[ RadSafe ] Book review: Plutonium: A History of the World's MostDangerous Element

John R Johnson idias at interchange.ubc.ca
Thu May 3 09:39:12 CDT 2007


Thanks for posting this review.

A title with the words "World's Most Dangerous Element" always makes me ask 
the question, on what basis? If we look at the dose per unit activity 
intake, the ICRP/NCRP number have Th-Nat (which is everywhere!) is a little 
more dangerous than Pu-239, which make thorium the "most dangerous element".

John R Johnson, PhD
Vancouver, B. C.
(604) 222-9840
idias at interchange.ubc.ca

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "John Jacobus" <crispy_bird at yahoo.com>
To: "radsafe" <radsafe at radlab.nl>; <know_nukes at yahoogroups.com>
Sent: Thursday, May 03, 2007 6:24 AM
Subject: [ RadSafe ] Book review: Plutonium: A History of the World's Most 
Dangerous Element

> This review appears in Nature.
> Nature 447, 31-33 (3 May 2007)
> The dark heart of the bomb
> John S. Rigden(1)
> -Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous
> Element
> by Jeremy Bernstein
> Joseph Henry Press: 2007. 258 pp. £16.99 $27.95
> Plutonium has either a celebrated or a tragic history,
> depending on your point of view. It was the core of
> the weapon that destroyed much of Nagasaki on 9 August
> 1945, and has only military uses. For those who find
> security standing behind a stockpile of plutonium
> bombs, the element is a reason to celebrate. By
> contrast, for those who regard the bombing of Nagasaki
> as a needless repetition of the Hiroshima catastrophe,
> plutonium is a symbol of the US-Soviet arms race that
> dominated the second half of the twentieth century. It
> now signifies the rank and status of a nation's
> military prowess.
> In his book Plutonium, Jeremy Bernstein acknowledges
> that everything connected with the element is
> complicated, and that includes plutonium itself and
> its history. Its discovery in 1941 by Glenn Seaborg
> and Arthur Wahl is part of a much bigger story in
> which each part becomes a story in itself.
> Plutonium does not occur in earthen deposits, for
> example; it is produced instead by the radioactive
> decay of uranium by way of neptunium, and it is with
> uranium that the book begins. Then there is the story
> of the periodic table and the problems associated with
> fitting the elements into their proper places -
> especially the lanthanides (the elements of atomic
> number 58 to 71 that follow lanthanum in the periodic
> table) and the actinides (elements 90 to 103 following
> actinium).There is the story of radioactivity (and the
> connected story of the discovery of X-rays) and of
> Enrico Fermi bombarding uranium nuclei with slow
> neutrons. Add to these the story of fission, with
> various elements and isotopes complicating the plot.
> Los Alamos and the development of atomic bombs are
> also a central part of the plutonium story. Finally,
> there are the complications arising from the element
> plutonium itself that must be understood and the
> associated problems solved. Melding these many parts
> into a short book represents a daunting challenge,
> which Bernstein confronts head on.
> One of the benefits of this multifaceted approach is
> the opportunity it gives the author to educate readers
> by means of historical information and thumbnail
> sketches of interesting people. In his 1903 Nobel
> address, for example, Henri Becquerel, who discovered
> radioactivity, suggested that the energy associated
> with radioactivity may involve the modification of
> atoms in the radioactive material. Two years later,
> Einstein showed that there was a loss of mass, which
> becomes energy according to his famous equation E =
> mc2. In 1934, Ida Noddack correctly criticized Fermi,
> suggesting that in his neutron-bombardment experiments
> he had actually discovered nuclear fission. Fermi's
> Nobel speech in 1938 was wrong on this point because
> he assumed he had discovered transuranic elements.
> When the Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of
> fission, the Nobel committee made so many erroneous
> assumptions about who did what, and when, that Lise
> Meitner was wrongly denied a share of the prize.
> The tale of Fritz Houtermans is particularly
> interesting and not well known. Houtermans wrote a
> report in 1941 in which he considered the absorption
> of a neutron by uranium-238 and concluded that it
> would lead to plutonium via neptunium. He further
> concluded that plutonium would be fissionable. Perhaps
> generalizing from his own insights, he twice sent
> messages (from his native Germany) to the Allies that
> Germany was "on the track" to making plutonium. It
> would be interesting to know why he did this, but
> Bernstein says only that he wanted to "warn the
> Allies". In any event, Houtermans was wrong: the
> Germans were not close to making plutonium.
> In early 1943, the Los Alamos laboratory - the home of
> the Manhattan Project - began to take shape. By the
> summer of 1944, plutonium started arriving there. The
> element's idiosyncrasies and complexities soon became
> apparent. William Zachariasen discovered that
> plutonium had six different crystal structures, or
> allotropes, which he labelled , , , , ' and . One of
> these allotropes had to be formed into a metal
> suitable for a bomb, which meant being stable and free
> of isotopes that would interfere with a chain
> reaction. The metallurgist Cyril Stanley Smith had the
> good fortune and acute intuition (there were no data)
> to select gallium to form an alloy with the  allotrope
> of plutonium to produce the needed stability. It was
> still unclear whether the  allotrope would revert to
> the  allotrope before explosion. And a way of bringing
> the two subcritical pieces of plutonium together to
> form the critical mass - and initiate the chain
> reaction that would lead to a nuclear explosion - had
> to be developed from scratch, as the gun trigger used
> for the uranium bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was
> not suitable. Plutonium, then, presented challenges at
> every turn. As Bernstein suggests, it may have been
> only the fear of what the Germans were doing that kept
> the physicists working long into the night.
> This book will make demands of readers. There are many
> things to hold in the mind as Bernstein repeatedly
> moves away from the main thrust of the book to develop
> one of these side stories, which enrich the story of
> plutonium but are also sometimes a distraction. But
> Bernstein's writing ability smoothes the way and makes
> this a successful book.
> John S. Rigden is in the Department of Physics,
> Washington University, St Louis, Missouri 63130, USA.
> +++++++++++++++++++
> "We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or 
> omniscient - that we are only 6 percent of the world's population; that we 
> cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind; that we 
> cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity; and therefore there 
> cannot be an American solution to every world problem."
> -- John F. Kennedy
> -- John
> John Jacobus, MS
> Certified Health Physicist
> e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com
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