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Know the West

The darkest element


Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World
Tom Zoellner
317 pages,
softcover: $26.95.
Viking, 2009.


Writer Tom Zoellner has a great sense of timing. His latest work, Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World, hits the shelves as media attention zeros in on Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs, the explosion of uranium development near the Grand Canyon, and President Obama's pledge to "look at every possible option," including nuclear power, to  satisfy our growing energy needs.

In Uranium, Zoellner mixes a joyful zeal for his subject matter reminiscent of Bill Bryson's  A Short History of Nearly Everything with tenacious investigative journalism comparable to Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. Uranium occasionally loses momentum, taking a few obligatory slogs through well-known events like America's atomic development during World War II, but solid storytelling prevails.

The book presents disturbing firsthand accounts of places like the Shikolobwe Mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where, despite four decades of official closure, local men still work barehanded to feed a thriving black market. He visits Russia to uncover smuggling rings dealing weapons-grade uranium and observes the effects of industrial mining on Aborigines in Australia's Northern Territory. In London, he drops by the World Nuclear Association, a private-sector group promoting safe nuclear power, whose lobby sports a bust of Homer Simpson.

Closer to home, Zoellner reports on the Grand Canyon's Arizona Strip, where the Bush administration has been approving new mining claims despite a House resolution on June 25 that placed over a million acres off-limits. Zoellner brings to life the uranium mania of the 1950s with the story of Moab's own boom-and-bust miner, Charlie Steen, and contrasts it with the sobering story of Navajo miner Willie Johnson. Johnson now lives with silicosis, a lung disease, and many of his coworkers died of cancer.

The environmental concerns surrounding uranium are covered only in passing. Uranium presents an engulfing history, not a cautionary tale. Despite his penchant for tangent and trivia, Zoellner extracts a captivating narrative from interwoven story lines, skillfully characterizing this mysterious member of the periodic table, which continues "to amplify some of the darker pulls of humanity: greed, vanity, xenophobia, arrogance, and a certain suicidal glee."