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

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The fascinating story of the most powerful source of energy the earth can yield

Uranium is a common element in the earth?s crust and the only naturally occurring mineral with the power to end all life on the planet. After World War II, it reshaped the global order?whoever could master uranium could master the world.

Marie Curie gave us hope that uranium would be a miracle panacea, but the Manhattan Project gave us reason to believe that civilization would end with apocalypse. Slave labor camps in Africa and Eastern Europe were built around mine shafts and America would knowingly send more than six hundred uranium miners to their graves in the name of national security.

Fortunes have been made from this yellow dirt; massive energy grids have been run from it. Fear of it panicked the American people into supporting a questionable war with Iraq and its specter threatens to create another conflict in Iran. Now, some are hoping it can help avoid a global warming catastrophe.

In Uranium, Tom Zoellner takes readers around the globe in this intriguing look at the mineral that can sustain life or destroy it.

Customer Reviews:

  • This book is wonderful!
    This is an extremely interesting read! Did you know that the critical last part of the uranium that went into the Hiroshima bomb was intended as a gift to the Japanese military from the Nazis?? The materiel was on its way to Japan in a German U-boat when the captain received word of the Allied victory in Europe and decided to change course to New York, surrendering to the Americans. Two Japanese officers onboard committed suicide before the submarine docked. I can't believe I never heard of this!!
    If you're also fascinated by such uncommonly known facts, Tom Zoellner has delivered a real page-turner for you. His writing is engaging and clear - especially for a book about a topic as complicated as nuclear physics. Whether you are into science or a complete layman, this is one of those rare scientific tomes that is widely appealing and readable - which is saying a lot!...more info
  • Not a science book - all anecdote and author opinion
    For those looking for a book that explores the potential of nuclear energy, this book is a complete waste of time. It is subtitled: "War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World," but energy is given very short shrift and there's no detail. Even the last chapter's nominal focus on the reborn promise of nuclear energy's potential to help cure our society of oil dependency and pollution can't stay on track. The author repeatedly digresses to what really interests him: the geopolitics of uranium, or at least his version of them.

    I still find it hard to believe that anyone could write a 300-page book about uranium and include repeated teases about its use as an energy source, yet not discuss nuclear submarines or nuclear propulsion, Yucca Mountain, or breeder reactors (or the U.S. ban on building breeder reactors, obviously). So what does author Tom Zoellner include to make up for these omissions? What you might call an eclectic mix of alternate subjects, if you were being kind. I was feeling less than kind after wasting several hours reading Zoellner instead toss into the mix: Zoroaster, Bob Hope, Brigham Young, Joan Didion, and of course Dagwood Bumstead. The author jumps all over the place.

    Geographically, as well. He starts a chapter in Yemen, using that county's plans to start a nuclear industry as a springboard for Zoellner to more thoroughly examine the pros and cons of nuclear energy. Or so I assumed, wrongly. No, after some socializing in Yemen we're off to New Mexico for a few pages, then Kentucky, then Vancouver, then Mongolia. Four to five pages on any one scene is about all he can handle; he writes in 1500-word arcs or so and shifts the action abruptly when his attention begins to wane. And I use the words "scene" and "action" deliberately - one reviewer inadvertently referred to the book as a novel, and I understand what put that thought into his/her head. It's not a novel, or a novelized version of real-life events, but its style is definitely closer to that which is common in fiction than what we usually encounter in science books.

    I wasn't exactly expecting a lot of charts and graphs, but I was surprised to see almost no hard figures on nuclear reserves, energy potential, or pollution; or contrasts of the foregoing to the corresponding figures for coal, etc. The whole book seems like a series of introductions to a content that appears nowhere. If like me you knew a little about uranium and nuclear energy and wanted to know more, this book will provide no help. Perhaps a bit of the blame belongs to the publisher. Their misleading cover and inside blurb claims of what this book is about, particularly on the energy and nuclear weapon fronts, should not be believed. Some readers (and some sockpuppet non-readers) have obviously liked this book, but if you like hard non-fiction science, you may not count yourself among them....more info
  • Well travelled, well researched, and fascinating
    Unlike some of the other reviewers, I have actually read this book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

    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....more info
  • Thought-provoking and scary
    What I consistently found most disturbing about Uranium as I was reading it was what it had to say about human nature. The author doesn't take a political stand one way or the other, which I think really serves the book. Instead, he provides historical background about the discovery of uranium and the way that discovery has shaped our world since. I found it to be a very neutral account for the most part. Yet for me, even that neutral tone couldn't hide the horror of the realization of the brutalities and atrocities carried out by the governments of a wide variety of nations, all in the interest of procuring as much uranium as possible. It's truly stunning to realize just how indifferent humans can be to the plights of others when they're blinded by greed.

    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....more info
  • Fascinating history of the powerful rock
    As a nuclear submarine officer I deal with the reality of Uranium almost everyday. While I have been trained in many of the esoteric and highly technical facets of nuclear power, I knew little of the rocks history. This book is one I will be recommending to everyone I work with to learn the real story behind this powerful element. As a previous reviewer mentioned this is not something that will bore you with equations and gory details of nuclear fission, but it will give you some basic idea of how the energy is harnassed from Uranium. It's main emphasis however is on the story behind the how various countries acquired the technology to process uranium and what they have used it for.

    It's most fascinating story is of course the production of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan and the reaction of the various scientists that were involved. After witnessing the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert, JR Oppenheimer famously proclaimed, "I have become death, the destroyer of worlds."

    Overall a very well researched and written story behind the worlds deadliest element. ...more info
  • Great book
    Read the other positive reviews. Same comments. Easy read and captivating even if I never worked at Los Alomos or commanded a nuclear submarine. I did however visit Shinkolobwe using Google Earth. A feat neither Groves nor Sengier can say they have done....more info
    There is a full review of this fine book on CONELRAD.com, but I wanted to include a brief comment here to let people know that "Uranium" is an excellent history of "the rock that changed the world." The writing is very accessible and entertaining--especially the analysis of uranium's post-Hiroshima impact on the popular culture of the fifties (the movie "Dig that Uranium!" is just one example). Enjoy! ...more info
  • The true story of uranium
    Zoellner, a contributing editor of Men's Health magazine, has written a compelling biography of uranium. From the Curie's discovery of radioactivity, to the Bush Administration's claims of Iraq's attempt to buy "yellow cake" uranium for Niger, Uranium follows the all-important history of this mineral. There are the stories of the Manhattan Project that one might expect, and those of uranium mining in the American West one might not. The many personalities involved reflect the drama that begun once the potential of uranium was discovered, both for good and for ill. Some tales double back on themselves, from Pakistan's theft of the technology for their own bomb program, to Pakistani scientist Abdul Khan, who turned around and exported that same stolen technology to other nations.

    One of the major take-aways from Uranium is the drive to control all aspects of the rock. From the slave mines in Africa, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, to the technology to control the energy contained within, for power generation or explosion - the chapters describe the illicit trade, both in raw material and in weapon's grade material, how the battles to control uranium will only continue and grow larger in the years to come....more info


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