Even the word "uranium" is radioactive. Watch television and sooner or later some ex-GI or innocent white-coated lab assistant will sprout pulsating, putrefying sores and then flop over dead after scarfing a cheeseburger villainously poisoned with purloined nuclear fuel - or some variation on this theme.
Of course Americans are far, far more likely to die from eating cheeseburgers than from ingesting uranium of any kind. My dad kept a small blob of the heavy gray metal on his desk as a paperweight. Its dangerous isotopes depleted, the only way it could have killed anybody would have been if they swallowed and choked on it.
And yet uranium is one of those buzzwords you'll see underlined in bold type in fundraising solicitations of the more avaricious environmental groups. Millions of dollars are raised by the scare industry by linking all nuclear power to nightmare visions of birds falling dead from the skies over Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.
A partial meltdown at the latter power plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 killed no one but produced a scorching explosion of bad publicity. The U.S. nuclear business curled up like a caterpillar at the feet of a ravenous April robin. It didn't die, but quivered on the ground for decades, with not a single new electricity-generating plant licensed since.
This is a matter of more than passing interest to my family, which was left holding thousands of suddenly worthless corporate shares in one of the West's most promising uranium deposits. Instead of Stanford, I went to community college part-time.
Our involvement in the civilian atomic industry goes back to its inception in the 1950s, when Dad met Mom while working as attorney for the small start-up uranium company on whose board of directors she served. We weren't particularly unusual in our small Wyoming town in owning Geiger counters and ultraviolet test lights; ordinary families spent their summer weekends out in the desert poking around for radioactive hotspots on which to stake mining claims.
Shabby trailer villages sprang out of the purple sagebrush, archetypic boomtowns with four men for every woman. Guys blew off testosterone by screaming down dirt roads in prematurely bashed-up pickups, chasing jackrabbits, washing down the dust with Wild Turkey - among a great many other regrettable exploits best left for posthumous memoirs.
Lured by easy money, after high school I went to work for Tulsa, Okla.-based Unit Rig & Equipment. Our gargantuan dump trucks were used in open-pit mines for hauling up to 200 tons of coal or rock in a single load. In the American West, uranium deposits usually are found in the bottoms and bends of long-vanished primordial rivers hidden beneath hundreds of feet of worthless overburden that must be peeled away to reach paydirt. I wasted many a youthful day delivering coffee table-sized brake discs and hydraulic cylinders large as Civil War cannons to mining pits scattered over hundreds of miles of sublime empty land where dinosaurs once roamed a surface far below.
After I left the business to begin college in earnest, rich mines were opened in Canada and Australia, and the end of the Cold War flooded the world market with nuclear fuel once earmarked for weapons. Coupled with Three Mile Island, this doomed what remained of uranium mining in this country. The pits were filled in, the sagebrush tenderly replanted.
Until now. Driven by catastrophic flooding in foreign mines and depletion of Cold War weapon supplies, the West's relatively low-grade deposits have suddenly become more attractive. A March 28 headline in the New York Times gushed "Uranium Ignites 'Gold Rush' in the West." Old mines are reopening. Once again, amateur prospectors are staking claims and trying to interest investors in yellowcake, the name by which semi-refined uranium is known.
It will seem strange to some that my family's roots in the environmental movement are as strong as those in mining, so it is not without misgivings that we see a new uranium boom begin. Some powerful thinkers believe a headlong drive to revive the nuclear power industry may be the only way to avert the worst of the coming climate crisis. But uranium and its byproducts can indeed be very deadly, very persistent poisons. We need to think this through, rationally but quickly.
As for us, we will only obtain melancholy amusement from revitalized uranium mines - our company's claims lapsed long ago.
Matt Winters is editor of the Chinook Observer and lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter.