Hope even for Chernobyl

When the accident happened at Chernobyl’s #4 reactor in April 1986, it changed how people viewed nuclear power forever. Of course, there had already been the accident at the Three Mile Island power plant in the United States. But that was not the same as the meltdown that created a 4,000 square mile exclusion zone across the borders of what are now Belarus and Ukraine. The meltdown has become such a trope in popular culture that there is now even a horror movie about what has happened there in the aftermath. …


Nagasaki Bomb. By Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nukemap is a website that allows you detonate a virtual atomic weapon over the city of your choice. You can select the size of the bomb either by kiloton, or by presets. I first chose the a nuclear weapon tested by North Korea in 2013, and tested it as a surface burst over my much-loved city of Portland. The results were horrific: an estimated 32,230 fatalities and 41,500 injuries. When I tested the same blast over Manhattan there were 103,000 fatalities and 213, 430 injuries. In each case the map generates a series of concentric circles that illustrated the impacts from radiation, fireball, air blast, thermal radiation, etc. The website also models the radiation plume, which trails far off into the distance on the map.

This website can take you to a very dark place. I made the mistake of modeling the largest bomb that the USSR ever tested, and what would happen if it detonated over Portland, Oregon. The largest circle was for the thermal radiation, and indicated the areas in which people would receive third degree burns. This circle stretched for 60 kilometers or 11,300 km2. One end of circle passed Yale, Washington in the north, while Silverton, Oregon was on the the south edge of the circle. For this particular example, there were 1,241,130 estimated fatalities, and 574,390 injuries. So people were much more likely to be killed than injured. When I then tested the same blast over New York City, the same blast caused 7,633,390 fatalities and 4,194,990 injuries. At that point I stopped using the site.

This website is both bleak and fascinating, and might be a useful tool during a classroom discussion of nuclear proliferation, and the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability. The day that I visited the website in November 2017 over 130 million detonations already had taken place on the site.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Security and a strange cyberattack

The Natanz nuclear facility in Iran. This photo was taken by Hamed Saber, and was posted to, and downloaded from Wikipedia Commons
The Natanz nuclear facility in Iran. This photo was taken by Hamed Saber, and was posted to I downloaded the image from Wikipedia Commons

In Countdown to Zero Kim Zetter describes a 2010 cyberattack on the Iranian nuclear program. In a brilliant piece of computer engineering, the control units for centrifuges that enriched uranium were forced to slow and fail. The attack was so carefully planned that even after it began the Iranians were initially unable to diagnose the problem. The book itself is well written and carefully researched. Zetter did extensive interviews in the cybersecurity community, to understand how people identified and studied this particular worm. This work is detailed in extensive footnotes, which will lead a curious reader down interesting paths. Zetter carefully describes the technical issues involved in the attack, without letting this detail impede the storyline. Overall, this is a masterful work of narrative non-fiction, which engages the reader in a highly complex topic. …

Nuclear Aftershocks: A Documentary Review

Photograph of an original painting by Gary Sheehan. Depicted is his version of the scene when scientist(s) observed the world's first nuclear reactor (CP-1) as it became self-sustaining. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Photograph of an original painting by Gary Sheehan. Depicted is his version of the scene when scientist(s) observed the world’s first nuclear reactor (CP-1) as it became self-sustaining. Source: Wikipedia Commons

In my “Introduction to International Studies” class this spring I showed the video “Nuclear Aftershocks,” which my library had in its Streaming Video database, under “Films on Demand.” This 56 minute documentary begins by discussing the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the global impact that it had. The work also includes the voices of experts who argued that only nuclear power can provide sufficient non-carbon energy to meet the world’s future needs. The video then shifts to the United States, and the Indian Point reactor, which is located dangerously close to New York City. According to the documentary, the plant also supplies about a quarter of the electricity required by the city. The film finishes by returning to Fukushima, and the challenges that Japan faces in cleaning up the disaster, a process that will take decades. …

South Africa and Nuclear Security

Image of South Africa taken by NASA. Source: CIA World Factbook, South Africa
Image of South Africa taken by NASA. Source: CIA World Factbook, South Africa

Terrified of outside intervention, the South African military created six atomic weapons, which were dismantled after the collapse of apartheid. The nuclear material, however, was preserved, despite requests (by the United States and others) that the South African government convert this material into a less-dangerous form. This material is stored at a site called Pelindaba, which is the country’s main nuclear research center. In 2007 two separate teams attacked the facility, and were defeated by sheer luck. A recent account of this event makes for terrifying reading, less because of how close the attackers came to succeeding than for the lackadaisical response of the South African government. According to this account, recently posted on African Defense magazine, President Obama has twice written private letters to President Jacob Zuma, to ask that South Africa convert the uranium into a form less readily converted into nuclear weapons. The South Africans have failed to respond. This article merits careful reading.

The concept of human security is currently gaining traction in International Relations theory. This paradigm defines security as those issues that threaten not only the state but also the population. This approach has many merits, particularly given the rise of non-state actors as threats, and the impact that climate change may have on entire populations. Advocates of a security paradigm known as realism, however, critique human security as being a “slippery slope.” If you adopt this approach to security, what problems are not security issues? While I believe that human security has many advantages over realism as a means to address global challenges, this particular critique by realists does give me pause. Events such as the attack on Pelindaba are particularly dangerous, in way that seems to merit a clearly defined theoretical approach. One can only hope that behind the scenes South Africa is taking more steps to ensure security at this site than seems to be the case based on this report.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Nuclear Sabotage in Europe

"Nuclear" by luigi diamanti at
“Nuclear” by luigi diamanti at

In a previous article, I discussed how the French government has sought to suppress evidence regarding the massive costs that a nuclear accident would entail. But an accident is not the only danger facing nuclear reactors as a recent incident at Belgium’s Doel 4 nuclear reactor makes clear. Some person -most likely an employee at the plant- deliberately damaged an oil drainage system from a turbine, which caused so much damage that the plant will be closed until after the New Year. Now Belgium may face blackouts if winter demand for electricity is particularly high. The Doel 4 incident is particularly worrying because the plant is located in a heavily populated part of Europe.

