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Book Review


Bernstein, Jeremy.  Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007. Pp. xii + 194, 17.95 (paperback).


     Renowned physicist Jeremy Bernstein calls plutonium “the most complex element there is” (xi).  It has impacted global history, diplomacy and the environment in a way not easy to understate, but all books currently in print about the history of plutonium are tailored to a scientific audience, making the history of this important but complex element inaccessible to a general readership. Thus Bernstein sets out to write “about the history and science of plutonium, and its role in nuclear weapons, in an accessible form” (xii). The end product is a double-edged sword, for while Bernstein demonstrates the complexity and complicated history of plutonium very well, the book is not always as “accessible” as Bernstein may think it is. To be sure, almost any reader can read the book and come away knowing more about the discovery, utilization and environmental problems of plutonium than he or she did before. At the same time, however, any reader with little or no background in chemistry or physics will quickly be overwhelmed with the scientific details; there is a reason nuclear physicists aren’t a dime-a-dozen, and sometimes what to Bernstein is “accessible” is still way over the heads of most readers.  Bernstein even gives the reader permission to skip an entire chapter due to its technical complexity while assuring them that the overall narrative won’t be harmed by the omission. For a book that is supposed to be “accessible,” such an allowance is a red flag and begs the question, “If the chapter can be skipped without detriment to the narrative or overall argument, why was that chapter included in the first place? And if it still necessary, why not make it an appendix?”

     Bernstein divides the book into eleven chapters, showing how difficult and uncooperative plutonium has been at every stage of its scientific life, from discovery and collection to utilization and clean up. The great irony at the end of the book is that plutonium, the element that took so long just to collect in amounts visible to the naked eye, now poses the problem of overabundance and presents a threat–both in the form of nuclear weapons and as an environmental hazard. The story cannot even begin with plutonium, but must instead start with the history of uranium. The first six chapters, which occupy about a third of the book, tell the history of uranium, radioactive decay, and nuclear fission. They are very brief in terms of page length, but more than make up for it in density of material and may frighten off more casual readers. In an effort to fill the periodic table, scientists sought to discover the “transuranics,” elements that have an atomic number greater than uranium and are highly radioactive–plutonium included.

     Next, the serendipitous discovery of x-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen led to the discovery of radioactivity and the beginning of efforts to understand the nature of elemental decay. This, in turn, led to the discovery of nuclear fission, which, coupled with Albert Einstein’s work on the relationship between mass and energy, opened Pandora’s Box and allowed scientists to play with some very powerful processes, or as one scientist put it mildly in 1935, “the enormous liberation of useable energy” (25). The invention of the cyclotron finally enabled scientists to find the elusive transuranic elements, and it was also in the cyclotron that the first atoms of plutonium were created. Subsequent research on fission led to the discovery of chain reactions, which presented the possibility of building of atomic weapons. Here again, plutonium proved to be problematic, for while it was more unstable than uranium and thus less of it was required to build a bomb, plutonium was incredibly difficult to collect. It was produced as a cyclotron by-product, but after allowing two cyclotrons to run continuously for eighteen months they had only produced a single piece of plutonium the size of a grain of salt. Additionally, the plutonium created was of insufficient purity to build an atomic bomb. Nevertheless, war had broken out in 1939 and rumors that the Germans were developing nuclear weapons prompted Einstein to write a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, urging him to authorize an American bomb project, which he did in 1942.

     Scientists at the laboratory at Los Alamos soon found an efficient way to collect greater quantities of plutonium, and in a purer form, but the solving of those two problems created news ones: those who discovered the collection and purification process could not explain why it worked. Additionally, plutonium defied physical manipulation. The element had allotropes, which, like carbon, come in forms as soft as graphite and as hard as diamond. In one allotrope, plutonium acted like a metal, while in another allotrope it acted like chalk. In fact, in one of its allotropes plutonium actually contracted when heated, contrary to one of the most basics laws of physics. The final problem was one of application; the “gun assembly” apparatus for a uranium bomb wouldn’t work with plutonium. Plutonium was so unstable that the gun-assembly could not act fast enough to cause a chain reaction. To top it all off, the Los Alamos laboratory also introduced scientists to the health risks of working with such a radioactive element. One group at the lab began referring to themselves as members of the UPPU club (as in “you pee pooh.”). All but the latter of these problems were, of course, overcome and “Fat Man,” the world’s first plutonium bomb, struck Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.  Rather than a gun assembly, Fat Man used implosion to start the chain reaction. As a frightening side note, Bernstein points out that despite the devastation, only 20 percent of the plutonium in Fat Man actually underwent fission. 

