisticated view that reduced the history of nuclear safety to a simple narrative of good verses evil, With "the nuclear industry" embodying evil, and the critic fantasizing herself to be a warrior on the side of good. This fantasy, this myth, has characterized the anti-nuclear movement since the 1970's. At its heart then the anti-nuclear movement, to the extent it rejects a historical view of nuclear safety, is wedded to a mythological politics of identity.

In fact scientists like Alvin Weinberg, George Parker and my father, C.J. Barton, Sr., set out to do something about nuclear safety.

I have pointed out in Nuclear Green, that nuclear critic Ralph Nader's sister Claire had a professional association with with Alvin Weinberg and had discussed nuclear safety issues with Weinberg. Claire Nader undoubtedly passed on the substance of her discussions with Weinberg to her brother, who was later to talk directly with Weinberg about safety issues. The Nader's were both treated with respect by Weinberg. In turn Ralph Nader should have known of Weinberg's expertise both on reactor design and on nuclear safety issues. Nader also know of Weinberg's struggle over nuclear safety issues with Chet Hollifeld and Milton Shaw, a struggle that eventually lead to Weinberg's termination at ORNL. Thus Nader had no reason to doubt Weinberg commitment to nuclear safety. Nader could have undoubtedly used Weinberg's knowledge in a fight for nuclear safety. Instead Nader made his cause the fight against nuclear power.

Nader posed for the public as a good little guy, who fought against evil incarnate, represented by such evil forces as "the nuclear industry". Unfortunately this absurd story was bought be an increasingly simple minded media, that wanted to interpret every story for the public as a matter of good verses evil. Good verses evil was easy to sell to ther public, and drew eyes and ears to the media that told the stories. Stories with shades of gray were complicated. They required a lot of thinking and a lot of information. Thinking and information lost readers and viewers. In order to understand the history of nuclear safety, we must understand the increasing incompetence and corruption of what past for the mainstream news media during the last third of the 20th century.

There were some bad actors in the nuclear safety story, and Ralph Nader turned out to be one of them. The television networks, and the press were simply too lazy to get the whole story, so the media was content to sell the Saint Ralph line.

Nader tells stories about himself, in which he claims to be a saint of knowledge. For example, Nader claims that in 1964 he visited Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Over lunch Nader claims that he began asking nuclear engineers some questions.
They couldn't answer them, or the answers weren't satisfactory.
Nader claims.
'What could happen if a system goes wrong?
Nader asked. According to Nader the engineers avoided any such descriptions or said, '
we've got defense in depth' -- and other jargon.
"Defense in Depth" is, of course, a fundamental nuclear safety concept, that was proven to be effective during the Three Mile Island accident. At the time of Nader's visit to Oak Ridge George Parker, my father and other Oak Ridge scientists were working to understand nuclear accidents. By describing a discussion of things things that he did not understand as jargon, Nader revealed his lack of understanding of nuclear safety. As Gomer Pile use to say, "surprise, surprise surprise." There were of course, other people at ORNL who could have the answered Nader's 1964 questions, or at least would have known the answers within the state of knowledge. If Ralph Nader wanted to talk with peoplewho could answer his questions about nuclear safety he could have talked tp George Parker, or he could have talked to my father. Needless to say, Nader did not seek out nuclear safety experts to answers to his questions. Certainly his sister Claire's friend, Alvin Weinberg, would and could have answered Nader's questions about nuclear safety, and would have made himself available to Ralph and his sister Claire. It is quite possible that Nader talked to someone in Oak Ridge who did not answer his question, or alternatively gave Nader an answer that Nader did not understand. Had Nader sought out answers about nuclear safety in 1964, he would have found them, but Nader wanted answers that made nuclear scientist look bad, not in truth.

Nader was not interested in truth, he was looking for witnesses for his drama which would feature Saint Ralph fighnting an evil dragon "the nuclear industry." People, like Alvin Weinberg, George Parker, and my father were much to dangerous to rely on as witnesses. George Parker might start talking about how improbable it would be for most radioisotopes to escape from Light Water Reactors. My father might have started talking about how coal fired power plants and natural gas furnaces were delivering more radioisotopes to the environment than reactors were. Such people might blow Nader's cover, night reveal that Nader was only concerned about radiation coming from reactors. If natural gas delivered radioactive gases to American homes, the Saint Ralph and the nuclear dragon myth might fall apart. People might start asking why does Saint Ralph ignore the Natural Gas Dragon, that is brining radioactive gas to the lungs of so many Americans. If people knew that Alvin Weinberg had been fired over nuclear safety, he might steal attention from Saint Ralph. Weinberg was so dangerous to Nader's because he actually understood reactors, and safety, and his integrity was unquestionable unlike Saint Ralph's. Thus Nader's account of the history of nuclear safety, is self serving and dishonest.

