Todd Tucker - Atomic America: How a Deadly Explosion and a Feared Admiral Changed the Course of Nuclear History

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What Followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki?: America's Atomic Age

Oct 29, 2009
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:includes some infrequently covered events of the early Atomic age

Cons:very scattered, tries to cover too many subjects, poorly written in places

The Bottom Line: While it had some interesting material in it, the book lacked focus and covered too many subjects to do any one of them justice.


Atomic America is a book that can't decide what story it wants to tell. Part of the time it focuses on the only directly fatal nuclear accident on American soil. Part of the time it's a biography of Admiral Hyman Rickover. Part of the time it's a general overview of the various military programs of the late 1940s and 1950s designed to incorporate nuclear power into military craft and weapons. Part of the time it's an examination of the use of nuclear fission for commercial power. At no time is it a comprehensive history of nuclear power in the United States or a chronological account of the adoption of different uses for nuclear fission, both elements I think author Todd Tucker tried to bring to the book without success. It also isn't a true biography of Rickover (either professionally or personally). It does recount the accident at the Army test reactor facility in Idaho fairly completely, but it threads the tale out in dribs and drabs almost as interludes between the other elements of the book. Had Tucker chosen to tell any one of these stories in a focused and cohesive manner, I think he would have written an excellent book. As things stand, however, Atomic America is too scattered and lacks enough depth of information about any of its topics to successfully engage readers interested in any or all of those subjects.

The book begins with an imagined recounting of the last minute or two before Army test reactor in Idaho went supercritical on January 3, 1961, killing the three people working on the rods at the time and releasing an unidentified amount of radiation into portions of Utah and Idaho. We return to their story regularly, sometimes as entire chapters devoted to various investigations of what went wrong, sometimes as short interludes speculating on their state of mind at the time, sometimes as attempts to humanize the story and bring the three men to life as imperfect but real people with their own concerns and problems. While this thread reappears regularly throughout the book and despite its prominence as the first element included in the book, there's a sort of otherworldly quality to most of this material. It doesn't seem to tie in very well with any of the other portions of the book and suffers from the scattered nature of its presentation. There is an interesting story here, but Tucker fails to convey it in an interesting way.

The common theme throughout much of the book is Admiral Rickover's efforts to bring nuclear submarines into service and his widespread affect on the nuclear industry within both the military and civilian worlds. There is general background information on Rickover and some look at both miliary and commercial programs he had no hand in running, but they're brief and tinged with the idea that had Rickover been put in charge they would have magically been successful. While that may be true, it's not precisely an objective way to look at what really happened when he wasn't.

Despite the repeated appearance of Rickover and the layering in of biographical information, I never felt like I got to know the man in this book. He felt more like a caricature than a person here, with only his over the top characteristic coming up over and over again and everything else left on the wayside to focus on those elements than made for better storytelling. I wanted the full picture.

You will not find any but the most casual mention of the Manhattan Project in Atomic America; the bulk of its focus is on the programs after World War II. Hanford and Oak Ridge do make appearances, if only because they were still being used as uranium production and nuclear design facilities. There are also several mentions of Fermi's experiments at the University of Chicago and their evolution into programs at Argonne National Lab, but mostly because Argonne was one of the organizations running experiments at the Idaho test site. Teller's experiments with the Plutonium bomb all occur off page and get a single mention that's almost an aside. If you're looking for information about the early history of nuclear bombs, look elsewhere.

What you will find here, albeit in maddeningly small amounts, is information about the Air Force attempts to create nuclear-powered airplanes and the Army's programs to use nuclear fission to power remote bases in arctic climates. These are topics not frequently covered in other accounts of the history of nuclear programs and the little bit found here was fascinating. Had Turner focused on those programs in his book or made it a three pronged look at the Army, Navy, and Air Force efforts all simultaneously underway during the late 1940s and 1950s, he could have had a fantastic book.

Tucker has a fairly prosaic writing style interspersed with attempts at flights of fancy (mostly when reconstructing imagined scenes with the accident victims). At times his staccato sentences grate a bit, have a lack of flow I associate with someone who is trying to present factual information but doesn't know how to write well. As the book wore on, this effect diminished a bit, leaving as the only real writing problem the whiplash from frequent hops between the various subjects of the book. I think a good editor would have greatly improved Atomic America, forcing more coherence of subject or, at the very least, better transitions as it moved from subject to subject. I know I keep harping on this issue, but it really was a major problem.

I had high hopes for Atomic America. Unfortunately, the book did not meet my expectations. While it had some interesting material in it, the book lacked focus and covered too many subjects to do any one of them justice. I strongly recommend looking for another source of information on these topics if they interest you rather than reading this disappointing book.


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