Pandora’s Box Part 6: A is For Atom

And then it all went to hell. A week ago we were locked inside here on the west coast of America dreading the radioactive plume that had drifted our way from Japan. It was a cold rainy day that did, truly feel odd. Like the radiation made your bones ache and your thyroid twitch a little. I have no idea how much the exposure was then, or now; nor do I have any clue as to what effects, if any there have been or will be. I do know I am most worried for my friends in Japan; and, I do know quite a bit about the types of reactors at Fukishima and their history with their designers and suppliers of three of them. I know this because I grew up in Schenectady, New York. Schenectady was once a major American industrial city, and they did something special there. They refined plutonium… right outside of downtown on Peek Street. And on a couple of occasions it exploded. A decade ago, the building where they did this went down in flames. That same week I was working on a documentary on the history of GE and early atomic development in Schenectady: The city that lights and hauls the world.

A few days ago, documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis posted to his blog for the BBC part 6 of his series Pandora’s Box: A is For Atom (embedded above). You absolutely must watch this film.

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.

There is a whole chapter in the book At Any Cost: Jack Welch, General Electric, and the Pursuit of Profit dedicated to GE’s nuclear history that you should read.

The theme song to this show is, of course, the title, and final track from Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets

Today is also the 32nd anniversary of the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown.