The Great Uranium Rush

The Great Uranium Rush

A great uranium rush occurred in the 1950s, as many people searched for the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Uranium, a radioactive metallic element used chiefly in nuclear technology, is very toxic both as a chemical and as a radioactive substance. It has the highest atomic number of the elements found naturally on the earth. Elements of higher atomic number are man—made. Many scientists believe the element is the product of the radioactive decay of elements of higher atomic number that existed at an earlier time. Possibly those parent elements were born from supernovas or other such stellar events; perhaps they were created during the "Big Bang" that marked the beginning of the universe. Though they do not exist on earth, there is no reason to believe these parent elements do not exist elsewhere in the universe.

The first and most spectacular use of atomic energy was in the pursuit of modern warfare, to terminate World War II. Since then, major countries of the world have developed incredible nuclear arsenals that, if put to use, would end most life on the planet.

The great potential for nuclear power lies in nonmilitary, peaceful uses. A nuclear plant first generated electricity in 1952, and since then much power for industrialized nations has come from nuclear reactors. Other applications include propulsion for submarines, ships, and space vehicles; excavating tunnels and canals; and producing power for remote areas such as Antarctica. Until the hazards of nuclear power, principally those related to safety of nuclear reactors and disposal of radioactive wastes, are adequately solved, its development will move slowly.

The United States exploded its first atom bomb in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, thus inaugurating the atomic age. The race for development of nuclear energy was on. The first problem, to the chagrin of U.S. government scientists, was the shortage of uranium ore for research and development. The Colorado Plateau of Utah and Colorado was known to be abundantly supplied with undiscovered hoards of uranium. This was particularly true of the Utah deserts, although major deposits also existed in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. To provide an incentive, the government offered a generous bonus of $10,000 to anyone who discovered and mined radioactive uranium.

The incentive worked. The government launched a uranium rush far more energetic than the 1849 California gold rush. More prospectors scoured the Utah deserts during the mid 1950s than had ever invaded California during the rush for gold.

Two special features made the search for uranium slightly easier. First, uranium minerals were highly radioactive, so any self—respecting prospector would be armed with a Geiger counter or scintillator. Either instrument would emit a series of lights and beeps that would immediately alert the prospector if he was on the right track. The other feature that helped the uranium hunt, particularly in Utah, was the color of the uranium minerals. Although many varieties of ore minerals yield uranium when refined, the chief mineral in the Utah search was carnotite. Its bright canary yellow color could be seen for great distances in the bright sunlight.

Most uranium ore deposits are sparsely distributed. Each typically contains less than 0.3 percent concentration of the mineral. Searchers think they have found their "pot of uranium" when they discover the first small pocket of uranium minerals. Unfortunately, thousands of these uranium mineral pockets are needed to make an ore body that can be mined at a profit. Many prospectors on the Colorado Plateau did find Geiger counter—responsive carnotite and had their excitement dampened by discovering that it was not in economic quantities.

Prospecting for uranium became, for Utah residents, a weekend trek into the desert. (The people who made the most money from the 1950s uranium boom may have been those who sold prospecting equipment and clothing.) The Utah deserts are spectacularly beautiful at any time of the year. On a clear day the view, undistorted by moisture in the atmosphere, seems to go on forever. Distances are deceptive, and what appears to be only a mile or so away may in fact be 5 to 10 times that distance. This is what the Utah deserts are today, but many changes have taken place in Utah since the time, in the Jurassic Period of 150 million years ago, when the great masses of uranium were being deposited.

Utah, 150 million years ago, was a lush, tropical, humid land similar to the Amazon River Basin of today. The area was basically a lowland of dense jungles and glades crossed by an abundance of muddy streams and dotted with ponds, lakes, and swamps. Plant—eating dinosaurs hid fearfully beneath protecting foliage while huge carnivorous dinosaurs crashed and thundered through the forests searching for prey. Uranium prospectors of the 1950s, spending months and years on the relatively barren Utah desert, would find the above description of this land as it existed during prehistoric times next to impossible to believe.

The fortune hunters concentrated their search for the yellow minerals in the many ancient stream channel deposits. Organic material could be found in great abundance, especially if the deposits had been laid down in a tropical environment. A major method of preservation is volume—for—volume replacement of organic matter with inorganic matter. Usually groundwater carries the minerals that will petrify the preserved material. The most common is silica, but occasionally the groundwater also carries valuable mineral matter such as uranium. In the Utah desert, the uranium mineral carnotite was one of the fossilizing materials of the organism. As a result, many of the fossils found on the Colorado Plateau of Utah are somewhat radioactive, including ancient trees and bones of some dinosaurs. One petrified log, over 100 feet long and 4 feet in diameter, yielded more than 100 tons of uranium ore valued at $230,000. It was, beyond doubt, the most valuable log ever discovered.

In July 1955, a geologist discovered an almost complete skeleton of a juvenile stegosaurus. Encased in a layer of volcanic ash, it had been killed in an eruption that also killed all the scavengers that would have fed on its remains. Despite its value as a scientific treasure, the stegosaurus met the same fate as the petrified log. The results, however, were less impressive, for it yielded a minimal harvest of uranium.

Successful prospectors often tried to mine the deposit themselves rather than sell it to professional mining companies. Few novices, however, were aware of the dangers of radioactivity. Because most of the mining was done underground in well—defined shafts, uranium minerals surrounded the workers in the walls, ceilings, and floors of the shaft. They were constantly bombarded with deadly radioactivity. The number of miners who gave their lives in their quest for riches will probably never be known.

One such event involved three brothers who struck a very rich deposit of carnotite near Cortez, Colorado. Since all three were mining engineers, they were able to set up an efficient mining operation that was producing only high—grade ore. So rich was the deposit that at the end of a day's work the brothers emerged covered with yellow dust and were amused at the value of the residue they washed away. Little did they realize that each moment they spent underground took them closer to disaster, for they were constantly subjected to concentrated radioactivity from all directions. The yellow dust they took home simply ensured that the work hazard was still with them. In less than two years the three brothers had become quite rich; they were also quite dead of radiation poisoning, leaving behind three extremely wealthy widows.

By the end of the 1950s the U.S. government was well supplied with uranium ore. With the bonus incentive discontinued and government demand for the product fully satisfied, the great uranium boom came to a screeching halt. All that remained was a supply of treasure tales to add to the folklore of the West. When refined, carnotite yields two metals: uranium and vanadium. One of the best—known stories that circulated on the Colorado Plateau concerned a miner who had prospected around the turn of the century. He was excavating a carnotite mine for its vanadium content. The miner was unable to extract vanadium at a profit because the ore had too much of the almost "worthless" uranium. He abandoned the mine but kept its location a secret. When the boom of the 1950s began, the miner realized his good fortune and set out to reclaim his old mine. Unable to relocate the mine, he became a familiar figure to the prospectors—an ancient battered, weatherworn miner leading an equally weather—beaten mule. His disappointment must have become unbearable, for one morning a party of prospectors found him slumped over with a bullet in his head.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning