Remembering the notorious ‘Uranium Gulag’

Joachimsthal mine

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Soviet Gulag was the brutal slave labor camps located in the mountains of Czechoslovakia following World War II, where prisoners were exploited in order to provide uranium for the Soviets’ nascent atomic warfare program.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin – recognizing the advantage the US had with its possession of atomic weaponry – sent the Red Army to capture one of the few areas then known to possess material that could be used in the construction of atomic bombs.

The Ore Mountains, which then marked the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany, first gained fame in the late 15th century as the site of a major silver discovery, with the Bohemian town of Joachimsthal taking on special significance as a source of the metal.

Also discovered around this time was pitchblende, a radioactive, uranium-rich ore, which early miners discarded as a waste byproduct.

Only at the beginning of the 20th century was it learned that pitchblende was a valuable commodity in and of itself. Within pitchblende, a variety of uraninite, Marie Curie discovered the element radium, and until the First World War Joachimsthal pitchblende was the only known source of radium in the world.

Also found within pitchblende is uranium. Like other elements, uranium occurs in slightly differing forms known as isotopes. The most common form of uranium is U-238, which makes up more than 99 percent of natural uranium found in the Earth’s crust.

However, another uranium isotope, U-235, while it is makes up less than 1 percent of the Earth’s uranium, is important because under certain conditions it can readily be split, yielding a tremendous amount of energy.

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 derived its explosive power from the nuclear fission of uranium-235.

In late 1945 Stalin pressured the Czechoslovak government to sign a confidential treaty that would give Moscow the rights to material from mine, according to Tom Zoellner’s outstanding 2009 work “Uranium.”

Continue reading

France’s regional languages fight for parity

Breton village

The French language has long been held sacred in France, which has led hard feelings among groups within the country whose first tongue is something other than the lingua franca.

France is home to more than 2 million individuals who speak regional languages such as Alsatian, Breton and Corsican, but the French government has refused to change its constitution, which states that “the language of the Republic is French.”

So while France actually signed the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages – adopted in 1992 under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe – the French government has never ratified it.

As a result, the nation’s regional languages have failed to receive support required by the charter.

In fact, the policies of the Paris government have had the deliberate effect of greatly weakening the prevalence of native languages in France that are not “French.”

The second-class status afford languages other than French has not set well in regions where regional tongues are still prevalent, such as Brittany, the Basque country and Corsica.

Continue reading

Lobbyist will sell mother’s soul for fame, cash

burkman

So, what to make the Washington, DC, lobbyist interested in introducing legislation that would ban openly gay athletes from playing in the National Football League?

Last week lobbyist Jack Burkman released a draft text of what he has named “The American Decency Act of 2014,” which would not only ban openly gay athletes from playing earning a living in the NFL but would levy multi-million dollar fees on teams that dared to violate the act, were it to be enacted.

Initially, one might simply shrug off the announcement as the ranting of a publicity-seeking jackass.

Yes, it’s hard to believe someone who earns a living from political lobbying would stoop to such a low maneuver, but things like this have been known to happen.

Magnanimously, the bill would exempt teams that build separate locker facilities so that gay and straight players may shower apart. Ah, good. I was so hoping we would find some way to reintroduce Separate but Equal; it was such a hit the first time around.

“I truly believe NFL team owners and coaches do not want openly gay players on their teams because of the issues that will cause and I think they may tell you that if they answered honestly,” Burkman said in a press release. “The morals in this country have dropped so low that it’s sad that a bill like this is even needed.”

Fortunately, because Burkman is a lobbyist he cannot introduce legislation, which must be done by a member of Congress. He claims his proposal has the support of several members of Congress, however.

Continue reading