SALT LAKE CITY -- An author who crisscrossed the planet tracing the history of uranium says Utah plays a central role in the story. Utahns shared in the early benefits and paid a huge price in the end: it's a reversal of fortune documented in a new book called "Uranium."
Recreationists in southeastern Utah generally don't realize many of their roads and trails were laid down by uranium prospectors in the 1950s. "Probably no state in the country has had more of an experience with uranium than Utah," author Tom Zoellner said.
Zoellner has traced the uranium story all around the world. His book "Uranium" gives Utah a key role, for good or ill.
"This was home of the last true mineral rush in the American West, and it was infused with kind of these Utopian ideas, and kind of a strong sense of patriotism, and also a strong profit motive," he said.
He says the world has had an uncomfortable relationship with uranium ever since its power was unleashed in 1945. "In some ironic way, the earth was seeded with the means of its own destruction," Zoellner said.
And there was a dirty little secret: miners started dying from cancer. "Additionally, Utah suffered greatly from the nuclear tests at the Nevada Proving Ground, and as many as 10,000 people across five mountain states, primarily Utah, may have died early deaths of cancer because of it," Zoellner said.
The author documents an awakening interest in the potential benefit of nuclear power, but he worries that too much enriched uranium is unaccounted for and could fall into the hands of terrorists and rogue governments.
"Making an atomic bomb, once you have highly-enriched uranium, is not a terribly difficult mechanical project," Zoellner said. "We're talking about a device the size of a softball, which could take out half of a city."
He says controlling uranium will be one of the greatest challenges of this century.
By the way, Zoellner was a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune in the 1990s. He co-authored the book that inspired the movie "Hotel Rwanda." His latest, "Uranium," is currently in bookstores.