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Are We Going Nuclear?

How one mineral could determine our energy future and our national security
Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World Tom Zoellner Viking, 337 pp., $26.95
Book Cover: Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World

A series of mishaps in the 1980s-the nuclear energy industry has come roaring back into the spotlight, eager to save a world frantically seeking a carbon-free alternative to dirty fossil fuels. In the past six months, 17 American utilities have applied to build 21 nuclear power reactors, which would be the first new atomic power facilities in the United States in more than 20 years. Some famous former foes of the industry, including Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore and the Gaia theorist James Lovelock, have unabashedly embraced nuclear power. Even California, which years ago banned the construction of new nuclear facilities, at least until the radioactive waste problem is solved, is talking about moving from No Nukes to Maybe Nukes, regardless of the waste situation. Ready or not, the nuclear renaissance is under way.

Meanwhile, the more explosive side (pun intended) of the nuclear issue continues to hold sway over American foreign policy. The Bush administration may be gone, but the Obama White House still has to contend with thorny problems like North Korea (which may or may not have the bomb), Iran (which wants one), and Al Qaeda (which would love to get its hands on one).

What we could really use right now is a clear-eyed look at all things nuclear: a sharp, science-based analysis of both the energy and the national security aspects of the nuclear question, something that might help us finally figure out what's worth worrying about and where we ought to focus our attention. Enter Tom Zoellner, who in his latest book, Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World, comes close to offering up just such an analysis. His is a fascinating history of the strange metal that started some wars, stopped others, and fuels the most controversial form of energy production the world has ever known. It is also a frustratingly incomplete account of the current revival of nuclear energy, leaving readers with a bucketful of questions asked but unanswered.

Zoellner, the author of a previous book on the global diamond trade, The Heartless Stone, was inspired in part by the nuclear fear that pitched the United States headlong into a military debacle. "In the present decade," he writes, "as the United States has gone to war in Iraq on the premise of keeping uranium out of the wrong hands-and as tensions mount in Iran over that nation's plan to enrich the fatal ore-I realized that I still knew almost nothing about this one entry in the periodic table that had so drastically reordered the global hierarchy after World War II and continued to amplify some of the darker pulls of humanity: greed, vanity, xenophobia, arrogance, and a certain suicidal glee."

What he found was a powerful mineral with decidedly humble beginnings. German miners in the 1500s called uranium Pechblende ("bad-luck rock"), a trash mineral that got in the way of their silver excavations. A Berlin pharmacist, Martin Klaproth, isolated the element in 1789 and named it uranium to honor Uranus, which had recently been discovered by a British astronomer. (The name was intended as a placeholder "until a more suitable moniker could be found," Zoellner writes. "But none ever was.")
image of Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott was a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow in nonfiction and is the author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw and The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier. He writes frequently about the outdoors and the environment for such... READ MORE >

Thanks for an excellent review of what looks to be a good resource on uranium. Too bad Mr. Zoellner didn't get into current politics and economics of nuclear power's so-called rebirth. Please, though ... can we dispense with identifying Patrick Moore as a cofounder of Greenpeace. He was not! He was an early volunteer in Greenpeace's anti-nuclear weapons campaigns and eventually rose to head the Canadian chapter. But he was not a cofounder. Regardless, his current thoughts on nuclear power are of little relevance outside of the fact that he is being well paid to share them. Thanks.