Remarkably two other reactors are also offline in Belgium, because cracks were found in reactor casings, which means that Belgium has lost more than half of its nuclear capacity. While people often argue that renewable power is too intermittent to be relied upon, events in Belgium again make the point that there are also major risks in relying on nuclear power. In this particular case, we know very little about the sabotage. Was it carried out by an isolated individual? If so, what was their motivation? Clearly threats to to the integrity of nuclear reactors do not always come from outside the plant. Currently the case in Belgium is being investigated by the Belgian police. Do these forces have the expertise to investigate nuclear crimes? The Belgian case also should make security experts and plant owners question their practices. How carefully are plant employees screened, and what monitoring systems are in place? …

A Book Review of Mark Willacy’s Fukushima

"Mt. Fuji, Japan" by Worakit Sirijinda
“Mt. Fuji, Japan” by Worakit Sirijinda

The Fukushima nuclear disaster is so recent that it’s been difficult to have a nuanced and thorough perspective on this event. Mark Willacy’s history attempts to tell the story of Fukushima through the stories of not only the people who lived in the area, but also the senior government officials who dealt with the crisis. Willacy has a deep knowledge of Japan, and had visited the area hit by the tsunami a year before the disaster. One of the strengths of the work is the extensive interviews Willacy undertook to build a detailed image of complex events. By using the techniques of narrative non-fiction, his book conveys information largely by showing the reader through scenes, which helps to show why data matters. With his deep knowledge of contemporary Japan, and his detailed interviews, Willacy creates a beautifully written and detailed account of this disaster. …

The Dangers of Nuclear Energy: Japan, France and the US

"Nuclear Power" by xedos4 at
“Nuclear Power” by xedos4 at

There have been some intriguing articles recently about nuclear energy, which demonstrate the challenges entailed with obtaining power from this resource. An article in Reuters described how homeless people are being recruited to work in the nuclear cleanup in Fukushima, Japan, because few other people are willing to take on such a dangerous task for minimum wage. The people recruited for this work are not the highly trained and motivated, but rather the most vulnerable. Sadly, major criminal syndicates appear to be involved in the recruitment process, which has meant that there are serious failures in oversight and record keeping. Another article has described how the farmer Masami Yoshizawa illegally entered the forbidden zone around the nuclear power plant to save cattle abandoned when people were forced to flee in the aftermath of the disaster. He described a horrible scene of neglect, in which cattle died with their mouths in their feeding troughs, as they waited for their farmers to return and care for them. The government does not know what to do with Masami, and so he is not officially recognized as living there, even though (my favorite detail) he still has his electricity and his telephone turned on. The nuclear disaster continues to have a major economic impact on the country; for example, South Korea still refuses to buy Japanese seafood. …

Japan after Fukushima

Image of "Japan " by jannoon028 at
Image of “Japan ” by jannoon028 at

This spring I taught an “Introduction to International Studies” class, which had 12 students in it from Waseda university in Japan. They are outstanding students, and I always feel that I learn more from them than they from me during the class. During some of my individual conversations with the students I was struck by the impact that the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami had on their lives. The subsequent nuclear accident magnified an already terrible crisis, in which over 15,000 people died. Now the country is also having to rethink its energy future, while dealing with nuclear cleanup. As Japan made the decision to close its nuclear reactors -now the subject of great debate- the entire country was plunged into efforts to conserve energy.

The quirky blog the Pink Tentacle (which now sadly seems to be inactive, as the last post was from April 2011) had a broad focus on everything from the graphic arts and history to science and technology in Japan For example, it has a collection of catfish prints created after the great 1855 quake. In traditional Japanese culture, earthquakes were caused by catfish spirits. After this nineteenth century quake a diverse set of catfish prints became bestsellers. In these prints, one can see a human mob chasing catfish for revenge, tradesman partying with the catfish (because the rebuilding brought them so much money), or the great god Kashima lecturing the catfish for having misbehaved. These prints are a great source for social history, as they show popular attitudes towards the earthquake’s social impact, and raise many questions. Why for examples, were prostitutes a particularly significant group depicted in some prints? …

Nuclear Secrecy and France

Image courtesy of “Idea go” at

In the aftermath of Fukushima, it’s clear the nation-states have not been having realistic conversations with their citizens about the risks of nuclear power. Many nations, such as Germany, are now moving away from nuclear power, but one European nation will not be making any changes soon, namely France. Instead, this country continues to place nuclear power at the center of its energy plan. Indeed, the country currently gets 75% of its electricity from nuclear, and has no plans to explore a different path. In this respect, it is almost unique in Europe, where most countries are rapidly investing in renewable energy with great success. Much poorer Portugal is about to get 75% of its electricity from renewable sources. Other European countries have shown that it is possible to have a modern energy sector based primarily on renewable sources. Iceland obtains 100% of its energy from renewable sources, thanks to rich geothermal resources. Austria is over 70% renewable, while Norway has reached 97%, both helped by their hydro resources. Globally, a large number of countries (which range from New Zealand to Canada) get over 60% of their electricity from renewable sources. What this data shows is that the reliance on nuclear power is a choice, not a necessity. …

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