CONELRAD READ ALERT: Selected Books and Miscellaneous Tracts

URANIUM: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World

The rock that graces the cover of Tom Zoellner’s wonderful new book, URANIUM: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World, may not be as instantly recognizable as the mushroom cloud, the Fallout Shelter Sign, the Hotline and other symbols of the Cold War, but as Mr. Zoellner reminds us, it was the key ingredient of that era. Uranium, as the author illustrates in insightful and highly readable fashion, is also the element (in its coveted enriched form) that drives much of America’s current foreign policy—most infamously as the critical excuse for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

While Mr. Zoellner’s book is a thorough and up-to-date biography of this precious rock, CONELRAD readers will be most interested in its Cold War heyday. And on this score, the book does not disappoint. Indeed, there are plenty of details about the fabled fifties atomic gold rush and all of its accompanying, short-lived pop cultural fallout. To that end, Mr. Zoellner describes how the uranium boom found its way onto a board game (The Game of Life) and into a Popeye cartoon (“Uranium in the Cranium”) and a Bowery Boys movie (DIG THAT URANIUM! – full disclosure alert, CONELRAD provided the author with this hard-to-find “gem”). Mr. Zoellner also describes the controversy over the higher-than-average death rate visited upon the cursed cast of the John Wayne bomb THE CONQUERER (in which the Duke improbably portrayed Genghis Khan!). The movie was filmed in St. George, Utah where radioactive dust settled after a 1953 Nevada atomic test experienced an “unexpected” wind shift.

And then there is the story of the most colorful of the so-called uranium boom millionaires, Charlie Steen. Steen, an unrepentant atheist, lived it up in high style on his claim earnings in Utah and even entered politics before succumbing to a downward spiral. Before his fall, Steen had the honor of being portrayed by Jackie Cooper in a live 1955 television drama, “I Found Sixty Million Dollars.”

Of course, the hijinks of the Bowery Boys and eccentric prospectors seem quaint when compared to the fanatical pursuit of enriched uranium by “rogue” nations and terrorist organizations in today’s world. Mr. Zoellner’s prodigiously researched book (20 of its 337 pages are devoted to citations and notes) captures this uncertain 21st century reality and fills a heretofore conspicuous gap in the overall history of atomic energy. Yes, there have been many books published on the subject of the evolution of nuclear weapons, but URANIUM: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World is the most comprehensive and accessible work devoted to the core element of the Bomb. And we suspect that in addition to being a valuable contemporary resource (and good read), it will also be the gold standard for future historians.

URANIUM: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World
By Tom Zoellner
Copyright 2009
New York
337 pages

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CATEGORY: Non-Fiction


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