In the spring of 2016, journalist Fred Pearce spent an afternoon drinking what he suspected was radioactive vodka, flavored with herbs grown near the site of Chernobyl’s 1986 nuclear disaster. He was visiting a settler who had returned to live in his home within the 18-mile radius around Chernobyl that’s so heavily contaminated children still aren’t allowed to live there.

“I trusted that probably a couple drinks would be all right, but he’d been drinking this stuff for a long time,” says Pearce, who visited this self-settler in Chernobyl while researching his new book Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age. “It was a bizarre experience. All I can say is however radioactive he is, he’s still alive and seemed pretty fit to me.”

Pearce’s visit to Chernobyl is just one of his stops on a world tour of nuclear disasters and cleanups, chronicled in his book Fallout. Published by Beacon Press, the book investigates the toxic legacy left behind by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the race to build more nukes, and the ongoing challenge of dealing with the nuclear energy industry’s waste. “It’s a pretty messy legacy, not least because most of the waste disposal problems created in the heyday of nuclear power haven’t been solved,” Pearce says.

The book originated as a story about just one site: “the heart of the British nuclear industry,” called Sellafield, Pearce says. It’s where plutonium was produced for the first British bombs, and it continues to reprocess waste produced by nuclear power. Back in the…