An Exclusive Nuclear Street Interview with Dr. James Mahaffey, author of ATOMIC ACCIDENTS: A HISTORY OF NUCLEAR MELTDOWNS AND DISASTERS FROM THE OZARK MOUNTAINS TO FUKUSHIMA

- By Randy Brich -

Dr. James MahaffeyDr. James Mahaffey skillfully blends nuclear physics, mechanical engineering and human foibles into an incredibly readable, noteworthy account of accidents associated with unstable nuclear reactors and devices.  He identifies the crucial decisions that made many of the accidents worse than they should have been had the machines been left alone to function as designed. 

Nuclear Street jumped at a chance to interview Dr. Mahaffey, who is fast becoming one of the nation’s premier technical experts on atomic accidents.  

Spoiler Alert: I have functioned as a volunteer technical reviewer of several of Dr. Mahaffey’s Facts On File series of nuclear textbooks and therefore may not be as objective a source as one would like; but, you know, you get what you pay for.

Nuclear Street:  Why did you write ATOMIC ACCIDENTS? 

Dr. James Mahaffey: 

I've always been fascinated by accident analysis, and I threw some of it in ATOMIC AWAKENING, but there was so much more to be picked apart.  In the meantime, in just the past three years or so, a lot of old material was being dredged up and published on the Internet.  These were both previously classified documents and obscure reports, not necessarily secret but not easy to find.  There was also an avalanche of old 16mm films from tests and accident analysis on YouTube.  Were anti-nuclear groups or individuals finding this stuff?  For me, it was a bonanza, and I was able to do some fundamental fact-finding, starting with original reports.  I had terrific fun compiling this stuff and organizing it into a complete picture of how nuclear engineering had evolved over the last half of the 20th century.  It was something that I just had to write down.

NS:  It's been about a month since ATOMIC ACCIDENTS was published, what's the reaction been like? Have you heard from any of your peers? 

Mahaffey:  Yes, response from the NE community has been very good.  There have been suggestions for a face-off comparison of ATOMIC ACCIDENTS and that other new book dealing only with the Fukushima disaster.   Bring it on!  The points of view in these two books seem divergent. The great divide is that the authors of "Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster" spend the latter half of the book accusing the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission of being responsible for the disaster.  I find this accusation bizarre.  Fukushima was written by three authors with impressive credentials.  One, Susan Stranahan, was a journalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer and won a Pulitzer for her coverage of the TMI accident.  The other two, David Lochbaum and Edwin Lyman, are heavily involved in the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Lochbaum was a nuclear engineer for 20 years and Lyman, who counts himself as a global security specialist, has a Ph.D. in physics.  Their impression of the NRC actions following the TMI meltdown differs from mine.  I worked on the TMI response for and with the NRC in those days, and we are apparently familiar with two dissimilar organizations, the Fukushima NRC and the ATOMIC ACCIDENTS NRC.   My impression of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster is that it was caused by an inadequately anticipated large tsunami wave and not by a lack of regulation of the United States nuclear power industry.

NS:  What I'm getting at is do nuclear supporters (who aren't familiar with your books) think that it's just another anti-nuclear book? 

Mahaffey:  If they think that ATOMIC ACCIDENTS is anti-nuclear, then they haven't read it.  Nuclear engineering has always been able to face problems, inadequate designs, and mistakes head on, making incremental corrections and always learning.  The public has been out of this loop for too long.  It has been assumed that discussing or even revealing nuclear accidents will terrorize the public and destroy confidence in the engineering behind this branch of technology, given the general lack of understanding of the science involved.  In this book, which is meant for the general reading audience, I attempt to reveal all as calmly and objectively as I can.  As I try to explain in the introduction, sometimes giving the whole bag of accident effects to the audience can calm fears.  I have enough respect for the reader to explain the physics without sugar-coating it or talking down, although I think I may have explained "prompt criticality" as many as five times.  They don't necessarily get it the first time.

NS:  Continuing along this line I had an illuminating but brief interchange with none other than Dr. Patrick Moore on Twitter regarding AA. Perhaps you would like to address Dr. Moore's statement "hardly a disaster?”

Mahaffey:  Dr. Moore needs to read the book before commenting!  I think he may be pleased with what it says about nuclear power and its evolution.  I do make the comment that a "nuclear disaster" is unique in that nobody is harmed.  The term "disaster" is usually appropriate, but not for the sake of injuries or deaths.  A light-water reactor melt, such as Fukushima or TMI, is an economic disaster.  A few seemingly small mistakes can pull down an entire power plant.  It suddenly loses status as a revenue maker and becomes a long-term liability. This is what we need to design out of nuclear power in the next generation of engineering effort.

