- A Nuclear Street Book Review by Randy Brich -

Was the discovery of uranium and its deployment at Hiroshima the beginning of the penultimate security challenge of the Twenty-first Century?  Tom Zoellner plausibly makes the case in Uranium:  War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World.

Sprinkled with appealing anecdotes, Zoellner captivatingly chronicles the history of uranium spanning four continents and several countries and paintainstakingly highlights its impact on civilization – past, present and future. 

With remarkable attention to detail, Zoellner describes uranium mining at several diverse locations including the jungles of Africa, the deserts of North America, the temperate forests of Germany and the Australian Outback creating a saga as colorful as the mineral itself.  Piecing together morsels of information from many sources, Zoellner spotlights World War II and the American/German race for the bomb.

Though he reprints Einstein’s famous letter to Roosevelt urging him to build an atom bomb before the Germans could craft one, Zoellner unconvincingly discounts the need for the Manhattan Project claiming, “By spring of 1945, Japan’s surrender was becoming increasingly certain”a (p.54).  Zoellner ignores the hundreds of thousands of Allied lives that would have been lost in an invasion of the Japanese homeland.  He also appears oblivious to the fact that Japan failed to surrender after a uranium bomb nicknamed Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima.  It took the detonation of a second bomb, a plutonium bomb known as Fat Man over Nagasaki a few days later before the Japanese surrendered.   

Unfortunately, Zoellner continues his prolific mixing of opinion and science throughout the remainder of the book.  This practice frustrates the perceptive reader who prefers the identification of references for all factual claims.  Without references the task of determining the validity of the assertions becomes daunting.  For example, when generally describing the Manhattan Project and the ensuing Cold War, Zoellner erroneously states that “plutonium … has virtually no use except widespread destruction”b (p. 52) and that “the Hanford Site … would soon become the most polluted piece of real estate on earth”c (p. 53). 

Continuing the amalgamation of beliefs and facts Zoellner incorrectly alleges that “Without minerals, there can be no metal, no tools, no energy, no war”d (p. 130).  In excruciating detail he describes the hunt for uranium in the desert southwest -- from Charlie Steen’s discovery of a particularly rich deposit outside Moab, Utah, to the sub-surface mining of the ubiquitous deposits in Navajo Land.  Finally, Zoellner mistakenly notes that an underground group

determined to bring a final orgiastic reckoning would likely avoid using plutonium as a tool. … The metal is extremely radioactive. … One thousandth of a gram of plutonium, if inhaled, causes death in a matter of hours.e (p. 234).

Zoellner documents the continuing worldwide quest for nuclear energy with borderline disbelief.  Concerning the Megatons to Megawatts program, he incorrectly states

The uranium cores of old Soviet weapons were pulled apart and shipped to the United States for conversion into a lower-enriched form that will provide 20 percent of the nation’s electricity needs through 2013f.

In what appears to be an attempt to sensationalize the negative aspects of uranium, Zoellner selects historic evidence that pleads his case while overlooking the fine points which challenge his perceptions.  His many inaccuracies and omissions distract from what could have been a thought-provoking portrayal of uranium “the rock that shaped the world.”  

Tom Zoellner
337 pp. Viking $24.95 (2009)


a <A plan to invade Japan in the autumn of 1945, followed in the spring by a larger invasion with troops released in Europe, did not have to be carried out.> http://history.howstuffworks.com/world-war-ii/the-atomic-bomb-and-the-surrender-of-japan.htm

b<Apart from the Fugen experimental Advanced Thermal Reactor (ATR), Ohma would be the first Japanese reactor built to run solely on MOX fuel incorporating recycled plutonium. It will be able to consume a quarter of all domestically-produced MOX fuel and hence make a major contribution to Japan's 'pluthermal' policy of recycling plutonium recovered from used fuel.
The latest MOX contract with Areva comes as part of Japan's program to recycle used nuclear fuel and follows contracts signed in 2006 and 2008 with Japanese utilities Chubu, Kyushu, Shikoku and Kansai.> http://nuclearstreet.com/blogs/world_nuclear_news/archive/2009/04/06/mox-fuel-for-ohma.aspx

