Book Review: Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters By James Mahaffey

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima (Kindle Edition)
By James Mahaffey


5.0 out of 5 stars
A Grand Adventure Disguised As A Technology Book

This was not the book I expected when I purchased it. I was expecting an authoritative, well researched, well documented treatise on the history of nuclear accidents. It was certainly that. But I was also expecting a dry, pedantic, academic, formal, and boring book that I was determined to slog thorough because I wanted to understand the topic.

In a story that traces its plot from a wrecked 2-10-0 decapod steam engine in north Georgia in 1954 to a massive hydrogen explosion at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan in 2011, the human story is always front and center. Don’t misunderstand, Mahaffey understands the technology intimately and he describes the technical details with an engineers precision, but he also understands that it is the interface between the human and the machine where the true story is told, and time-and-time again, where the culprit of tragedy is to be found.

Although the title makes it sound like an academic textbook, it reads more like a Sebastian Junger or Jon Krakauer adventure story. One where when you breathlessly complete it, you will be chagrined to realize you just may have read a textbook.

There are two threads of striking similarities running through these stories. The first is how incaution led to so many of these accidents. At first, this seems surprising given the dangerous nature of the processes and materials being handled. But it reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend. We are both rock climbers and used to a certain element of risk. We were discussing a climber who was well known for incredibly difficult climbs without a rope and I suggested he was somehow fundamentally different from the rest of us. My friend disagreed and offered that each time we take a risk and have a positive outcome, our expectation of a positive outcome increases and conversely, our vigilance decreases. It is an interesting idea and one that highlights the imperativeness of following well designed safety procedures and how there can be little or no tolerance for mavericks here.

The second striking thread was how many accidents were due to operators failing to follow procedures or mistrusting measurements because they followed their “gut instincts”. This thread might also seem to highlight the imperativeness of following well designed safety procedures and how there can be little or no tolerance for mavericks, but it less clear as we really have no good data on whether and how many accidents were averted by similar actions.

This is a story of great tragedy and sometimes great catastrophe. It is a story that doesn’t shy away from telling the, often painful, stories of the very real human beings at the center of the events. Whether the result of ignorance, youthful exuberance, hubris, heroism, or luck, the pictures painted in these words are fitting testimonials to the tragic victims of these events.

But this is ultimately an optimistic story. It tells the tale of a completely new technology from its earliest inception to the present day through the lens of adversity. But the ultimate sense one is left with is a sense of triumph. If there is any pessimism, it is from the nagging sensation that what should be one of humanities greatest triumphs may be abandoned out of misplaced fear.

Updated: January 3, 2016 — 11:21 pm


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  1. I was also disappointed by this book. I thought the author included dubious sources, hearsay and anecdotes and presented them as history. It lacked adequate sources so I think this book is an accretion of knowledge the author has accumulated. I did not like his other book ‘history of nuclear power’ either.

    Personally, I gave it a 2.0 out of 5.0 – only of interest to people looking to go deep into the subject, there are better stuff out there on this topic. This was not highly readable. To me a 5.0 on 5.0 is a book everyone should read.

    Nuclear power is important, but this was not a good gateway for readers

  2. Sorry you didn’t find it useful. I found it, not only well documented, but an absolutely riveting read. There are dozens of footnotes at the end of each chapter. He cites over 100 references in the bibliography. I thought it was a terrific book and stand by my 5 out of 5. The consensus on Amazon gives it 4.5/5 with 231 reviews.

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