In science, the word 'nuclear' refers to anything to do with the atomic nucleus, whether you're using it to generate power or create weapons of mass destruction. Here, physicist and science educator Richard Wolfson recommends five books relating to things nuclear, from a book of graphic nonfiction about the Curie family to how fusion can save the planet.
You’ve chosen books on a variety of nuclear themes, some of them key to the safety of all of us. Before we get to those, I wanted to ask about nuclear power specifically. Is it on its way out?
That’s a very interesting question and the answer is ambiguous. I think it is on the way out, at least for the foreseeable future, in most of the developed countries of the West, including your country and my country. I think it is enjoying somewhat of a resurgence, particularly in Asia, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe. But my honest opinion—and I have a whole chapter in my book that’s about this—is that I don’t think it is a viable means of solving our climate problem, not because it’s too dangerous, or environmentally unfriendly, but because it’s economically unfriendly right now, compared to many other ways of generating electricity, particularly solar and wind, but also natural gas.
The other problem is that the timeframe for building a nuclear power plant is so long—even in countries that have a lot less regulation than the UK or the US, it can still be a decade or more—that we simply can’t build out the number of power plants we need to solve the climate problem and replace fossil fuels.
The other issue is that there are between 400 and 500 nuclear power plants in the world, and they have an average age of about 40 years. So, a great many of them are going to be shut down in the next decade and the construction needed just to replace those is quite a big challenge.
So, my honest answer is I don’t think nuclear power is the wave of the future, but I think some places are going to see more of it, and some places are going to see less of it. And I’m not saying that from the point of view of somebody who is anti-nuclear power. It’s just a realistic look at where it’s going to fit into the energy mix in the future.
When you say Asia: Japan had a big scare and went off nuclear power after Fukushima and I thought Korea was stopping as well. Is it mainly China that’s still quite keen on nuclear?
Korea does have some very new nuclear facilities, but they have some changes in their political situation that have made it less favorable for nuclear power. Japan, although it basically shut down all its power plants after the Fukushima event, is coming gradually back online, because they really can’t afford to be without their nuclear generation. In fact, the one place that really shut down the most after Fukushima was Germany, which is pledging to shut down all its nuclear power.
“It took a while to understand the dangers of radiation. And now I would say we probably over-understand them, in a way”
Here in the United States, interestingly, we’re seeing perfectly functional nuclear power plants with safe records shutting down because they can’t compete economically with natural gas. After years of environmentalists wanting them shut down, that didn’t happen, but they shut down when they couldn’t compete with natural gas produced by fracking. The picture for nuclear power is complicated.
That’s fascinating. You’re saying at the end of the day, it’s the economics that no longer makes sense, rather than, ‘Yikes, we’re going to have another Chernobyl’.
That aspect is there too. Certainly, after both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and again, Fukushima—those were big blows to the nuclear power industry. But the real blow is economic.
That’s correct. There are some issues that may appear to be two-sided, like climate change. But there are not two sides about climate change, there’s a very clear scientific consensus. My book is not just about nuclear power, it’s also got a big section about nuclear weapons. But nuclear power is really a situation where the global community, the scientific community, the political community can take quite different points of view. And all of those points of views have arguments to support them. I would contrast that with climate change where there is no valid argument that climate change isn’t a real human-caused thing.
Though, I suppose, again, you could argue about what’s the best way to deal with climate change and nuclear might be part of that.
It might be, but I think it’s not going to make it for the reasons I described. Not that I would be against that happening.
Here in the UK, Boris Johnson has just announced he’s going increase the number of nuclear warheads from just under 200 to 260. My husband was looking at the graphs in your book and saying probably Boris is doing it because Britain has fewer nuclear weapons than France. What’s your take on that? Why does any country need more than, say, a dozen nuclear weapons?
I don’t think any country needs nuclear weapons, although getting to zero would be difficult in the current world geopolitical climate. I think any move to increase nuclear weapons like Britain’s recent one is unfortunate. You’re absolutely right: even a study in the US a few years ago suggested that around 300 weapons would be sufficient for the US deterrent.
And how many does the US have?
It depends on how you count them. But we have something on the order of 1,500 strategic long-range weapons ready to go. That’s down from 10,000 in the 1980s. So, we’re much better off than we were. But I think any move to increase nuclear weapons or to build more advanced ones is very unfortunate and destabilizing to the world. So I’m not happy with what your prime minister has proposed.
