Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Book Review: Epicenter

Book Review: 'Epicenter' by Basil Jackson

4 / 5 Stars

‘Epicenter’ first was published in 1971. This Berkely Medallion Books paperback version (223 pp) was published in January, 1973. The cover artist / designer is uncredited.

[Jackson, a Canadian author, wrote several other novels with a 'disaster' theme throughout the 70s, including ‘Rage Under the Arctic’ (1974), ‘Supersonic’ (1975), ‘The Night Manhattan Burned’ (1979), and ‘Spill !’ (1979).]

The novel is set in the early 70s. When an earthquake strikes eastern Canada, it affects refueling operations at the nuclear power plant in ‘Fairfield’, 20 miles east of Toronto. The tremors deform a chute, within which some spent fuel rods are being slid down into a waste tank in the lower section of the reactor building. The rods stick in the chute, a potentially dangerous development.

After some examination, the plant managers discover that the fuel rods are stuck in a portion of the chute that is accessible via a large panel. A plan is hatched to open the panel, and use a steel pole to poke at the stuck rods and free them. The attempt fails.

The management decides to employ a different tactic: dismantle the multiple layers of concrete shielding the area of the reactor core where the chute is located, and yank the rods out via crane. This is a more hazardous operation, but Richard Johnson, the plant’s chief engineer, gives the go-ahead.

Disaster strikes mid-way through the procedure. The core is exposed to the outside air, and radioactive particles are vented into the atmosphere. With Geiger counters reading exposure to potentially lethal amounts of radiation, Johnson orders the plant to be evacuated.

And soon, 250 square miles of Toronto will have be to evacuated, too….as a nuclear catastrophe unfolds over the unforgiving winter landscape of Ontario……

Basil Jackson did his research prior to writing ‘Epicenter’, and the result is a better-than-average nuclear disaster novel. 
For example, early in the narrative, a man is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, and his demise is related in harrowing, but realistic, detail.

While the circumstances of the accident seem a bit contrived, the novel’s descriptions of mass evacuations, devastating fires, the exposure of the populace to hazardous quantities of fallout, and the strategy behind desperate measures to contain the radiation release, all have a high degree of plausibility and realism. 

To some extent, ‘Epicenter’ reflects the popularity of the ‘Airport’ novels, which were the forerunners in the late 60s and early 70s of what was to come to be known as the Disaster genre. In ‘Epicenter’ the emphasis throughout large sections of the novel is less on the technical details of the catastrophe, and more on the personal and psychological melodramas involving the lead characters.

When all is said and done, however, ‘Epicenter’ remains one of the better entries in the Nuclear Disaster sub-genre, and is worth picking up by those with a fondness for that category of sf / speculative fiction.

No comments: