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Yellowcake Towns: Uranium Mining Communities in the American West
Michael A. Amundson
Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2002
208 pp., $24.95, hardcover

The rise and fall of the U.S. uranium industry was created by the whipsaw shifts in federal government incentives to induce mining and milling of the raw material for nuclear weapons. Those cold war-era programs resulted in dramatic boom and bust cycles of economic activity in the West that are the centerpiece for Yellowcake Towns. This new book that tells a bittersweet story about some of the communities where people engaged in this "uranium frenzy" lived and died. It tells the story of the skyrocketing growth of the nation's "uranium capitals," and how it was fueled by federal government's uranium purchase policies. Michael Amundson's Yellowcake Towns weaves together information gathered from regional newspaper morgues and academic archives, popular culture relics, and research on government policy and its evolution.

While Yellowcake Towns covers the same historical and geographical territory as Warm Sands, and even includes some of the same photographs and reference materials, the two book address very different views of that same historic record. Instead, Yellowcake Towns presents a very intriguing chronological overview of the founding, growth and die-back of uranium boomtoons from an economic and rural development standpoint, without presenting information on the environmental health consequences of uranium production to the people in and around the towns. Admunson is strangely silent about this aspect of the uranium boom's legacy. The reader will not find the tales of resident's suffering the downside risks of the uranium boom among the stories of the hardworking prospectors who made the big finds, or the penny stock salesman who roamed the kept "office hours" in the cafes. This orientation away from the health and social consequences of boomtown life certainly reflects the perspectives of sources Admunson chose to rely on. The local newspaper editors, real estate brokers, and mayors in uranium boomtowns would be a poor choice if someone was looking for people who acknowledged, or cared about, the potential health effects of the toxic materials associated with uranium ore, or of the social stress of boomtown life. One gets a very colorful, local booster's view of the life and death of the boomtowns from this book, rather than what Howard Zinn might call a "people's history."

Along with stories drawn from the experience of the movers and shakers, Yellowcake Towns also sheds light on the popular culture which developed around the uranium boom. By identifying the pop records, movies and board games, and the uranium kitsch - "uranium cafes" and Miss Uranium contest -- Amoundsen shows how the uranium boom seeped in to the public mind through entertainment marketing, leaving a material record which looks a lot like government-approved propaganda in the post-Cold War era.

Yellowcake Towns emphasis on the boom town movers and shakers also results in a book where little effort is made to inverview the people whose land was exploited for the uranium, the people who lived in the deserts of the west before the boom - the Native Americans, and Land Grant heirs of the Hispanic West.

Sadly, Admundson shows neither a familarity with, nor interest in, the tribal and Hispanic communities, or the Anglo ranching communities whose lands and crossroads were absorbed by the uranium boom. This is a sad omission to see in a scholarly tome, as these communities lived through the same boom, and many are still there long after it has gone. The history of inequity in pay and housing, social stresses in booming reservation border towns, the record of payday binges in the police blotter part of the newspapers, are fundamental to understanding life in the boomtowns.

While Amundson mentions the "guilt-trip" laid on Laguna Pueblo by Anglo political leaders before Laguna's leaders signed leases to allow uranium mining on their Reservation, he fails to acknowledge the boom and bust cycles in Native American communities, or Native Americans who moved to the boom towns. The introduction of cash economies to Laguna and other tribal communities and rural land grants whose lands were used for uranium development in New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, had significant impacts on the social and cultural make of those classic western communities. These impacts have changed those indigenous communities forever, and continue to threaten the survival of those cultural communities. Because of this gap, Amundson does the west and its diverse communities a disservice by failing to provide his readers with a true vision of uranium mining boom and bust that includes the traditional communities in the West. Each of the four uranium towns he discusses have significant Native American communities nearby, and Grants, New Mexico is surrounded by Hispanic land grant communities that are several hundred years old. Yet, the readers find a miniscule amount of information on those populations and the impacts uranium mining booms and busts have on them and their societies.

While still worth reading for what is does say, Yellowcake Towns suffers badly from its failure to present the impact of uranium on the native people of the southwest.

--Paul Robinson

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