Saturday, May 21, 2011

BBC: A is For Atom. Warned of Fukushima Core Melt in 1960s


  • reactors in submarines could be contained, but not when scaled up to the size of commercial power plants
  • under actual tests, the water failed to fill the core

I am sorry I haven't put anything up recently. I have been busy finishing a new series of films for BBC-2
As a background to the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant I am putting up a film I made a while ago called A is for Atom. It was part of a series about politics and science called Pandora's Box.
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.

... more at original post

here are comments

One of my fav docs! Thanks for posting it.

There have been complaints about the confusing reports coming from the Fukushima managers and Japanese gov but rather than a cover up, I reckon as with Three mile island, its more that they don't have much of a clue whats going on! Fingers crossed they manage get it under control.

The dictaphone recordings are amazing.

  • Comment number 3.

    Yes I remembered that episode while watching the horror unfolding with the Fukushima nuclear plant. Clearly, governments and businesses can't be trusted with such a dangerous resource. Nuclear reactors in a earthquake prone zone? You'd think safety would come first, but not so. Even today, the information coming out is sketchy and confusing. Many people still believe they can trust authorities that they have everything under control. Watching helicopters lifting sea water in a desperate effort to cool down these reactors is an example about how unprepared they were for such a possibility that their backup systems would fail.

    It is not science that is at fault, it is the politicians, businesses and engineers prone to all sorts of corruption and lacking any sense of responsibility. Society is addicted to consumptions of huge amounts of unsustainable energy, for what? To power their consumer goods of course, and their cars. And this is the price we pay for this delusion.
  • Comment number 4.

    I've been pointing people at this programme ever since the crisis in Japan started. A useful and salutary tale.

    I am quite prepared to believe that it's possible to design a safe and effective nuclear power plant (though I must admit I do find the use of radioactivity to heat water to create steam to drive turbines a bit primitive - whatever happened to MHD oscillating plasma direct conversion systems?). I just don't trust a private company to build and operate them.

    I think that in absolute terms the danger to humanity of nuclear reactors is far less than that of climate change – many more will die of the latter. However to realise safe nuclear power in practice requires extremely high levels of regulation, transparency and oversight. And in the UK it will mean siting them away from locations that will be submerged by sea-level rise (virtually all our plants currently are on the coast).

    I can't imagine there will be much investment available for this from the private sector for a while, so any such plants should be publicly owned, and run as a non-profit service for the population. Just don't forget that rigorous regulation, transparency and oversight.
  • Comment number 5.

    I wish everyone would watch the film "Into Eternity" which examines the issues surrounding Nuclear Waste that is dangerous for 100,000 years...
  • Comment number 6.

    It also shows a missing long term perspective and missing liability. At the core of the problem is the lack of personal liability (as shown in the film 'The Corporation'). Individuals pursue entirely profit oriented task, behind the legal construct of a corporation, without any ethical or moral obligations (except the 'law' of course, which they help writing in their favour). And then these accidents happen. They are all good people that do those abominable things. Those corrupt General Electric people and politicians involved of course have long since retired and died.
    The bill however is being picked up by innocent people that have nothing to do with those consciously wrong decisions made a generation ago. This system is so wrong, its unbelievable that it is allowed to exist.
  • Comment number 7.

    I was thinking of this vid last week. It's interesting watch the media here (including the BBC) load focus and fear monger about the nuclear reactor while at the same time giving very little analysis into the situation or the real effects (because lets face it, anyone with a brain cell or two isn't going to trust the government).

    The Tsunami had far bigger impact socially, and likewise the side effects of last years oil spill highlights that when you look at the bigger picture, nuclear power is still far safer (even with the points you very rightly raise here), and less damaging than oil. Yet we have governments in Europe going hyper about the idea of suspending various nuclear power plans. We never had governments do the same last year after the BP crisis.

    It seems that as normal the media fail to put things into perspective/context yet again.
  • Comment number 8.

    Thanks for posting this full version of A is for Atom.

    I had seen a version available from that appears to have been recorded off the UK History Channel. That version is missing 10 1/2 minutes. They seem to be the most controversial 10 1/2 minutes: Teller, using atomic bombs to make harbours, man radioactive for 4 days, worship of technology, etc.

