The purpose is to make you aware of the myriad ways that mankind can screw up a fine idea while trying to implement it. Don’t be alarmed. This is the raw, sometimes disturbing side of engineering, about which much of humanity has been kept unaware.

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

By James Mahaffey
460 Pages


From 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.


I picked up this book on a recommendation from my husband who raved endlessly about it and how fantastically interesting it was.

And sure, it was interesting…

But it was also incredibly technical. My husband is an engineer in the energy industry. I’m a librarian with a background in Early Medieval art and history. There is a bit of a base knowledge disconnect.

That said, the book did have many fascinating stories and things to say about the rise of atomic power, beginning back in the 19th century and chugging all the way through to the present. The book begins with stories about staged train crashes, a quirky side-show in American history that I had never heard of before reading the text. Mahaffey uses that anecdote to set up the theme of the rest of the book- the recklessness of humanity and our belief that we can control everything.

The book discusses power plants, the development of weaponization, and carelessness at nearly every turn. It is scary… but at the same time reassuring? Because really, through all of these pointless power plant accidents, very few human beings have actually been effected. Especially when compared to the deaths incurred by the fossil fuel industry. In a world where scare tactics are used to shutter so much, Mahaffey actually uses all of these tales to reinforce his ultimate stance. He advocates heavily for continued nuclear research, highlighting all of the good it can do in the world by juxtaposing it with the worst case scenarios. It really left me thinking, and not just from all of the jargon.

Should You Read This?

If you enjoy non-fiction and have a background in science that is far more prominent than my own, you’d probably enjoy this. In fact, most of the reviews I’ve seen elsewhere for it online are from STEM sorts who are raving about how well written it is.

But if you’re just a casual non-fiction reader, and know absolutely nothing about how power plants work, or all the intricacies of nuclear fission… this might not be the best primer for you on that. I struggled with it at points, but was able to made it through to the other side thanks to morbid fascination with how badly humans can muck stuff up… along with a lot of perseverance.
Summary from Goodreads