Chapter 1. Tho-Radia was one of many radioactive cosmetic lines promising to cure boils, pimples, redness, pigmentation, and the increasing diameter of pores. This particular product, “RACHEL No. 1” face powder, contained both thorium chloride and radium bromide, both radioactive and nothing that one should rub into the skin. Dr. Alfred Curie, named on the can, was not related to Pierre or Marie Curie, co-discoverers of radium, but the name recognition helped sell the product. Tho-Radia face cream, powder, and soap were introduced in France in 1933, and these products were sold in Europe until the early 1960s.


Chapter 1. A magazine ad for Undark radium-charged luminous material. It suggests that radium would be good on your bedroom slippers as well as the push-button light switch on the wall in your bedroom. The use of radium in consumer products is now banned in most countries.


Chapter 2. This is a mock-up of the Mk-2 bomb-core setup that Harry Daghlian was testing in 1945. The shiny rectangular blocks of material surrounding the plutonium sphere are tungsten carbide (WC) bricks, and Daghlian was stacking them around the center-mounted sphere to see how much WC the assembly could stand before the neutron-reflection effect caused it to go critical. He accidentally dropped a brick right on top, and the plutonium went prompt supercritical. This was not an atomic bomb configuration, where the plutonium sphere would be crushed down to the size of a large marble, but it was a functioning nuclear reactor, out of control.


Chapter 2. Not long after Daghlian’s accident, Louis Slotin was demonstrating the criticality effect to his replacement. The screwdriver, shown in the mock-up picture, shimming up the hemispherical reflector on top, slipped, and the assembly came together suddenly. Slotin died from the radiation pulse caused by the prompt startup of the nuclear reactor that he had accidentally assembled. The mock-up was as accurate as possible, down to Slotin’s empty Coke bottle on the setup table.


Chapter 2. This is a rarely seen shot of the entire space around Slotin’s setup table, showing many interesting details. Note the old bank vault at the left, used to store the plutonium sphere, the radiation-counting equipment racked up on the left, the welder’s helmet on the floor, and the 400 Hz motor — generator in the foreground. The motor-generator was used to simulate the power environment on a B-29 strategic bomber, for testing equipment that would be attached to the bomb and using aircraft power. The gliders on the floor are piled with lead bricks for radiation shield applications, and there is an active neutron source atop the brick pile closest to the motor-generator set. I’m not sure what the welder’s helmet was for.


Chapter 3. The Castle Bravo test in the Pacific in 1954 used this ground-level thermonuclear device, named “Shrimp” for its modest size. It was a new bomb design, using a stock RACER IV plutonium atomic bomb adjacent to a cylindrical assembly containing lithium deuteride powder. It was predicted to yield 5 megatons of explosive energy, but gave 22 instead. It was a surprise. Note the NO SMOKING sign at the lower left.


Chapter 3. The NRX heavy-water reactor in Chalk River, Canada, in 1955, after a complete rebuild due to the unfortunate incident in 1952. The world’s first reactor core meltdown occurred accidentally in this reactor, soon after which the first radiation-induced hydrogen explosion happened. Ensign James Earl Carter from Plains, Georgia, participated in the cleanup of the site.


Chapter 3. Samples of various materials were placed in the radiation environment of the NRX reactor core to be tested for stamina under high-flux conditions. The sampling ports on test reactors are usually driven by compressed air and controlled remotely but the NRX system, called the “self-serve unit,” seemed to be manually operated. A health physicist is holding a “cutie pie” ion chamber to closely monitor the radiation during this operation.


Chapter 3. The NRU heavy-water reactor under construction at Chalk River, Canada, in 1956. This reactor was used to test concepts that are in use today in CANDU reactors all over the world. It is in use today and it may be the oldest reactor in the world that is still running. If you have had a medical test performed using technetium-99m, then that nuclide was produced in this reactor.


Chapter 4. The instant of Sam Untermyer’s BORAX-I explosion, a controlled test of the very worst that could happen to a boiling water reactor. The experiment did not disappoint, as it sent the contents of the reactor vessel flying. This is a still from the 16mm movie that was made of the test. The movie camera stopped functioning soon after this frame was exposed, as its power cable was blown away in the explosion.