     The final chapter is appropriately titled “Now What?” and examines the legacies of plutonium, both good and bad. For the good, Bernstein readily acknowledges that atomic weaponry helped bring the Second World War to a faster end and thus saved many more lives than it took. On the other side, the element that was once measured in micrograms now exists in tons, and is continuing to be produced at the rate of seventy tons a year (169). It can’t be unmade, nor can it be stored forever. Bernstein isn’t critical of the nations that developed the massive stockpiles of plutonium; in the context of the Cold War the proliferation of plutonium weapons was an exigency of the arms race. It was lamentable, but understandable. He does, however, point out that the supposed difference between “weapons-grade” and “reactor-grade” plutonium is not actually as significant as most people think. In fact, the United States successfully tested a bomb made with “reactor-grade” plutonium in 1977.

     Another problem is the environmental and human cost. Plutonium leaking from storage sites has percolated into groundwater. Furthermore, the reactors used to produce plutonium were water-cooled and allowed plutonium-contaminated water to enter the rivers from which the water was drawn. Bernstein asks, “how dangerous was all this to the people who swam in the river, drank its water or ate its fish?” answering his own question with, “The fact is no one knows for sure” (163). Once again plutonium has proven to be uncooperative. We know it is dangerous, but we don’t know just how much, even fifty years later. Once contamination is discovered, plutonium is expensive to clean, though not as expensive as originally suspected. One site was estimated to take seventy years and 37 billion dollars to clean, but actually took ten years and cost seven billion dollars – so should we be alarmed at the high cost or relieved that it isn’t worse?

     The biggest question, according to Bernstein, is, “What do we do with this stuff?”  It has outlived its usefulness, is incredibly dangerous, and expensive to clean up, yet we keep creating more. The issue, according to Bernstein is not a lack of ability to deal with the problem, but a lack of desire; a problem “of politics and economics, not technology” (170). Those with the power and resources to stop the production of plutonium and begin the cleanup process choose not to. Bernstein doesn’t condemn the governments for creating the problem, but he does find fault with those refusing to fix it. 

     While the book effectively communicates Bernstein’s thesis that plutonium has a complex, and often ironic career, the narrative suffers from two problems that affect his second goal; to make the book accessible. One is the technical detail that sometimes overwhelms the reader. The other makes its first appearance at he beginning of Chapter III. Bernstein begins the chapter with a comment that frequently returns to plague the narrative: “I want to interrupt….” Bernstein frequently goes off on biographic, scientific or personal experience tangents that break up the continuity of the book. One figure, Friedrich Houtermans, gets an eight-page biography filled with all kinds of fascinating stories and anecdotes, none of which are directly relevant to the narrative. Bernstein even says at the end of the bio, “As entertaining as it is to write about Houtermans, he would not get into our story except for a report he wrote in 1941” (93). Sometimes the author’s interruptions are warranted, but often they are frustrating. Some of these tangents could have served better as appendices or footnotes or could have been broken up and inserted into the narrative piecemeal rather than in a giant block. Bernstein always lets the reader know when he’s departing from the narrative, and makes sure to clearly bring the reader back afterward, but these repeated detours are as frustrating in reading as they are in driving.

     At the bottom line, Bernstein has achieved one-and-a-half of his goals. He has shown the global and complex history of plutonium, but while the book may be more accessible than previous books on the history of plutonium, it isn’t something just anyone could read. At the high school level, this book would do well in a chemistry or physics class where the teacher can explain some of the more technical aspects, but it wouldn’t do as well in a history class, at least not in its entirety. The same goes for use at the undergraduate level (at least for lower-division courses) – useful in science, too detailed for history.

Chris Thomas is a doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University where he is completing his dissertation on Freemasonry in the Third Reich. He can be reached at


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