A little insight into uranium

Author Tom Zoellner


KAI RYSSDAL: Thirty years ago tomorrow a valve inside a nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Penn., got stuck. And the world learned more than it ever wanted to know about a place called Three Mile Island. It was the worst accident in the history of commercial nuclear power in this country. Nothing here has come close since.

But the idea of a nuclear plant in the backyard still makes a lot of people uneasy. People have been wary of uranium, the main nuclear fuel, for centuries now -- all because of what happens inside its tiny, unstable nucleus.

Tom Zoellner's got a new book on the topic called, what else, "Uranium."

Tom Zoellner: It was regarded in the Middle Ages as mineral garbage. It was found in the silver mines and when they came across it, the silver miners in the Middle Ages, it meant that was the end of the silver. And so it was a portent of ill fortune. And it was only in the 1930s when this collective realization began to dawn among scientists and European and American universities that there was something really important going on inside that nucleus that could be harnessed.

RYSSDAL: And in fact, actually, it was that you could split that nucleus, right?

Zoellner: Correct, and with the lightest of touches, with what amounts to a little pin prick. Just the introduction of a neutron will break apart the binding energy that holds that nucleus together and shatter it with tremendous force.

RYSSDAL: And eventually it becomes the centerpiece of what is arguably the largest industrial operation every known to man, right? The Manhattan Project and the building of the atomic bomb?

Zoellner: That was all about uranium. That was all about enriching the uranium, and what that means is you're stripping away the most fissile part of uranium -- the U-235. You're separating that, kind of like cream from butter. And that's a very difficult thing to do. And this cost, during World War II, $2 billion. We essentially created a series of secret cities across the continent to do this enormous industrial project.

RYSSDAL: How, after the Second World War and after we realized the power and the problems that come with uranium, how did that market develop?

Zoellner: Well, something really extraordinary happened. In the United States we saw it as a strategic imperative to get ahold of it, as much of it as possible. And in particular, as much of it as possible on the American continent, so that we wouldn't be dependent on foreign supplies. And so the Atomic Energy Commission gave these fantastic bonuses for prospectors and minors to go out into the American southwest and dig up as much of it as they could. This amounted to the last, kind of, gold rush in American history. And on the other side of the planet the Soviets were up to the same thing.

RYSSDAL: Do we know how much enriched uranium is out there, has been produced in the last 70 years?

Zoellner: Remarkably, no.

RYSSDAL: Well, if we don't know how much is out there, alright, and we sort of know what demand is, right, because anyone who wants to build a nuclear weapon of any kind probably wants to get their hands on uranium. If we don't know what the supply part of that curve is, and we do know what demand is, how do you figure out what the price is? I mean, what is that market look like today?

Zoellner: This is a really fascinating market, and talk about volatility. We've seen the price go up to 135 bucks a pound. It's tied to perceptions of supply and demand. It's tied to, most importantly, the prognosis for worldwide enthusiasm for nuclear power. And now with the president giving a signal that the United States is not going to rely on nuclear power as a short-term energy solution, this price is most likely going to drop further.

RYSSDAL: Assuming there is no support from the Obama administration for loan guarantees for nuclear power plants and that kind of thing, what do you suppose the future of the uranium market is, at least in the short term?

Zoellner: Dismal. Wall Street has consistently refused to finance the construction of new nuclear power and this has been the reality since the early '80s. The argument from the nuclear industry is this is a great, you know, national endeavor to save ourselves from climate change. There's a lot of critics of that argument, of course, but this is the current line of reasoning.

RYSSDAL: The book by Tom Zoellner is called "Uranium." Tom, thanks a lot.

Zoellner: My pleasure.

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<i>Surely the threat of CO2 cannot be overcome without nuclear power (unless we invent something radically new?)</i>

Investing in nuclear energy to deal with climate change is like smoking cigarettes to lose weight -- it's a dangerous distraction.

Nuclear is the slowest and most expensive solution for addressing climate change. With its high cost, long construction time, high environmental and health risks and problems resulting from waste management, it is clear that nuclear power does not offer a viable solution to climate change.

While electricity generated from nuclear power entails no direct emissions of CO2, the nuclear fuel cycle does release CO2 during mining, fuel enrichment and plant construction. Uranium mining is one of teh most co2 intensive industrial operations, and as demand for uranium grows, CO2 emissions are expected to rise as ore grades decline.

The solution to climate change is a mixture of energy efficiency and renewable energy that offers a quicker, more reliable and sustainable approach to reducing CO2 emissions.

I disagree with the statement that people have been wary of uranium for centuries because of what happens in its tiny unstable nucleus. Tom Zoellner's medieval miners disliked uranium, he said, because it wasn't silver, not because it was radioactive. And somewhere in more recent history, uranium was used to make beautiful yellow and orange glass and glazes.

This is excellent. I wish the story were longer, perhaps even one of those whiteboard things? I seem to recall that Australia and Kazhakstan are some of the largest producers? And if the US is not going nuclear, what about other countries? Surely the threat of CO2 cannot be overcome without nuclear power (unless we invent something radically new?) Fascinating topic imho.

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