It is arguable whether the human race have been gainers by the march of science beyond the steam engine. Electricity opens a field of infinite conveniences to ever greater numbers, but they may well have to pay dearly for them. But anyhow in my thought I stop short of the internal combustion engine which has made the world so much smaller. Still more must we fear the consequences of entrusting a human race so little different from their predecessors of the so-called barbarous ages such awful agencies as the atomic bomb. Give me the horse.  - Winston Churchill -  


When it comes to nuclear accidents, the first casualty of what happened is always the truth. The world of nuclear issues is a veritable minefield of misstatements, because activists almost uniformly resort to hyperbole and a half, while nuclear industry professionals will try to make any accident sound as frightening as making toast in your kitchen. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little but when dealing with nuclear topics, I always assume bias and I will advise everyone to do the same. Very few people can write rationally on this subject. I'm not even sure I can - but I'll try.

Before I go waltzing down the path of tangents, let me introduce today's target of being wrong on the internet. It's an article in the web-magazine, Pacific Standard:

50 Years After America's Worst Nuclear Meltdown (1)

What's wrong here is the accident this article refers to. No, it's not Three Mile Island ("TMI") or the SL-1 accident in Idaho, the only real reactor accident that killed people prior to Chernobyl (2). The article is about a small experimental sodium-potassium cooled reactor whose design was being tested for satellite applications at a Rocketdyne facility in the Santa Susana Hills of Simi Valley, City of Los Angeles in California. The first time I ever saw this while surfing the internet one evening I just about had a cow. Los Angeles? The site of America's worst nuclear reactor accident??? Oh Please! Show me the bodies, someone!

Then I started digging. It turns out there is a dedicated knot of activists down in the Southern California who believe that an accident at with this small experimental salt-cooled reactor accident really is the worst nuclear meltdown in this country and that it was covered-up and concealed from the public. I hope to show that neither of these two points is true. But this post has gotten so long in the writing that I'm breaking it into four parts, of which this is the first. But before we begin to dig into details, it's time for -


For the purpose of complete disclosure, I glow in the dark as does my family and my spouse's family too. I found it hugely amusing when I told my father about this person I was dating when I was in grad school. The second I mentioned that my future father-in-law was a former "navy nuke" and reactor operator, and that my future spouse had worked at one time at a nuclear power plant, everything was A-Okay with with cold warrior dad.

My father cut his nuclear teeth working on the Manhattan Project, spent half his career designing and building nuclear submarines and the other half fixing nuclear reactors. My favorite picture of my father is of him at the helm of the USS Nautilus, back when the engineers at the Electric Boat shipyard manned the controls for sea trials. Yes, my dad, the first helmsman of the Nautilus. It doesn't get any better than that. My brother's got a PhD in nuclear engineering and is an expert in modeling reactor vessel degradation (don't quote me on that - I haven't read his resume for a couple of decades and disciplines do shift with time, but I do know he was still doing a lot of stuff for Oak Ridge not too long ago). He founded the health physics program at Columbia University. That's reactors and nuclear safety too. I'm not in the nuclear field myself but at one time I could honestly claim to be an expert in nuclear methods used in borehole geophysics. I've extracted lots of isotopes from earth materials and irradiated a lot of rocks and boreholes in my day. And I'm really really good at x-ray fluorescence. Nuclear credentials? Mine aren't as good as my brother's or my father's but I got 'em!

If I have a bias, it probably leans favorably toward nuclear power generation using the proven reactor designs that can't melt down and/or cause explosions that release ionizing radiation. Yes, we do know how to build reactors that can't meltdown or explode though some of you will not believe me, either because you don't know what a meltdown really is or because all things anti-nuclear are a matter of religion for you.

I have nothing to cite in support of this, but I believe that anti-nuclear power stances are essentially religious beliefs. See? There's my bias, out in the open. I will try to stay objective here.


Nuclear fear exists and it is irrational. It affects the people who think nuclear reactors are part of the road to hell. It also affects the people who work in nuclear-science based industries who fear that irrationality.

