Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: "Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters" by Jim Mahaffey


I decided to try and tackle something a little out of my comfort zone recently. I picked up a copy of the book, Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters by Jim Mahaffey. Now, I'm not much of a science guy, at least when it comes to nuclear physics, or physics in general for that matter. So, I wondered if this would end up being a snooze fest for me. But, I decided to give it a try anyway.

The book wasn't a necessarily a disappointment for me. But, it was challenge to get through at certain points. What I really found interesting in this book was the historical perspective on the dark side of nuclear energy - radioactivity. Mahaffey does a decent job of exploring the advances made in nuclear energy by discussing the numerous mistakes made, and what was learned from them. In his book, he takes the reader back to the earliest recorded radioactivity exposures in the late 19th century, the early experiments by Madame Curie and Thomas Edison, and the United States' Manhattan Project during World War II.

Mahaffey doesn't stop there, however, he also makes his way through modern day events such as, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Interspersed among his detailed descriptions of each accident (and there have been far more than I thought), the author provides an analysis of what went wrong, what was learned (and sometimes not learned), and how it helped advance the science of nuclear energy.

One of the things that I like about the book was that Mahaffey doesn't try to convince the reader that nuclear energy is either good or bad. I didn't get the opinion that there was any agenda hidden in the subtext of the book. What I didn't necessarily like, however, was the author's sometimes long discussions on the concepts of nuclear fission itself. There is only so much talk about isotopes, protons, and neutrons that a non-nuclear physicist can take. There were a number of sections where I found myself getting lost because the detail behind nuclear fission was getting far too deep.

All I all, I found the book to be entertaining, and informative. It was amazing to hear about the numerous accidents, and how, more times than not, the cause was human stupidity or carelessness. I found it surprising how nonchalant many scientists were in the early years of nuclear exploration. The early years were particularly interesting, especially when you read about early attempts to sell radioactive water as a cure-all. Some of it was horrifying, but, I must admit, some was kind of funny.

This isn't a book for the faint of heart, or someone who gets easily bored by long, drawn out scientific explanations. But, it was a decent book none the less.

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