Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima

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Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima

Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima

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In 2011, a 43-foot-high tsunami crashed into a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. In the following days, explosions would rip buildings apart, three reactors would go into nuclear meltdown, and the surrounding area would be swamped in radioactive water. It is now considered one of the costliest nuclear disasters ever. But Fukushima was not the first, and it was not the worst. . . During other disasters workers were expected to take huge risks to solve the crisis. This included looking into the reactor core to assess what was happening during the Windscale fire, firefighters at Chernobyl operating without the proper safety equipment, and workers clearing contaminated ground and soil at Kyshtym. After the Fukushima meltdown authorities described those sent into the reactor building as the “suicide squad”. A challenging story on the accident risks of nuclear power. The chapter on Chernobyl was perhaps the weakest, as I have read better accounts, but the other chapters were strong, especially the brief Fukushima summary. One thing that could have improved the presentation would have been to standardize the units used for describing radiation dose and radioactivity. This would have also allowed a brief description of the biological effects of radiation as a function of dose, which is now well-known, but of course was not when most of these disasters occurred. This would help the reader understand the biological impact of each event and see better how they relate in scale to each other.

The statistics say that a multiplication of reactors is more likely than not to result in another major case of human error merging with technological weaknesses and strategic errors to provide us with the high probability of another tragic nuclear event some time in the next thirty years somewhere. Plokhy, the Director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University examines the dramatic history of Three Mile Island, the Chernobyl disaster, and most recently the Fukushima catastrophe in addition to three others. In so doing Plokhy has provided careful and informative details of each event discussed zeroing in on the planning of nuclear tests and building of nuclear reactors, their implementation, the disasters that evolved, and concludes with a telling analysis of who was responsible. Today a debate exists over the utility of solar and wind technology. As this debate rages, Plokhy takes a fresh look at the history of nuclear accidents trying to understand why they have occurred, how impactful they were, and what we can learn from each event. One of the strengths of Plokhy’s remarkable narrative is explaining the scientific information associated with nuclear testing, the quest to build hydrogen bombs, the development of nuclear power programs, and the catastrophes involved in a clear and concise manner that allows the laymen the ability to understand what normally very complex information is. The author begins his presentation with a discussion of American nuclear testing in the South Pacific at the Bikini Atoll in March 1954. Plokhy points out that nuclear testing in the 1950s was very dangerous no matter what governments said. Scientists had little control over the power of explosions, the direction of wind at various levels of the atmosphere, and which direction fallout might travel. The events of March 1954 involving “Operation Castle Bravo” were no exception particularly once American officials realized that their testing had gone awry there were no contingency plans for evacuations and the weather forecast relied upon was incorrect, despite these “warnings” they continued with further testing even though the first did not go as planned. Of course, the American Atomic Energy Commission investigated and tried to reassure everyone there was nothing to worry about, a common theme in all incidents. Further, secrecy and the need to keep as much information from the public and adversaries in the dark as to what occurred also dominates each incident. In Castle Brava, many islanders felt they were “guinea pigs” for human radiation experiments and the American response was to throw money at them to deal with medical, social, and economic issues that beset survivors. Problems that emerged included the possibility of future cancers, irradiated food sources, and retarding the growth of children.

