Thursday, July 24, 2008

Robert Heinlein's "Blowups Happen" (novelette, about nuclear power plants, free)

Quote from short story titled Blowups Happen by Robert A HeinleinWhile very readable, substantial parts of it are dated & it sometimes gets too imaginative. Story was written when "there was not a full gram of purified U-235 on this planet".

Story summary.

One single huge nuclear power plant in the US. It meets some 13% of the country's energy needs! This is a world where solar energy is widely used - most households have their energy requirements met by solar panels on roof tops. This is also the worlds where "road cities", built along the length of rolling roads of the "The Roads Must Roll", are common; these rolling roads also primarily run on solar power.

Anyway, because of the possibility that "tons" of uranium core of the plant might blow out at any time, everyone on the plant is constantly on edge. This is the one major thread of the story - frequent nervous breakdown of the technical staff because of onerous responsibility of the safety of the mankind.

Second thread is about the development of atomic rocket fuels that can give a rocket earth escape velocity. Story is apparently older than first space flight. Idea is to somehow make smaller piles than critical mass of nuclear material fissionable in a controlled way. One of the shunted engineers (Calvin Harper, because of imminent nervous breakdown) & his friend (Gus Erickson) do some superheroic work to develop this atomic fuel in days or weeks! But making this small piles requires the big pile! They will later outfit a rocket with engines based on this fuel - again on a schedule that will give creeps to best engineers out there.

Third thread is about how moon got its craters - some imagination run wild. There was once life on it, based on an active gas heavier than oxygen but still dependent on water. And intelligent beings who built atomic power plants that blew up to kill life on the whole world & threw a lot of the crust into space. Craters were formed by those blown blocks of crust that didn't get escape velocity & fell back.

Thomas P Harrington, an astronomer & Director of US Naval Observatory, has developed this lunar thesis. He has convinced both King, General Superintendent of the plant & the local man in charge, & Dr Lentz, a well known psychologist retained by King, that this plant poses a similar scale threat to earth.

That's how we get the final thread. Convincing, even blackmailing, the reluctant Board of Directors of the company that owns the plant to ship it out to space. The big pile will be fitted into a big rocket & sent to an orbit far enough away from earth to avoid danger. Small piles manufactured there will be used to run little & safe plants back on earth.


  1. Story features a "telechronometer", a wrist watch "radio-synchronized with the master clock at Washington." Somewhat akin to modern PCs synchronizing time off an internet server. Apparently, such wrist watches are also commercially available now.

Collected in.

  1. John W Campbell, Jr (ed)'s "The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology".

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding Science-Fiction, September 1940.
Rating: B
Download full text.
Related: All stories of Robert Heinlein.
Note: This post is based on the original 1940 version of the story. There appears to be at least one updated (& edited) later version that I've not read.