c<Radioactive contamination from the production of plutonium for the former Soviet Union's nuclear weapons was far higher than anyone believed, warns new study. A scientific investigation by the Russia and Norwegian governments conclude that since 1948 the Mayak nuclear complex in the southern Urals has leaked 8900 petabecquerels (PBq) of the radio active isotopes strontium-90 and caesium 137 into the environment. This is more than five times greater than all the radioactivity from the same isotope released by the world's 500 atmospheric nuclear tests (1550 PBq), the 1986 Chernobyl accident (70 PBq) and the Sellafield nuclear plant (47 PBq) put together. The Mayak complex, next to the city now called Ozyorsk in the Chelyabinsk region was the most important of the Soviet Union's bomb factories. It included seven plutonium production reactors and three plutonium separation plants. Two of the reactors and one of the separation plant are still working alongside 40,000 cubic metres of stored high-level waste. Accidents and deliberate discharge from Mayak have polluted hundreds of lakes, over 200 kilometres of the Techa river and 20 000 square kilometres of country side. More than 16 000 residents have been evacuated from 40 villages since the 1950 and people are still banned from living or farming in a zone 350 square kilometre around the complex. "It is the most radioactively contaminated area in the world," says Per Strand from the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority. The study, published last week in Oslo by a group of Norwegian and Russian radiologists, says that almost half the radioactivity released is still contained in one lake. According to Russian scientist anyone foolish enough to linger around Lake Karachay for a few hours risks acute radiation sickness. Mayak began discharging liquid waste into the lake in 1951 and is still putting in 25 PBq a year.> http://www.sandia.gov/ASC/russia/contamination.html
d<Michael Rogers, an assistant professor of anthropology at Southern Connecticut State University, has discovered the earliest direct evidence of stone tool manufacture and use in a controlled setting, in an excavation in Gona, Ethiopia. Rogers and his research team date the tools they found to 2.6 million years old. An article reporting their findings was published in the September 2003 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.> http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/11/031105065322.htm

e<Ingestion of about 0.5 grams of plutonium would be necessary to deliver an acutely lethal dose.Devil (For comparison, ingestion of less than 0.1 gram of cyanide can cause sudden death.[7]) Inhalation of about 20 milligrams of plutonium dust of optimal size would be necessary to cause death within roughly a month from pulmonary fibrosis or pulmonary edema.Music>

Perspective on the Dangers of Plutonium, W. G. Sutcliffe, R. H. Condit, W. G. Mansfield, D. S. Myers, D. W. Layton, and P. W. Murphy, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, April 14, 1995 http://muller.lbl.gov/pages/PlutoniumToxicity.pdf

f<Nuclear power provides 20% of the US electricity using 104 reactors.  Fifty percent of the fuel needed to power these reactors comes from the Megatons to Megawatts program.

g<To put this into perspective, 10 percent of the US' electricity right now is generated by the uranium fuel from the Megatons to Megawatts program.> http://nuclearstreet.com/blogs/nuclear_energy_institute/archive/2008/03/07/quot-megatons-to-megawatts-quot-milestone.aspx 

Randy BrichAbout Randy Brich
Randy graduated from South Dakota State University in 1978 with a M.S. in Biology.  After developing the State of South Dakota’s environmental radiological monitoring program, he became a Health Physicist with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, eventually transferring to the Department of Energy where he specialized in environmental monitoring, worker protection, waste cleanup and systems biology.  Later in his career he published a multi-sport adventure guide book and became a regular contributor to The Entertainer Newspaper’s Great Outdoor section. 

Since then he has retired from the federal government and, after taking time out to build an energy efficient house near the Missouri River, has formed Diamond B Communications LLC.  Diamond B Communications LLC uses a multimedia approach to explain complex energy resource issues to technical and non-technical audiences.  He also guides for Dakota Bike Tours, the Relaxed Adventure Company, offering tours of the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills and Devils Tower National Monument.

If you have questions, comments, or know of a book that you think Randy should review Email Randy Brich>> randy@nuclearstreet.com

Anonymous comments will be moderated. Join for free and post now! 

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for providing your opposing points to Zoeller's book, Randy Birch. Keep up your work in provding another point of view.