    Seeing lots of blog comments on the web saying nuclear is better than coal, as coal -> CO2 emissions -> global warming -> environmental destruction & loss of live

    They don't seem to see that nuclear reactors -> plutonium production -> nuclear weapons proliferation -> nuclear war -> environmental destruction & loss of life

    Nuclear winter is more severe than global warming.
  • Comment number 9.

    Following on Paul's comment from above. I was also surprised to see 11.5 minutes missing from the YouTube and GoogleVideos versions of the documentary. It may be the History Channel needing to cut it back to 45 minutes so that commercial time needs are also met. But still, the parts that are missing are indeed interesting.
    Here is a list of the parts that have been cut out of the video:

    5:18 - 8:20 --> references to Technocracy Inc

    12:47 – 15:17 --> Chauncy Starr's comments and further on Edward Teller's reference to Project Plowshare

    17:51 – 18:03 --> Stan Witson talking about the 1958 nuclear accident in the UK

    30:44 – 31:35 --> comments by Andranik Petrosyants

    34:25 – 35:23 --> Peter Kapitza's reference to Ernest Rutherford

    39:39 – 42:15 --> Greg Minor talking about safety issues in the plant

    Interesting deletions, eh?

    Thanks for a great documentary! Very informative and educational.
  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the Explain.
  • Comment number 11.

    Interview with Valerii Legasov was astonishing,standing on shoulders of Dostojevski and Tolstoj,and the paradoxal quote that we have to protect technology from people,great words.

    How can we protect anything when we cant protect ourselfs. Its sad.
  • Comment number 12.

    Each episode of Pandora's Box that was shown recently on TV goes for about 45 minutes. I'd be interested in seeing the entire episodes so that I could see the missing 10 minutes or so from each one. Maybe they will all be posted on this blog eventually.

    P.S. A version of this comment was originally removed for advertising a product, which I didn't realise I was doing. I've avoided mentioning the specific website and cable TV channel in the hope that this comment will not be deleted (although I did mention them in an earlier comment, and that has not been removed).
  • Comment number 13.

    "At the centre of the reactor was the uranium core. Its heat powered the generators. The cores were now so large that if for any reason the flow of water to keep them cool were lost they would melt.

    "The scientists feared that such a core could then burn its way through the floor of the containment shell. In theory there would be nothing to stop it emerging on the other side of the world. They called it the China Syndrome"

    The above is from the documentary, it's a shame this statement wasn't clarified:
  • Comment number 14.

    @GamosVoo yes the explanation of china syndrome was somewhat incorrect. Not least because anything melting it's way through the earth will come at rest in the center not pop out the other side(liquids molten or otherwise do not flow uphill). there were a few other quibbles I have with AC's scientific explanations but this was the only one I thought significant enough to comment on. Overall thou a fine piece of work and relevant today.
  • Comment number 15.

    This item shows the tragedy of a failed floodgate and its consequences. You can't help but think: if only, if only...
  • Comment number 16.

    I know someone who helped engineer British nuclear power-plants during the Thatcher era; he spoke of continual (bumbling) government interference and costcutting pressures that were definitely hampering safety in his view.
  • Comment number 17.

    Adam, thank you for posting this. They should be showing it every day on CNN as long as the Japanese crisis goes on. I have seen quite a few nuclear documentaries over the years and that was by far the most analytically incisive. The message that technology (and capitalism) present us with moral and political choices that we as peoples can make is so important and so hard to get across to people. Is there is a transcript somewhere? What was the country song playing toward the end? Something besides the usual Louvin Brothers number. Looking forward to your new series, if we get to see it in the U.S. Bring it to the True/False Film Festival next year!
  • Comment number 18.

    I was also wondering about that country song,i found it but its a clip from another nuclear documentary "Atomic Cafe". Its pretty ugly.
  • Comment number 19.

    Thanks for posting the full video. I do hope it will remain for future reference.

    Excellent history of the GE type reactors from the 1960-80 period, and their inherent problems. (Basically, most of the BWR - Light Water reactors)

    See this video on the Integral Fast Reactor to discover what our new reactors should be like. Documentary describing the history of the Integral Fast Reactor project and how it solves the problems associated with traditional nuclear reactors.
  • Comment number 20.

