Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters

James Mahaffey. Pegasus, $29.95 (460p) ISBN 978-1-60598-492-6
Mahaffey (Atomic Awakening), a former senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, employs his extensive knowledge of nuclear engineering to produce a volume that is by turns alarming, thought-provoking, humorous, and always fascinating. He begins his mostly chronological work in the era before nuclear power was even imagined, when the engineering community’s greatest fear was steam engine boiler explosions—a fear that has carried through to the design of nuclear power plants to this day. Between his accounts of early boiler explosions and the big three nuclear disasters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, Mahaffey covers an array of mishaps and blunders, nearly all attributable to human error. This history reminds us that the first two people “to die accidentally of acute radiation poisoning,” Haroutune Daghlian and Louis Slotin, both died conducting criticality experiments by hand on the same sphere of plutonium. More pointedly, despite the anxiety generated by disasters and media hype, fossil fuel power generation can be directly linked to 4,000 times more deaths than nuclear power, and contributes heavily to global climate change. Mahaffey’s goal is not to alarm or titillate but to underscore that there is a steep learning curve in understanding these disasters and that they are a natural consequence of increasing our knowledge of nuclear engineering. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 01/13/2014
Release date: 02/01/2014
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