Chapter 4. Early in the analysis of the SL-1 explosion incident, a water sample was needed from the coolant spill on the reactor-room floor. Under normal circumstances, this was a simple task, but in this case the inside of the building was contaminated with highly radioactive fission products, and extraordinary measures were necessary. The crane setup shown in the picture is going to sample remotely, through the refueling door.



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Chapter 4. The poster made to go on nuclear engineers’ walls. It refers to the explosion of the SL-1 power reactor on January 3, 1961, reminding all engineers that designing a reactor with a single control rod that can increase reactivity to the point of criticality is not an acceptable concept. The view is looking straight down into the SL-1 core with the top removed. The insides are so scrambled, it’s hard to tell what you are looking at. The rods sticking out are connected to three of four peripheral flux-shaping controls. The controls themselves are normally cross-shaped, and here the crosses are flattened. What looks like strips of metal were once vertically mounted fuel assemblies.


I took this picture looking up at the reactor refueling face of the X-10 graphite reactor at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. What appear to be dots on the white wall are plugs. To refuel, a worker pulls out a plug and pushes in a fuel canister using a steel rod. This reactor was built during World War II, and to the postwar world this was what a nuclear reactor looked like.


Chapter 5. A close-up of the back of the back of the two Windscale plutonium production reactors, showing the concrete exhaust stacks. The rectangular building in the foreground is one of two air-blower buildings per reactor, disconnected from the reactor buildings. What look like windows are intake louvers for the air that is blown through the reactor, up the stack, and over the surrounding dairy farms.


Chapter 5. A wider shot of the Windscale reactors, showing the lack of other tall structures in 1957. The landscape filled in with other buildings in the following decades. I was unable to gain permission to include photos of the internal structure of the Windscale reactors, but look on pages 11 through 13 in a lecture slide show from the University of Manchester, available on the Internet here: http://web. up. ac. za/sitefiles/file/44/2063/Nuclear_Graphite_Course/A-GraphiteCoreDesignAir&Magnox. pdf. Or search on “graphite core design air & magnox” for the PDF file. The photo on page 13 of the slide show was taken looking straight into an open port on the core face. You are looking through the 5-foot-thick concrete shield, across the air void, and at an aluminum “charge pan.” There are five holes. Four are for fuel, and the center hole is for isotope-production cartridges. The fire started, as is clearly described in a plant worker’s deposition, in an isotope cartridge and not in the graphite or the fuel, as has been long assumed.


Chapter 5. This aerial shot of Windscale Unit 1 shows the two air-blower buildings and the air-filter assembly at the top of the exhaust stack. A label identifying the fire hoses entering the building has been blanked out.


Chapter 6. The Sodium Reactor Experiment building and auxiliary buildings at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Simi Hills, California, about 50 miles north of Los Angeles. The reactor is located in the middle of the floor of the tall building on the right. The smaller building with a peaked roof in front of the reactor building is the helium control station, and behind it with a flat roof is the air-blast heat exchanger. The steam generator is in the maze of pipes across the road, on the left.


Chapter 6. The bottom of a heat-damaged fuel rod in channel 55 in the Sodium Reactor Experiment at Santa Susana. The stainless steel tube containing a column of uranium fuel slugs has melted away allowing fuel to drop into the bottom of the reactor core. The stainless steel wire that spirals around the tube is to prevent it from touching other tubes in a fuel element cluster. The location guide and orifice plate at the bottom of the rod are completely gone.


Chapter 7. Americium extraction hood WT-2 in the 242-Z Building, Americium Recovery Process, at the Hanford site in southeastern Washington. Behind the long vertical window at the top left was the resin column that exploded, blowing out the glass in it and the diamond-shaped window below it. Harold McCluskey, the “Atomic Man,” was standing on the step-stool at the far left.


Chapter 7. Room 180 in Building 771 at the Rocky Flats atomic bomb plant in Colorado. This is where the fire started on September 11, 1957, in the glove box, middle left in the picture. Gloves have been turned inside out and are hanging down.