NS:  One of the most oft-cited reasons the US needs more nuclear power is the fear of AGW. Given that AGW was over-hyped and that CO2 isn't the driver of global climate that many wish it was and that there now seems to be an abundance of natural gas, let alone coal, what are some other reasons the US should be investing in nuclear? Or, shouldn't they? Should current behemoth PWRs and BWRs be scrapped for the new school modular ones that you allude to in AA? I guess what I'm asking is what is the most likely future of nuclear power? Alternatively, is this what you'd recommend if you were "in charge" of nuclear power development in the US? 

Mahaffey:  I stand by my original thought that nuclear power is inevitable.  Earth-bound civilization will require more and more electrical power, and the extreme inefficiency of burning carbon to make heat compared to nuclear processes will be the decision point.  Solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and tidal power will never go away, and nuclear will become the base-load source.  This move toward nuclear as a static, 24-hour source is presently in the R&D stage.  We haven't really gotten to the beta-test phase yet.  Give it time.  Current large PWR and BWR plants will be decommissioned as their lifetimes cycle out.  Some will be replaced with Gen III+ or hopefully Gen IV reactors, and some will not.  I think it's time to try the modular approach and exploit the advantages of small reactors, and the molten-fuel thorium reactor is starting to look better and better.  Look back at the large sweep of nuclear accidents that occurred in the first half-century and ask, "What's the weak point that can bring down a power plant, regardless of all the safety add-ons?"  Disregard the existing infrastructure of nuclear power and be honest.  Is it the core structure of the common light-water reactor?  Why doesn't this design feature bedevil naval reactors?  Could there be any other way to build a power reactor?  Has there ever been a tested design in which fuel melt is not a bad thing?  I'm just asking.

NS:  Fukushima can't quit making the news, now there's another contaminated water leak. Can you put the most recent leak into perspective? It appears to me to be a complete lack of Conduct Of Operations but what else am I missing? 

Mahaffey: Japan's approach to stabilizing the Fukushima Daiichi plant and clearing the site has been completely different to what I think the US would do in a similar situation.  When TMI-2 went down, the US government took over, assuming that a power company lacked the resources and the expertise to accomplish the unique task of controlling radioactive debris on a large scale.  The national labs had faced this problem before, fortunately on a smaller scale but with all the problem-solving parameters presented by the core meltdown at TMI.  Much was learned when SL-1 was dismantled and made to go away at the NRTS in Idaho, and this expertise was exercised by the Idaho National Energy Laboratory and other nuclear-specific labs owned by the US government.  It is interesting to note that a portion of the cleanup cost of TMI was paid for by the Japanese government, just so they could have a team work on the problem and gain experience with light-water power reactor cleanup.  Back in 1979, they were rightfully anticipating a future need.  In reality, the Japanese nuclear power business isn't quite as organized as we prefer in the US, and TEPCO, the power company, is expected to clean up its own problem and pay for everything, including compensation to displaced families in the contaminated zone.  This is not going to work.

NS: Thank you for your time and your quick response to these questions. 

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  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    "One of the most oft-cited reasons the US needs more nuclear power is the fear of AGW. Given that AGW was over-hyped and that CO2 isn't the driver of global climate that many wish it was and that there now seems to be an abundance of natural gas, let alone coal, what are some other reasons the US should be investing in nuclear?" WHAT? That's not an interview question, that's some kind of political statement buried in an otherwise-reasonable interview. What's with the random, off-topic denial of scientific consensus?

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    @Anoymous:  except it's *not* scientific fact, it's theory primarily based on computer models. Computer models that keep being changed to produce the results the GW cabal wants to market to the masses.  Have we already forgotten about the leaked emails proving that data was being manipulated to produce the results they wanted to produce?  

    The worst part of the whole thing is it tarnishes any attempt at pollution reduction because it becomes a politically charged issue (just look at your response, you reacted like someone said your religion was wrong or stupid).  Even without AGW coal is still a terrible energy source compared to nuclear.  We don't need it to cause global problems to see the terrible effect it has on local air quality or the destruction it brings to the beautiful places they mine it from.  Drive through West Virginia sometime and you'll see how terrible it is.  I've worked at a coal power plant doing computer work and all the HVAC vents are ringed with black and there is nasty dust everywhere and in everything.  It's terrible.  Then we have the issue of dumping endless cash into the most violent part of the planet to get our petroleum when we could spend the money at home on nuclear tech.  

    We don't need the politically charged and questionable AGW excuse to move away from the two main flavors of fossil fuels.  Common sense and general pollution reduction should be excuse enough.

    Btw, Atomic Awakenings was excellent.  I've ordered this book just now and am excited to read it!

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    I read the book and very much enjoyed it.  The only item missing is that nuclear power can replace coal which spews Mercury into the biosphere and is making vast numbers of human beings more stupid.  The problem could bring down civilisation.  Look it up.  Jack apgar, Perth Australia.