In terms of the books you’re recommending, how shall we describe them, they’re about nuclear…
I’ve been struggling with how to describe them. They are simply a set of five books that I have come across that express the breadth of the ways in which different authors approach things nuclear, whether they be nuclear power, nuclear weapons, the history of nuclear physics, future possibilities (in the case of the book about fusion) or the whole history of energy. They’re a very eclectic set of books. I did not set out and say, ‘Let me find the absolute best books that will be the most informative to the public.’ No offense to the authors of these books. They’re all great books. But I chose them for their eclectic-ness. One of them is a book that my daughter, who’s a librarian, gave me as a birthday present, for example. They vary all over the place.
And your background is physics, is that right?
My background is in physics. I’m an astrophysicist by research trade, but I’m really much more interested in communicating physics and science in general to non-scientists. I have another book, for example, called Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified, which is in the same vein as Nuclear Choices, trying to take a complex physics idea and present it to the public.
Let’s look at the books you’ve chosen on various aspects of nuclear. Which one do you want to start with?
Let’s begin with Critical Assembly: Poems of the Manhattan Project by John Canaday, who is a poet. He also happens to be a Middlebury College graduate, but I don’t think I knew him when he was here. His book is fascinating. On the cover are photographs of a number of people who were involved in the Manhattan Project. Canaday’s book is divided into three parts. One part is poems about the pre-war situation, the lead-up to World War Two and the early nuclear physics experiments. Then the main part of the book is poems about the activities at Los Alamos, largely. The last part is about the lead-up to and consequences of Trinity, the first test of a nuclear weapon.
What’s fascinating about these poems is every poem is named for a person, and the poem is written in that person’s voice. For example, J. Robert Oppenheimer appears three times. Einstein twice. Kitty Oppenheimer four times, Edward Teller five times. There are many others as well who appear two or three times in the book as the names of poems, and then they’re speaking.
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And it isn’t just the physicists. For example, there’s a wonderful poem that is in the voice of a stenographer who was called to the hotel room of a physicist to take a letter in dictation. She was sure she was being brought to this hotel room for unsavory reasons. She starts to take the dictation and she becomes increasingly convinced that the person is unhinged, because he’s talking about weapons of unimaginable power. And the person dictating the letter turns out to be Leo Szilard, a very famous nuclear physicist who first conceived of the idea of a nuclear fission chain reaction and later founded the Council for a Livable World, which is a disarmament advocacy organization in the United States. Szilard dictated the famous letter that was sent to Roosevelt over Einstein’s signature (Einstein didn’t really write it). So, this poem is about the dictation of the letter that got the Manhattan Project started.
But the reaction of the stenographer to first being invited to the hotel room of this eccentric physicist and then writing down these very bizarre claims is quite remarkable. Throughout the book there are many, many poems and fascinating looks at the people and the events around the Manhattan Project.
And it’s quite accurate, is it?
It’s poetry, but it is quite accurate. Reading the poems, I didn’t see any mistakes or anything. There is a long list of notes at the back, biographical notes about the people involved. By the way, this is not one of the books I’ve included but Canaday also wrote a book called The Nuclear Muse, which is a book about literature, physics and the first atomic bombs. It’s not poetry, it’s nonfiction. He’s quite an interesting writer. He’s a literary person, not a physicist, but he’s learned a lot about the physics.
Do you think people can understand Canaday’s poems if they don’t already know quite a bit about the history of the Manhattan Project and the people involved?
I think they could. There’s enough background in the book that they can learn some of that history. If they know some of the names and know some of the history, it might make for a greater appreciation of the book. But I think it’s just a fascinating, fascinating look at the Manhattan Project from a poet’s point of view.
For someone who doesn’t know anything about it, is there a straight nonfiction book about the Manhattan Project that you recommend?
Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, is one of the most famous, but it’s quite dated. It was updated again in 2012, with some new material that had been released. I don’t have a particular book to recommend, but there have been a number of newer histories of the Manhattan Project compiled from the classified documents that were released in the early 2000s.
Let’s go on to the next nuclear book you’ve recommended, which is called Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss.
