Money, power, politics, optimism . . . all played their part in what Pringle, of the London Sunday Times, and Australian official Spigelman describe as a ""Paracelsus"" kind of folly--finding many points of comparison between today's nuclear barons and that 16th-century charlatan/medicine man. Carefully, chronologically, the authors lay in the background of 20th-century physics that led to nuclear fission, the bomb, and a current ""second ice age"" in which reactor sales are at a low and public disillusion is high following Three Mile Island. (An earlier slump--the first ice age--occurred in the late Fifties.) The material in the first half of the book, from physics to the bomb, is also covered with stylish brevity in C. P. Snow's The Physicists (below), and in earnest, workman-like detail in Ronald Clark's The Greatest Power on Earth (p. 403). Perhaps Pringle and Spigelman give too much prominence to Szilard as a prime mover in alerting Roosevelt to the potential for bomb development; perhaps they overemphasize the Manhattan Project as an engineering, rather than scientific, feat. But in a work as comprehensive and meticulously researched as this one, these are minor flaws that do not mar the overall design that the authors reveal. Or, in the second half, the lack of design: the history of postwar developments in nuclear energy is a litany of short-sightedness, of gambling for high stakes and losing, of wheeling-and-dealing and damning the public interest. All this is spelled out in terms of the internal politics and personalities of the countries that make up the ever-growing nuclear club--the countries that openly or clandestinely have the bomb. Interwoven is the tangle of piety and deceit that has characterized the test ban treaties, the nonproliferation agreements, the cartels to control reactor prices, etc. England went its stubborn and disastrous way to develop gas-cooled reactors. In France, aristocrats of the Ecole Polytechnique battled with lesser mortals. The Germans carried on in typical efficient German style. The Indians were zealots, obsessed with joining the club. Espionage presumably played a role in Israeli developments, while bribes figured high in the Philippines. No vein-throbbing muckrakers, Pringle and Spigelman write with an objectivity that gives the work authenticity. They conclude that we have not learned very much nor gone very far in nuclear power--and will not until education, safety, waste-disposal, engineering design, and alternate energy sources are seriously considered. A first-rate performance all around.