Atoms and ashes A global history of nuclear disasters

Serhii Plokhy, 1957-

Book - 2022

"A chilling account of seventy years of nuclear catastrophes, by the author of the "definitive" (Economist) Cold War history, Nuclear Folly. Nuclear energy was embraced across the globe at the height of the nuclear industry in the 1960s and 1970s; today, there are 440 nuclear reactors operating throughout the world, with nuclear power providing 10 percent of world electricity. Yet as the world seeks to reduce carbon emissions to combat climate change, the question arises: Just how safe is nuclear energy? Atoms and Ashes recounts the dramatic history of nuclear accidents that have dogged the industry in its military and civil incarnations since the 1950s. Through the stories of six terrifying major incidents-Bikini Atoll, Kysh...tym, Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima-Cold War expert Serhii Plokhy explores the risks of nuclear power, both for military and peaceful purposes, while offering a vivid account of how individuals and governments make decisions under extraordinary circumstances. Atoms and Ashes provides a crucial perspective on the most dangerous nuclear disasters of the past, in order to safeguard our future"--

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New York, NY : W.W. Norton & Company [2022]
Main Author
Serhii Plokhy, 1957- (author)
First edition
Physical Description
xix, 345 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 291-330) and index.
  • List of Maps
  • Note on Radiation Impact and Measurements
  • Preface: Stolen Fire
  • I. White Ashes: Bikini Atoll
  • II. Northern Lights: Kyshtym
  • III. A Very English Fire: Windscale
  • IV. Atoms for Peace: Three Mile Island
  • V. The Star of Apocalypse: Chernobyl
  • VI. Nuclear Tsunami: Fukushima
  • Afterword: What Comes Next?
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

Amid the climate crisis and the pressing need for clean energy, a renewed emphasis has been placed on the promises and potential of nuclear power. Nuclear power plants, however, are exorbitantly expensive and may present threats and vulnerabilities to surrounding populations and ecosystems. While considering the possible future of nuclear power, Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University and author of several books on the Slavic nations, reviews lessons learned from the most serious nuclear disasters since the end of WWII. He begins with thermonuclear weapons testing, specifically the Castle Bravo test at Bikini Atoll, which, partly because of a miscalculation in wind direction, sent radioactive fallout over inhabited islands and became an international incident. Moving to the Kyshtym disaster in 1957 in the Soviet Union, Plokhy details events leading to an underground nuclear waste tank explosion that contaminated a large area. Subsequently reviewing devastating accidents at Windscale in the UK, Three Mile Island in the U.S., Chernobyl in Ukraine, and Fukushima in Japan, Plokhy notes that radioactive pollution persists for generations, considers what was learned after each accident, documents how safety measures and reactor designs have improved, and asks whether nuclear energy is a viable path forward, considering all the risks.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

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)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Gripping accounts of the six biggest nuclear disasters. In his latest authoritative history, Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, spreads the blame widely. Readers will be surprised to learn that, for a decade after Hiroshima, governments proclaimed that nuclear radiation was inconsequential. This changed in 1954 after America's "Castle Bravo" test, in which an early nuclear weapon turned out to be unexpectedly powerful. The explosion dumped radioactive fallout over observers and affected islands almost 100 miles away. Government efforts could not completely reassure the public, and the anti-nuclear movement was born. The most famous American nuclear accident was also the least harmful. In 1979, a cooling failure at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island reactor produced a partial meltdown and some release of radiation. No employee was badly exposed, and studies showed no increase in cancer rates. However, the initial confusion and media coverage "delivered a major blow to the nuclear industry." As Plokhy shows, the plutonium factory in Hanford, Washington, remains America's largest environmental cleanup project, but the Soviet counterpart in the Urals is worse: The immense 1957 explosion of a neglected waste tank produced damage and disease comparable to Chernobyl. The explosions at Chernobyl in 1986 released at least 1 million times more radiation than those at Three Mile Island, killed thousands, and poisoned an immense area. Those responsible had ignored safety rules, and a proper containment building, long required in the West, would have confined the explosions. When the 2011 tsunami struck, Japan's Fukushima reactors escaped harm, but waves knocked out the cooling system. Explosions released perhaps 10% of Chernobyl's radiation levels and forced far fewer evacuations, but few experts take comfort in that. Plokhy concludes that these accidents produced only a temporary glitch in the spread of nuclear power, which can never be accident-free, and few outside the industry consider it a safe option for the future. Shelve this excellent account next to James Mahaffey's Atomic Accidents and Kate Brown's Plutopia. Hair-raising, instructive, and irresistible reading. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.