Let me tell you a short story about nuclear fear.

I spent part of my career as an earth scientist in the environmental field. I've investigated and helped to remediate some tens of sites, mostly on the west side of the USA. Several of those were Superfund sites. I was the field work manager for one of those Superfund sites. But I cut my environmental teeth on the Navy's landfill on Mare Island. I did a well-logging geophysical survey using a passive gamma-ray detector in something like 30 groundwater monitoring wells. A passive gamma-ray detector measures the natural background gamma-ray emissions of the materials next to it. This works because almost all physical matter emits a very small amount of radiation from the natural decay of naturally-occurring radio-isotopes, including alpha particles, electrons and gamma-rays. The naturally-occurring radioactive elements include uranium, thorium, radium, radon gas and potassium; and almost all physical matter on the earth's surface contains very small amounts of these elements including all those fancy granite kitchen counters, table salt and your own body. The radio-isotopes of these elements are one of the two contributors of that background radiation you hear scientists talk about. This background radiation is nothing to worry about because all biological systems have been exposed to it for billions of years and are already evolved and adapted to it. Another way to look at background radiation is that it is actually plays an essential role in evolution - but that's a post for another day...

The purpose of the passive gamma well-logging study at Mare Island was to document the integrity of the well seals in an environmentally-sensitive area. All wells have to be constructed such that fluids from the surface or from a stratigraphic layer can't leak into any other stratigraphic layer in the ground. I'm sure you can see where testing the well seals of wells built in and around a landfill would be a good thing. The well-logging survey was a tasty little study and I was quite proud of it. The study worked like this: clay was used in the grout to seal the monitoring wells, and because clay is rich in potassium in comparison to the calcareous mudstones of Mare Island, recording the elevated gamma-ray emission from the radioactive decay of naturally-occurring K-40 in the clay-rich grout would show that the well seals were thick enough and continuous. The passive gamma logging tool I sent down the wells was just a glorified hyper-sensitive gamma-ray analog of a Geiger-Mueller counter called a scintillation detector which was calibrated to measure the extremely small amount of background radiation in the wells. To give you an idea of how much gamma radiation there was, the background in plain old air was around 5 to 8 API units, the bay muds, siltstones, and sandy shallow aquifer layers underlying the landfill were around 5 to 12 API units and the well seals were around 18 to 20 API units. Now don't quote me on that since I'm remembering this off the top of my head - but since it was my first real well-logging survey at my very first real industry geology job, I remember it well. That was back in the days when my first job was still an adventure for me instead of the slog it later turned into.

California law at the time stipulated a minimum seal thickness of two feet for environmental monitoring wells (please don't quote me on that either - I don't know where my old California well standards booklet has wandered off to so I can cite that thickness - but I do know we built those wells to exceed the state standards). When I was done logging, my gamma-ray study showed that all the wells had continuous seals of three to four feet as indicated by the steady elevated gamma-ray counts next to those grout seals around the well casings.

Now here's where the nuclear fear comes in: the Navy had the study removed from the publicly-published report on the environmental investigation of the aquifers under the landfill. Why? Because they were afraid the public would panic over or misunderstand the words "gamma-ray." Here's their reasoning: gamma-rays were ionizing radiation after all, and ionizing radiation is nuclear by definition. Since the Navy had just lost a huge civic suit brought against it by the State of California over its stand that the State's environmental laws did not apply to federal military reservations, and since they were also fighting a battle at that time over the presence of the nuclear reactors on submarines at Mare Island, they were overly-sensitive about accusations that there might be nuclear waste on the navy base. So the last thing they wanted was someone claiming there was radioactivity in the Mare Island's landfill on the basis of the passive gamma study I did of the well seals.

It really was absurd. Potassium-40 is everywhere in this world. It's a naturally-occurring substance. You yourself as you read this have naturally-occurring Potassium-40 in your body which you acquired by ingestion of everyday table salt. It's background radiation. It's there and it has always been there. Some earth materials like clay have more of it than other earth materials like limestone or coral - and that's why passive gamma-ray detection is useful for investigating rocks in wells. Passive gamma logging is so useful that every oil and gas well in world will have a passive gamma log run in it.

