Once hailed as a source of electricity that would be too cheap to meter, atomic power has come a long way since the 1950s – mostly downhill. Far from being cost-free, nuclear-generated electricity is today more expensive than power produced by coal, gas, wind or solar plants while sites storing spent uranium and irradiated equipment litter the globe, a deadly radioactive legacy that will endure for hundreds of thousands of years. For good measure, most analysts now accept that the spread of atomic energy played a crucial role in driving nuclear weapon proliferation.
Then there are the disasters. Some of the world’s worst accidents have had nuclear origins and half a dozen especially egregious examples have been selected by Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy to support his thesis that atomic power is never going to be the energy savior of our imperilled species.
His “six of the worst” includes the explosions that wrecked power stations at Chernobyl in 1986, Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukushima in 2011, as well as the fire at the Windscale reactor in 1957; the Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb test that spread radioactive cloud across the Pacific Ocean in 1954; and the 1957 Kyshtym disaster, which irradiated 20,000 square miles of the Urals after a Soviet plutonium production plant exploded.
All were caused – in varying degrees – by poor design, technological mistakes, hubris and operator error. Dozens died trying to limit the effects of these disasters and thousands of citizens were exposed to radiation that will have triggered tumours and premature death. In the case of the Kyshtym accident, a huge tract of irradiated land was declared uninhabitable, and remains that way 65 years after the disaster, while the clean-up bill for Fukushima is now estimated at $187bn (£150bn).
National leaders reacted in different ways. President Jimmy Carter was quick to visit Three Mile Island to provide reassurance that the site was no longer a danger to America, contrasting with Mikhail Gorbachev, who waited three years before he popped over to see how things were going at Chernobyl.
Some operators reacted with panic as reactors caught fire and alarm blared through their control rooms, though a great many were calm, if baffled, as fresh catastrophes continued to unfold, with the prize for cool-headedness going to Windscale Arthur Wilson, who realised the plant’s Number 1 reactor was on fire and ready to explode. “I thought, ‘Oh, dear, now we are in a pickle,’” he recalled.
Nor are we likely to have experienced our last nuclear disaster, adds Plokhy in this grim but expertly concise account of what happens when atom plants go bad. The world has about 440 reactors in operation and another Fukushima-like blast at one of these is almost inevitable, probably before the middle of the next decade.
Yet politicians keep coming back to the nuclear industry, most recently as a solution to global heating and our current energy crisis. Reactors emit very little carbon dioxide and can provide significant amounts of electricity – once they are up and running. In a world seeking climate stability and freedom from Russian oil and gas, they can look attractive. Hence Boris Johnson’s promise that “nuclear is coming home” and should be supplying 25% of UK’s power by 2050.
Plokhy will have none of this. “Nuclear power is too costly and it takes too long to build a reactor and it is inherently unsafe not only for technological reasons but also because of the risk of human error,” he says. And given the past failures and disasters that he highlights, it is hard not to agree with him, though we should note that his arguments carry a careful coda.
Nuclear power still generates 10% of the world’s electricity and that is a precious supply. Lose it and fossil fuels would have to fill the gap. So we still need the nukes that we have already got – for the moment at least – but please do not add any more to the list, says Plokhy whose Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy won the Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction in 2018. As he puts it, the nuclear industry has gone past its spring and summer years and should be allowed to reach a useful but limited autumn before it is quietly forgotten as a dark global experiment that should not be repeated.