NS Book Review: ATOMIC AWAKENING: A NEW LOOK AT THE HISTORY AND FUTURE OF NUCLEAR POWER

 NS Book Review:  ATOMIC AWAKENING:  A NEW LOOK AT THE HISTORY AND FUTURE OF NUCLEAR POWER

- A Nuclear Street Book Review by Randy Brich -

Every once in a while an author comes along, publishes his first book and hits a home run.  James Mahaffey not only hits a home run but knocks the proverbial ball clear out of the solar system in ATOMIC AWAKENING:  A NEW LOOK AT THE HISTORY AND FUTURE OF NUCLEAR POWER.  Available starting June 24, 2009 at a bookseller near you, ATOMIC AWAKENING’s fresh and thorough portrayal of the events leading up to the invention of nuclear power is an absolute must read for any serious student of nuclear energy. 

Captivating, compelling, and convincing, Mahaffey masterfully weaves the story of nuclear energy beginning with the discovery of radioactivity and finishing with the ongoing resurgence of nuclear power.  His tale speaks to anyone who is interested in learning about the history and future of the most powerful source of energy on the planet – nuclear power. 

Mahaffey confidently argues that America will eventually awaken to the innumerable benefits of nuclear power relegating past fears to the dustbin of history.  He states that his book is not an attempt to “sell nuclear power” but rather an atomic adventure narrative that desperately needs to be told.  Containing cold hard facts that only a nuclear engineer could know, understand and explain, ATOMIC AWAKENING provides the most complete history of nuclear power, nuclear weapons and nuclear energy development I have ever read in a single book. 

ATOMIC AWAKENING is the kind of book you want to wake up to in the morning and it’s the kind of book you want to read before you go to sleep each night.  This book becomes part of your daily existence, permeating your thoughts and energizing your dreams in ways that make you feel alive, optimistic and certain that America will eventually wake up and embrace nuclear power as a clean, efficient, reliable, and safe source of energy.  According to Mahaffey, America’s atomic awakening is as inevitable as the discovery of the neutron. 

A physicist first, Mahaffey’s personal nuclear journey began in graduate school when he enrolled in a masters nuclear engineering program where he quickly realized that the euphoria surrounding all things nuclear was waning.

“Eventually, in my graduate dimness, it began to dawn on me that although nuclear engineering was indeed moving forward, it was only coasting, and it was losing speed.  The Age of Heroic Nuclear Engineering, in which quirky and colorful individuals like Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard made big footprints and legends, was past.  The time when a research team could build a crazy, dangerous experiment to try a fanciful application of nuclear power was gone.  I had gotten there just in time to watch it disappear over the horizon, and any brightness that I had perceived was an afterglow.  The last great nuclear experiment, the NERVA nuclear rocket engine that was going to send us to Mars, had been recently cancelled and shut down.  We weren’t sending a manned expedition to Mars any more, and we had no further use for the engine that could power the ship.”

The discovery of the neutron and the promise of phenomenal amounts of energy lured the Third Reich to seek the ultimate bomb.  Fortunately, the Germans suffered from an ideological paralysis that placed classical physics over relativity and quantum mechanics, both pioneered by Jewish scientists -- a blunder that prevented them from developing the atom bomb.  Mahaffey notes, “without these ‘Jewish‘ components, studies were limited.  Without relativity and quantum mechanics, nuclear physics quickly hits an impenetrable wall.” 

Describing the ensuing migration of Jewish physicists to America Mahaffey writes, “But what changed physics and the United States for all time was the immigration of the displaced nuclear physicists from Europe.  By being a safe haven for the rejected geniuses, and being in another hemisphere far away from tumultuous Europe, America was transformed from a proverbial physics backwater to the center of everything nuclear.” 

