Critical Reading: Hannah’s Nuclear History Rec List


By: Hannah Pell

Is learning something new on your 2021 resolutions list? Have some extra time because your work commute has been significantly shortened? Either way, I assume you’re here at Physics Buzz because you hope to learn a bit of new physics. So I thought I’d put together a few resource lists to help you dive a little deeper into the aspects of physics you find the most interesting.

Here’s my first recommendations list for an introduction to nuclear history.

Nuclear history books

[1] Nuclear Renewal: Common Sense About Energy by Richard Rhodes (1993)

First published in 1993, Nuclear Renewal offers an accessible and succinct history of nuclear power spanning decades, nations, and perspectives. Rhodes — who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Making of the Atomic Bomb — covers the first nuclear chain reaction in Chicago 1942, cultures of nuclear safety in France and Japan, the challenges of risk communication, dynamics between regulators and utilities, as well as the importance of public trust for the continued operations of nuclear power plants.

[2] Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective by J. Samuel Walker (2004)

If you’ve read my previous post about closing nuclear power plants, you might remember that I’m not impartial to the historic events at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pennsylvania. J. Samuel Walker — who authored this book in his role as a historian of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission — presents a detailed description of those five days in 1979, drawing on wide-ranging sources, from federal regulators to state-level politicians and local residents. Although the partial meltdown resulted in positive, sweeping safety and organizational changes throughout the nuclear industry, Walker’s book also highlights how misinformation flourished and confusion reigned, consequently leaving behind a legacy of fear and mistrust which fundamentally altered public perception of nuclear power in this country thereafter.

[3] Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and The Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown (2013)

Plutopia focuses on two geographically distant but deeply interconnected places: Richland, Washington, and Ozersk, Russia. Over four decades of operation spanning the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union respectively operated plutonium plants within these communities of working-class people and their families. Simultaneously, these places offered reliable jobs and a path to the middle class, yet were increasingly polluted by dangerous amounts of radioactive and environmental waste. Two nuclear cities, two plutopias. “How could these sites of slow-motion disaster be considered by their residents to be lovely and desirable?,” Dr. Brown asks, then answers.

[4] Nuclear Fear: A History of Images by Spencer Weart (1988)

Many of us know that (or perhaps personally feel) nuclear science is intertwined with fear. Spencer Weart, former Director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics, investigates the lengthy history of nuclear imagery — from radioactive monsters to doomsday scenarios or even futuristic utopias — and elaborates on the importance of imagery in shaping cultural perceptions of nuclear science, from atomic bombs to energy and medicine, illuminating the fact that such modern fears towards nuclear are rooted in a long and complex history.

[5] At Work in the Atomic City: A Labor and Social History of Oak Ridge, Tennessee by Russell B. Olwell (2004)

I will admit that I have not read this one yet, but since it’s still on my own list I’m adding it here, too. Thousands joined the newly established Oak Ridge after promises of housing and work but instead experienced harmful conditions, including exposure to radiation and other hazardous chemicals. Increased pressure to produce more materials faster created a culture of eroding worker protections. At Work in the Atomic City is an important read, as it is one of the few (to my knowledge) histories to focus on the necessary yet dangerous labor required to turn uranium into plutonium, and the burdens bore by those who carried out that invaluable work.

Forthcoming 2021 Nuclear Books

[1] The Wretched Atom: America’s Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology by Jacob Darwin Hamblin (June 2021)

With atomic physics came much promise for prosperity but at devastating and dangerous costs. The atom “would quicken the pulse of nature, speeding nations along the path of economic development and helping them to escape the clutches of disease, famine, and energy shortfalls.” In The Wretched Atom, Hamblin explores the history of how the United States exported “both violence and peace in equal measure” through these misguided promises, leading to international expansions of nuclear power and, consequently, increased reliance on it.

[2] Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States by Alex Wellerstein (April 2021)

“If secrecy became the norm, how would science survive?” In this forthcoming book, Wellerstein traces the lengthy and hyper-secretive history of the making of the atomic bomb, from the Manhattan project through the Cold War to the future of nuclear secrecy. Until its release, you can explore Wellerstein’s interactive NUKEMAP website.

Nuclear Podcasts

[1] My Nuclear Life is a podcast that explores the intersection of nuclear science and society, exploring how nuclear “has impacted and changed our world in both beneficial and destructive ways.” Hosted by Dr. Shelly Lesher, a Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin, the podcast features interviews with nuclear engineers, historians (including Richard Rhodes), and policymakers.

[2] Titans of Nuclear is a weekly podcast produced by the Energy Impact Center based in Washington, D.C. featuring interviews with scholars in various sectors of the nuclear industry, from policymakers to engineers to historians (including Spencer Weart) and more.

And last but certainly not least, check out the nuclear communications and outreach work by Isabelle Boemeke through her Isodope character, the world’s first nuclear influencer.

What other books, podcasts, or media would you add to this list?

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