Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima
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In his new book, Ukrainian-born Harvard professor Serhii Plokhy tackles a topic that has greatly influenced his life: nuclear disaster. Atoms and Ashes, a must-have for anyone interested in the history of nuclear energy, details six major nuclear mishaps that have shaped how we view nuclear energy: Bikini Atoll in Oceania, Kyshtym in Russia, Chernobyl in Ukraine, Three Mile Island (TMI) in the US, Windscale in the UK and Fukushima in Japan. Despite the vast political and socio-economic differences between the countries responsible for these projects, Plokhy shows up the common thread of mismanagement.
The author sketches vivid pictures of the events that led up to—and resulted from—each incident, exploring the lives of those the disaster affected most, whether it’s an unfortunate power plant employee or an entire displaced community. But most striking is how much pressure the scientists, engineers and project managers faced—brought about by the Cold War arms race or other geopolitical fallouts—that resulted in subsequent disaster.
In his acknowledgements, Plokhy explains that Atoms and Ashes was written as a response to questions surrounding his earlier work, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy. His intention was to show how project mismanagement and risk oversight were not specific to Chernobyl.
Nuclear disasters have, understandably, led to a rise in anti-nuclear sentiment. The world has since changed its tune. As Plokhy says, “Ukraine derives about half its electricity from nuclear reactors”—one of which, Zaporizhzhia, is the largest in Europe. It also happens to be caught between forces in Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. The UN has called for the demilitarisation of the reactor, as the risk of a catastrophic nuclear incident appears to grow larger every day.
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