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Warm Sands
Eric W. Mogren
Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2002
251 pp., $34.95, hardcover


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The failure of nuclear proponents in government and industry to acknowledge and contain the risks the materials they produced is a blind spot that has endangered, and haunted society for since before the first atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico in 1945. By shunting aside requirements to demonstrate safety before industrialization, the U.S. - led by its Atomic Energy Commission policies - has allowed the long-term radiological and chemical hazards of nuclear waste to become a liability costing more than $300 billion to manage. From proposals to ship high level wastes to Russia from around the world, to the U.S.'s support for a repository in earthquake-prone lands of unique cultural value in Nevada, are just the latest in a wave of billion dollar proposals to manage the growing atomic waste legacy. Contributing to the toolkit for nuclear waste activists and decision-makers is an important new book focussing on that legacy. Eric Mogren's new book, Warm Sands, compiles a detailed, but pretty readable, history of uranium mill tailings policy in the U.S. The author tells the story behind the of the first billion dollar nuclear waste clean up effort in the U.S., offering lessons to be learned at we continue to face nuclear waste problems into the 21st century.

Prominent among those lessons is the difficulty the Federal government faces balancing its public health and safety responsibilities with the interests of what President Eisenhower called the "military-industrial complex." The consequences of these lessons are both painful and expensive. They include uranium worker compensation laws to cover uranium mill workers for their 30 years of exposure in the workplace, and a tailings clean-up program that has cost upwards of 50% of the value of the uranium produced at the sites.

Morgen starts his very extensively referenced book by tracing the roots of the uranium industry, from Marie Curie's isolation of radium (a uranium decay product) and its earliest uses as coloring agents in 1898, through the era of radium dial painters in the early 20th century. And later the consolidation of the U.S. government's monopoly on uranium ownership in the era of the Manhattan project.

Following an exploration of the uranium boom of the early Cold-War period, the author systematically documents the long history of environmental and health damage associated with three components of uranium mill tailings contamination - water pollutants, airborne emissions and radon gas exposure from tailings used in homes and schools. Mogren then chronicles how the growing recognition of the significance of these risks culminates in the passage and implementation of the law that precipitated the $1.5 billion uranium clean up in the U.S.

The trail he follows is strewn with names long since replaced in our daily lexicon, like "Atomic Energy Commission" and the "Joint Committee on Atomic Energy" which were so fundamental to the U.S. nuclear posture in the days when the baby boom was hatching, the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Warm Sands presents a historical analyses of the making of the U.S. uranium industry, its stubborn and callous approach to the need for environmental protection, and the growth of its enormous legacy for people and land in the Western U.S. It well worth reading and a timely contribution to the literature documenting the U.S. government's policy of generating nuclear waste without effective health and safety protection in the second half of the 20th century.

--Paul Robinson

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