Monday, September 19, 2011

Review: "Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World"

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

I recently have had a bit of down time in the transition to my new career (having finished my Ph.D. and waiting to begin my new job at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in October), so while perusing the library this weekend, Zoellner's popular history of Uranium caught my professional interest.

Uranium tells the story of the discovery of uranium, dating all the way back to the Middle Ages, where uranium found in the form of a nuisance mineral associated with silver deposits (pitchblende, loosely translated as "bad luck rock"). The story launches forward then into the discovery of radium (and subsequently, radiation) and its use as a patent medicine and miracle cure for cancer.

The story of uranium is one inextricably tied to the unfortunate history of greed, empire, and colonialism: from the Belgian Congo to the St. Joachimstahl silver mines of Bohemia, the American West and to the Australian North End. At the root of each of these are governments bent upon increasing their power and wealth, from early colonialists to the Nazis and finally the mortal standoff between the American and Soviet superpowers of the Cold War.

Much of Zoellner's history ends of focusing upon the history of uranium as a commodity of war and international domination and the resulting fallout from this perspective, ranging from everything including wildcatting American mineral prospectors hoping to strike it rich in a 1950's "uranium rush" to slave labor prison camps run by the Soviets. Zoellner tells a compelling story of how uranium represented the ultimate power to world governments, and why nuclear weapons are still sought by nations such as Iran even today.

Yet remarkably absent from Zoellner's narrative is much discussion of the flip side of the coin: the promise of clean, abundant energy in addition to a cornucopia of advances in medicine, agriculture, and engineering. While he does an adequate job explaining some of the relevant basics of nuclear physics (a few details are ultimately mangled, perhaps forgivable for what is clearly not a scientific book, written by a non-scientist), he nearly completely omits the drive to establish peaceful uses of nuclear technology which occurred simultaneously with the Cold War buildup, beginning with Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program.

If anything, Zoellner treats the program as an amusing contradiction to the Faustian bargain which produced the atomic bomb. Scarcely mentioned are programs such as "Megatons to Megawatts," perhaps the most successful non-proliferation program to date, which has sought to dismantle and downblend highly-enriched uranium warheads in Russian bombs in order to produce civilian fuel. (By many estimates, as much as ten percent of the electricity in the U.S. is a result of Megatons to Megawatts; in other words, up to half of the current civilian nuclear fuel currently in the fleet traces its origin to this program).

Early advocates of peaceful uses of nuclear energy are frequently dismissed as "futurists" and "dreamers" in Zoellner's text - we are not even treated to the views of nuclear energy advocates until the very last chapter of the book, where the renaissance in nuclear energy is framed in the context of climate change and the need for carbon-free energy. All of this ignores the fact that in this supposedly sterile time for peaceful uses of the atom, the United States managed to build the largest fleet of civilian power reactors in the world, providing about 20% of the nation's power. A frustrating aspect of his history is in its inherent and permeating pessimism; peaceful uses of the atom are essentially an afterthought. Only at the very end does one catch a glimpse at what I am coming to realize is an increasingly common thread among many nuclear professionals - many of us are in this field explicitly because we see the potential for abundance and prosperity that nuclear energy promises.

Perhaps more frustrating still is Zoellner's seemingly irrepressible urge to characterize uranium as a demon metal, imbuing it with a nearly superstitious character. One is never failed to be reminded of the fact that is radioactive and "unstable," yellowcake powder (U3O8) is repeatedly described as a "sickly" yellow in color. (The only element treated to even greater superstition and aspersion is plutonium.) Zoellner at least manages to temper this, at times acknowledging the fact that uranium presents a minimal hazard when handled (gloves are generally all that is required); the chief hazard comes from inhaling the dust (where the radioactive daughter products can lodge into the lungs).

Likewise to his credit, Zoellner presents a compelling writing style, in spite of his occasional foray into somewhat overly floral prose, with a narrative that races along through history, focusing mainly upon the period between the Manhattan Project and the height of the Cold War. Much of the story is written in the form of a travelogue, detailing his travels to the key places in the history of uranium.

One has but two minor complaints with his style: the first being the constant repetition of certain facts and explanations, with the more detailed explanation often following the more terse one (an indication that the book was likely written in a non-linear fashion, although something that should have been picked up by a more diligent editor); second is in his penchant to jump around from place to place and different time periods (for example, jumping from the Soviet slave labor camps at St. Joachimstahl to the wildcat miners of the Arizona to the Belgian Congo and back again). This is perhaps a stylistic choice to keep things from being bogged down too much (after all, one can only read so much of the depressing and inhumane conditions of forced labor camps in the Eastern Bloc only to jump to the cruelty of colonial taskmasters in the Belgian Congo), but at times runs the risk of moral equivalency; certainly, the environmental effects of unrestricted mining (and subsequently lax management of the unused uranium tailings) is a black mark, but it hardly compares to the brutal conditions carried out by the Nazis and later the Soviets.

Despite these issues, Uranium is a compelling read, particularly for understanding the early history and overwhelming influence of the government (particularly in terms of weapons) that lead us to where we are today. While not explicitly discussed in the book, one can pick up traces of how the unique place in history of uranium has lead us to the fuel cycle we have today, as opposed to alternatives such as thorium-based cycles. Trained nuclear professionals (and scientifically literate lay readers) may cringe a bit at where Zoellner at times get the details "mostly right," but overall it is an enjoyable and interesting read, one where I found myself racing through the text (and finished in two days).

An addendum: Zoellner also appeared on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart to promote his book.

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  1. My overall impression is that this book has a very engaging writing style.

    By the way, I started reading a different book a while ago, The Atomic Complex, which I saw from another blog:

    One of the major things I hoped to learn from reading that book was how Uranium, even that destined for peaceful power reactors, was used as a political tool. It seems that the Uranium book covers that topic as well. In the narrative of an essay for English class, I can see how the battle to control Uranium as a strategic resource is an appealing one. It did bring out the worst of human nature, although most of that story played out before I was ever born.

    It actually makes Thorium more appealing, if for no other reason that its symbolic value. The exploitation of Thorium would have its roots firmly planted in the quest for sustainable energy. Problem is, even Thorium fuel cycles must maintain a fissile inventory, which is, you guessed it, Uranium. On top of that, no one argues against the need for safeguards for that fissile inventory.

    It's for these reasons that I think a successful international fuel bank is a necessity for the full potential of nuclear power to be realized.

  2. Thanks, Steve, for this well-written review. It is true that I am a skeptic of the cost-effectiveness and long-term wisdom of nuclear power, which was always an afterthought and a tack-on (and in several nations, a cover-story) for the weapons programs. But glad you read the book and that it provoked some thought -- that would make any writer's day. All best, Tom Zoellner