Volume 87 Issue 20 | pp. 51-52 | Book Reviews
Issue Date: May 18, 2009

One Amazing Rock

Book explores uranium's history, grip on popular imagination
By Sam Kean
Department: Books
Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World

by Tom Zoellner, Viking Adult, 2009, 352 pages, $26.95 (ISBN: 978-0670020645)
Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World

by Tom Zoellner, Viking Adult, 2009, 352 pages, $26.95 (ISBN: 978-0670020645)

IN THE PUBLISHING business, they're called "noun books." First, we all learned how "Cod" and "Salt" changed history. Later, a close look at the "Potato" and "Banana" and at "Curry" and "Beef" revealed how those items revolutionized the world, too. Perhaps the toughest to swallow was "Toothpick: Technology and Culture," which seemed like an exercise in what an author can get away with. Really, if you're clever enough and if you dig deep enough among the intertangled roots of history, is there anything you can't make seem as if it altered the fate of humankind?

For once, in "Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World," by Tom Zoellner, the subtitle doesn't seem strained or hyperbolic. Element 92 was and is historic, and not in some subtle, subterranean way, but right in the thick of things. It wasn't always so. Aside from occasional use in decorative glass, uranium oxides were discarded as scrap for centuries, Zoellner says. The discovery in the 1780s by German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth that there was a new element in those oxides did nothing to alter people's dismissive view. Even after the discovery of radioactivity circa 1900, uranium wasn't widely used, Zoellner writes. Then came the idea, by physicist Leo Szillard, of a nuclear chain reaction—and with it, the prospect of atomic energy and atomic weapons.

Uranium was the only radioactive element common enough for practical use, and between about 1930 and 1950, it became simultaneously the most hated substance in the world and yet so valuable that some assumed it would replace gold as the world's currency. Today, it's one of the few boxes on the periodic table a layperson recognizes, and its chemical symbol—that big fat singular letter—seems to reflect the danger and guilt of uranium back to the observer—an incriminating "you."

The book consists of eight loosely connected chapters, covering periods from the medieval discovery of uranium ore to uranium yellowcake's role in justifying the Iraq War. That's an ambitious outline, and Zoellner did an incredible amount of legwork—among other places, he recounts trips to the Congo, Mongolia, Yemen, Russia, the godforsaken parts of Northern Australia, the Czech Republic, even Staten Island. Most of the book is set in deserts and mountains, which gradually emerge as grim characters in and of themselves. As for the human characters populating the book, most are crusty or flaky miners. (One prospector, who looks on environmentalists as effete whiners, has a bumper sticker reading "Earth First! We'll Mine The Other Planets Later.") But there's no human protagonist whose development we follow for more than 40 pages. The only common thread to the stories is uranium.

And yet the chapters give a surprisingly coherent picture and tell a surprisingly unified story, since, as Zoellner reveals, people's motivations to acquire and hoard and peddle uranium have been consistent for 70 years. The book's biggest strength is how Zoellner captures the obsessive hold uranium has over people's imaginations. There's an apocalyptic power inside that ore, and don't we know it. And beyond just pointing that fact out, Zoellner takes the time to reflect on it—how and why humans have fallen short of their responsibility with uranium, and how they always magically talk themselves into believing they'll be more responsible with it next time.

WRAPPED WITH the apocalyptic view of uranium, of course, is the messianic view of it—uranium as the savior of humanity. Many miners and geologists in the book refer to uranium with something like pantheistic awe, an unembarrassed idolatry. To different people, uranium means inexhaustible utopian energy, national sovereignty, military immortality, alchemic powers to heal diseases, get-rich-quick schemes, and so on. Throughout the book, those two strains, apocalyptic and messianic, reappear like a Greek chorus.

Hot Spot
Australian uranium mine.
Credit: Newscom
Hot Spot
Australian uranium mine.
Credit: Newscom

That's some pretty heavy stuff, but Zoellner makes it all go down easy with plenty of colorfully detailed history. Perhaps because he usually tells stories from the point of view of miners and prospectors, his chapter on the initial scientific investigations of uranium—the days of the Curies and Ernest Rutherford, circa 1900—is only pedestrian. He's much better with more recent history and especially with a few overlooked sideshows of well-known events.

For instance, Zoellner resurrects from obscurity the New York Times reporter William L. (Atomic Bill) Laurence, who dumped any pretended notions of journalistic objectivity to secretly join the Manhattan Project in its last days in 1945. Laurence had "a vision of uranium that approached biblical," Zoellner says, and was ecstatic when the first bomb went off. He even wrote a rapturous public statement that Harry Truman was supposed to use to announce the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. (Truman wisely toned it down.)

