Sunday, May 20, 2012

Book Review: "In Mortal Hands"

In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age

In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age

I firmly believe that all practicing engineers should read at least one 'engineering disaster' book a year. It's been a little while for me.

The first ~100 pages are not worth reading. It's a poor synopsis of Richard Rhodes and I liked the original better. You need to skip to about the 1970's before the book gets worthwhile (although the Israeli bomb chapter is excellent).

The author was a journalist covering the nuke industry and once she gets closer to what she directly covered in her interviews with first-hand witnesses, the book improves dramatically. The best parts is her coverage of the regulation of the civilian nuclear industry. For example, Victor Stello over-protected the industry (to its detriment), while others at the NRC did their jobs.

Some of my other favorite stories:

* The (sad) story of a Chernobyl firefighter and his pregnant wife.

* The cataloging of the costs of failed experiments in reprocessing and breeder reactors.

* The story of Remy Carle at his graduation from Ecole Polytechnique.

* Western nations really only care about nuclear proliferation when it's convenient (and because of that, have, in the past, helped out 'rogue' states like North Korea and Iran much more than they'd like to admit). For instance, the United States KNEW Saddam was using a $500 million agricultural loan to fund his bomb program, but, despite please from those overseeing the program, continued funding it (not necessarily out of nefarious intentions, probably just bureaucratic laziness).

Overall, I got what I was looking for out of it. Even the book's biggest flaw (the beginning) is not much of a flaw, because I'm comparing it to a Pulitzer Prize winning book.

UPDATE- One of the stories from the book is MOSSAD's theft of uranium from Pennsylvania. Apparently, that story can now pretty definitively be but in the "True" column.

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