Serhii Plokhy recounts the dramatic history of Three Mile Island and five more accidents that that have dogged the nuclear industry in its military and civil incarnations: the disastrous fallout caused by the testing of the hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll in 1954; the Kyshtym nuclear disaster in the USSR, which polluted a good part of the Urals; the Windscale fire, the worst nuclear accident in the UK's history; back to the USSR with Chernobyl, the result of a flawed reactor design leading to the exodus of 350,000 people; and, most recently, Fukushima in Japan, triggered by an earthquake and a tsunami, a disaster on a par with Chernobyl and whose clean-up will not take place in our lifetime.
Superbly crafted but enormously frightening ... The anatomy of these disasters reveals consistent patterns of behaviour; essentially the same story is repeated six times ... Plokhy constructs a formidable case for consigning nuclear power generation to the past. His six case studies are exquisitely rendered with just the right level of technical information to explain the problems without making them incomprehensible or dull. The suspense of reactor crews struggling to find a solution to meltdown makes this book weirdly entertaining ... To solve the energy crisis with nuclear power would require the construction of thousands of reactors worldwide. The problems so perfectly explained in this book would not miraculously disappear; they would proliferate.
... frightening ... Plokhy is too committed to the specifics of each catastrophe to succumb to the temptation of making a grand case. Every nuclear disaster is terrible in its own way ... The global scope of such dire subject matter means that the experience of reading this book is a formidable exercise in cumulative disillusionment ... With catastrophic climate change bearing down on us, nuclear power has been promoted by some as an obvious solution, but this sobering history urges us to look hard at that bargain for what it is.
The technical details in these stories matter immensely, and Plokhy excels at breaking them down ... The book’s focus on discrete events has a downside, in that it elides the cumulative effects of three-quarters of a century of nuclear weapons production and testing ... Plokhy doesn’t provide an estimate of the global radiation exposure created by the orgy of nuclear tests conducted by the U.S., the Soviet Union, the U.K., and France between 1958 and 1963, when the three leading nuclear powers signed a Limited Test Ban Treaty that prohibited tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and underwater; nor does he discuss the years that inhaling radioactive dust shaves off uranium miners’ lives. While he mentions, in passing, that no nuclear power has yet found a way to deal with its stockpiles of radioactive waste, it’s not a topic he dwells on. These, too, are nuclear disasters ... But while one can quibble with Plokhy’s definition of a nuclear disaster, the existence of these ongoing, slow-moving crises only underscores his central point: There is no safe way to harness the power of the atom.