Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World Paperback – Feb 23 2010
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- JOHN STEWART
About the Author
Tom Zoellner has worked as a contributing editor for Men’s Health magazine and as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. His book The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds and Desire will be published in the summer of 2006.See all Product Description
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The focus of this book is on the history, not the science, of uranium (which should be obvious - it is a work of reportage, not science). Furthermore, the parts of the book that do deal with science are correct, clear, and concise; they are understandable to a lay reader but not boring -- the prose is poetic and beautiful in its description of uranium's structure, isotopes, and process of decay (ultimately winding up as lead).
Now on to the important stuff: Zoellner presents the paradox of uranium with drama and art. From the front lines, Zoellner reports on the tragic and terrifying. He speaks directly with survivors of Soviet prison camps on the border of East Germany and the Czech Republic, where thousands of political prisoners were forced to mine uranium to fuel the arms race. These stories are heartbreaking, and for me, were a new revelation about the havor wreaked by the cold war.
Zoellner travels into the heart of what is now the DRC, to visit Shinkolobwe, where the uranium for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was mined. The discoveries he makes there are bone chilling (I won't give them away!)
He also captures the intangible influence uranium has had on society - the paradox of salvation (clean energy) and damnation (mutually assured destruction); its integration into capitalism and stock markets; how its pursuit in Canada, the American West, and even Mongolia, resembles the goldrush and embodies American entrepreneurship and adventure.
Despite the terrifying realities Zoellner reports, he is even-handed and does not set out to scare the reader. Thankfully, he also reports on the pithy and humorous -- including his own foibles while travelling the world.
My primary criticism is the dearth of time spent discussing today's choices -- does America become a nuclear country, like France? How do we address the deadly remains of the Cold War? Who can we trust to make these decisions.
In sum, Uranium is a fascinating read, a good book for history buffs, current events junkies, non-fiction lovers of all stripes, and even scientists.
"Uranium" takes a profound subject and makes it accessible to the lay person. While obviously informed by science, "Uranium" approaches its topic from the angle of social history, which makes it especially compelling. Zoellner's narrative comes alive with first-person reportage, fascinating anecdotes and lucid prose. You come away with a deeper understanding of how uranium has shaped modern society, influenced governments, and held both despots and the destitute in its thrall. Its very instability as an element mirrors the instability it threatens on a global stage. And as a mainstream energy source, it holds promise--but only if we can manage its waste and keep the source material out of evil hands. The more people understand about this substance, the better. Highly recommended.
The author is a newspaper reporter and magazine editor writing on the beach in Northern California (literally) but, mercifully, he avoids the knee-jerk environmentalism and turns in a fairly balanced work. He does makes some boners like comparing occupational hazards of early US underground mining for uranium with mining slave labor behind the Iron Curtain. They are comparable neither in moral equivalency nor in quantified loss of life.
As someone with a little background in the subject, he's sloppier in terminology and scientific concepts that I would like and has a weakness for purple prose.
If you're looking for WHY uranium is so significant to the human race, he talks about the Bomb but does a lesser job on the core fact that some of the advocates he quotes only hint at. The discovery of nuclear energy really can be a game changer for the human race. We've only the most clumsy applications so far - I know, I'm a nuclear engineer - but a universe awaits us.
Why don't we have more than 20% of country's electricity come from uranium? Why don't we have nuclear rockets to shuttle us to the Moon and Mars? (They were ready for flight-testing in 1972!) Why aren't we rushing to build pebble reactors to make gasoline from water and coal via nuclear heat?
The book was a quick read and entertaining but again, hardly touches the real issues we must struggle with.
One quibble with the editor and not the author - why can't we have a cover photo with adequate depth of field so that the rock is all in focus? It is set up for eye strain now.
There is a provocative central question to this book: Has uranium actually made our world safer or more dangerous? The heads of state of most nations seem to think that the nuclear threat isn't all that real because no one in their right mind would drop a bomb on another nation as that nation would retaliate by dropping a bomb in return. This idea of mutually assured destruction apparently helps some people sleep at night but it's really a rationalization. Zoellner addresses this issue when he writes about the possibility of terrorists or rogue nations obtaining nuclear weapons. When you're talking about people who have no real respect for human life or people whose ideology leads them to think obsessively about the end of the world, can you really expect that the idea of mutually assured destruction will prove an adequate deterrent?
What is also disturbing about this novel is the many ways in which uranium has been used against people. It goes without saying that the United States' dropping of hydrogen bombs in Japan during WWII is the most dramatic example of this. And, yet, Zoellner points out the ways in which Africans in the Congo were forced into slave labor in harsh conditions with even harsher punishment and the way the former Soviet Union later utilized similar practices during the Cold War arms race. Zoellner writes about those who have been exposed to radiation in the air, soil, and water due to byproducts of the mines, as well as the health effects on the scientists, miners (paid and unpaid), and employees of processing plants--especially before the effects of radiation were fully understood. When all of these factors together are added up, the toll on human life has been more or less incalculable--and this, of course, does not even begin to address the toll on the environment. While the production of nuclear energy doesn't produce greenhouse gases, it does produce toxic waste and that has to be disposed of somewhere.
This is a very powerful work, one that presents the facts and some fascinating stories of almost mythical proportions. Yet the book leaves the reader to draw his or her conclusions about uranium and nuclear energy and this is perhaps its greatest strength. I imagine some readers will walk away from it with the belief that nuclear energy is the way to go while others will walk away from it with the exact opposite belief. This is a very well-written, well-researched, and fascinating look at how a simple, abundant element was able to alter the course of human development.
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