Uranium – Excerpt

From the introduction

This all began for me near a mesa in Utah called Temple Mountain, so named because its rectangular shape and jagged spires reminded early Mormon settlers of a house of worship. I had driven into a canyon at the base of the mountain, pitched a tent and eaten a can of chili while sitting on a rock and watching the day’s last sunlight creeping over the red walls to the south.

A set of caves dotted the face of the cliff, their mouths agape. Pyramid-shaped mounds of debris and talus were piled under them, and a rickety wooden ladder was bolted to the sandstone. I realized these weren’t caves at all. They were mine workings.

This made sense. The floor of the valley had that ragged and hard-used look common to many other pieces of wilderness in the American West that had been rich in gold or silver in the 19th century. A braiding of dirt trails was etched into the canyon floor, and the slabs of a stone building and shattered lengths of metal pipe were down there, too, now almost obscured in the dusk. The place had been consumed quickly and then spat out, with a midden of antique garbage left behind.

What kind of ore had been carted away from here? I had never heard of any precious metals being mined in the deserts of Southern Utah. Curiosity got the better of me and I wandered over to a spot down the dirt road where three other people had also set up camp. They were three recent college graduates from Salt Lake City on a spring camping trip. After offering me a beer from their cooler, they told me the holes on the cliff were of much more recent origin than I had thought. Uranium mines had been drilled here after World War II, and the mineral had gone into nuclear weapons. This was common knowledge around Southern Utah.

Uranium. The name seemed magical, and vaguely unsettling. I remembered the boxy Periodic Table of the Elements, where uranium was signified by the letter U. It was fairly high up the scale, meaning there were a lot of small particles called protons clustered in its nucleus. So it was heavy. It was also used to generate nuclear power. I remembered that much from high school science. But it had never quite registered with me that a mineral lying in the crust of the earth – just a special kind of dirt, really — was the home of one of the most violent forces under human control. A paradox there: from dust to dust. The earth came seeded with the means of its own destruction, a geologic original sin.

There was something personal here, too. I had grown up in the 1980s in Tucson, Arizona, a city surrounded with Titan II missiles. One of those warheads was lodged in a concrete silo and surrounded by a square of barbed wire in the desert about twenty miles north of my high school. It was nearly five hundred times as powerful as that of the bomb which leveled Hiroshima. Our city was supposed to have been number eight on the Soviet target list, behind Washington, D.C., the Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, and several other missile fields in the Great Plains. I lived through my adolescence with the understanding that an irreconcilable crisis with Moscow would mean I and my family would be vaporized in white light, and there might be less than ten minutes warning to say goodbye (the brief window of foreknowledge seemed more terrible than the vaporizing). Like most every other American of that day, I subsumed this possibility and carried about my business. There could be no other choice; to dwell on the idea for very long was like looking at the sun.

And now, here I was in a spot which had given up the mineral that had haunted the world for more than half a century. The mouths in the canyon walls at Temple Mountain looked as prosaic as they would have at any other mining operation. They also happened to be in the midst of some of the most gorgeous American landscape I know: the dry and crenellated Colorado Plateau, which spreads across portions of four states in a red maze of canyons, sagebrush plains and bizarre rock formations that, in places, looks like a Martian vista. This, too, was an intriguing paradox: radioactive treasure in a phantasm landscape. After my trip, I plunged into the library and wrote an article for a history magazine about the uranium rush of the 1950s, when the government paid out bonuses to ordinary prospectors to comb the deserts for the basic fuel of the nuclear arms race.

But my fascination with uranium did not end, even years after that night I slept under the cliff ruins. In the present decade, as the U.S. 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.

My curiosity would eventually take me to twelve different nations. But first I had to relearn some basic matters of science, long forgotten since college. I knew that nuclear energy came from the “splitting” of an atom and the consequent release of energy. But why not copper or oxygen or coffee grounds or orange peels or anything else? Why did this feat require a rare version of uranium, known as U-235, that must be distilled, or “enriched,” from raw uranium?

I started reading again about the infinitesimally small particles called neutrons and protons packed at the center, or nucleus, of atoms, and the negatively charged particles called electrons that whizzed around the nucleus like bees around a hive. If you could find a way to puncture that nucleus, the electrical energy that bound it together would flash outward in a killing wave.

U-235 is uniquely vulnerable to this kind of injury, and I understood this in concept but could not really visualize it until I came across a line written by the physicist Otto Frisch. He described this particular nucleus as a “wobbling, unstable drop ready to divide itself at the slightest provocation.” That image finally brought it home: the basic principle of the atomic bomb.

A uranium atom is simply built too large. It is the heaviest element that occurs in nature, with ninety-two protons jammed into its nucleus. This approaches a boundary of physical tolerance. The heart of uranium, the nucleus, is an aching knot held together with electrical coils that are as fragile as sewing thread – more fragile than in any other atom that occurs in nature. Just the pinprick touch of an invading neutron can rip the whole package apart with hideous force. The subatomic innards of U-235 spray outward like the shards of a grenade, and these fragments burst the skins of neighboring uranium nuclei and the effect blossoms exponentially, shattering a trillion trillion atoms within the space of one orgiastic second. A single atom of uranium is strong enough to twitch a grain of sand. A sphere of it the size of a grapefruit can eliminate a city.

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