Science in the Spotlight: Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters


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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?

In his new book Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters, Serhii Plokhy, Harvard University professor of Ukrainian History, explores the dangers of nuclear power through six of the worst nuclear disasters: the 1954 Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test, the 1957 Kyshtym nuclear waste tank explosion, the 1957 English Windscale reactor fire, the 1979 Three Mile Island partial reactor meltdown, the 1986 Chernobyl reactor meltdown, and the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

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.

Plokhy complements his well-researched piece with a skillful narration. Meticulously selected testimonies bring every accident to life, making the historical events all the more palpable and impactful. Discussing the Fukushima meltdown, Plokhy anchors his narration around plant superintendent Yoshida. “Yoshida was sitting behind his desk, […] when things around him started shaking. [..] ‘My mind should have been panicking. But strangely, [it] was telling me to keep calm and start planning,’ recalled Yoshida,” Plokhy writes. In this manner, Plokhy builds an entertaining, well-informed historical thriller.

Atoms and Ashes shows that science and technology alone cannot cause or prevent nuclear disasters. Many political, social, and cultural factors are involved in regulating nuclear energy. New international legislation was established through international cooperation to prevent future nuclear accidents, making it easier to exchange technology and enforce rigorous standard safety measurements.

Though the impacts of nuclear disasters should not be disregarded, their rate and severity are lower than accidents in the coal, gas, and hydropower industries. While not perfect, nuclear fission reactors are the most efficient zero-emission energy source. As Plokhy recognizes, “the major accidents involved […] technologies developed in the 1950s and 1960s, [offering] some hope that the [industry’s] major errors [are] behind us.” Better policy-making and increased funding for research and development promise a safer future for nuclear energy. Moreover, they open the door to a promising, carbon-free, potentially safer option to power the second half of this century: nuclear fusion, fusing atoms instead of splitting them apart.