This all began for me at a mesa in Utah called Temple Mountain, so named because its high-pitched walls and jagged spires had reminded early Mormon settlers of a house of worship.
I had driven into the wide canyon at its base, pitched a tent among some junipers, and eaten a can of chili while sitting on a rock and watching the day's last sunlight creeping upward on the salmon-colored walls to the east.
A set of caves, their mouths agape, dotted the face of the cliff. Pyramid-shaped mounds of rock and talus were piled under them, and rotten wooden boards lay half drowned in this debris.
I looked closer and saw that the caves were square, and one appeared to be propped with beams. These weren't caves at all. They were mine entrances.
It now made sense. The valley floor 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 nineteenth century. A braiding of trails was etched into the dirt, and the slabs of an abandoned stone cabin and shattered lengths of metal pipe were down there, too, now almost obscured in the dusk. The place had been devoured quickly and then spat out, with a midden of antique garbage left behind.
What kind of ore had been carted away from here? Curiosity got the better of me, and I wandered over to a spot down the trail where three other people had also set up camp. They were 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 in southern Utah 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 ringed 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 the bomb that leveled Hiroshima. Our city was supposed to have been number seven on the Soviet target list, behind Washington, D.C.; the Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska; 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 my family and I would be vaporized in white light, and there might be less than ten minutes' warning to say good-bye (the brief window of foreknowledge seemed more terrible than the vaporizing). Like most every other American of that day, I subsumed this possibility and went 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 that 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 cren-ulated Colorado Plateau, which spreads across portions of four states in a pinkish-red maze of canyons, sagebrush plains, and crumbling pinnacles that, in places, looks like a Martian vista. This, too, was an intriguing paradox: radioactive treasure in a phantasm landscape. The desert had birthed an awful power.
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 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.
I had to relearn some basic matters of science, long forgotten since college. I knew that the nuclear trick comes 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 does 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 whiz around the nucleus like bees around a hive. Puncture that nucleus, and 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, its 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 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; 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.
There are other dangers. A uranium atom is so overloaded that it has begun to cast off pieces of itself, as a deluded man might tear off his clothes. In a frenzy to achieve a state of rest, it slings off a missile of two protons and two neutrons at a velocity fast enough to whip around the circumference of the earth in roughly two seconds. This is the simplest form of radioactivity, deadly in high doses. These bullets can tear through living tissue and poke holes in healthy cell tissue, making the tissue vulnerable to genetic errors and cancer.
Losing its center piece by piece, uranium changes shape as it loses its protons—it becomes radium and then radon and then polonium—a lycanthropic cascade that involves thirteen heavy metals before the stuff finally comes to permanent rest as lead. More than 4.5 billion years must pass before half of any given sample decays. Seething anger is locked inside uranium, but the ore is stable and can be picked up and carried around safely as long as its dust is not inhaled. "Hell, I'd shovel some of it into my pillow and sleep on it at night" is a common saying among miners.
Only when the ore has been concentrated to more than 20 percent U-235—which is, thankfully, a job of massive industrial proportions—is there the danger of a spontaneous chain reaction. But after that point, it becomes frighteningly simple. Two lumps of enriched uranium slammed together with great force: This is the crude simplicity of the atomic bomb. (A similar effect can be achieved through the compression of plutonium, a by-product of uranium fission that is covered only briefly in this book.)
Though uranium's lethal powers have been known for less than seventy years, man has been tinkering with it at least since the time of
Christ. Traces of it have been found as tinting inside stained-glass mosaics of the Roman Empire. Indians in the American Southwest used the colorful yellow soil as an additive in body paint and religious art. Bohemian peasants found a vein of it in the lower levels of a silver mine at the end of the Dark Ages. They considered it a nuisance and nicknamed it "bad-luck rock," throwing it aside. The waste piles lay there in the forest until the beginning of the twentieth century, when chemists in France and Britain started buying uranium at a deep discount for the first experiments on radioactivity. A West Virginia company briefly used the stuff as a red dye for a line of dishes known as Fiesta Ware. But it was not until the late 1930s when an ominous realization began to dawn among a handful of scientists in European and American universities: that the overburdened nucleus of U-235 was just on the edge of cracking asunder and might be broken with a single neutron.
This was the insight behind America's Manhattan Project, which brought a startling ending to World War II and initiated a new global order in which the hegemony of a nation would be determined, in no small part, by its access to what had been a coloring dye for plates. As it happened, a Japanese company had been among the outfits searching for ceramic glaze at the Temple Mountain site in the years immediately before Pearl Harbor. They left several of their packing crates abandoned in the Utah desert, sun-weathered kanji characters visible on the wood. Had the government in Tokyo understood what really lay there at Temple Mountain, the war might have ended differently.
Uranium did not just reshape the political world. Its first detonation at Hiroshima also tapped deep into the religious part of the human consciousness and gave even those who didn't believe in God a scientific reason to believe that civilization would end with a giant apocalyptic burning, much as the ancient texts had predicted. A nonsupernatural method of self-extinction had finally been discovered.
This unstable element has played many more roles in its brief arc through history, controlling us, to a degree, even as we thought we were in control. It was a searchlight into the inner space of the atom, an inspiration to novelists, a heroic war ender, a prophet of a utopia that never arrived, a polluter, a slow killer, a waster of money, an enabler of failed states, a friend to terrorists, the possible bringer of Armageddon, an excuse for war with Iraq, an incitement for possible war in Iran, and now, too, a possible savior against global warming. Its trajectory has been nothing short of spectacular, luciferous, a Greek drama of the rational age. The mastery and containment of uranium—this Thing we dug up seventy years ago—will almost certainly become one of the defining aspects of twenty-first-century geopolitics. Uranium will always be with us. Once dug up, it can never be reburied.
In this rock we can see the best and the worst of mankind: the capacity for scientific progress and political genius; the capacity for nihilism, exploitation, and terror. We must find a way to make peace with it. Our continuing relationship with uranium, as well as our future as a civilization, will depend on our capacity to resist mirroring that grim and never-ceasing instability that lies within the most powerful tool the earth has to give.
There may be no better place to begin this story than at a different set of ruins. These are in Africa, at the edge of a hole that will not stay closed.
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