Recounting the history of the development of the nuclear bomb from the perspective of a physicist/nuclear engineer combines theory with details and trivia making the reader smile as he reads about the most incredible project ever devised by man.   Then Mahaffey embarks down the path of the evolution of nuclear power a natural extension of the work on the bomb.  Regarding this evolution, Mahaffey notes wryly, “As they say in engineering circles, if the first use of gasoline had been to make napalm we’d all be driving electric cars now.”  And, therein lies the rub, or as Mahaffey puts it “The Paradox Inside a Puzzle Inside a Fantasy” – the one existing energy source with the greatest potential to create a virtual utopia on earth is the energy source the public fears the most.    

In describing the development of nuclear power in America Mahaffey details the singular accomplishments of one man, Admiral Rickover, whose quest for excellence propelled the creation of a marvel of technological innovation -- the pressurized water reactor.  With eloquence and passion Mahaffey describes the development of commercial nuclear power concentrating on what might have been if engineers were allowed to do things the right way with the following passage. 

“If only spent fuel could be chemically processed, then the inert stuff could be removed and the radioactive component would be extremely small and much easier to deal with.  In the case of processed spent fuel, if all the electrical power a person used in a lifetime were produced by nuclear fission, the radioactive waste product from all the power would fit in a Coke can and weigh about 2 pounds.  If that same power were produced by burning coal, the solid portion of the waste product would be a small mountain.  However, that small can of waste has acquired such a dangerous stigma, it is limiting the benefits such a vast reduction of solid waste would bring to our environment and economy.”

Unbeknownst previously to this reviewer, Mahaffey describes a reprocessing plant that had been built and demonstrated in 1976 at Barnwell, South Carolina and how, in 1977 President Jimmy Carter forbade NRC from licensing the plant.  Mahaffey notes:

“This seemed an odd scenario, but the president’s veto remains in effect, mothballing the plant, wrecking a half-billion dollar private investment, increasing the mass of nuclear plant waste by a factor of 33, and making the United States dependent on Canada for medical isotopes.  Nuclear-fuel reprocessing is routine business in France, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, and Russia, but not in America.  By blocking a privately funded fuel-reprocessing plant, antinuclear forces have made waste disposal more difficult than it needs to be…”

Finally, in reviewing this book I was impressed by the small number of technical errors usually found in a treatise of this complexity.  Although, a few errors did crop into the final product the publisher has assured me those errors will be rectified in the upcoming paperback version.  Specifically, the errors I noticed include an incorrect half-life for radium-226 and iodine-131 on pages 239 and 259, respectively.  Additionally, the astute reader will identify a few errors in the discussion regarding the Uranium Mill Tailing Radiation Control Act on page 313 but the average reader probably won’t even notice.  Regardless, the book does a commendable job holding the reader’s interest, making the complex understandable and proving that optimism based on facts always prevails over fear based on emotion.

James Mahaffey
ATOMIC AWAKENING:  A NEW LOOK AT THE HISTORY AND FUTURE OF NUCLEAR POWER, 344 pp. Pegasus Books, Hardcover, June 2009
978-1-60598

Randy BrichAbout Randy Brich
Randy graduated from South Dakota State University in 1978 with a M.S. in Biology.  After developing the State of South Dakota’s environmental radiological monitoring program, he became a Health Physicist with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, eventually transferring to the Department of Energy where he specialized in environmental monitoring, worker protection, waste cleanup and systems biology.  Later in his career he published a multi-sport adventure guide book and became a regular contributor to The Entertainer Newspaper’s Great Outdoor section. 

Since then he has retired from the federal government and, after taking time out to build an energy efficient house near the Missouri River, has formed Diamond B Communications LLC.  Diamond B Communications LLC uses a multimedia approach to explain complex energy resource issues to technical and non-technical audiences.  He also guides for Dakota Bike Tours, the Relaxed Adventure Company, offering tours of the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills and Devils Tower National Monument.

If you have questions, comments, or know of a book that you think Randy should review Email Randy Brich>> randy@nuclearstreet.com 

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  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    I'm glad I read this book.  And I have recommended it to others.

    P.S. In the small error department:  Why spell L'en'ard with accents when even the Swedish Academy doesn't use them?  If it is just meant to taunt the nazi, fine, but it is somewhat distracting.