Plutonium. A history of the world's most dangerous element

Plutonium. A history of the world’s most dangerous element

Jeremy Bernstein 

Washington, DC; National Academies Press (Joseph Henry Press) | 2007 | 194 pp | ?16.99 (HB) | ISBN 9780309102964 

Reviewed by Michael Prater

This excellent book starts with the scientific quest to fill a gap in the periodic table of elements, but then describes how this search took a more sinister turn with the discovery of nuclear fission. Plutonium, especially the plutonium-239 isotope, was then seen as a potential nuclear weapon and became the focus of research by many of the world’s top physicists and chemists. 

Physicist and New Yorker writer Jeremy Bernstein traces the progress (or is it regress?) of this most dangerous element from its discovery in tiny quantities at Berkeley, US, in 1941, through the World War II and Cold War arms races to the present day, with deadly stockpiles of the element now posing serious storage and disposal problems for governments across the world. 

The ghostly numerals 49 on the cover of the book represent the wartime ’secret’ code for plutonium (whose name or atomic number could not be used). It derives from the last digits of the atomic number (94) and the atomic weight (239).  

Bernstein has the rare three-fold skill of understanding the science about which he writes, knowing first- or second-hand the people involved in the unfolding events, and being able to write well for a wide audience. 

The science of nuclear fission is well explained in this book, but nevertheless some of the detail will be difficult to follow for readers who lack a strong scientific background. Even the uninitiated, however, should be able to enjoy reading about the people involved in the story (some well-known like Curie, Bohr, Rutherford, Fermi, Seaborg and Oppenheimer, and some less well known like Friedrich Houtermans and William Zachariasen). 

These personal portraits and related anecdotes are the real strength of this book, together with the politics and espionage which underpinned everything that was going on. 

It would have been better to have expanded the last ’Now what?’ chapter, as perhaps the most important issue with respect to plutonium today is ’Where do we go from here?’ There is about 2000 metric tonnes of weapons grade and spent reactor plutonium around the world - what do we do with it?