URANIUM by Tom Zoellner


War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World
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Lively, often disturbing history of the largest atom in nature.

Natural uranium, element 92, is only mildly radioactive and can’t make a bomb, notes journalist Zoellner (The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire, 2006). But one uranium atom among 140 is slightly lighter—U-235 as opposed to U-238. During the 1930s German scientists discovered that adding a neutron to U-235 split it into two fragments (fission) and released enormous energy. If a critical mass of U-235 (about 110 pounds) could be brought together, a tremendous explosion would result. Separating U-235 from U-238 was an expensive, complex industrial process, and only the United States could afford to do it while simultaneously fighting a war. Plenty of authors, led by Richard Rhodes, have recounted the making of the atomic bomb, but Zoellner excels in describing the postwar years—the wild, worldwide uranium-mining boom that accompanied other nations’ rush to develop a bomb. The author scorns the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, seeing it as an arrogant but ineffectual attempt by the nuclear powers to freeze out the competition. Uranium mining crashed after American and Soviet arsenals filled, resumed in the ’70s as nuclear power flourished, crashed again in the ’80s after the Chernobyl disaster and is booming again today, as China industrializes. An additional boost is the fact, acknowledged even by environmentalists, that nuclear power plants release no greenhouse gases. Despite some gruesome descriptions of the plight of uranium miners and modest attention to nuclear safety and the growing problem of nuclear waste, Zoellner generally stresses the positive features of uranium and its applications.

A rich journalistic account.

Pub Date: March 9th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-670-02064-5
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2009


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