Thursday, December 18, 2014

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters, From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima, by James Mahaffey (author), Tom Weiner (narrator)

Blackstone Audiobooks, ISBN 9781482995473, February 2014

This is a highly readable account of the history of atomic power as seen through its accidents and safety failures. That might sound like it's anti-nuclear power, but in fact Mahaffey is a long-time advocate. His major point is that in fact significant accidents are fairly rare, and that with a few notable exceptions, serious casualties are even rarer.

His account starts with a bizarre episode in the Ozarks in the late 19th century, with the accidental discovery of what eventually proved to be a radium mine.

I will say that the discussion of radium and its various uses, not just for night-glow dials but its medical uses, both science-based and as "mineral water," is by itself worth the price of admission.

As he takes us through the development of the bomb, and the first reactors to produce bomb-grade material, and then the development of peaceful nuclear power, there are stories both terrifying and delightful. Initially, everything had to be learned the hard way.

The most terrifying detail, to my mind, is that for years the US military tried to develop nuclear-powered military aircraft. Surely they would never crash... Fortunately, that proved to be a technical bridge too far, and the program was cancelled.

A recurring theme is that while all of the power-plant and bomb transport accidents involved designs that failed to anticipate a potential technological vulnerability, the power plant accidents only became disasters when one worker or another overrode the automatic controls, often for what seemed like logical reasons. There's also discussion of how politcal and economic factors played into decisions, as well as the inertia of sticking with a known design that's been reliable and effective, even though there may be better designs and paths not followed, that might make nuclear power safer, more reliable, and less unsettling for a concerned public.

He does repeatedly hit a favorite theme of mine, the ways in which excessive secrecy to prevent public panic in fact fed public fear that there were dangers they weren't being informed about.

All in all, this was an interesting and enjoyable read, or rather in this case enjoyable listen, and Tom Weiner captures exactly the right tone in his reading of it.

Highly recommended.

I bought this book.