Some Good Books with a Radiation or Nuclear Theme
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Some Good Books with a Radiation or Nuclear Theme

By Dr. Zoomie

You know, Dr. Zoomie, reading this blog makes me want to read more about this stuff. Can you recommend any good books written at my level (I’m not a scientist) about this rad/nuke stuff?

You know, I’ve been an inveterate reader for almost 60 years; I read pretty much anything (well, no romance novels) and with my background I’ve read quite a bit about the radiological and nuclear topics. So here’s a baker’s dozen + 1 of mostly good (and one fairly dreadful) books with a short synopsis of each.

  1. Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era (Craig Nelson, 2014) A decent one-volume history that does a very credible job of attacking a complex topic in a readable manner, with a few caveats – in particular, the chapter about Fukushima was badly researched and laced with mistakes, and he made unjustified assumptions about cancer incidence in early nuclear scientists. Those aside, it’s a pretty good read.
  2. Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima (James Mahaffey, 2015) James Mahaffey is a bona fide nuclear engineer with a ton of hands-on experience in the field; in this entertaining book he shares some of his wealth of knowledge as well as his direct experience in a history that goes back to pre-Civil War Arkansas and continues through the 2011 Fukushima accident. In spite of some early errors, it’s good read. In particular, Mahaffey does a great job of explaining complex phenomena, concepts, and machinery in a way that’s easy to follow for the novice, but that’s not insultingly simple for professionals in the field. In particular, I enjoyed his accounts of reactor tests, accidents, and alternative reactor designs – things I’d heard of but knew little about. And it’s hard to argue with his contention that most reactor accidents could have been avoided had the operators simply sat on their hands and let the built-in safety systems do their jobs. In spite of some of my early misgivings, this was an enjoyable read.
  3. Atomic Adventures: Secret Islands, Forgotten N-Rays, and Isotopic Murder: A Journey into the Wild World of Nuclear Science (James Mahaffey, 2017) Here, Mahaffey writes about his work during the 1989 cold fusion hullaballoo (including its surprising origins in the Argentine pampas in the 1950s), the nuclear-powered rocket program I’d heard about for years, and more. There are a few bobbles in areas in which the author seems to have gone beyond his limits of knowledge and experience, but very few and not enough to keep me from recommending this book.
  4. Building the H-Bomb (Kenneth Ford, 2015) The hydrogen bomb was developed in the early 1950s. It took a huge conceptual breakthrough and a lot of grindingly difficult math and science, which the author helped with, working with Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam (the designers) as a graduate student. Without getting deeply into the technical and scientific depths, the author gives a great understanding of how these weapons work (nothing classified – sorry) as well as the work that went into developing the theory and turning it into a working device.
  5. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (Eric Slosser, 2013) This is a fascinating book – not only as what seems a well-researched history of the topic, but fascinating, too, in the same way that a demolition derby is fascinating – I kept turning the pages simply to see what would happen next. Even if the aim was to rake the muck to try to discredit the American nuclear weapons complex (which does not seem to be the case) there’s no getting around the fact that we have been far more careless with our nuclear weapons than one would hope. I know that people make mistakes and that no system is perfect – but even so I had always assumed that we were so careful that mistakes with nuclear weapons would be few and far between.
  6. Dead Hot (M.K. Coker, 2017) It always gives me pause to see a radiation trefoil on the cover of a book – especially a murder mystery – so I have to admit I was dubious when Dead Hot was recommended to me by a colleague. But the recommendation came from a trusted source, and wouldn’t you know, I enjoyed it! Not only that, but the author did a pretty good job on the science to boot – including the radiation parts. It’s an entertaining story that’s well-told, and the author was smart enough to find professionals to help with the science and practice of radiation safety. Not only that, but the author throws in a bit of Native American culture, dark matter, archaeology, and more. It was a fun read.
  7. Midnight in Chernobyl (Adam Higginbotham, 2019) There have been a number of books written about the Chernobyl accident – this is the best. Unlike the book that served as the basis for the dreadfully inaccurate mini-series, the author of this book is a professional journalist who made a huge effort to interview experts and to get the science, the engineering, and the timeline right. I exchanged several emails with him while I was reading the book and, each time, came away impressed with his attention to detail. If you’re interested in what actually happened, this is the book to read.
