In October 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt received a surprising letter warning him of the dangers of a recent scientific discovery: the nuclear fission of uranium. Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard were the letter’s authors, though only Einstein signed his name. Known today as the Einstein letter, the missive warned of more than bombs or a new source of motive power. Its main concern was, as the authors put it, “the problem of securing a supply of uranium ore for the United States.” The two physicists feared that most of the world’s known supply of uranium would end up in Nazi Germany’s hands, which would give the Germans a monopoly over fission’s potential power.

Thus was kindled an obsession with uranium that would persist through several US administrations. The interest in uranium ore led not only to a frenzied effort to prospect the American West for radioactive minerals but to a...

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