Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey


20820098From the moment radiation was discovered in the late nineteenth century, nuclear science has had a rich history of innovative scientific exploration and discovery, coupled with mistakes, accidents, and downright disasters.

Mahaffey, a long-time advocate of continued nuclear research and nuclear energy, looks at each incident in turn and analyzes what happened and why, often discovering where scientists went wrong when analyzing past meltdowns.

Every incident has lead to new facets in understanding about the mighty atom—and Mahaffey puts forth what the future should be for this final frontier of science that still holds so much promise.


It’s been a long time since I’ve read non-fiction that kept drawing me back to see “what happens next” but Atomic is totally that book.

The subject matter helps – nearly every recorded radiological mishap and disaster, both famous and little-known. There are caves of death in the Ozark Mountains circa 1880, radium paint that killed dozens, World War II, Three Mile Island, and of course Fukushima Daiichi. Mahaffey leads us through each, carefully explaining isotopes and reactions in ways that neither make you feel stupid nor dumb down the material.

He states his biases right in the introduction:

The purpose of this book is not to convince you that nuclear power is unsafe beyond reason…. On the contrary, I hope to demonstrate that nuclear power is even safer than transportation by steam and may be one of the key things that will allow life on Earth to keep progressing; but please form your own conclusions.

I think he’s done a great job of this – I come away from the book thinking that nuclear power has great potential but man, we need to find a way to engineer human stupidity out of it. Whether it’s worth the try is left up to the reader.

I cannot review this book without mentioning the footnotes – don’t skip them! Some are more information or links to videos, and others are tidbits that are awesome but wouldn’t fit anywhere else. For example:

It is difficult to find a cross-section view of the Fermi 1 reactor that does not have a big X drawn through the refueling car. It was not a popular accessory.

I leave you to find the 1975 geek joke on your own.