Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Uranium by Tom Zoellner

In one theory, uranium plays a role like the black monolith in the science fiction film 2001: Space Odyssey, which lay buried on the moon like a time capsule until man was knowledgeable enough to travel to the Tycho Crater and detect the enormous radio waves coming from the object. When the monolith was exposed to the light of the sun for the first time, a new era of evolution and a new chapter of mankind could begin.

In the other theory uranium is seen as a serpant out of John Milton or the rough beast out of Yeats, a sentinel of distopia, the apple of knowledge force-fed to the unready, who are exiled into a world that they never asked for a do not want. A protestor in Australia told me that he once joked with his friends while looking at the night sky: "Each one of those blazing stars up there was once a planet where the monkeys started fooling around with uranium."

In the last few years, however, the first theory has undergone something of a "renaissance", relying on the image of atomic power as a green technology- a clean alternative to the coal-burning plants that have long been the world's electrical mainstay. Coal is a particularly dirty and dangerous fuel in China, where an estimated five thousand miners die in accidents every year. That nation is now pouring up to about 26 million tons of sulfer dioxide and 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atsmosphere each year, creating pollution so thick that in the worst areas people must drive with their lights on during the daytime. Yet China must feed an overdrive economy, expanding 10 percent each year. An aggressive nuclear strategy has been the obvious answer. Unlike harnessing the wind or the sun, uranium power is here right now and ready to go. And a single ton of raw uranium provides the same electricity as twenty-thousand tons of black coal. And Uranium is itself is more common than tin, nearly five hundred times more abundant than gold. At least a hundred billion tons of reserves are now known to exist. Plans exist to increase the number of reactors, about 450 world-wide, to at least three, possibly ten thousand in the next decade or so, according to the public relations director of the World Nuclear Association.

The green argument has swayed some historical opponents of nuclear power, among them Nancy Pelosi, who told a congressonal committee, "I have a different view of nuclear than I did twenty years ago, I think it has to be on the table." The New York Times, once skeptical, said "There is good reason to give nuclear power a fresh look." A co-founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, used to deliver rants against what he called "nuclear holocaust", but he has now come out in support and is a paid consultant to the industry. James Lovelock, who is most famous for his "Gaia" hypothesis, which says that the Earth is a living organism that breathes, has joined the lobbying group Environmentalits for Nuclear Energy. "Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies, and the media", he wrote in the London "Independent"

On the other hand, some tremendous problems exist. In the first place, the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which was created with the logic of school-yard bullies, all with rocks in their fists and none wanting to be struck or, in the words of another analyst, like a man with a cigarette dangling from his lips telling everyone else to stop smoking.

Another example of the difficulties: Niger is the fourth-largest producer of uranium in the world yet sees almost none of the wealth thus generated. Because of a long- standing contract, the French consortium which owns the rights to its extraction pays only 5.5% of its revenues in taxes, and most of this goes to subsidize elites in the dusty capital of Niamey. Almost three-quarters of the people cannot read, and those that survive to the age of forty-five are living on statistically borrowed time. The United Nations recently named it the most deprived country on earth.

Furthermore the American energy policy crafted in secret during Bush's first term was generous to nuclear power, allocating up to $13 billion in subsidies and tax credits. One can presume that this was to compensate investors for the profits they would have to forgo investing in America's future rather than in short-term Pyramid and Ponzi schemes like mortgage derivatives and credit default swaps.

The total cost of America's nuclear weapons program, developed under the insane rubric of Mutually Assured Destruction, was around $10 trillion, more than the entire economic output of the U.S. during the whole of the 19th century and safe disposal of the waste and contaminations that resulted has not been completed. 1000's died prematurely as the result of dangerous mining practices in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the early days of the arms race. Although most of the technical problems with the nuclear generation of electrical energy have been solved, a legacy of dishonesty and mistrust remains.

It is not just a little bit ironic that uranium itself is the most unstable element on the periodic table and originated in some of the earliest life-processes on the planet.


  1. "Uranium; War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World" by Tom Zoellner; Viking Press, 2009

  2. A companion to this work is "Power To Save The World; The Truth About Nuclear Energy" by Gwyneth Cravens; Knoft, N.Y. 2007. A former reporter for the NYTimes who conducted an exhaustive investigative report on nuclear power starting from an "anti" position. This is the kind of stuff she dug up:

    "To replace the electricity generated by the nuclear plant at Indian Point N.Y. (25 miles from Times Square) with wind turbines would require 300,000 acres of land. Solar farms big enough to supply 1,000 megawatts per year would cover fifty square miles. Bio-alcohol would take 6,200 hundred square miles of corn fields, bio-oil 9,000 square miles of rapeseed, bio-mass in the form of wood 12,000 square miles. Wind turbines would require 94 (some say 200) square miles."

    These are ball-park figures, the technology is evolving but you get the picture.

    She also goes over some of the security concerns about nuclear power plants, concluding that the dangers are not great. Much less, for instance, than a chemical plant.The airforce crashed jets into containment structures and waste storage facilities and was not able to produce significant threats, just nasty clean-up jobs. "Invading terrorist" scenarios were played out but never achieved much.Fuel rods could be removed and transported to another plant to be reprocessed into material suitable for a bomb, by a crew of 2,000 men, and covering guards numbering in the tens of thousands.

    "Nobody says zero greenhouse gas emissions. They say exactly what Brice Smith said in his 2006 National Press Club Speech:

    "compared to fossil fuels, nuclear power emits far lower levels of greenhouse gases even when mining, enrichment, and fuel fabrication are taken into consideration"

    Trouble is, none of this connects with those who adhere to theory two.

    "... anti-nuclear sentiment in this country is a religious affectation, it has nothing to do with science and, in many cases, is overtly anti-science."

    I have deliberately refrained from blogging Craven's book for precisely that reason. A pro stance, precipitously introduced, could have a very negative effect on people's responses to many other matters besides nuclear power.

    That said, however, I am not dreaming that Nuclear Power is really going to "Save the world", to the degree expressed in theory one. Binaries on such questions simply don't fly, as Patrick Moore pointed out in his recent appearrance on BBC One Planet.