One of the great things about working at the longest-continually published magazine in the U.S.—born in 1845—is thumbing through the archives. Our environment reporter, David Biello, was thumbing through some bound volumes earlier this week, and he came across a gem from our February 1947 issue.
The piece, which has no byline, is quite timely, despite being more than 60 years old. It hits two of today's growing crises square on—energy and the economy—by suggesting a replacement for silver and gold monetary standards:
That's right. Less than two years after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, someone thought it would be a good idea to back currency with a radioactive substance. So instead of gold, Fort Knox would be filled with uranium. Or, today, maybe Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuclear waste storage facility in Nevada, could do double duty as a currency standard warehouse. (Worth noting: The "ultrasecure uranium warehouse of the future" is in Oak Ridge, Tenn., just a few hundred miles from Fort Knox in Kentucky.)
The argument speaks for itself:
Proposed as an international monetary standard to replace the silver and gold that have traditionally set the world's standards of values, uranium's claim to this position is based on the fact that atomic fission can convert a part at least of any mass of uranium directly into energy. Energy, the ability to do work, is suggested as a far more logical basis of economic value than any possessed by the precious metals.
Several properties of uranium metal preclude its use in actual coins, particularly its hardness and the ease with which it oxidizes. The various proposals for international control of fissionable materials as a means to control atomic bombs, however, might lend themselves readily to the issuance of an international currency backed by centrally controlled uranium metal.
Under such a scheme, atomic energy could be the basis of a reasonable currency whose value would be keyed to available energy, upon which depends production, the true modern measure of wealth. While we may never jingle uranium coins in our pockets, we yet may spend paper currency or coins of more adaptable metals backed by uranium as our present silver certificates are by bars of that metal.
Damn, we were really looking forward to jingling uranium coins. Imagine going through airport security and forgetting to take those out of your pockets.
Photo by Marshall Astor via Flickr