The really strange part of the story was that Laurence wasn't alone in his reaction, Zoellner points out. Laurence once described himself as a "journalistic Paul Revere," but instead of spreading the fear of Redcoats (or, at that time, Reds, as the Soviets were known), Laurence proselytized about the boons of atomic energy from uranium. Zoellner writes that Laurence deserves much of the credit for helping to "create in the American public a generally positive and hopeful feeling about the dawn of the new atomic age." Tonics and tinctures proudly proclaimed the word "nuclear" in their titles, and even pop culture embraced uranium, Zoellner notes. The comic strip "Blondie" (with its hapless everyman, Dagwood) featured uranium a few times in the 1940s, as did the cartoon "Popeye." Uranium even earned a space on The Game of Life, the Milton Bradley board game, for a spell: "DISCOVER URANIUM! COLLECT $240,000."

THAT WARM FEELING quickly chilled during the Cold War. The reality of the atom bomb—uranium was and is the fissile material in most nuclear weapons—left many people feeling as penitent and fearful as the scientific head of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer. As Laurence first reported, Oppenheimer said his initial thought after the first test of a nuclear bomb was a line from ancient Hindu scriptures: "I am become Death, destroyer of worlds." Reel-to-reel films of 1950s schoolchildren hiding under desks didn't boost uranium's public image either.

On an international level, Cold War antagonists in the 1950s began to scout the world for uranium mines to fuel new bombs, and Zoellner portrays the mind-set in each sphere of influence through an ingenious dual chapter. It compares and contrasts the last great mineral rush in the U.S., a uranium stampede, with the parallel story of the horrid "uranium gulag" run by the former Soviet Union in its puppet states in Eastern Europe. The conditions in the communist camps were awful from the first hours, Zoellner reports: Most mines used prisoners as forced labor—at least until so many of the prisoners were maimed or dead that guards had to arrest and fabricate charges against local drunks and other ne'er-do-wells, just to find enough workers to meet quotas under dictator Josef Stalin. Ironically, Zoellner also notes, a sort of Ayn Randian, hypercapitalistic competition emerged in the communist camps, where only the strongest men thrived. They reaped great materialistic rewards, like cars and better apartments, for hauling in the most tons of ore.

Uranium's physical powers were far secondary to the power of the narrative that man could craft around them.

The real competition in the U.S., Zoellner makes clear, was among prospectors, the people who camped alone for months at a time in the hardscrabble outskirts of Utah and Arizona and used everything short of divining rods to suss out mother lodes of uranium oxides. But after any discoveries, the prospectors cashed in through an essentially socialistic market: The only buyer for the ore was the U.S. government, because the entire uranium industry had been nationalized for national security purposes.

The next logical stop in the modern history of element 92 would be the core meltdowns at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, as well as the Cold War-fueled nuclear missile buildup in the 1980s. But Zoellner mostly ignores those big historical moments to focus on seedier topics like uranium smuggling in Africa and in Pakistan, including a short profile of the notorious Pakistani scientist and freelance nuclear weapons expert A. Q. Khan.

Scarily, Zoellner indicates that among the shady buyers for such underground uranium, there's been a revival lately of the messianic view of element 92—and not despite but because of its apocalyptic powers. Political leaders in countries such as Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran revere uranium for the godlike power atomic weapons bestow, Zoellner says, the ability to wreak havoc and smite enemies on scales not seen since the Old Testament. Such countries usually seek enriched-uranium nuclear missiles, but there's no less of a threat from rogue groups who want uranium as seeds for dirty radiological bombs. What's more, the author notes, in nondespotic but still desperately poor countries today, like Yemen, politicians tend to conflate even science itself with the ability to harness and control uranium for atomic energy. Such leaders speak of "science" and "nuclear engineering" interchangeably, as if biology, chemistry, and so on, are unimportant or don't exist. Uranium is that alluring to them.

Not that people in wealthier countries of the developed world are immune to uranium millenarianism. Zoellner reports that the late end-timer and cult leader Shoko Asahara—who schemed up the cowardly sarin attacks that left 12 dead and thousands injured in the Tokyo subways in March 1995—had once purchased a huge plot of uranium-dusted land in Australia, with the intention of making a bomb. Asahara never acquired even a gram of enriched uranium, but not for lack of trying. We in the West usually associate terrorist destruction with Islamic fundamentalists, but if Asahara had unleashed a third atomic bomb in Japan, in downtown Tokyo, how different recent history might have been.

There are too many other stirring moments in "Uranium" to do them justice here. (Don't miss the set-piece about the penny-stock markets in Vancouver that trade uranium land rights, markets that make the subprime mortgage markets look as sober and transparent as a U.S. Treasury Bond.) In the end, there's really only one story in this book: that of the power of element 92, power both real and imagined, actual and potential. As Zoellner reminds us, and proves in his own book, "uranium's physical powers were far secondary to the power of the narrative that man could craft around them."


Sam Kean is an associate editor at Search, a magazine of science, religion, and culture. He has a book forthcoming on the hidden stories of the periodic table.

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