  8. My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (William Perry, 2015) There’s a lot to like about this one, beginning with the engaging and lucid writing style that kept me from being able to put the book down. I found that I was familiar with many of the events Perry describes in this book, but best are the behind-the-scenes stories he relates – a look inside the ‘sausage factory” of diplomacy, domestic, and international law. But what I liked most was that Perry – a high-level governmental official and a scientist (his PhD is in mathematics) – is focused on the problem-solving rather than on the power and the politics his work unavoidably entailed.
  9. Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Kate Brown, 2013) To me, this was the most disappointing book on this list. In spite of her training as a historian, the author chose to rely, apparently, on anecdote rather than fact – in particular, she appears to have not availed herself of any scientists to either teach her or to review her work before it went to press. And, while I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt with the historical details since she’s a professional historian, some of her claims make me dubious even there. As one example, she claims that the Soviets took notes from the US about how to control the citizens of their “closed cities” – even though I suspect Stalin didn’t have much to learn about controlling his citizens from anyone. I could keep going…but I’ve already given this book too much attention. I don’t say this often, but I got nothing from reading it except for the desire to drink scotch. I wish I had not read it, and I advise you to save your money.
  10. Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science (Marjorie Malley, 2011) Most popular books about radiation and radioactivity are a bit of a disappointment. But every now and again I come across a book that is worth reading from start to finish. The author, Marjorie Malley, is a historian of science with a long-standing interest in this subject and she has done a great job of explaining both the science and the history of the first few decades of research into what was once a puzzling new phenomenon. Even better, for those of us who work with radiation for a living, Malley helps to explain how much of what we take for granted came to be known, reminding us how novel it all used to be before early scientists teased out the details we now take for granted.
  11. Superfuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future (Richard Martin, 2012) About 20 years ago, taking a short course on nuclear criticality safety, I noticed that it should be fairly easy to turn thorium (specifically Th-232) into fissionable U-233; since there are four times as many Th-232 atoms on Earth as all uranium atoms combined and since only one uranium atom out of 137 is the fissionable U-235 this means that thorium-fueled reactors can provide energy for centuries longer than uranium, without the need to go through the cumbersome and expensive enrichment process. This book goes into even greater detail about how thorium reactors would be designed and built and it discusses even more advantages than those I mentioned here (non-proliferation, reduced amount of waste, and less prone to accidents. This is a great description of an alternate nuclear power source that we should seriously consider.
  12. The Curve of Binding Energy: A Journey into the Awesome and Alarming World of Theodore B. Taylor (John McPhee, 1974) McPhee is one of my favorite writers, covering topics as diverse as the geology of North America, Russian art, birch-bark canoes, oranges, and much more. In writing this book, McPhee spent time with one of the nation’s most talented nuclear weapons designers, writing very accessibly about the science underlying nuclear weapons, about the life of Ted Taylor and how he got into his line of work, and about the risk that they can pose in the hands of terrorists. As always, McPhee writes exceptionally well, nicely explaining a complex topic and one of its expert practitioners.
  13. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (Denise Kiernan, 2013) Natural uranium won’t sustain a nuclear chain reaction; doing that requires enriching the amount of U-235, which is quite a challenge. That challenge was overcome and, in Oak Ridge Tennessee, it was put into practice in the form of hundreds of electromagnetic devices called calutrons. These were operated by women, who also typed the memos, placed the phone calls, cooked and cleaned, scheduled the meetings, and did so much more to support this effort. Kiernan does a good job of relating their stories and describing a side of the Manhattan Project that is not often written about. The story is a good one, although the story-telling is sometimes a little scattered. If you’re interested in the technological and scientific work, you won’t learn much from this book – but if you just want to learn more about the society that grew up at Oak Ridge then this book has a lot to recommend it.
  14. Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World (Tom Zoellner, 2009) As a card-carrying geek I have a favorite chemical element – uranium – so when I saw this book, I had to read it. Zoellner provides the most comprehensive coverage I’ve seen, from uranium geology and mining through processing and enriching uranium to be suitable for use in nuclear reactors and weapons, as well as to the use of both. All in all, in spite of a few mistakes and over-simplifications, I felt the book was well-written and worth the read.