Nuclear engineer Stolmar offers a concise version of the events that precipitated the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the prospects of the nuclear industry today.
Stolmar examines the design flaws that resulted in the explosion at Chernobyl, with a populist twist. Still, a degree of familiarity with nuclear physics goes a long way toward understanding his contention “that the zirconium-steam reaction was the governing process in all nuclear power plant severe accidents.” He explains the process: impeded water flow initiated a local power increase and a crisis in boiling, which led to a hugely volatile zirconium-steam reaction on the fuel cladding. Beyond that, the author notes, the reactor vessel was too weak to contain a failure and the reactor was uncontained. Yet incredibly, considering these basic design issues, twelve RBMK reactors of the type at Chernobyl are still active today. It is unclear what vested interests in Russia are keeping these plants in operation, and it would have been fascinating for Stolmar—who was born in Hungary and trained in Moscow—to expand on comments like, “[b]ehind our backs, or way above our heads, the intrigues and clan interests were played, so characteristic for the Communist totalitarian system,” regarding nuclear decision-making in the Soviet Union. Though the author’s prose has an appealing Eastern-European inflection, more polish would help lay readers understand the more arcane chemical reactions. Stolmar remains largely in support of nuclear power, which he sees as the only immediate, viable alternative to fuels that are peeding global warming and a way of turning swords to plowshares in decommissioning nuclear weapons. His call for international cooperation in the building and inspection of nuclear facilities is heartening, though spent fuel will be left “to our children as part of their inheritance,” a gift that keeps on decaying.
A thoughtful peek into the guts of a failed reactor and a cautionary tale.
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