The Book of the Week is “Uranium, War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World” by Tom Zoellner, published in 2009.
Now, as is well known, one element crucial for making an atomic bomb via the least difficult method, is uranium. It is radioactive– carcinogenic to humans. Without human intervention, an entire sample of it takes billions of years (yes, really, depending on the isotope) to break down into one substance after another, including thirteen heavy metals; ultimately lead.
In the early 1940’s, “The United States military moved quickly to squelch all news of radioactivity. There were worries in the Pentagon that the bomb would be compared to German mustard gas in WWI or other types of wartime atrocities.” Radiation sickness and cancer killed an estimated thirty thousand people in addition to the seventy thousand who perished instantly by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima in August 1945.
In the late 1940’s, radium– an element that helps make a nuclear weapon– was found to be harmful to humans. The (federal) Atomic Energy Commission gave regulatory responsibilities of health and safety to state agencies in Colorado, Arizona and Utah, making the excuse that private mining businesses were outside its jurisdiction. Of course, the states were understaffed and underfunded in regulating radium.
Nevertheless, the radium rush became a government-directed priority because it was a matter of national security. By the 1960’s, the greed was petering out, and Navajo country (in northern Arizona, and small regions of Utah and New Mexico) was a cancer cluster comprised of an eyesore of about thirteen hundred abandoned mines laid waste with radon gas. That was one aspect of the nuclear age. Another was that building fallout-shelters became trendy. The Kennedy family built one at their estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
In the mid-1950’s the “Atoms For Peace” program begun by president Dwight Eisenhower supplied nuclear reactors to Bangladesh, Algeria, Colombia, Jamaica, Ghana, Peru, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, and Belgian Congo for the purpose of deterring the said countries’ enemies from using nuclear weapons against them.
In 1988, the United States supplied Iran with a five megawatt research reactor; China supplied uranium ore, and South Africa, a block of uranium and some plutonium. The Pakistani A.Q. Khan was hired as a scientific consultant.
Since 1993, the Atomic Energy Commission was supposed to have recorded incidents in which different forms of uranium (raw ore, yellowcake, hexafluoride, metal oxide, ceramic pellets, and fuel rod assemblies) have gone missing. Incident reportage works on the honor system. Unsurprisingly, the system hasn’t worked because the substance has a very complex, global black-market. Even so, the biggest hurdle to building a nuclear weapon is obtaining uranium in its highly enriched form. Then one must employ people with weapons-design and explosives expertise. Hiding the project (which in part, can be accomplished via a lead sleeve on the finished product– that would fool a radiation detector) might pose additional difficulties. It would cost a total of a few million (U.S.) dollars besides.
In the single-digit 2000’s, the author personally visited the country of Niger to see a uranium town for himself; a life-threatening trip. For, bandits or terrorists (likely of the Tuareg tribe who believe uranium mining has fostered inequality that adversely affects them economically, tribally and health-wise) appeared in front of his bus en route (a not uncommon occurrence). The bus driver was wise to the situation and drove away from the scene to a rural village with electricity, thanks to a nearby French power plant. The two main exports of Niger are uranium and onions. But the nation is still largely agricultural.
Read the book to learn much more about uranium in connection with: its sourcing in Australia, U.S. strategic interests in Soviet Georgia, Yemen’s goals, a Sierra Club legal fight, Vancouver’s ill-gotten gains, etc.