Arts + Scene » Book Review

My Humboldt Diary

Bob Rowen, My Humboldt Diary, LLC, 2014



When President Obama made his announcement of loan guarantees to the nuclear industry in 2010, Bob Rowen decided it was time to pick up his pen. My Humboldt Diary: A True Story of Betrayal of the Public Trust, is Rowen's account of his life as a nuclear control technician working for Pacific Gas & Electric at the Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. It is an indictment of PG&E, as well as the meticulous and often painful chronicling of young man's political coming of age.

 Rowen details many lapses in safety protocols at the power plant and alleges a corporate culture at PG&E of intimidating employees who tried to address the issues with supervisors or in plant safety meetings. He begins before the nuclear power plant became operational in 1963. Rowen explains that the Humboldt Bay reactor was originally loaded with nuclear fuel housed in stainless steel fuel cladding. He claims that while a far superior but more expensive zircaloy cladding was available, cheaper materials, coupled with the specific design of the reactor, led to the breakdown of the stainless steel cladding and increasingly high radiation levels in all systems throughout the plant, including the gaseous discharge.

 Other alleged breaches of safety protocols Rowen describes involve the release and transportation of spent fuel and the removal of a continuous air sample monitor at the South Bay Elementary School located 400 yards directly downwind from the plant.  

 In the book, Rowen claims he paid a high price for exposing, as he says, "PG&E's unquestionably immoral disregard for employee and public safety." He tells of being fired from his job, blacklisted from the nuclear industry, publicly smeared, accused of "communist tendencies" and being a member of SDS, as well as garnering an FBI file that would have made Joseph McCarthy proud. 

Bob Rowen is in some ways the perfect person to tell this story convincingly.  Trained as a U.S. Marine, he began as a true believer in the industry who worked hard to become a nuclear control technician and only gradually came to doubt the technology's safety while he worked at the Humboldt Bay Power Plant.

While convincing, the book is not well edited. It is repetitive and a bit disjointed. Not everyone will want to read past the first couple of chapters. But for me, that does not detract from the bravery of the writer, the value of his testimony or the excellent documentation of the assertions in the text.

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