This is the book my daughter gave me as a birthday present a few years ago. She’s trying to get me more into graphic novels and this is just a gorgeously illustrated book. It begins with a line, “With apologies to Marie Curie, who said, ‘There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of my private life.’” This book is predicated on the idea that that’s absolutely false.
It’s a wonderful look both biographically and artistically and scientifically at Marie and Pierre Curie, although Pierre dies about halfway through the book because he was run over by a horse carriage and killed. It talks at length about Marie Curie’s affair, after Pierre’s death, with Pierre’s student Paul Langevin and the impact that had. You can imagine in the early 20th century it wasn’t easy.
The book really does blend the scientific and the personal very, very beautifully. I’m not entirely in agreement with a few things it says. It comes out quite anti-nuclear power and makes a few other comments that I don’t entirely agree with. But it is just a wonderful book and the technique that was used to make the illustrations is fascinating. It’s just beautiful.
And it’s a graphic novel or just beautifully illustrated?
It’s graphic nonfiction. It’s not exactly comic book style, but my daughter says it’s graphic nonfiction. It’s also about the Curies’ daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, who also went on to be a Nobel laureate. She and her husband won the Nobel Prize for the creation of artificial radioactive elements in the 1930s.
Both Marie and her daughter died of radiation-induced diseases, eventually, because people didn’t know about the dangers of radiation as much as we do now.
When did they figure it out?
They gradually figured it out over the early part of the 20th century. But by the time these people died, they had accumulated enough radiation to be problematic. There’s a famous story about the young women who painted the radium on the dials of luminous watches in the 1920s. They would lick the brushes to get them nice and fine. And many of them died of radiation-induced leukemia. It took a while to understand the dangers of radiation. And now I would say we probably over-understand them, in a way.
Is there anything else the lay person should know about Marie and Pierre Curie?
Well, they’re associated with France, because they did their work in Paris. But Marie was from Poland. And that’s why polonium, the agent that is now used by the Russians as a radioactive poison, is named after Poland. Marie and Pierre were so intertwined in their laboratory work, that it’s a little bit difficult to separate their contributions.
She’s one of only two people who won the Nobel Prize twice, once for physics and once for chemistry. She does seem to have been recognized for her amazing scientific achievement.
Yes, though I would say there are other scientists and particularly other women, who ought to be on a level with Marie Curie who are not nearly known as widely as they should be. One is Lise Meitner, whose biography I might have included in this set of books but didn’t. She’s arguably the discoverer of nuclear fission and wrote the first paper to use that term. She was shafted by her former collaborator who remained in Germany after she fled and he won the Nobel Prize for their work. I could go on, but that’s a different topic.
Let’s move on to the next of your books, which is about nuclear terrorism and published by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism is the most sober and serious of the books I’m going to talk about. It’s about something that everybody in the world ought to be aware of and worried about. It’s not super-technical in a scientific sense, but there are a lot of policy wonk issues in it. The book was written by some people who would have been colleagues of mine, because the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, which is in Monterey, California, is now a part of Middlebury College—but it wasn’t at the time. The book is a bit dated because it was written in 2004. I think it was inspired by the 2001 9/11 attacks and the worry that terrorist groups might be after nuclear weapons or going to crash airplanes into nuclear power plants and so on.
“Any move to increase nuclear weapons …is very unfortunate and destabilizing to the world”
There’s something very historical and sad about this book, in that there is a foreword by Senator Sam Nunn, a Democrat of Georgia, and Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican of Indiana. They started the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program to help reduce the danger of nuclear threats—not only nuclear war, but also nuclear terrorism. This was a Republican and a Democrat working together. It’s so sad to me to see that we don’t have that kind of cooperation anymore. But it was there in 2004, only 17 years ago.
The US did a great job, after the Soviet Union fell, of trying to reduce the chance of loose nukes coming out of the former Soviet Union. It was really impressive foreign policy.
One of the most fascinating things to me, as an energy geek, was the Megatons to Megawatts Program, which existed for 20 years, from 1993 to 2013. The goal was to turn 500 tons of highly enriched uranium from Russia into fuel for American nuclear power plants. There was a time during those 20 years, at the peak of the program, when 10 per cent of the average American’s electricity was coming from recycled Soviet nuclear weapons. What a wonderful swords-into-plowshares thing! The program ended in 2013 because it succeeded—it used up the 500 tons of uranium.
