Having delivered a delightfully astute history of atomic power in Atomic Awakening (2009), nuclear engineer Mahaffey goes over the same ground with the same combination of expertise and wit, this time describing what happens when things go wrong.
The author opens with a disaster that destroyed a power plant, killed 75 and contaminated a wide area. It was a hydroelectric plant; nothing is perfect. Pure uranium and plutonium are well-behaved and barely radioactive. Under the right circumstances, their atoms fission (split), producing immense heat and radiation. However, there would be no nuclear explosion without the addition of complex technology. Fission heat and radiation by themselves can wreak havoc, and beginning with the first reactor in 1942, experts have worked hard to make them safe—though an automobile is more than 1 million times more dangerous to a bystander than a nuclear reactor. Much of this progress arose from painful experiences, which the author happily recounts. Human error and stupidity are not in short supply. Movie heroes never go by the book, but real-life nuclear plant employees should stick to it. Many of the mishaps that fill the book were ordinary industrial accidents: fires, conventional explosions and toxic leaks. No matter. Hundreds have occurred besides the big three (Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island), and Mahaffey takes readers on a 400-page thrill ride. Despite this litany of disasters, the author remains fond of nuclear power plants, which have “killed fewer people than the coal industry.” However, he shows no mercy toward workers or engineers who have, at times, forgotten their vast capacity for harm.
The most comprehensive and certainly one of the most entertaining accounts of atomic accidents.