Review of Atoms to Ashes
Serhi Plokhy wrote his latest book Atoms to Ashes as a warning against nuclear power. When he wrote the book, many intellectuals had reconsidered nuclear power as a solution to climate change. However, it’s likely its momentum will grow as others consider dependence on Russian oil and gas as an even more pressing concern. Indeed, Europe’s dependence on Russian gas has grown as they have shut down nuclear power plants in recent years. So, it’s inevitable many will ask Europeans to maintain or even reopen shuttered nuclear facilities.
Plokhy uses six different nuclear disasters to show the risks and disadvantages to nuclear power. Many will refer to nuclear disasters as black swan events. But as I argued last week, nuclear energy leads to black swans. Plokhy puts it like this: “The big accidents uncover existing problems that go beyond simple mistakes or technical malfunctions. They bring to the fore factors of broader political, social, and cultural significance that contribute to a given disaster indirectly or not always obviously, but most profoundly nevertheless.”
A careful reading of Atoms to Ashes is far more than a series of historical episodes. It is a careful argument about why human engagement with nuclear science causes disasters. It is not so much the science of nuclear physics as humanity’s moral failings that cause catastrophic outcomes. At the same time, Plokhy recognizes “a learning process took place in all the countries that suffered from accidents.” Indeed, each disaster is unique in its own way. Nonetheless, disasters continue to happen, because the deeper problems do not change. Humans continue to take risks. Moreover, the risks make nuclear energy an unaffordable and impractical solution for nearly all situations. It’s an important argument as another energy crisis reconsiders nuclear power once again as a potential solution.