A IS FOR ATOM

Wednesday 16 March 2011, 15:42

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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I am sorry I haven't put anything up recently. I have been busy finishing a new series of films for BBC-2

As a background to the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant I am putting up a film I made a while ago called A is for Atom. It was part of a series about politics and science called Pandora's Box.

The film shows that from very early on - as early as 1964 - US government officials knew that there were serious potential dangers with the design of the type of reactor that was used to build the Fukushima Daiichi plant. But that their warnings were repeatedly ignored.

The film tells the story of the rise of nuclear power in America, Britain and the Soviet Union. It shows how the way the technologies were developed was shaped by the political and business forces of the time. And how that led directly to inherent dangers in the design of the containment of many of the early plants.

Those early plants in America were the Boiling Water Reactors. And that is the very model that was used to build the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Three of them were supplied directly by General Electric.

In 1966 the US government Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards tried to force the industry to redesign their containment structures to make them safer. But the chairman of the committee claims in the film that General Electric in effect refused.

And in 1971 the Atomic Energy Commission did a series of tests of Emergency Core Cooling systems. Accidents were simulated. In each case the emergency systems worked - but the water failed to fill the core. Often being forced out under pressure.

As one of the AEC scientists says in the film:

"We discovered that our theoretical calculations didn't have a strong correlation with reality. But we just couldn't admit to the public that all these safety systems we told you about might not do any good"

And again the warnings were ignored by senior members of the Agency and the industry.

That was the same year that the first of the Fukushima Daiichi plant's reactors came online. Supplied by General Electric.

The film also has some of the recordings of the voices of the Commissioners struggling to deal with the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979. It was recorded by a dictaphone left running on a table - and you get a very good sense of what it must feel like to deal with such a crisis. A group of men realising they have no idea what is going on inside the core - knowing only that the cooling systems seem to have failed.

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    Comment number 1.

    Looking forward to your new series!

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    Comment number 2.

    One of my fav docs! Thanks for posting it.

    There have been complaints about the confusing reports coming from the Fukushima managers and Japanese gov but rather than a cover up, I reckon as with Three mile island, its more that they don't have much of a clue whats going on! Fingers crossed they manage get it under control.

    The dictaphone recordings are amazing.

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    Comment number 3.

    Yes I remembered that episode while watching the horror unfolding with the Fukushima nuclear plant. Clearly, governments and businesses can't be trusted with such a dangerous resource. Nuclear reactors in a earthquake prone zone? You'd think safety would come first, but not so. Even today, the information coming out is sketchy and confusing. Many people still believe they can trust authorities that they have everything under control. Watching helicopters lifting sea water in a desperate effort to cool down these reactors is an example about how unprepared they were for such a possibility that their backup systems would fail.

    It is not science that is at fault, it is the politicians, businesses and engineers prone to all sorts of corruption and lacking any sense of responsibility. Society is addicted to consumptions of huge amounts of unsustainable energy, for what? To power their consumer goods of course, and their cars. And this is the price we pay for this delusion.

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    Comment number 4.

    I've been pointing people at this programme ever since the crisis in Japan started. A useful and salutary tale.

    I am quite prepared to believe that it's possible to design a safe and effective nuclear power plant (though I must admit I do find the use of radioactivity to heat water to create steam to drive turbines a bit primitive - whatever happened to MHD oscillating plasma direct conversion systems?). I just don't trust a private company to build and operate them.

    I think that in absolute terms the danger to humanity of nuclear reactors is far less than that of climate change – many more will die of the latter. However to realise safe nuclear power in practice requires extremely high levels of regulation, transparency and oversight. And in the UK it will mean siting them away from locations that will be submerged by sea-level rise (virtually all our plants currently are on the coast).

    I can't imagine there will be much investment available for this from the private sector for a while, so any such plants should be publicly owned, and run as a non-profit service for the population. Just don't forget that rigorous regulation, transparency and oversight.

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    Comment number 5.

    I wish everyone would watch the film "Into Eternity" which examines the issues surrounding Nuclear Waste that is dangerous for 100,000 years...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoyKe-HxmFk

 

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