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AN ARCHIVE REVIEW OF THE POST DOOMWATCH NOVEL “BRAINRACK"


Here is an archive review of “BRAINRACK” the second post DOOMWATCH novel by two of the shows creators from New Scientist dated 21st February 1974. The novel features none of the characters from the TV series but is written in the same style.

Brainrack
By Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis
Souvenir Press, pp285 £2.50


“The year is 1975. A large British electrical group (guess who) is putting the finishing touches to an American light water reactor that has been hastily completed in the Orkneys. A simple mistake has been made in wiring up one of the thousands of thermocouples in the core. Criticality is achieved and 13 minutes later, as the power level is worked up, a hot spot develops in a fuel element-the uranium melts and runs out of its ceramic matrix, soaking into the surrounding alloy of the fuel can. The anomalous temperature, passed OK by a faulty computer program, goes unchecked. The fuel can buckles into surrounding cans, and the local rate of fission shoots up exponentially. “Durrel whipped round in his chair. ‘Why the hell hasn’t it tripped...drop it!’ In the control room, Baird punched the manual over-ride, magnetic clutches opened and the control rods began to fall…The clearance between the control rod and its surrounding guide tube was designed to be 1.2 millimetres. As the rod dropped under its own weight, the guide tube was beginning to bend out of line…’It’s stuck!’ Durrel under shock and the emergency core cooling water flashes straight into steam, fracturing the four inch thick steel pressure vessel. The dreaded meltdown ensues. What follows is a gripping fictional account of the classic scenario prepared several years ago in the United States. The reactor begins to sink through its own foundations, releasing fission products over tens of square miles. It is this subliminal fear that today haunts many utilities operating light water reactors. It is precisely this fear, as we saw a few weeks ago, that swung Sir Alan Cottrel, the government’s chief scientific advisor, so firmly against the LWRs that the Central Electricity Generating Board would now like to build in Britain (New Scientist, vol 61, p333). But Brainrack is not so much about nuclear catastrophes as about a crisis in human ecology-a Quistian campaign against the twin forces of technological short-sightedness and political ignorance. Kit Pedler is one of the creator’s of BBC’s Doomwatch series, Gerry Davis a scriptwriter of such TV programmes as Softly Softly. Their book concerns a crusading pig headed scientist who identifies a series of blunders in the operation of big technological projects. At first, they think it is a collapse of the man-machine interface; later, as the statistical evidence piles up, it begins to look like the effect of some urban disease in man-in fact, a degenerative atrophication of Betz cells in the central nervous system, resulting ultimately in impaired mental ability. The culprit is finally tracked down to a rare pollutant called cyclic pentane acetylide which (guess what) is a product of combustion of petrol. The book ends with the prime minister being given a simple choice: ban cars or allow the minds of children to deteriorate. For me, the nuclear incident on a remote, windswept Scottish island, with the barometer falling, a blizzard raging, was as good as anything yet written by Hammond Innes, Alistair Maclean or Geoffrey Jenkins. A pity, I felt personally, that the story was not simply about this. With such a wealth of accurate technical detail, a much fuller account could have made a tremendous impact at the present moment-and what a movie it would have subsequently made.”

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