My first borehole logging study was never published because of nuclear fear. I still have the report draft from over 30 years ago packed away in a box somewhere. Was the nuclear fear in this case justified? Well, probably. To people lacking a basic understanding of science and for whom anti-nuclear doctrine is a matter of religion, seeing the measurement of gamma-rays in monitoring wells might very well have caused some numbnuts to misunderstand the nature of the my well-logging study.

Whoops - showing my bias there again... My bad!


Humans in general can be uncomfortable with change and one of the usual responses to hard-to-understand change in the form of new technologies is avoidance (3). Nuclear fear is really only one of many negative reactions to new technologies and this particular fear phenomenon is actually quite dated. Some of the most notable negative reactions to new technologies are exemplified by the introduction of the steam engine, the railroad and electricity (4, 5).

I have been branded with folly and madness for attempting what the world calls impossibilities, and even from the great engineer, the late James Watt, who said that I deserved hanging for bringing into use the high-pressure engine. - Richard Trevithick, inventor of the first high-pressure steam engine - (6)

Early fears about railroads centered around the adverse effects that high speeds of 30 mph could have on the human body and around the dangers of locomotive explosions (7). Fears over electricity persisted well into the mid-20th century where some older people in rural areas would not even touch a telephone for fear of electrocution (5). The data on the power of vaccines to conquer the former plagues of the past is inarguable (8); however, fears over vaccinations persist to this day despite the existence of proof-of-principle for the effectiveness of vaccines for over 200 years. The more you look at such phenomenon, the stranger it looks. To the scientifically inclined, such behaviors appear irrational and perverse since, after all, facts are facts. Behavior like this is why some people like myself tend to think of such fears as religious beliefs since they are taken by their advocates as the truth based not on fact but on an act of baseless faith and bolstered by bad theodicies of pseudo-scientific arguments. Yet many holders of such anti-rational beliefs are intelligent people of non-trivial education. So what is going on here?

The answers to such a question are not easy or obvious. To say that holders of anti-technology beliefs are luddites or stupid or uneducated is as insulting as it is wrong. Nor can you say that it is limited to western civilization in the face of such episodes as the great Japanese resistance to the introduction of smallpox vaccine in the 19th century (9). There aren't a lot of good explanations of this phenomenon which is a bit off from my point of view since this is one of the most important cultural happenings of our time.

One partial explanation that seems to work is that of Weart (3, 10). If there is one book to read, I'd point anyone to his Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, though if one is more oriented to explanation and text rather than pictures, his shorter distillation and update of his early work, which goes by the title of The Rise of Nuclear Fear may be the better pick. For those in love with ebooks - or at least in love with their convenience like I am - the latter is available as an ebook whereas the former is not.

Weart's model is based on the phenomenon of psychological-to-physiological connection. The trite and cliche example of this is Pavlov's dogs who would salivate at the sound of bell because Pavlov had trained the association of the bell and being fed into the dogs. Weart makes the case that technological fears like nuclear fear work in a similar way. No, people are not animals like dogs but there are proven human responses to stimuli that provoke emotional responses that are seemingly unconnected except in the mind of the person experiencing a stimulus response. I am reminded of an example I read in a book on the psychology of adults who were orphaned as children old enough to remember the missing parent or parents. One case study was of a woman who felt extreme sorrow and sometimes would weep every time she heard a particular piano piece by Chopin. Investigation with her relatives revealed that one of her parents, who died when she was something like four, was fond of playing Chopin on the piano. 

Others of these psychological-to-physiological behaviors appear to be hard-wired to humans as a whole: for example, arachnophobia or ophidiophobia are statistically-significant behaviors for the human race everywhere.  For most people, fight or flight at the sight of a spider or snake is in your genes, even if the snake is a harmless garter snake or the spider is one of the helpful ones that eat mosquitoes.  Weart's point is that people can be trained - and are trained - to respond in specific ways to certain stimuli even if there is a rational disconnect between the two, and that this is a real thing which exists at both individual and sub-species levels.

