"Persuasive and based on deep research. Atomic Awakening taught me a great deal." (Nature) The American public's introduction to nuclear technology was manifested in destruction and death. With Hiroshima and the Cold War still ringing in our ears, our perception of all things nuclear is seen through the lens of weapons development. Nuclear power is full of mind-bending theories, deep secrets, and the misdirection of public consciousness - some deliberate, some accidental. The result of this fixation on bombs and fallout is that the development of a non-polluting, renewable energy source stands frozen in time. Outlining nuclear energy's discovery and applications throughout history, Mahaffey's brilliant and accessible book is essential to understanding the astounding phenomenon of nuclear power in an age where renewable energy and climate change have become the defining concerns of the twenty-first century.
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Starting slow, but building to a crescendo, this is the exciting story of the exploration of the sub-atomic realm, radioactivity, and the inspiring intellectual challenges, successes and terrible blunders made by the many individuals and nations in the race to harness nuclear power both as a devastating weapon, and an inexhaustible supply of useful energy.
As an insider to the Nuclear industry, Mahaffey knows his stuff, and he pitches the balance between scientific theory and social narrative just right, in my opinion. Some slightly quirky references to the supernatural in his introduction are rapidly left behind as he charts the history of the discovery of atomic structure, the isolation of neutrons among the various curious emissions of the first discovered radioactive elements such as Radium, Polonium and Uranium and the destabilising impact of very slow or very fast neutrons on the fissile nuclei of these same elements. The book has many nice anecdotes such as the famous "traffic light" moment - the sudden realisation of the potentially huge energy that could be released in a nuclear chain reaction. The tale really takes off as the race to build a super-bomb during the war gathers pace.
A satisfying irony of history described in the book, is that it was the anti-semitism of the Nazis that so handicapped the German atom-bomb project, and gave such a decisive final advantage to the Allies. To quote one wag "We got there first because our German scientists were better than their German scientists"!
Mahaffey then goes on to describe the post-war development of the nuclear industry, as well as the further development of a variety of military nuclear hardware, reactors, rockets etc. including the fusion bomb, and the leaking of secrets to the USSR. He misses no detail out, for instance in describing the principles behind major competing reactor designs, the Cold War politics of the time, and the notorious accidents, including Winscale, 3 Mile Island and Chenobyl, as well as some less well known incidents (such as the deliberate suicidal removal of the central control rod in one military reactor) with the political as well as nuclear fallout that resulted.
These accidents, increasing capital costs, plus a growing opposition to nuclear energy changed the dream of free energy into the public image nightmare of a costly, dangerous, long lasting radioactive contaminant producing technology. However, if there is a moral to the book, it is that this fear we must overcome. He lays his cards on the table in his opposition to the "anti nuclear movement" who in his opinion may prevent us utilising this clean, safe, inexhaustible form of energy, through prejudice. Its time we looked again at nuclear energy. One area he surprisingly does not explore is nuclear fusion as a source of energy.
All in all, it is an excellent book, read in a slightly "American heroic" style, reminiscent of those 1950s information films (which sort of feels appropriate). It exemplifies all the scientific excitement of a futuristic technology, the cold war tension of a secret super-weapon, the adrenaline of nuclear disaster, and the sometimes stranger than fiction truthfulness of a historical account. Much to think about!
Well narrated, the story moves along at a nice pace and with a good sense of humour. You don't need to be a physicist to understand it, as as much of the story is about the people behind the development of our understanding of radioactivity as what was actually observed. By the time the author gets to the Manhattan Project (after about 100 years of discoveries) you're hooked and can't put the earphones down.