A History of Uranium, the Rock That Nuked the WorldS

Uranium was considered a useless material until very recently in human history, when it quite literally exploded into the public consciousness. Tom Zoellner's engaging new book Uranium reveals how this once-humble element transformed human civilization.

Zoellner has put together a fun and informative tale of humankind's interactions with one of the earth's most terrifying and wonderful elements, including some interesting insights into uranium that go far beyond its use in nuclear warheads.

Zoellner explains that uranium was discovered in the ancient world, but was thrown out as a tailing from silver mining. It wasn't until the eighteenth century that any practical use for uranium was discovered, when it was used as an agent to color glass. In 1789, a chemist named Martin Klaproth formally discovered the properties of Uranium, naming it after a recently discovered planet in the solar system. But in 1896 that the destructive properties of the element were named, by a science fiction writer named Herbert George Wells, who came up with a story called "The World Set Free," featuring an element that when broken apart, yielded an incredible amount of energy. He had inadvertently predicted just what uranium would be known for, a few short decades later.

But uranium wasn't seen as a harmful substance when first examined, although the properties of radiation were discovered early on by chemist Henry Becuquerel, when the element began to cloud his photographs, even out of the sunlight. His discoveries would attract another pair of scientists, Marie Sklodowska and Pierre Curie, who would eventually marry. They began to examine uranium and theorized that it was an element that was throwing off particles. In 1903 the two were awarded the Nobel Prize when they discovered that the radiation had the ability to heal, shrinking tumors. In light of these successes, a small industry of health spas sprang up where radium springs were located. These spas touted the healing properties of radiation. However, both Marie and Pierre Curie, after their long exposure to radiation, would perish from the very substance that they believed would heal the world.

From this point onwards, uranium's interaction with humanity was composed of blood and fire. More scientists began to examine the element, and by the early 1930s, a scientist named Leo Szilard discovered the framework of a chain reaction that could be fueled by uranium. Disturbed by the trends in Europe, he contacted noted physicist Albert Einstein a couple years later while in the United States, and the two of them urged President Franklin Roosevelt to examine the possibility of harnessing the power of the atom. The rest is history, and Zoellner goes into great detail into the workings of the Manhattan project that would later yield two warheads, both of which would be dropped over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan, helping to end the Second World War in the Pacific Ocean.

A History of Uranium, the Rock That Nuked the WorldS

The history of uranium is a complicated one, going from mining refuse to a health treatment to the atomic bomb before finally evolving towards a peaceful use in the production of nuclear power. Zoellner examines much of this in detail, leading up to the present day, with multiple nations in possession of nuclear warheads, while others desperately seek weapons of their own.

Still others seek the cheap and relatively safe applications for uranium as a power supply that might help their economies grow. Zoellner is clearly in support of the continued use of nuclear power and the uranium that fuels it. One of the most immediate practical parts of the book is a section where he examines what would be needed for nuclear power to continue on all levels, from security to mining to the technology that helps make it a reality.

The book is not without serious flaws, however. While there is much attention paid to the United States, the coverage is very uneven. We learn about exploration and mining in Australia, Soviet work camps in Eastern Europe, the efforts of Iran and Iraq, Israel and Pakistan's nuclear programs and a couple others. But crucial players in nuclear power are largely ignored, such as the United Kingdom and France. And the Soviet Union, a major player in the world when it comes to nuclear arms, gets little play. This is despite the fact that the nuclear arms race between the USSR and the United States entirely shaped our modern world and many people's understanding of nuclear capabilities.

Oddly, Cuba is never mentioned, and the Cold War is pushed to the side, as if uranium's significant impact on the world would be tarnished by its involvement. Indeed, the book feels sometimes a bit dogmatic in its promotion of nuclear technology, simply because we never really hear much about the arguments against it. There is little talk about Three mile Island or Chernobyl, some of the worst disasters in the civilian world, events that have relevance to today. Nor is there much talk about the disposal of nuclear waste, such as the proposed facility at Yucca Mountain. It would have helped to have a sense of what kinds of security would be required to dispose of such waste, as well as what would be needed to restart nuclear programs around the world. And finally, it would have been helpful to have a listing environmental organizations that have come around on the issue.

Nevertheless, Zoellner makes a very good argument for nuclear power. When it's not going wrong, it helps to provide a lot of power in the United States. This is of particular interest to me personally, as here in Vermont, there is significant public debate over the fate of our own aging nuclear power plant, Yankee Power, which seems to be in the news frequently for something falling apart. In his championing of nuclear power, Zoellner goes the same route as science fiction writers: He imagines a nuclear world is potentially a good one, with cheap power to grow the economy and reduce pollution (and in this day and age, with climate change in the headlines, it would seem to be a good argument). But with little counter argument against the darker sides of the technology, I can't help but feel that I'm reading a book written by lobbyists for the pro-nuclear side of things.

In 2003, I read Charles Sheffield's last short story, "The Waste Land," a mystery set in a nuclear dumping ground, where a scientist is found dead from a massive dose of radiation. In the end, it turns out that the scientist has found a way to accelerate the half-life of nuclear materials, shortening it to a short burst, and ended up being killed because his scheme would eradicate trillions of dollars of contracts for the waste disposal industry. I found the story fascinating because it suggests that there may always be problems with nuclear power, despite all of its advantages. No matter what happens, we do know one thing. This rock will linger for years and years after we're all gone, an interesting, if somewhat hazardous legacy of our time on Earth.

You can pick up a copy of Uranium via Amazon.

Enriched Uranium image from About.com