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Book>> Uranium, War, Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World by Tom Zoellner, Viking Indian Price Rs 850

By Pratul Raturi
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

bookFor most of us uranium is an abstraction, more like a gigabyte than, say, silver. We know of the Bronze Age civilizations, the role of coal in the Industrial Revolution, but there is hardly anything on the history of the rock that shaped the nuclear age.

Historian Tom Zoellner tries to fill the gap with his book Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World . That the nuclear arms race started at the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in the American southwest is well known but Zoellner finds a way to make this old story interesting. He visits the Congolese mine that yielded much of the uranium used in the project. Congo was given a small reactor for helping the Manhattan Project, which went critical in 1959, one year before a civil war broke out.Two fuel rods, at least, have been stolen so far.

The historian then pokes around mines in Asia, Africa and Australia, calls at the offices of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and is almost kidnapped on the way to a mine in Niger. Zoellner is a better travel writer than an analyst of science and politics. Crucial players in nuclear power, such as the UK and France, are ignored. The arms race between the Soviets and the US is given a miss, though it shaped the modern world's understanding of nuclear capabilities.

Read Uranium for Zoellner's skill as an information gatherer. At one place, he writes the Soviet nuclear arsenal was fed by prison labourers, who worked without the most basic safety precautions. At the Joachimstahl mine in Czechoslovakia, Zoellner writes, guards were so wary of escape attempts that bed sheets were issued only during the summer "to prevent inmates from using them as cloaks to blend in with the snow." But do not expect much of the arguments against use of nuclear technology. The Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters get short shrift.

The reviewer is a science writer

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