    Excellent information on the current state and possibilities of nuclear energy can be found at
    Start with this post, and explore from there:
    Two TV documentaries and a new film on the Integral Fast Reactor
  • Comment number 21.

    Thanks for posting the film for I have never seen it before. I very much agree on the underlying method of examining past historical events in the light of developments and changes to add facts to a discussion. I encourage to produce a follow-up after the Japan events come to some conclusion. Being a physicist myself I always find some facts missing from all the expert's statements. Here's some sample questions I would ask if I were a journalist:

    1) is it true that nuclear reactions such as radiactivity unlike chemical reactions are not influenced by outside conditions in any way ?
    2) how can one speak of controlling a nuclear plant when there is but one option to influence it in the event of a disaster. Namely shutting the fission process down ?
    3) how is it possible to repair broken technology inside a reactor when it is a lethal environment to work in as a human ?
    4) how come there was no "nuclear fire brigade" in any country coming to the rescue of the Japanes reactor ?
  • Comment number 22.

    Terrific. Really excited about the new films Adam, can you give us any more info?

    I love the music done by the guys out of Gang of Four at the end of this film. I was looking into them and it seems one of them works for a PR company now. Looking at the clients I'm not sure how I feel about that, kind of ironic.
  • Comment number 23.

    Adam, please start your own blog. The BBC house rules and the glaring invitation to 'complain about this comment' make me feel all funny inside.

  • Comment number 24.


    Is there a version of this documentary with Japanese subtitles available? If not, I would very much like to arrange for subtitles to be made for it to be viewable online to the Japanese public.

    This documentary includes important revelations pertinent to the coming anti nuclear movement which can be expected to take shape here in Japan, presented in a manner which is understandable to the general public.

    Chris Harrington
    Kamogawa, Chiba, Japan
  • Comment number 25.

    Mr. Curtis,

    Thank you so much for all of your enlightening documentaries, and thank you for posting the above episode. I had no idea that I had only seen three quarters of the documentary! I think I can speak for all of your fans in saying that we would love to see the other episodes of "Pandora's Box" in their entirety. Is it possible to post the rest? I would especially like to see "The Engineers' Plot" in its entirety: the only version I can find cuts off the last few seconds of the final interview. I'm dying to know what Vitalii Lelchuk says after "Not science itself but the men who mistook what science was"! I tried to find ways of purchasing a copy and supporting your work but they don't seem to be any legitimate options.

    Thank you again for your hard work and wonderful films. I look forward to your next project.
  • Monday, May 09, 2011

    How I Helped Create Angry Birds

    Brier Dudley of the Seattle Times declared in an article on "tablet birding" that " The addictive slingshot game is the killer app ....People buy tablets thinking they'll use them instead of computers, but most don't. They end up playing "Angry Birds."

    You might recall in the article Finland Uber Alles of which tiny country came out on top in the international PISA international student assessment. Well, it was Rovio, a finnish company that spent about $400,000 to develop the silly game that has sold 140 million copies, most of them for the pittance of $1 admission. It is estimated 40 million people per month are spending/wasting time flinging birds at neatly stacked piles of pigs. I finally got a copy on my wife's new Samsung Android phone, though my son is waiting for the real deal to appear on his Windows Phone 7. The action is that you use your finger to pull back a slingshot, thus setting an angle and velocity for the feathered projectile.

    Now that brings me back to my Lindbergh high school days in Seattle circa 1975 when Bill Gates and Paul Allen were slaving away at yet another BASIC compiler. They they had the bold idea creating and selling BASIC on its own instead of just getting a salary from Wang or Hewlett Packard, but that's another story. The HP was introduced in 1972, long before the IBM PC, as a full blown BASIC computer (actually it was called a calculator at first) that fit on top of a desk for about $20,000 for the setup the school had with a card reader, plotter and ROM cards which were essentially $1000 video game cartridges, enough money to have bought some of the houses in my neighborhood at the time. It had a cassette tape drive that operated entirely on commands like "LOAD 1" just like today's "file save as" command.