So, The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism. What are they?
One is terrorists seizing nuclear weapons through theft, through diversion with insider help, or through political instability in a country that has nuclear weapons. In a way that’s the quickest way for a terrorist group to get nuclear weapons.
The second face is terrorists making nuclear weapons from materials they get hold of. As the book points out over and over again, the only serious impediment is getting hold of fissile materials, the highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Most people think of plutonium, but the real danger is the enriched uranium, of which there is a huge amount available in the world. We heard in April about the attack on Iranian centrifuges. Now Iran is going to enrich to 60%. There’s absolutely no reason for that, other than to make weapons. In our book, we have a little box that explains why once you get to about 20% enrichment, it’s trivial to get to almost pure, weapons-grade uranium. That’s the big issue.
The third face of nuclear terrorism is releasing radiation through attacks on power plants and other facilities. I think that’s less of a worry, but it’s still a concern.
The fourth face is making so-called dirty bombs, which would disperse radioactive materials, not through nuclear explosions, but using conventional explosives to disperse them.
We’ve tended not to worry about these four faces of nuclear terrorism so much in the last decade. But it’s good that there are people out there worrying about them because they still present serious threats. As someone who teaches about climate change and worries about it a lot, I occasionally find myself reminding my colleagues in the environmental movement that there are worse things that could happen to the world and a nuclear war is one of them. And it’s still entirely possible, given the arsenals out there. This is something we ought to be worried about. Although this book is more for policy people, it’s certainly readable by anyone, and you ought to be aware of it as a citizen.
Is it just about terrorism? It’s not about countries like North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons?
The book mentions North Korea only as a state that might, in extreme circumstances, consider selling nuclear materials or nuclear weapons to others, but no, it’s not about state nuclear weapons.
Let’s turn to the fourth of your books, which is about nuclear fusion. It’s called An Indispensable Truth: How Fusion Power Can Save the Planet by Francis Chen. Is that true, can fusion power save the planet?
Maybe. I chose this book because it’s written by a physicist, very elderly now, who has spent all his life working in controlled fusion. The title is a take on Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
The first part of the book is Chen claiming that fusion is indispensable for our future, and why. He has a very readable section on climate change, a section on fossil fueled energy and a section on renewables—in which I disagree with him strongly, because he denigrates solar energy—and then goes on to say that we need fusion.
The second half of the book is about fusion. It gets very thick into quite significant nuclear physics and is very hard to read for the average person. It would be a good skim to get a sense of it, but the book is bipolar in that way: it’s got a first part that’s readable by anybody and then the second part goes into deep details of why nuclear fusion is complicated to make happen.
“There are really only two long-term viable sources of energy for humankind. One is solar…The other is nuclear fusion”
Now, you wanted my opinion. My view of the world 100 years from now, in terms of energy—if we muddle through everything else we’ve got to muddle through—is that there are really only two long-term viable sources of energy for humankind. One is solar. This is not some tree-hugging environmentalist’s dream: there is 10,000 times as much solar energy coming to the planet as we use. It’s a colossal amount and it’s going to go on for 5 billion years, for as long as the Sun continues to shine. That’s one possibility. The other is nuclear fusion. Even though we haven’t figured out how to make power plants with nuclear fusion, we are inching very, very, very slowly toward that. Many of my fellow scientists think it’s a pie in the sky. I don’t happen to agree. I don’t know that it’s going to work but I’m mildly enthusiastic.
If we get fusion to work, a gallon of seawater has the energy equivalent of 350 gallons of gasoline. That’s worth pursuing, it seems to me. I agree with Chen there. Fusion is an almost inexhaustible source of energy. In fact, the energy in seawater would last probably about four or five times as long as the Sun is going to shine. If we’re worried about what happens to Earth after the Sun goes out—and assuming we can move our orbit away from it so we won’t be engulfed by it when it expands—we have, in the oceans, four or five times as much time. But that’s a long way off.
Can you explain quickly what fusion is?
The nuclear power we get today from our nuclear reactors is provided by splitting the nuclei of uranium atoms, and plutonium, to some extent. That’s one way of releasing energy from the atomic nucleus, because if you go to a nucleus that’s smaller than uranium, about half the size of uranium, you release energy in that process. But you also release energy if you go from very light nuclei, like helium and hydrogen, to heavier nuclei like lithium and carbon. This is how the Sun works. The Sun makes its energy by fusing these lighter nuclei.