Chapter 7. This is the second floor in Building 771 at Rocky Flats, with HEPA filters in racks from floor to ceiling. They were supposed to keep radioactive dust from escaping the workspaces and being blown into the environment by the ventilation fans. In the fire of 1957, two men opened the door to see if the filters were on fire, and the rush of fresh air caused the plutonium dust that had built up in the room for years to ignite quite suddenly. The explosion destroyed the filter banks, and radioactive dust started going up the exhaust stack.


Chapter 7. Inside the Fuel Conversion Test Building at the JCO plant in Tokaimura, Japan, in 1999. Workers are suited up and evaluating the radiation lingering just after the criticality in Precipitation Tank B had been brought under control. They are looking at the desk at which Yutaka Yokodawa was sitting, doing paperwork, when Tank B became a nuclear reactor out of control. Tank B is located just out of the frame on the right.


Chapter 8. An MK-28FI thermonuclear weapon being unloaded from a B-52H strategic bomber by a crew of three at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, in 1984.


Chapter 9. The control room at TMI-2 near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on April 1, 1979. President Jimmy Carter with his wife, Rosalynn, are being briefed by James R. Floyd, supervisor of TMI-2 operations, who is the only one not wearing anti-contamination booties. Harold R. Denton, director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is standing in the foreground. Hidden behind Denton is Richard L. Thornburgh, governor of Pennsylvania. Carter demonstrated his knowledge by asking the right questions concerning the buildup of hydrogen in the containment building.


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Chapter 9. An aerial shot of the Chernobyl-4 power reactor in Ukraine, USSR, after it had exploded in 1986 and the smoke had cleared. It is completely destroyed and is unrecognizable as a power plant.

Chapter 9. Chernobyl-4 after it has exploded in 1986 but as the fire still burns in what remains of the graphite moderator. This photo was taken by a helicopter flying near and risking a dangerous radiation dose.


This is the author, operating the Emergency Response Data System end of the Safety Parameter Display System (SPDS) in the control room of the E. I. Hatch Nuclear Power Station. It was built to withstand a force-9 earthquake.


Chapter 10. I made this picture inside the reactor vessel of a General Electric BWR/4 with a Mark I containment, exactly as used at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. I was standing on the steam separator, shooting down at the upper fuel-support plate. The fuel assemblies plug into the round openings in the plate, and cooling water flows upward through the holes. The large hoses are ventilation so we can breathe, and there is a large vacuum cleaner on the support plate to remove the dust we track in.


Chapter 10. I made this picture standing in the wet well of a General Electric Mark I containment structure, exactly as used in reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. You can see the wall curving upward into a large sphere. In the middle is the outlet diffuser for one of eight vent lines, intended to conduct a blast of suddenly escaped steam downward into the torus, where it will be quenched in the pool of cool water. The ladder in the middle gives some perspective.


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image075Chapter 10. I made this picture standing in the torus (wet well) of a General Electric Mark I containment structure. As you can see, it’s as big as a subway tunnel. We were standing on a catwalk, below which is the pool of water. The large tubular structure on the right is the vent header, built to distribute a massive steam pulse coming down the vent lines into 96 smaller pipes that release the steam under the water.

Chapter 10. This cutaway diagram shows the relationships among the dry well “inverted lightbulb,” the wet well or “torus,” and the reactor vessel, which stands upright inside the dry well. The refueling machine runs on rails in the building’s top floor. It was this top floor, having thin walls, that was destroyed in the hydrogen explosions, and not the heavy concrete building that extends one floor underground.


Chapter 10. The Fukushima Daiichi power plant on the east coast of Japan after the earthquake in 2011. This picture was shot by an unmanned drone aircraft flying over the site on March 24, 2011. The reactor buildings of Units 3 and 4 are shown, dismantled by hydrogen gas explosions. The damage, which appears devastating, is not quite as bad as it looks. The top floors of the reactor buildings, which were built only to keep rain off the refueling equipment, have been blown away, but the solid concrete structures that hold the reactors and the fuel pools are all intact.

Author’s Note

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