A Rock and the Hard Place


In 1946, with the world still reeling from the advent of the nuclear age, a group of the scientists who helped to birth it published a collection of essays called One World or None, in which they discussed the possibilities presented by their work. It’s a brilliant artifact. In surprisingly easy prose, the men then most qualified to discuss the subject offer their respective takes on the upshot of humankind’s newfound ability to manipulate particle physics. Their predictions-including a future haunted by arms races and nuclear terrorism-were for the most part shockingly prescient. They foresaw the sorts of intellectual and polity conflict that would come to characterize global perceptions of nuclear fission. As the atomically obsessed journalist William Laurence wrote in 1948, “Today we are standing at a major crossroads. One fork of the road has a signpost inscribed with the word Paradise, the other fork has a signpost bearing the word Doomsday.”

More than six decades later, we’re still sorting out the pros and cons. To this ongoing effort we can add veteran journalist Tom Zoellner’s latest book, Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World. Written as a “biography” of the element that continues to fuel the debate, Uranium travels from 17th-century Bohemia to the Paris labs of Pierre and Marie Curie, to the New York offices where Laurence fell in love with atom-smashing, and into the modern rush for ore, arms and the international prestige that comes with such accumulations. Along the way, Zoellner does his best to sprinkle in a bit of intrigue. How did a Belgian mining magnate secretly engineer the delivery of the uranium that would lead to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How did Israel enlist a fake act of piracy to kick-start its nuclear program? Did Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan help democratize atomic energy? Good. Bad. Ugly. It’s all here.

And it’s once again relevant to Americans. The long-neglected (or successfully forestalled) prospect of nuclear power is now enjoying a resurgence thanks to efforts at home-even if it got short shrift in President Barack Obama’s recent economic stimulus package-and abroad. Of course the prospect of certain foreign entities building a nuclear power plant-or manufacturing a bomb-continues to make for hand-wringing headlines. Zoellner dedicates his last two chapters to these subjects, and they are, given current events, the most resonant portions of his book.

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

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

And the most gloomy. According to Zoellner, Iran’s efforts to join the nuclear club are driven by (in the person of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) “a fervent believer … in the return of the hidden imam, a holy man … [whose] re-entry into the world will trigger a final confrontation between good and evil … .”

Building a device like the one that leveled Hiroshima really isn’t that tough. Besides, everyone who’s ever gotten their hands on significant quantities of uranium-the United States included-has managed to lose a portion of it. As for the nuclear “Renaissance” (as Zoellner titles the portion of his book devoted to our latest infatuation with all things nuclear), it’s fueled by crazed penny-stock wheeler-dealers and prospecting types whose best efforts might include the environmental ruin of the western United States. Our future, says Zoellner, is in the hands of such industry vets as Roger Smith, a former mine manager who now works as a consultant to modern uranium outfits-and a man who’s proudly mounted a bumper sticker reading “Earth First! We’ll Mine the Other Planets Later” above his air-conditioner.

Zoellner, it seems, credits at least one tine of Laurence’s fork. He’s seen the risks inherent in civilian atom-smashing-the waste, the political instability, the greed-and the book he’s written will no doubt cause many to conclude that this nuclear renaissance should be squashed in its infancy. He may well be right.

Still, a complete accounting of the costs and benefits of nuclear power is far from settled. As Harlow Shapely intimated in 1946, it may take a millennium to fully appreciate the implications of the work he and his colleagues did at Los Alamos. As the Federation of American Scientists collectively wrote in its contribution to One World Or None, “the problem [of nuclear energy] has brought us to one of the great crises of history.” Sixty-three years later, for all of our adventures, we’re still there.

Freelance writer Mike Kanin lives and works in Austin.