Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters from the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima

Posted: Friday, July 11, 2014, 8:51 am

In brief


The feel-bad laff-riot of the year.

"India is presently building two larger sodium-cooled fast breeder reactors. Be afraid."

As with all things apocalyptic, reading Atomic Accidents requires being braced for every possibility. I certainly was ready to empathize with the hapless victims, and steeled myself against the horror of man's radioactivity to man. I even tried to recall my long ago, largely slept-through high school physics classes in a vain attempt to keep up. What I wasn't ready for were the giggles.

"Actuate the MPA switch and the worst happens instantly. It…basically kills everything that keeps the reactor running smoothly, bypassing the automatic controls. This was a monumentally bad idea."

Because from the Chernobyl forests to the Three Mile Island, this book is made for comedy. No matter how dire the circumstances, the author's impossibly dry, deadpan wit eases the mood. Well, almost every circumstance; even Mahaffey didn't make light of Hiroshima.

(Describing a fatal accident) "A 53-year-old engineer, a 51-year-old physicist and a 62-year-old assistant seemed old enough to know better when they mixed 10 pounds of gycidal azide polymer and nitrocellulose hoping to measure the shock wave when the two chemicals ignited. Six other men died at Santa Susana in various incidents in the early 1960s. It was an exciting place to work."

If this all seems incredibly callous, trust me, it's not mortality that Mahaffey's mocking. It's arrogance, imprudence and jaw-dropping stupidity that he scorns. In case after case, power plant employees disregarded protocol, safety mechanisms and common sense with determination and, in the case of Chernobyl, blind zeal. It's like watching a TruTv World's Dumbest episode with hazmat suits. Only this time, it's not some skatepunk impaling himself on a rail and merely removing himself from the gene pool. It's technicians with the ability to kick us all out.