Review: A Short Story of Nuclear Folly by Rudolf Herzog

Book info:
Form: pdf e-book
Genre: non-fiction
Target audience: everybody interested in the history of nuclear materials and their usage
Translated by Jefferson Chase.

It’s a second opinion; the first review, written by my fair Rameau who also lent me a copy of that book (mwah! thanks!), can be read here.


When the physicist discovered the way how to use the process of fission in practice the humankind entered a truly Faustian bargain. On the one hand we were promised an unending source of energy and also some quite ingenious nuclear-powered machines. On the other hand we were given a constant threat that the world as we know it might cease to exist in a blink of the eye.

It didn’t exactly help that the researchg was conducted with the WWII in the background. No matter whether the nuclear military tests have been performed in the East or in the West, by ruthless Stalin generals or the American ones, one thing repeats itself with a nauseated frequency: an utter disregard for the protection of the environment and, linked to that, the life and well-being of ordinary people, be them soldiers or civilians or both. Corners have been cut in safety because it was less expensive than…what exactly? Human life? Wildlife? The future of next generations? In fact this book can also be called “A Short Story of A Surprising Lack of Imagination”.

An induced nuclear fission event involving ura...
An induced nuclear fission event involving uranium-235 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I liked:

If you think the topic is a bit heavy and this book should interest only nuclear scientists, historians and students, think again. Mr. Herzog did what he could to make his narration factual, colourful and dynamic at the same time. In my opinion he succeeded, presenting even those strictly technical issues in such a way that they can be understood – and enjoyed- by an ordinary reader. Personally I was able to read the book during three evenings (during a rather busy period of time, mind you) and it kept me interested most of the time. It also features great photographs, which can help you visualizing those exotic Kazakhstan steppes or Utah deserts. A preachy bit of edutainment? Perhaps yes, but of the highest quality – definitely the author not only knows what he is talking about but also he can make his narration compelling.

An example and a direct quote describing the situation after one of American nuclear explosions:

“A radioactive cloud drifted off toward St. George, 270 kilometers away from Ground Zero. For several hours, unsuspecting residents were showered with radiation. Many of the 5,000 “downwinders” who populated the town would later develop cancer—a late result of Harry’s fallout. Yet the authorities rejected the idea that the high levels of radioactivity in Utah could have anything to do with atomic tests in Nevada. (…) 
There is absolutely no doubt that Hughes knew about the potentially lethal effects of radiation exposure. He had co-financed a 1953 film, Split Second, that had been set in a nuclear testing range. The director of that film was none other than Dick Powell. Nonetheless, the two men sent their team out into the gleaming sands of the valley. Five thousand Indian extras were brought in for the monumental battle scenes, 1,000 horses galloped across the 120-degree heat of the landscape, and dozens of aspiring starlets hired to play concubines strolled around half-naked, fulfilling male fantasies.” 

In times when some irresponsible scientists have taken nuclear reactors and batteries with them wherever they went, be it to the bottom of the sea or to the peaks of the highest mountains you can never be overly concerned of what is happening in your backyard or closest neighbourhood. There is complacency and irresponsibility everywhere, including Europe, Japan and the United States and not mentioning the Middle East and Africa, creating a host of ethical problems.

No matter whether you like it or not, there is no escape from nuclear power. We will need it to appease our increasing appetites for energy the dwindling coal-seams or crude oil reserves cannot satisfy. That’s why such books are needed and should be read because they prove another obvious truth: you can’t trust people who are involved with the nuclear fission. Don’t delude yourself – they won’t take care of you and the environment, no matter who they are and what government or/and organization they represent. Yes, nuclear chain reactions release extremely radioactive fission by-products but I admit after reading this book I consider that issue to be actually a lesser challenge than the responsibility of people, using the nuclear power. So far we have been moderately lucky but how to create a workable long-term solution? You will be left with this question and more and no, it won’t make the outlook less black. Still it will make it real – and it is just a tip of the iceberg.

What I didn’t like:

I found some annoying typos in the text, numerous enough to be noticed even by a casual reader. While I don’t blame the author for them (I read the translated English version, not the German original) the editor and proof-reader should have been more thorough.

I also have to admit the last chapter was a bit less interesting and somewhat worse when it comes to the style than the rest of the book.

Final verdict:

A very good non-fiction position which actually taught me a lot. Highly recommendable – it will broaden your horizons while keeping you entertained. Still I warn you – after the lecture you might be a bit depressed.

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6 Responses to Review: A Short Story of Nuclear Folly by Rudolf Herzog

  1. Blodeuedd says:

    Heavy? Ugh, noooooo

  2. Our world is not exaclty lightweight either.

  3. I read a book once about how the US tested atomic power in rural areas and knew it was causing cancer in the people who lived there but kept doing it anyway. It was very upsetting.

  4. Then you understand my final warning. I couldn't believe any government could be so ruthless. I couldn't believe people like Hughes deliberately endangered a whole movie crew.

  5. rameau says:

    Call me a cynic but I'm not surprised at all.

  6. rameau says:

    Not so heavy. Just as entertaining as informative.

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