Must-Read Longform Journalism on Nuclear Power

In the wake of Japan’s nuclear crisis, The Daily Beast combs the archives for the most essential long-form pieces on the promise and tragedy of atomic energy, in this special edition of our weekly Longreads column.

03.18.11 2:33 PM ET

1. “Three Mile Island: Nuclear Nightmare”
April 9, 1979

This piece from the archives explains the political aftermath of the 1979 nuclear disaster that crippled the burgeoning U.S. nuclear-power industry: the meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The days after the accident were in part a publicity war among nuclear-power companies, anti-nuke activists, and the public perception swayed by the wildly coincidental timing of the film The China Syndrome, which opened 12 days before the accident and depicted a catastrophic meltdown. “The radioactive gases drifting from Three Mile Island have undeniably raised the price—and public consciousness about the risks—of nuclear power,” Time wrote. “Just how high rests in large measure on how Pennsylvania’s nightmare ends.”

2. “Indian Point Blank”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker
March 3, 2003

Indian Point, the closest nuclear plant to New York City, is situated in the perfect spot for an enterprising terrorist. Not only did one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center on 9/11 fly directly over it, but nearly 300,000 people live within the plant’s 10-mile emergency zone, and an additional 20 million live within 50 miles. A congressional study estimated that a catastrophe could result in 50,000 fatalities and more than a 100,000 radiation injuries. Kolbert visits the plant and digs into its history, which reveals a pattern of slow reaction by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to its failed inspections and delayed repairs.

3. “It’s Scary, It’s Expensive, It Could Save the Earth”
Charles Petit, National Geographic
April 2006

After the meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, the debate over nuclear power was pretty much over in the United States. But as the consequences of the alternative—coal-burning power plants that dump tons of carbon into the atmosphere—became apparent, green activists had a gradual change of heart. Any advocate of nuclear power, Petit wrote, is likely an environmentalist. The movement to embrace nuclear power is moving slowly, however, because it’s still expensive and dangerous. But other nations aren’t waiting for the U.S. to recover from its scarring setback, and atomic energy may be our best option for the future.

4. “Rad Storm Rising”
Gabriel Schoenfeld, The Atlantic
December 1990

In the early 19th century, the Russian philosopher Petr Chaadayev wrote, “We are one of those nations that somehow are not part of mankind but exist only for the sake of teaching the world some kind of terrible lesson.” The year before the Soviet Union fell, Schoenfeld described the massive disaster that the USSR’s aboveground nuclear testing had been, with dozens of testing sites unsecured and thousands of people suffering radiation injuries.

5. “Atomic Priesthoods, Thorn Landscapes, and Munchian Pictograms”
Juliet Lapidos, Slate
November 16, 2009

Nuclear waste remains dangerous for billions of years. So how will we warn Earth’s future inhabitants to stay away from it? The Department of Energy handed that question and $1 million to a crew of scientists, linguists, and anthropologists who set out on a quixotic mission to figure out how to communicate with people thousands of years in the future about the indestructible poisons we’ve left behind. The suggestions in their final report were a bizarre patchwork of systems—from a “relay” that would pass down information over thousands of years, to graphic representations of danger and horror—aimed at helping future Earthlings both understand and believe a message they may not be able to translate.

6. “Chernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden”
Henry Shukman, Outside
March 2011

The area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in eastern Ukraine—the site of the biggest nuclear disaster in history—has been forbidden to humans for 25 years. With a guide and a photographer, Shukman ventured deep into the ruins, now overgrown and teeming with wildlife—deer, elk, wolves, foxes, birds. Scientists studying the animals have discovered that much of the wildlife has unstable DNA and that their mutating genomes may cause them to evolve into a brand-new species. The eerily beautiful Chernobyl, and the abandoned city of Pripyat, have become both a vibrant example of rapid microevolution and a reminder of the possible fate of humanity.

More on nuclear power from The Daily Beast: Eve Conant describes the terrifying, controversial fuel compound used in Japan’s troubled plants. Tara McElvey predicts the nuclear backlash that could hit the U.S. in the wake of Japan. Robert Bryce argues that natural gas killed nuclear power in the U.S. long before Japan’s disaster. Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester warn that America’s nuclear power plants are even more vulnerable than Japan’s, and The Daily Beast ranks the country’s 65 most endangered plants. Plus, watch a video explanation of how Japan’s nuclear accident happened and see our gallery of the 10 worst nuclear accidents of all time.

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