    I skipped the computer programming class, electing to stay after school to learn how to program the new HP9830 desktop computer. Instead of a screen, it had a 32 character red-dot LED display, and in addition to thermal printer on the top, it had a flatbed pen plotter that could draw line-based pictures. There was a computer fair at the University of Washington where I marveled at the Portland-based Tektronix 4051 computer which had a green graphics display like the ones in Battlestar Galactica. The demo game was something called Artillery. It started out drawing the outline of a hill, and drew an X for opposing artillery gun placements. Player A would type in an angle and velocity, and off would shoot an artillery shell over the hill which felt the effect of the wind, and made a blast mark on the other side. Player B would do the same in the opposite direction. Eventually first guy who got a hit won the game. Well, being in inquisitive student I was, I asked if the graphics commands were anything like they were on the HP, and sure enough he let me stop the game and other than the fact that they used MOVE and DRAW instead of PLOT and PENUP, it was pretty similar. So then I asked if I could get a listing and the salesguy said sure, to show off the shiny electrostatic printer which could make a copy of the screen one sheet at a time, probably at the modern-day cost of 50-75 cents per sheet. 25 sheets later, I took the listing home with me. It took a few afterschool sessions, but after a week we had the plotter set up so that it would draw the hill, write down the succession of tries, and everybody in the computer lab spent hours dueling with artillery as the hot new game at school.

     In 1978 after starting at MIT and deciding to switch from Aerospace to a "field where they'll never lay anybody off: computers" I got a co-op job at Hewlett Packard Data Terminials Division in Cupertino. That's the same giant site that is scheduled for shut down in 2011 and to be taken over by Apple as HP no longer makes terminals, HP 3000, HP 300 Amigo or HP 1000 computers anymore. They had taken the same 8080 chip used by the Altair 88000 and used it in their 2645 block mode terminals which in their day could do form entry like we do now with web browser forms like shopping with, but at 240 characters per second. Their latest HP2647 "smart" terminal combined "raster" graphics with none other than Bill Gates's Microsoft basic upgraded with a newer version "AGL" of the same commands pioneered on the HP9830. That was actually their biggest corporate contract leading up to their later deal with IBM.

    I was basically hired to write a demo tape of programs where I just re- purposed all of the 2D and 3D graphics programs I did in high school (to this very day, most COMPUTER SCIENCE GRADUATES never do any graphics program, let along self-taught 3D perspective) I did a spinning 3D logo for a corporate dog and pony show, and ended up showing up a college intern who figured out how to fill a pie chart by doing a better version that did cross hatching at angles. They told me to toss it as the other one was good enough, but the next year they told me another manager who saw it demanded that the listing be retrieved from the garbage the next day and it was used in "Auto-chart" as the first cross-hatch pie chart anywhere. One of those games that made the cut was Artillery. The managers marvelled at it, when I mentioned where it came from, they said don't worry about it, if they couldn't take a joke they could shove it. And as far as I know Tektronix never did complain though by that time their green screens were being put out of business by the pixel-based graphics like HP was introducing.

    According to one history Artillery first appeared as a text based game which typed out how far you over- or under-shot. An Apple II version showed up in 1980, with a Commodore version in 1981.
    Artillery for the Commodore Pet (1981)

    After I graduated, I took my first job in 1981 at Digital Equipment Corporation at Hudson (now Intel) to work on a CAD program using the VAX which could perfrom at the breathtaking rate of 1 MIPS or million instructions per second, and could address the ridiculous overkill of 32 bits or 4 billion bytes of virtual memory. Today that much RAM is worth about $500 and most new chips are running 64 bit windows. For the first time I had DECMail electronic mail and DECNet before there was an internet. Before long I had artillery working on the VT125 graphics terminal as well, DEC's version of the HP2648 graphics terminal, DEC was swallowed not too long ago by Hewlett Packard after it seems the entire New England-based minicomputer industry imploded as cheap IBM PCs and knock-off took over during the 1980s.

     With the arrival of bulletin boards and the internet in the 1990s, IBM included a BASIC game called "Gorillas.bas" with every copy of DOS which seemed an AWFUL lot like a character version of artillery, except that you fling bananas over a terrain of buildings at a target, but still with velocity and angle. Evidently IBM managers didn't care any more than my HP managers did of the heritage of this thing.  I even recall seeing an artillery-like game in a 2010 windows phone programming book, but they seem to have replaced it with something else.

    Anyways, the next time you fling a bird at stupid pigs, there is a long history behind computer games like this, and I hardly imagined where my high school hijinks would end up changing the world by a tiny little bit.