Thus in the case of my British Harry's Place critic, as for other critics of nuclear power, the history of nuclear safety was something to be ignored. In their myths nuclear safety was simply impossible, therefore it could have no history. Nuclear power is a manifestation of something called "the nuclear industry", an evil despicable entity that transends time and space. "The Nuclear Industry" is always and everywhere the same, thus it cannot evolve, it cannot change, and has no history. Thus it is impossible to speak of something called the history of nuclear safety.

For nuclear critics, such as Ralph Nader, the topic nuclear safety exists to promote their own reputations. Nader, as well as Amory Lovins has maintained for over a generation that reactors are always and everywhere unsafe. Thus Nader and Lovins also believes in a mythic "nuclear industry" which also exists outside of time and space. There is for Nader or Lovins the history of nuclear safety is nothing more than accounts of their own struggle to slay the nuclear dragon, that is to outlaw nuclear power.


Anonymous said...


Whether or not Nader was bad (and I would contend that he was extremely dishonest) is not the point. His approach was no worse than that of the majority nuclear scientists and technocrats, indeed in some ways his was morally superior. Remember this, as far as is known, Nader's actions did not result in the death or injury or poisoning of other human beings. Nor did his action result in the destruction of other people's private property. Nor was his objective the application of indescriminant terror for the purposes of expressing political power. He did not create, develop or maintain inhuman weapons of mass destruction either. Not even one of them. Indeed, did the man even threaten anyone with destruction or harm at all?

As you alluded, the cavalier attitude to "nuclear safety" demonstrated by the British nuclear establishment was a by-product of the UK government's objectives and policies. It was also a product of the socialist mindset that was adopted throughout what are now the Western governments during the 1930s and 1040s. That what they were doing was dangerous and immoral did not enter into the minds of the scientists involved, just as it hadn't been seriously considered by the US based scientists during the Manhattan weapons program. All these morally deficient little guys were far more interested in the intellectual stimulus of the advanced "scientific" work they were engaged in, the priviledges and status they were awarded, the power and status of their position, the excellent employment conditions (pay, career advancement, welfare package, recognition, service grade, membership of an elite social group etc.) and the like than they were with considering the fundamental nature of that they were actually engaging in- what it was, what they were creating, what it would be used for, what the risks were, what outcomes were likely, who they were ultimately awarding their new weapons to (in other words the nature of those who were paying them off in order to get hold of weapons of indescriminant murder and destruction), who was in control of them and the inevitable costs to other people, most of whom were non-participants and not privvy to the details of what was going on.

Is it any wonder that with this attitude, sequestered from the rest of society, elite, secret, unavailable to public scruitiny, they took careless and reckless risks? Outsiders, the general public, didn't count. The "scientists" hardly cared about the problems and troubles they were causing or about anyone else until things went wrong and then they were caught in the glare of public scruitiny- followed by harsh public judgement.


Anonymous said...


The UK is not so different from the US. Govt weapon making programs have been more than successful in acquiring the morally deficient to create all sorts of atrocity and indecency. If you build such weapons can you really be taken seriously should you profess horror that such devices are employed and operated as you designed them to be? Or that their construction and preparation and possession produces deleterious effects? The resulting public oppobrium you generate, whether in the UK, USA or elsewhere, can hardly be a surprise.

In the end, the public distrust for matters nuclear has been cemented in place by the wreckless behaviours of govts and the "scientist" peons they employed and owned- none of whom are trusted by the public. This is the historical legacy and it is what you experienced at the hands of your correspondent. It is why Nader ignored the opinions of Alvin Weinberg et al- they were tainted and he could not afford to have an association with them, besides which he clearly did not place much trust in them.

There is significant public opposition to nuclear technology and it is well entrenched. It is understandable how this came to pass, even if some of the arguments of the anti-nuclear crowd appear somewhat unsound. Is there a way out? Is there remediation possible? If so, it will demand a lot of persuasion, a great deal of change within the nuclear industry as well as amongst academics and scientists. One thing it does necessitate is a humane morality to be applied and followed with absolute consistency. Of course this is part of what Alvin Weinberg came to consider by the time he was discussing his view of the nuclear "Faustian Bargain"!


