cover image Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters

Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters

Serhii Plokhy. Norton, $30 (368p) ISBN 978-1-324-02104-9

Plokhy (Nuclear Folly), a professor of Ukranian history at Harvard, delivers a stunning survey of nuclear accidents from the 1954 Castle Bravo test on the Marshall Islands to the 2011 Fukushima meltdown. Contending that any consideration of nuclear energy’s role in combatting climate change must consider the nuclear industry’s history of disasters, Plokhy gives a blow-by-blow rundown of six incidents and analyzes the factors that contributed to them. Though more than 100 alarms went off during the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, the signal that would have told crew members that a crucial water valve had failed to close had never been installed. Anatolli Diatlov, the deputy chief engineer at Chernobyl, was “convinced that he was always right,” according to Plokhy, and refused to abort a 1986 safety test despite clear signs that the reactor was malfunctioning. The resulting explosion led to the deaths of an estimated 4,000 people from “radiation-induced cancers and leukemia.” At Fukushima, a faulty seismic warning system, poorly enforced regulations, and a “confused decision-making process” resulted in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Plokhy lucidly explains complex scientific and technical procedures and draws sharp profiles of key players in each episode. This well-informed study strikes a note of caution about the nuclear future. (May)