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Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters

Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters

Serhii Plokhy

2022


A history of nuclear energy in six disasters: five civilian and one military.

Competition seems to lie at the heart of all the problems: a lack of willingness to share details of accidents and near-accidents, and an unwillingness to learn if this requires changes in procedure. Collaboration seems lacking even within organisations and with regulators, while governments treat these matters as merely part of larger strategic concerns (even when they threaten to overwhelm them). It's also clear that the commercial operation of nuclear power is impossible without state subsidy, and acquiring this opens-up possibilities from regulatory capture – weakening requirements to make them attainable within a fixed cost – to outright bribery.

The science and engineering also seem lacking. The Castle Bravo (and other) nuclear tests massively under-estimate the weapons' yields, and this seems to be more the case the larger the bomb (culminating in the apocalyptic Tsar Bomba, which isn't covered in this book as it somewhat miraculously wasn't actually an accident). But all the systems described make use of technology little changed since the 1930s: imagine if we were still driving cars from that era!

I find Plokhy's conclusions nuanced but weak. He decides that nuclear and renewable energy sources are both risky approaches to tackling climate change, but with completely different risk profiles: the former perhaps being too slow to start up and with huge accident risks; the latter relying on technologies as yet untested at the necessary scale. But in coming to his conclusion backing renewables and the phasing-out of nuclear stations (with which I entirely agree) he devotes exactly two sentences to the problem of nuclear waste and spent fuel, which should surely be one of the major deciding factors. It's a strange omission at the end of a book that revolves around radiation hazards.

3/5. Finished 21 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News

We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News

Eliot Higgins

2021


The history of a still-evolving open-source intelligence collective.

Intelligence collection and analysis used to be limited to governments and a handful of companies. Not any longer: the tools are available on the open internet. Eliot Higgins realises that he can use them to investigate news stories, including the shooting-down of MH-17 over Ukraine. It's this investigation, in which he and his volunteer analysts manage to argue convincingly that the culprits were Russian-backed separatists using Russian anti-aircraft missiles, that really demonstrates how much information can now be found and cross-corollated. The result is for formation of Bellingcat, an amorphous group of international investigators organised in a way that closely resembles that of an open-source software project, where all that matters is an individuals' ability and willingness to share findings, and to have them challenged and possibly refuted in the search for the best explanations.

The book was written before the Russian attack on Ukraine, and so will demand a follow-up given Bellingcat's deep involvement in tracking the conflict and digging-into the details of individual incidents.

5/5. Finished 16 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Childhood's End

Childhood's End

Arthur C. Clarke

1953


An entirely unexpected take on alien invasion. The aliens come, take over – and then allow humanity to proceed as its wants, without revealing themselves or really taking much control at all. Why? What are they hiding? And how is it that, when they do reveal themselves, they look so familiar?

The reasons are all thought out with the rigour and open-endedness you'd expect from Arthur C. Clarke. The very fact that he can build such a narrative is a testament to his abilities as a world-creator, with an ability to pose questions and then not answer them definitively without this spoiling the enjoyment of the story.

4/5. Finished 16 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Spike: The Virus vs. The People - the Inside Story

Spike: The Virus vs. The People - the Inside Story

Jeremy Farrar

2021


I wonder if this book was too early: were we sufficiently out of the coronavirus pandemic to assess it and our healthcare systems' abilities to deal with it? Perhaps. But this is a good look at the early days from the perspective of the Wellcome Trust, one of the world's biggest medical charities.

4/5. Finished 16 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)