We know how to make that happen on Earth, in our so-called ‘hydrogen bombs’, which are fusion weapons or partly fusion weapons. But we don’t know how to control it in a power plant. That’s what we’re working toward. The reason there’s so much fuel available for fusion is it uses hydrogen, which is part of water. It uses a special kind of hydrogen (called deuterium), which is only one in 6500 atoms of hydrogen, but that’s still a lot of atoms in the oceans.
So that’s what fusion is: joining of lighter nuclei to make heavier ones. It’s what powers all the stars. It’s what made the elements that you and I and planet Earth are made of. They were all forged in these fusion reactions occurring in ancient stars. So fusion is a big, big player in the universe. The fission that we use for our nuclear power plants is not a very big player. It doesn’t happen naturally, except in some very rare occasions.
You mentioned that Francis Chen is quite elderly. How many people are working on fusion now? Is it an exciting area for physicists?
It’s become more exciting in recent years, with two developments. One is the international collaboration that is building the ITER experimental reactor in France. A number of countries are involved in that, including the UK, the US, Russia, China and a lot of others. It’s a huge international collaboration building this reactor, which was originally supposed to be working in 2025. It’s now been put off till 2035, before it starts to generate fusion energy. It’s an enormously expensive project.
Partly because of the enormity of that project, other ideas have taken hold among small startups that are also trying to develop cheaper, faster fusion energy. Who knows whether any of them will succeed? Some of them look mildly promising, but they have so many challenges to overcome. We don’t know yet.
We are making some progress. It’s a more exciting time for fusion than it was 10, 15, or 20 years ago. On the other hand, in the 1950s the argument was, ‘We’ll have fusion in 20 years.’ It’s sort of always been ‘we’ll have fusion in 20 years’ and we’re not getting any closer. I don’t know of any physicists who are rushing out to join the fusion effort, but I do know people who work in fusion and it’s an exciting area.
We’ve reached your last book, which is about energy in general and not about nuclear specifically. It’s called Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes, who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on the Manhattan Project.
Yes. He, like me and my book, was sponsored by the Sloan Foundation to which we’re very thankful. Rhodes is a social scientist, not a physical scientist. This is probably the most recent of the books, it’s from 2018. I was fascinated by this book because I’m an energy geek. I’m working on the fourth edition of another book of mine, Energy, Environment, and Climate. I’m really into energy because energy is one of the things that distinguishes us humans from other animals. We use a lot of energy that is coming from outside our own bodies.
So Rhodes wrote this history of energy. The book has three sections. The first is called “Power,” and it talks about wood and steam engines and early railroads. What was most fascinating to me was the early chapters, about the development of the very earliest steam engines. I learned all kinds of things I didn’t know, for example, that the early steam engine inventors assumed the only way to make motion with steam was to make some steam, then cool it down and create a vacuum, and have atmospheric pressure push on something to make it move. It took a long time for them to realize, and to get the technology to build up higher pressures of steam. There are stories about how the railroads developed. They were all in England initially. They were wooden railed things that were intended to get products, in particular coal, from the coalfields to London.
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Then it’s got a section called “Light,” which talks about the use of gas for illumination, like the lamplighters in Mary Poppins singing the lamp lighter song. He writes about the development of other so-called “burning fluids.” Whale oil was used and became very valuable. It almost put a number of whale species to extinction. Then he talks about early petroleum and electricity.
His third section is called “New Fires.” There’s a lot about the automobile and the different paths it could have taken. There were steam-powered automobiles, there were all-electrics like there are today again. None of them made it in relation to the fossil-fueled automobile. He talks about oil and pipelines. Nuclear energy makes a brief appearance. Then he goes on about wood, wind and solar. And then he ends up, again, looking at nuclear energy. Rhodes happens to be, I think, a supporter of nuclear energy and would like to see it be more prominent and help solve the climate problem. This book does not cover a lot of nuclear energy and I don’t think it covers it particularly well, but it does cover some. It is just a fascinating study of the history of energy, particularly in Europe and North America.
Also, to understand nuclear, you have to understand energy in general, don’t you?
You do. You have to look at nuclear in contrast with other forms of energy.
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