I remember when the accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) happened. It was the first time anything major transpired with a nuclear power plant. At the time I was pro-nuclear – it was hailed as the way forward: clean, limitless energy. I’ve always had a fascination with science, and nuclear energy and space exploration seemed to be the pinnacle of our achievements: splitting the atom and putting men on the moon. But the honeymoon with nuclear was over.
The real storm hit with Chernobyl. By the time it happened in 1986, I was working in the nuclear sector, trying to prevent what was called ‘human error’ from unleashing nuclear disaster elsewhere. Whereas with TMI it was mainly the threat of a large-scale reactor meltdown, and the fact that they lost control and some radioactivity got out, Chernobyl was the real deal, the nightmare scenario. The reactor core was split wide open. I recall watching on TV as the helicopters flew over Reactor No.4, pouring cement onto an unquenchable fire. I already knew a lot of those heroic men would die, sooner or later.
Many years later, after I’d moved out of nuclear into aviation safety, I watched the Fukushima accident unfold, after the mother of all tsunamis slammed into 400km of Japan’s shore. I called people who still worked in the industry, tried to offer help; but I was outside now, and so witnessed it as one of the hapless public, wondering how many more such accidents we could take. As with Chernobyl, there was heroism, as well as political hubris that did little to help the situation.
A while ago I got called back to take part in a nuclear power plant emergency exercise in the US. It was pretty realistic, simulating a hurricane that systematically defeated the safety barriers one by one. By the end the crew were pretty shaken up, even though it was an exercise. Such men and women are paid well. Most of the time their job can be a bit boring, but when things go wrong, they earn every penny.
I’ve always had a soft spot for heroes. And I’d heard this story about three men, divers, who had to open a valve underwater during the Chernobyl meltdown, to stop a massive explosion that would have bathed much of Western Europe in a radioactive cloud. I’d heard they all died shortly after of radiation poisoning. It was actually the inspiration for my novel 37 Hours, originally titled ‘One Way Dive.’ In fact, the truth was less glamourous, if that’s the word. Three men did close the valve, but it wasn’t fully underwater, and although one died some years later after a heart attack, the other two were still around. Nevertheless, they saved the day, and many of their comrades died.
I’ve not been to Chernobyl, though some of my colleagues have, and have told me about it. It’s still pretty radioactive in parts, and will be for some time. There are tours you can go on. But there is one place, deep inside, dubbed the elephant’s foot, where a chunk of the remainder of the radioactive core sits in a distorted mound of slag. It’s intensely radioactive. That’s where I wanted to put my protagonist, Nadia, on the one hand fighting her nemesis, but on the other being attacked by invisible radiation.
Reviews say the Chernobyl section of the book, which is a quarter of the novel, is unputdownable, and that Chernobyl’s Reactor No.4 ‘crackles to life.’ Maybe so. For me it is real. I wrote it because I don’t want people to forget, how badly we can screw up, and how valiant we can be in trying to save the day. I don’t want people to forget how much we owe those who paid with their lives.
After 37 Hours, I thought I was done with nuclear. But in the next book, not yet titled, Fukushima makes an appearance via one of the characters who was a doctor there at the time. Maybe I’ll never be done with it.
A long time ago I wrote a non-fiction book about human error and nuclear safety. At the time, also 1986, the same year as Chernobyl, the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy had just occurred, and I dedicated the book ‘to the seven’, meaning the seven astronauts who lost their lives. The dedication in 37 Hours is to my elder brother, Kevin. But I guess the book is also a dedication to all the unsung heroes in the nuclear industry as well.