Review of ‘Atoms and Ashes’ by Serhii Plokhy

An informative and rather frightening history of nuclear accidents which focuses on Bikini Atoll, Kyshtym, Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. The writing is straightforward and not too technical, although it doesn’t have the gripping narrative style of, for example, Adam Higginbotham’s book Midnight in Chernobyl (which is one of the sources).

After some context of how the nuclear industry began, starting with ‘atoms for war’ and moving on to ‘atoms for peace’, the author examines how and why these notorious disasters happened, the role of the media and the effects on the population. He also compares the responses of the different governments. Politics, one way or another, is always a main cause of the accidents. I don’t have a background in either science or politics but I found the explanations easy to understand and feel that I’ve learnt a lot from this book. The message I took from it is that the potential for costly and damaging accidents is not a risk that humanity should be taking and even though the industry can learn from past mistakes, the future is not nuclear.

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.

The book was written before the 2022 conflict in Ukraine brought the fear of nuclear disasters back into the media spotlight, while the resulting fuel crisis, coupled with climate change, is accelerating the debate on nuclear power. It’s therefore a particularly timely read.

Thank you to the publisher Penguin for the advance copy via NetGalley. The book will be published on 17th May.

2 thoughts on “Review of ‘Atoms and Ashes’ by Serhii Plokhy”

    1. Thanks 🙂 Yes the timing is very relevant. The book is more factual rather than emotional, which makes it a good contrast to (for example) the recent Netflix documentary on Three Mile Island.

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