Well, I didn't really think much of this book, it reads more like a term paper than any kind of compelling narrative. I don't think it's particularly well written. The (mostly) well-known examples of these disasters all pretty much follow a similar path: Nuclear events in the Soviet Union seem to dominate Plokhy’s narrative. First, the Kyshtym accidents, and the meltdown at Chernobyl. In both cases even though the events are 42 years apart the same Soviet scientists had tremendous impact. Nikolai Dollezhal developed a model of a graphite-moderated and water cooled reactor first used in Hanford, WA in 1944. However, Dollezhal along with his colleagues changed the design of the reactor, impacting the future of the Soviet nuclear program and later nuclear industry which became a contributing factor to the Chernobyl disaster. Plokhy takes the reader inside the Maiak nuclear complex and the repeated accidents between 1950 and 1955. He carefully explains what went wrong and the mistakes those in charge made as an explosion at the complex created what one witness described as a “radioactive northern lights.” The key here and Chernobyl in March and April 1986 were nuclear reactor design issues and who would be “blamed” for what transpired in both instances. Kyshtym (Russia) - Plutonium-Processing Plant - Scientists dumped radioactive waste that thousands of people used as drinking water and a food resource. Eventually a nuclear waste system was devised but exploded in 1957 radiating everyone in the vicinity. Plokhy expertly creates a picture of the international nuclear industry. “The story told here is a global one,” he writes, examining “not only the actions and omissions of those directly involved but also the ideologies, politics, and cultures that contributed to the disasters.” For example, the Castle Bravo accident sets the stage for later chapters by introducing the pressures of the Cold War, government efforts to cover up disasters, and the inevitability of human error when dealing with emerging science and technology. Anglo-American relations play an interesting role in at least one nuclear accident. British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan desperately sought to maintain the United Kingdom as a major power. Since the passage in Congress of MacMahon Act in 1946 the United States was no longer allowed to share nuclear secrets with the British, therefore London had to go it alone in developing a hydrogen bomb to show the US that they were worthy of cooperating on nuclear issues. In 1957, fresh from the disaster of the Suez War and the collapse of the Eden government, MacMillan pressured British nuclear scientists to develop and test a hydrogen bomb. At first, the bomb appeared to have had a successful test at Winscale, the US Congress rescinded the MacMahon Act, and MacMillan seemed to have implemented a successful strategy. However, when it appeared that one of the reactors caught fire and was leaking radiation, MacMillan kept it quiet as possible so as not to endanger nuclear cooperation with Washington. As in Kyshtym, Chernobyl, Bikinii Atoll, radiation levels in food and milk made it difficult to keep the accident from the public. Plokhy correctly reminds us that Cold War pressure on the US and United Kingdom dominated the period as on October 4, 1957, the Russians successfully launched Sputnik causing fears of a nuclear armed missile with a warhead reigning down on them.

The question that springs to mind - since each accident improves procedures and technology and a consequent withdrawal from peaceful nuclear power allows time to learn for the next building cycle - is whether the next wave of enthusiasm for nuclear power will result in another major accident or not.Ever since scientists first split the atom in 1938, nuclear power has both fascinated and terrified millions. Today, ten percent of world energy is supplied by almost 440 nuclear reactors. In the US, closer to twenty percent of electricity comes from nuclear power. Regarded as a highly efficient, low-emission energy source, nuclear energy is an attractive option for many countries seeking to reduce their carbon footprint while meeting population needs. Yet, nuclear disasters like Chernobyl have shown the risks of working with radioactive material. Considering the industry’s troubled history raises the question: Just how safe is nuclear energy?

A problem occurs that either should have been anticipated or was anticipated but due to poor training, design, shoddy materials, or human error, is not appropriately dealt with; The last three accidents covered by Plokhy’s book concern nuclear reactors that were built to provide electricity rather than fissile material for bombs: the incidents at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, Fukushima in Japan and, the biggest and most famous of them all, Chernobyl. Nor are we likely to have experienced our last nuclear disaster, adds Plokhy in this grim but expertly concise account of what happens when atom plants go bad. The world has about 440 reactors in operation and another Fukushima-like blast at one of these is almost inevitable, probably before the middle of the next decade. For example, when it came to the nuclear bomb tests in the Marshall Islands, those in charge proceeded despite knowing the risks. The people living on some nearby islands were not even told the tests were happening. The colonial mindset of the US meant the indigenous people of the Marshall Islands were either ignored or moved at will. And once suffering from radiation, they were subject to studies—not to help them recover but to help the industry assess the effects of radiation. This is a theme common to many of the accidents discussed by Plokhy: with each disaster, public faith in nuclear projects is diminished. This requires, however, that the public hear about the disaster. Every time an accident occurs, the government responsible tries to cover it up, or at least to play down the extent of the damage. In his second chapter, Plokhy discusses one of the few cases in which this was successful.These accidents amount to a case against hasty programmes based on limited knowledge and carried out in cultures of secrecy, autocracy and fear. Three Mile Island showed the need for more considered operator training; the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011 demonstrated the danger of a nuclear regulatory body too entangled with the industry it regulated, and with a government from which it should have been independent. Then, of course, came Fukushima in 2011, which triggered a fresh wave of worldwide sentiment against nuclear power, much of it fueled by sensationalistic and inaccurate media coverage, a problem that arguably worsened the impact and cost of previous accidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Germany reacted soon after by voting to either shut down or phase out their nuclear power plants by 2022. The move increased their dependence on Russian energy and has caused considerable difficulty as international pressure mounted to issue sanctions against Russia due to the Ukraine war. Plokhy’s detailed narratives on each episode demonstrate that as with most technologically based disasters, there’s never really a single, unambiguous cause. The several different measurements of radioactivity used in this book were very confusing - roentgens, rem, curies, becquerel, rads, sieverts, grays. Although there was an explanation of these at the beginning, it didn't really help, as there were a variety of them used in each chapter. For me, they became meaningless numbers without much context. Within a few months, the search for the atom bomb was on. Not until several years after such a bomb was designed, built and used did scientists and politicians turn their attention to the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The accidents described by Plokhy divide equally between using nuclear power to make weapons and using it to generate electricity.