When you understand Weart's point in the previous paragraph, then his main argument is that nuclear fear is based on response to stimuli unconnected with nuclear stuff in the real world. The connections come from the world of the imagination as manifested in popular literature, entertainment and modern myth. The X-men, Godzilla and the giant insects of countless 1950's "B" movies all belong to the nuclear mutants created by the aftermath of atomic bombs. It's so common a thing in movies and comic books that it's a tired old cliche and trope. Now there's no such thing as Godzilla but Godzilla is real in our cultural universe and every time you see Godzilla, something in the back of your brain says "mutant monsters are nuclear consequences." 

Then there's the gig that folks in the nuclear business glow in the dark but that's not real either - but in the reality of cultural memes, one can nuke things until they glow in the dark. Well, places that have been bombed do not glow in the dark. It just doesn't happen. Some reactors exhibit bluish glowing effects, most commonly when fission occurs surrounded by a pool of water. It's called Cherenkov Radiation and it's due to the creation of highly charged particles in a reactor which then travel through the reactors coolant at speeds faster than light can travel through the same coolant. As the particles interact with the coolant and slow down, they dump energy. In the classic case of water-cooled reactors, the dumped energy manifests as high-frequency blue-light photons. It's a reactor thing. It's not a bomb effect. You can't bomb something to the point that it will glow in the dark.  Physics just doesn't work that way - but that's not what the cultural meme tells you!

Weart's point is that stuff like this is what's behind nuclear fear. Godzilla isn't real but your cultural exposure to science fiction movies associates mutant monsters with the aftermath of atomic bomb explosions. These are the sorts of things Weart talks about but in much greater detail on many more levels than my quick and dirty examples here.

Nuclear fear, like all technological fears, is a gut reaction based on emotional, psychological and cultural responses that have very little to do with real science, fact and critical thinking. We are ruled far less by our higher thought processes than we believe we are.



  1. Bien, T. J, and Collins, M., 25 Aug 2009, "50 Years After America's Worst Nuclear Meltdown", Pacific Standard Magazine, accessed 30 Jan 2015. 
  2. Doc Clark, 31 Jan 2013, "The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident???", accessed 14 Feb 2015. 
  3. Weart, S. R., 1989, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0674628366.
  4. Volti, R., 2005, Society and Technological Change, 5th edition, Worth Publishers, ISBN 978-0716787327.
  5. Simon, L. 2005, Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-ray, Mariner Books, ISBN 978-0156032445.
  6. Francis Trevithick, 1872, Life of Richard Trevithick: With an Account of his Inventions, Vol. 2, p. 395-6, accessed 13 Feb 15. 
  7. National Railway Museum (UK), 2012, "Fear and Fascination", accessed 12 Feb 2015.
  8. Doc Clark, 28 Jan 2015, "Vaccination for Idiots", accessed 14 Feb 2015.
  9. I wish I could find a good English-language reference on what happened in Japan with the smallpox vaccines but my friend who was a published Japanese historian passed away just a few years ago so making a phone call to pick his brains for a reference isn't an option anymore. So I'll fess up in the dearth of a better reference for now and confess that most of my knowledge on this subject is actually based on the late great Tezuka Ozamu's award-winning historical manga epic Hidamari no Ki. Commonly considered the Walt Disney of Japanese anime, Tezuka obtained an MD before becoming an manga and anime creator and medical themes run through many of his works. Tezuka was descended from one of the historical doctor characters in Hidamari no Ki, which was one of the last manga series he wrote before his death. But basing one's knowledge of history on a manga, even one by Tezuka, is not the preferred way to document an historical event. I'll keep looking for a ref on this. One the big problems here is that I have never found a good popular history of Japan that's a decent read and at my age, life is too short to slog through dry history texts when there isn't a grade at stake...
  10. Weart, S. R., 2012, The Rise of Nuclear Fear, Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0674052338.