Charles Barton said...

Stone, One of the things that I have tried to do is to suggest that there was a history of nuclear safety, and to suggest something about the course of that history. If you believe that my suggestions about the history of nuclear safety are mistaken, tell me what it is you disagree with. and why you disagree.

As for why Nader disregarded Weinberg, Nader either did not believe that it was possible to build safer reactors, or he simply did not want to build safer reactors. In the 2000 election Nader proved himself to be arrogant and self-centered. Nader mad a lot of money by posing as a champion of the public interest, but in the end he cared about no ones interests but his own.

DW said...

Stone...this was about Nader during the specific period when people who were NOT arrogant could answered his questions. it was, after all, Weinberg who INFORMED Nader about the problems of global warming. alas..

Secondly, it has nothing to do with a "socialist mindset". Both the British and French systems of nuclear energy were established under "socialist" regimes of a sort and the French was was just the opposite of the British one. How do you explain this?

Anonymous said...


I wrote not of some supposed arrogance of some fellow or other. I wrote about some of the reasons nuclear industry spokesmen and promoters etc were and are not trusted, why its "scientists" and technocrats were and are not trusted, and mentioned that Nader could not afford to be tainted by association with such (even when they started talking up "safety").

I do not regard Nader with much sympathy or respect, although his careful avoidance of the messages of nuclear promotion from the likes of Alvin Weinberg is logical. The nuclear lot were in the process of discrediting themselves politically, being involved in serious and on-going internal dispute, pursued by the consequences of serious technical and engineering and administrative and proceedural shortcomings (not to mention careless errors), all the while being beaten out for cash grants/funding/budgets by other welfare lobbiests who were well aware of their weaknesses and more than aggressive in exploiting them. They were on a hiding to nothing and few of them even realised. Nader sure did. He was politicaly tuned in to what people were prepared to support. In this regard he was a product "of the people".

You write that this has nothing to do with the socialist mindset of governments while in the very next sentence concede that the nuclear activity of Britain and France were established by socialist regimes, ie. socialist governments.

France was (and is) operated under a socialist model of govt. Britain also was (and is) operated under a socialist model, albeit a differing version of one. Hardly opposites, they share fundamentals and premise.


Anonymous said...


I added context, not disagreement. That there was eventual realisation by some insiders that nuclear safety needed to be taken a lot more seriously than it was is not being contested by me here.

Nader promptly responded to sentiments that were ascendant and becoming very powerful throughout the US population. He was politically sensitive, astute enough to understand he could not afford to be tainted by association with those whose political fortunes were ebbing away- spent. The tide was turning.

A reading of Nader's opinions suggests that he didn't believe that completely safe reactors were possible at the time.


Anon said...

Whether or not Nader was bad (and I would contend that he was extremely dishonest) is not the point. His approach was no worse than that of the majority nuclear scientists and technocrats, indeed in some ways his was morally superior. Remember this, as far as is known, Nader's actions did not result in the death or injury or poisoning of other human beings.

Nader's actions promoted fossil fuels (what you get if you don't want nuclear) which are far more dangerous than even the most incompetently designed and operated nuclear reactors.

I very much would have to dispute the idea that he didn't kill or injure anyone.

Sione: He did not create, develop or maintain inhuman weapons of mass destruction either. Not even one of them. Indeed, did the man even threaten anyone with destruction or harm at all?
If not for those weapons of mass destruction there would have been a third world war between the US and USSR (and their respective allies/puppet states) which probably would have killed far more even than WWII.

Sione: That what they were doing was dangerous and immoral did not enter into the minds of the scientists involved, just as it hadn't been seriously considered by the US based scientists during the Manhattan weapons program.
Much of the reason those scientists were willing to work on a nuclear weapon was because they realised that if the US wasn't the first country to get the bomb Hitler's Germany would have been (that's also why noted pacifist Albert Einstein signed a letter to president Roosevelt urging that nuclear weapons be developed).

There is significant public opposition to nuclear technology and it is well entrenched.

Why then is the majority of the US population pro-nuclear?

Could it be that the public opposition to nuclear technology is massively exaggerated? That the anti-nuclear movement are falsely claiming to speak for the majority when they are just a vocal and wrong minority?

I think the real problem is that a lot of people assume that nuclear is somehow inherently more dangerous than other technologies when it isn't (not that you should be reckless, just that being reckless with a nuclear reactor isn't actually any worse than being reckless with a chemical plant).


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