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Uranium: Twisting The Dragon’s Tail

Airs Wednesdays, Aug. 7 & 14, 2019 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Dr. Derek Muller at the Chernobyl Reactor, Chernobyl, Ukraine.

Credit: Courtesy of Josephine Wright/Genepool Productions Pty Ltd

Above: Dr. Derek Muller at the Chernobyl Reactor, Chernobyl, Ukraine.

Unlock the mysteries of uranium, one of the Earth’s most controversial elements, with host and physicist Dr. Derek Muller

The year 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the most profound turning point in the history of human enterprise: the detonation of the atomic bomb and the revelation of the destructive force contained within its primary element, uranium.

“Uranium: Twisting The Dragon's Tail” is a two-part program that provides a fascinating journey through the complex history of the most controversial substance on Earth.

Uranium: Twisting The Dragon's Tail Preview

Unlock the mysteries of uranium, one of the Earth’s most controversial elements, with host and physicist Dr. Derek Muller. Born from the collapse of a star, uranium has brought hope, progress and destruction. It has revolutionized society, from medicine to warfare.

The film takes viewers through place and time, touching on the cultural, scientific and natural significance of uranium and its many uses — from weaponry to medicine.

Mutually Assured Destruction

The Titan Missile facility in Arizona, operational from 1963 to 1982, was built to house the largest and most powerful nuclear missile weapons system ever deployed by the U.S. At the height of the Cold War the U.S. and Soviet Union threatened each other with these weapons. Dr. Derek Muller visits the Titan Missile Museum and meets with guide Chuck Penson to simulate launching a missile.

Part science and part history, the story of uranium is brought to life by host Dr. Derek Muller, a physicist and creator of the popular YouTube channel “Veritasium.”

A Radioactive Bath

In the early 20th century, radiation cures and therapies became very popular. Some were harmless. Some were dangerous. The mining town of Jachymov in the Czech Republic reinvents itself as a heath spa using radioactive water from the mines. Dr. Derek Muller immerses himself in a radioactive bath.

The special follows Muller down mine shafts and across arid deserts, and through the vast silence of an abandoned city resulting from the world’s worst nuclear accident.

Into Pripyat Hospital in Chernobyl

The first responders to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident were the firemen of Pripyat. They absorbed dangerous amounts of radiation and were taken to the Pripyat Hospital. Their contaminated clothing was taken to the basement where it remains to this day. Dr. Derek Muller and his traveling companion ‘Bionerd’ take us down into the hospital basement to see the firemen’s clothing.

Muller relates how uranium crackles with the violence of creation and shapes life on Earth.

Uranium Does Something Incredible

The uranium atom has the largest naturally occurring nucleus on earth — 92 protons and usually 146 neutrons, so big that it is groaning under the strain. Uranium spits out pieces of itself and, when it does, it no longer has 92 protons. It’s become a completely different element. Uranium does this all by itself, spontaneously and naturally.

“We are who we are because of uranium,” Dr. Derek Muller says. “It unlocks the secrets of the universe and reveals the nature of reality. It’s both a dream of clean limitless power and a nightmare of a silent, poisoned Earth.”

Born in the Death of a Star

Uranium was forged in the explosion of a star some six billion years ago. It's woven into the fabric of our earth, still crackling with the energy of that exploding star. Dr. Derek Muller travels to the Czech Republic to begin his journey to discover the incredible story of Uranium. He explains that everywhere on Earth is naturally radioactive; you are radioactive.

Watch On Your Schedule:

Part 1 and Part 2 are available to view on demand with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members ($60 yearly) using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.

Join The Conversation:

“Uranium: Twisting The Dragon's Tail” is on Facebook, and you can follow @veritasium on Twitter.


A Genepool Production for PBS, is written and directed by Wain Fimeri and produced by Emmy® Award-winning filmmaker Sonya Pemberton. It is produced with support from SBS Australia, Film Victoria and Screen Australia.


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