Nuclear engineer Mahaffey’s Atomic Awakening (2009) presented an engaging history of nuclear energy that came close to offering a ringing endorsement for its continued widespread use. Although his latest work focuses mostly on radioactivity’s dark side, from its discovery in 1896 to its role in the recent Fukushima meltdown, Mahaffey nonetheless does argue persuasively that, by closely investigating its shortcomings, nuclear power can be made safer. Mahaffey begins with an episode of radiation poisoning that occurred in an Ozarks cave where hunters were exposed to radon gas, and offers a survey of nuclear weapons development, including the troubling disappearance of several H-bombs, before addressing history’s most famous nuclear accidents. Entire chapters are devoted to dissecting what went wrong at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Windscale, a lesser-known UK facility that burned uncontrollably for two days in 1957. While Mahaffey’s subtext about nuclear power’s overall safety likely won’t sit well with the practice’s many opponents, his abundant use of lively anecdotes and intriguing scientific tidbits makes this an educational page-turner. --Carl Hays
NUCLEAR ENGINEERING INTERNATIONAL – David Mosey, 25 July 2014. James Mahaffey is a fine writer. Engaging, lucid, informal and frequently (and satisfyingly) irreverent, at his best his style resembles the great satirist and mathematician Tom Lehrer's sardonic, technically-informed delivery. He also shares Lehrer's satisfaction in anatomising humankind's more fatuous missteps and his intellectual integrity. Atomic Accidents deserves the widest audience.
NATURE – Mark Peplow, February 20, 2014. Mahaffey guides us through more than a century of atomic research, including misadventures with radioactive elixirs (“The radium water worked fine until his jaw came off,” reads a 1932 headline) and long-forgotten accidents at enrichment plants…The compelling tales unravel like slow-motion horror stories, spiraling towards disasters we know are coming. PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (Starred Review) – January 13, 2014. Mahaffey, a former senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, employs his extensive knowledge of nuclear engineering to produce a volume that is by turns alarming, thought-provoking, humorous, and always fascinating. KIRKUS (Starred Review) – February 6, 2014. The most comprehensive and certainly one of the most entertaining accounts of atomic accidents. NUCLEAR STREET NEWS – Randy Brich, February 5, 2014. Part detective story, part documentary, part diabolical murder mystery, James Mahaffey’s latest non-fiction thriller details the mistakes associated with all sorts of atomic devices, designs and decisions gone awry. (The book is)essential reading for anyone curious about the inherent intricacies involved with unstable atomic reactors, how they got that way and what should be done about them.