According to legend, the great Iranian city of Isfahan was, until recently, the site of a public bath built by a medieval sage known as Sheikh Baha’i. The bath was designed in a way that its water supply remained constantly hot with a single magical candle.
Had the sheikh managed to build a candle with enriched uranium, thus obtaining virtually endless energy from a small quantity of fuel? Perhaps, not. However, man’s quest for cheap and endless energy dates back to the beginnings of humanity.
The raw material that could help man realise that dream is uranium that, until not so long ago, was regarded as a worthless substance of no obvious use. Today, however, uranium is often referred to as “the king of metals”, the magical substance that, in a world fast running out of fossil fuels, could provide mankind with virtually endless quantities of energy.
In this short and fast-paced book Amir Aczel, an American mathematics teacher tells the story of uranium with both sympathy and authority. In the process, he demystifies a substance that has become the subject of intense power struggles and international rivalries.
It was the French physicist Henri Becquerel who discovered radioactivity, and wondered whether it was possible to harness the energy released by the process.
Until the end of the 19th century, science assumed that radioactivity, that is to say the transmutation of one chemical element into another, was impossible. Such ideas, official science insisted, belonged to the medieval times and its obsession with alchemy.
However, in 1909, a British chemist named Frederick Soddy offered a series of lectures on the topic at Glasgow University in which he evoked the possibility of a transmutation that could multiply energy by a factor of one to a million. Soddy imagined a world in which the use of uranium would recreate “the Garden of Eden” on earth.
Soddy’s lectures, published in book form, attracted the attention of H.G. Wells, the most popular of British science fiction writers of the last century. Six years later, Wells published his novel “The World Set Fee” in which he imagined the production and use of atomic weapons in a European nuclear war.
Wells’ imagination failed to inspire British scientists. But it did attract the attention of German scientists who, inspired by Hitler, began looking for a magic weapon of mass destruction in 1938. News of the German quest, forced the French to also begin looking for the ultimate weapon of the next war. By the time the Second World War had started in 1939, however, the German scientists, led by Werner Heisenberg, the great theoretician of “uncertainty” were way ahead of others. The result was an arms race in which Britain and the United States tried not to fall too far behind Nazi Germany.
Aczel regards Heisenburg as one of the “baddies”, despite the fact that the brilliant physicist failed to come up with a practical formula for making a nuclear weapon.
That task had to await a report in 1940 by two German scientists, captured by the British, who showed that a nuclear bomb could be made with a few pounds of enriched uranium. Because Churchill feared that research centres on British soil could be bombed by Germans, he agreed that the nuclear project be transferred to the United States. It took the Americans five more years, and an investment of over $2 billion (almost $30 billion at today’s prices) to build the bombs that were subsequently dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
According to Aczel, who cites a number of recently released Soviet, American and Japanese documents, Washington’s decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan was really meant as a warning to Moscow.
The weakest part of this fascinating book is the one dealing with the present situation and projections for the future. Aczel is less than convincing when he assesses the nuclear ambitions of such controversial regimes as North Korea and the Islamic Republic in Iran. He admits that Pyongyang and Tehran are embarked on uranium enrichment projects far beyond the needs of any normal energy programme they might develop. However, he is less than convincing in analysing their deeper motives in pursuing what is a high-risk political and diplomatic posture.
Today, nuclear energy provides a tiny proportion of the energy used in the world. However, all projections show that nuclear energy could become the biggest source of power generation within the next few decades. That would dramatically raise the price of uranium, a relatively rare substance found in less than a dozen countries. In fact, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Gabon own more than 60 per cent of all known supplies of uranium ore.
When it comes to uranium enrichment, only eight countries have the scientific and industrial capabilities needed. It is not hard to imagine them creating a global cartel to control the world supply of enriched uranium at a rime that mankind has come to depend on nuclear energy. North Korea and Iran are trying to force the door and impose themselves as members of that restricted club.
Thus, uranium, like other precious substances- from gold to oil- is likely to emerge as the big prize in many future wars.