So, putting aside equally problematic issues related to waste disposal and the vast cost of decommissioning nuclear power stations (another major 'tax' dumped on a non-voting future), why should we retain a degree of concern? Nevertheless for those affected, the consequences can be truly devastating and long-lasting. The fear must be that nuclear power expansion, with the eventual inevitability of some accident or other, is going to result in 'hot spots' of misery and individual tragedy that need to be faced. And this likelihood is the more likely because the scale of production of SMRs and their spread creates serious issues with the availability of fully trained and (initially) experienced nuclear engineers. Junior staff with insufficient traning are a definite factor in some of these accidents. On February 24, 2022, Russian troops began occupying Ukrainian territory in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant 26 years earlier remains the worst nuclear disaster the world has yet experienced. In the days following the original accident, the winds blew northwest, showering significant levels of radiation over what were then the Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well as Finland, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Austria, and the two Germanys. This meteorological history raised a terrifying possibility: Did Russia plan to weaponize Chernobyl as retaliation for Western sanctions?At the moment, Ukraine’s nuclear plants seem to be safe, but fear and anxiety persist. As Serhii Plokhy details in “ Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters,” the memories of past catastrophes continue to haunt the idea of nuclear power, including any plans or hopes for a nuclear power renaissance in a world of worsening climate change. Quite a book good written in an interesting manner. I have a couple of minor issues, though. In the foreword, the author explains how over time different standards of measuring radioactivity have changed, which makes it difficult to make direct comparisons. Different standards are also used based on the purpose of the measurement. Do you want to measure general radiation, do you want to measure the impact on the human body? And he pretty much leaves it at that and uses whatever was in use at the time of the various accidents. I think, the layman would be better served if one standard was used and everything converted to that. With modern computers, it has to be quite an easy thing. In How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, Bill Gates suggested the use of nuclear energy as one of the alternative sources of energy to reach net-zero. However, Serhii Plokhy’s latest book made me question the wisdom of utilising nuclear energy to generate civilian electricity requirements amidst the possibilities of nuclear accidents. The statistics of nuclear accidents do not sound promising. Between 1952 and 2009, there have been around 99 (military and civilian) recorded nuclear power plant accidents, a few of which are highlighted in this book. This book is as engaging as Mr Plokhy’s previous nuclear-related book Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis, yet this one focuses more on documenting the sequences of events as well as on how both the governments and nuclear establishments alike mitigated the nuclear accidents, mostly related to nuclear power plants, namely: Castle Bravo (the US, 1954), Kyshtym (former USSR – now Russia, 1957), Windscale (England, 1957), Three Mile Island (the US, 1979), Chernobyl (former USSR – now Ukraine, 1986), and Fukushima Daichii (Japan, 2011). Both of the 1957 disasters were also related to nuclear weapons, specifically the production of weapons-grade material: The Kyshtym episode in the Soviet Union resulted from the explosion of a poorly maintained underground nuclear waste tank and the Windscale incident involved a British reactor intended to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. The plant was built in the late 1940s and in 1953 a storage facility for liquid nuclear waste was added, consisting of steel tanks mounted on a concrete base underground. On 29 September 1957, Tank No 14 exploded, releasing a cloud of radioactive material that eventually contaminated an area of nearly 8,000 square miles in the East Urals. Remarkably, even though they had to evacuate 10,000 people from the surrounding villages, the Soviet authorities managed to keep the disaster secret. Discussion of it was strictly forbidden and the contaminated area, previously known as the “East Ural Radioactive Trace” was rebranded as the East Ural Nature Reserve, which to this day remains closed to the public.

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