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

Sam Iverstine sam_iverstine at yahoo.com
Thu May 3 10:17:10 CDT 2007

Too bad the author didn't have some expert help before publishing. 
  The Germans were in fact much closer to producing plutonium in 1941 than were we according to a book I just read "The German Atomic Bomb." In fact, it was partially because they pursued the plutonium path to the bomb that caused them to lag behind in the end. And mostly due to reduced industrial capacity and a miscalculation of graphite's absoption cross section. 
  Sam Iverstine, M.S., CHP

John R Johnson <idias at interchange.ubc.ca> wrote:

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" 
To: "radsafe" ; 
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
> __________________________________________________
> Do You Yahoo!?
> Tired of spam? Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around
> http://mail.yahoo.com
> _______________________________________________
> You are currently subscribed to the RadSafe mailing list
> Before posting a message to RadSafe be sure to have read and understood 
> the RadSafe rules. These can be found at: 
> http://radlab.nl/radsafe/radsaferules.html
> For information on how to subscribe or unsubscribe and other settings 
> visit: http://radlab.nl/radsafe/ 

You are currently subscribed to the RadSafe mailing list

Before posting a message to RadSafe be sure to have read and understood the RadSafe rules. These can be found at: http://radlab.nl/radsafe/radsaferules.html

For information on how to subscribe or unsubscribe and other settings visit: http://radlab.nl/radsafe/

Ahhh...imagining that irresistible "new car" smell?
 Check outnew cars at Yahoo! Autos.

More information about the RadSafe mailing list