Review of ‘Fallout’ by Fred Pearce


Reviewing a book that discusses the ongoing history and aftermath of nuclear accidents, weapons development and other incidents might seem a masochistic pastime, given the existential dread brought on by living with the current ongoing global pandemic. Surprisingly, it instead proves to be a revelatory and salient text that offers a strange sense of comfort amidst the quiet, ongoing horror of day-to-day events. It would not do well to compare the experiences of today to those mistreated, hurt or killed by the indifferences, fear or lack of awareness brought on by the politics of the nuclear age, but there is a curious insight to be gleaned from the testimonies of people presented within that touches upon a deeper human note, pointing to a similar sense of fear and anxiety. Perhaps as disinformation and trust become a premium, an investigative, well-researched text serves as an assuring antidote.

Fred Pearce condenses nearly eighty years of recent nuclear history into an accessible text that excellently dispenses with hyperbole, offering a first-hand perspective of meeting nuclear officials, community leaders and people affected by nuclear weapons development and use, alongside nuclear plant accidents, focusing not only on the revealing controversies, hypocrisies and ignorance surrounding such events, but also an even-handed acknowledgement of the unique fears that were generated by the earliest accidents that still manifest themselves today.

Through an extensive undertaking, Pearce guides the reader through a tour on a global scale, chronicling the history of nuclear bomb development and the subsequent accidents that this development rush created, alongside the subsequent troubled history that occurred in the transition to peaceful uses for the atom. It strikes a meaningful chord by focusing on the people and communities affected rather than giving a detached historical account, as Pearce weaves his experiences of the conversations and his travels alongside that of his interviewees. Alongside his first-hand encounters are investigative segments that succinctly focus years of investigative writing and activism to offer creative insight into both universally infamous and lesser-known nuclear accidents.  

While it is not an in-depth gritty historical tome, Fallout presents a uniquely presented history in an accessible manner. It is a hair-raising text that details recent near-misses and potential future accidents that many would deem a thing of the past. In this sense, it is also a troubling book that illustrates that the human element behind the causes of the earliest and most infamous nuclear disasters in history may yet be present in a future one.

Fallout offers a nuanced, human examination of the fear of the atomic legacy without humouring vexatious hyperbole, with its final chapter being its most prescient, discussing what were then the fresh diplomatic hostilities between the USA and North Korea, and the dimming prospects of nuclear disarmament.

Fallout is a grounding text for those who want to come to terms with the legacy of the nuclear technology we live with, and perhaps if you’re like me, you may take a grim comfort in the information contained within.  

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