Monday, February 27, 2012

Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World by Tom Zoellner

The story of uranium is, of course, an epic that has no end (thankfully). Tom Zoellner brings us up to date with Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World. It is tale that begins with the formation of the earth, but being more concerned with human pursuit of wealth, power, and a better life through uranium, he starts in the the Middle Ages. When Czech miners dug for silver at St. Joachimsthal, they also found a greasy, dark matter that stuck to their picks. They called it pechblende, meaning bad-luck rock, and tossed it aside. Within fifteen years of mine operation, many of these men began to cough, spit blood, and die without a known cause. The silver soon ran out, the tragedy was forgotten, and the piles of waste surrounded the neglected mines for several centuries.

Zoellner picks up the story in 1896 when French chemist Henri Becquerel discovered strange emissions in his cathode ray experiments, leading the Curies to begin their studies of radioactivity. For the next several decades, most scientists thought rare radioactive elements would be of most use in medicine. Early in the 20th century, only novelist H. G. Wells suggested that an unnamed rock could produce both great energy for industry and powerful bombs for the military conquest, but his idea was considered fantasy.

The search for uranium began in earnest during World War II. Here is a part of the story that will surprise many readers. Even as the physicists of the Manhattan Project worked to build a weapon to give the Allies an edge to end the war, the potential for atomic weaponry was not realized. Military intelligence assured the president and his defense council that very little uranium existed anywhere and that only one mine in the Congo had ore worth extracting. Because the U.S. had firm control of that one mine, there was no danger of a proliferation of atomic weapons. Also, agents reported that Soviet scientists would never be able to understand how to build a bomb.

Of course, uranium turned out to be in many places, especially behind the Iron Curtain, and nations large and small sought supplies to become players in the atomic age. Building bombs is not difficult with highly enriched uranium. Fortunately, enriching uranium is still a very difficult and costly process.

In the last two thirds of Uranium, Zoellner takes readers to remote locations in many countries, including the Congo, Niger, western Australia, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, former states of the Soviet Union, and the desert southwest of the United States, places were ore is mined, refined, and shaped into weapons. He also follows international inspectors working to lessen the threat of terrorists obtaining weapons-grade material. Through his reporting of this research, he recounts 70 years of science, diplomacy, and fear. Readers who enjoyed his The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds will recognize and appreciate his quick-moving narrative.

Zoellner, Tom. Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World. Viking, 2009. 337p. ISBN 9780670020645.

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