Name: Named after the planet Uranus.
Atomic mass: 238.03
History: Discovered in 1789 by German chemist Martin J. Klaproth. The metal was first isolated in 1841 by French chemist Eugène M. Peligot.
Occurrence: Occurs naturally in several minerals such as pitchblende, uraninite, and carnotite.
Appearance: Silvery metal.
Behavior: Radioactive, carcinogenic, and highly toxic. Exposure may cause irreversible kidney damage.
Uses: The rare U-235 isotope is used to power nuclear generators. A uranium sample must be turned into UF6 to separate the fissionable isotope from the more abundant U-238. In a breeder reactor, U-238 can capture a neutron and undergo negative -decay to become Pu-239, which is used to work turbines and generate electrical power. Uranium compounds were used for centuries to color glass.
A decade ago, I stood on a lonely, windswept outcropping of stone in a remote corner of the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. I was lost, or so I thought, until a couple of battered pickup trucks appeared in the distance. One contained the object of my search, a Navajo medicine man named Roger Hathale. He intrigued me because he had conducted a blessing ceremony for a federal project to remove tons of uranium mill tailings that had been left in Cane Valley, not far from the dramatic desert beauty of Monument Valley.

I was researching a book at the time and had interviewed the Navajo family that had lived beside the mill tailings pile for 30 years. I knew what the family never did: that the tailings, which looked like plain gray sand, were highly radioactive. No one ever told them. Betrayal hung in the dry desert air like a black cloud. I wondered why Hathale, who knew well the physical, environmental, and psychological damage that uranium mining had brought to the Navajos, could bless it.

A spiritual man, Hathale preferred to talk in abstracts. The reason uranium was dangerous, he explained, was that it had been removed from its natural place in the Earth. Disturbing the Earth, he said, disrupted the harmony of the natural world on which man depends and therefore brought illness and death. The harmony needed to be restored for health and happiness to return.

As simplistic as it sounded, Hathale's explanation seemed plausible. It cut across centuries of science and leapfrogged Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. It left me to ponder the mushroom clouds that have roiled skyward from the American desert Southwest, the once-pristine atolls of the blue Pacific, and the gritty plains of Kazakhstan.

Ironically, it was the curative powers of radium, a cousin of uranium, that prompted the wholesale mining of uranium deep in the heart of Africa a century ago in the former Belgian Congo. Before it played out, the Shinkolobwe mine produced the richest supply of uranium the world had ever known. But even then, the devastating effects of uranium exposure were known. Uranium miners in the Czech Republic called it Mountain Disease. Today, we call it lung cancer. During an age which saw one miraculous scientific discovery after another and bestowed on science a reverence once reserved for religion, it is remarkable how an element first used to cure the incurable could so quickly become man's most deadly destroyer.

Contemplation of uranium compels one to abstractions. What satisfaction comes from microchips and clicking meters calculating levels of radioactivity and rates of exposure to something we can never see or feel or touch or smell? No one questions the existence of such unseen things, said to describe a phenomenon, while chuckling at native cosmology.

And the names. Uranium's siblings are simply numbers: 235 and 238. The name itself comes from Uranus, the sky personified as the primeval Greek god who shook the Earth with thunder and scorched it with lightning. Today, man has become that god, now hurling skyward his own self-made bombs, more dangerous and deadly than Uranus ever dreamed.

Even Manhattan Project Director J. Robert Oppenheimer was driven to abstraction after seeing the destructive powers derived from humble uranium when he quoted a Hindu sacred text: "I am become Death, destroyer of worlds."

HEALING HANDS Hathale, a Navajo medicine man, with his wife. Hathale blessed the tailings removal project in Cane Valley, Ariz.
Murrae Haynes
And what have we learned? Mining companies are now pushing for approval of a water-leaching process to extract uranium from deep within the ground, yet again on the Navajo reservation. And the current Administration is discussing reactivation of the nuclear testing program deep below the Nevada desert.

Perhaps during the past decade of silence from the nuclear arsenals, the dangers have been forgotten. There's talk of a new generation of "tactical" nuclear weapons. Limited exposure just doesn't sound so bad. And even now age-old enemies on the Asian subcontinent have their missiles primed and aimed at each other.

Hathale was right. When man dug up uranium, the harmony was disturbed, perhaps forever. The harmony has devolved into a dissonance as alluring as the songs of the Sirens that sang out to Odysseus and are now drawing mankind relentlessly to the rocky shores of the future.

Peter Eichstaedt directs ProMedia-Armenia, a nonprofit journalism program in the former Soviet country of Armenia that is operated by the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group. He is the author of the book "If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans" (Red Crane Books, 1994).


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