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Uranium Frenzy

Uranium Frenzy: Saga of the Nuclear West

Raye C. Ringholz
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    Uranium Frenzy
    Book Description:

    Now expanded to include the story of nuclear testing and its consequences, Uranium Frenzy has become the classic account of the uranium rush that gripped the Colorado Plateau region in the 1950s. Instigated by the U.S. government's need for uranium to fuel its growing atomic weapons program, stimulated by Charlie Steen's lucrative Mi Vida strike in 1952, manned by rookie prospectors from all walks of life, and driven to a fever pitch by penny stock promotions, the boom created a colorful era in the Four Corners region and Salt Lake City (where the stock frenzy was centered) but ultimately went bust. The thrill of those exciting times and the good fortune of some of the miners were countered by the darker aspects of uranium and its uses. Miners were not well informed regarding the dangers of radioactive decay products. Neither the government nor anyone else expended much effort educating them or protecting their health and safety. The effects of exposure to radiation in poorly ventilated mines appeared over time.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-473-4
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Technology

Table of Contents

    (pp. ix-x)

    In 1952, a currently unemployed geologist from Texas, Charlie Steen, succeeded in locating the largest deposit of high-grade uranium ore in the United States. His Mi Vida Mine, struck in an area thought to be unpromising, started a stampede of prospecting that was like the westward movement and the great gold rush rolled into one.

    It was the first and only mineral rush triggered by the U.S. government. America, on the threshold of the nuclear age, was desperate for a domestic source of uranium. The Atomic Energy Commission was the only buyer of the ore. But it was ordinary citizens...

    (pp. 1-15)

    Charlie didn’t quite know how to tell M. L. There she was, her body all swelled up with a baby due in a couple of weeks. Their cramped rear apartment already teemed with three high-decibel kids under four years of age, crawling all over each other and on the few rickety pieces of furniture. There was barely enough money coming in to stock the fridge. Charlie felt guilty as hell but he knew he had to say that he was heading for the Colorado Plateau in a few days.

    M. L. understood. It wasn’t unexpected. He had read the article...

    (pp. 16-29)

    It wasn’t long after the train pulled out of “the Mile High City” of Denver, that Duncan Holaday understood why the Denver & Rio Grande Western route to Salt Lake City, Utah, was known as “The Scenic Line of the World.” Half an hour’s ride from the metropolis, the miles and miles of flat plains seemed to roll into infinity as the Panoramic climbed 2,000 feet onto the eastern shoulder of the Rocky Mountains. A few minutes more, and the view closed in upon them. The long train wound deep into canyons studded with frosted evergreens, drifted snow and mountains that...

    (pp. 30-42)

    First came a blast of heat and then the light, blinding, like a battery of flashbulbs exploding in the pre-dawn darkness. Shock waves followed in quick succession with a force that witnesses in a control building 8.9 miles to the south likened to firing a 16-inch coast-defense gun. As the immense fireball ascended it took on a rosy hue and was transformed into a long-stemmed mushroom tinged with luminous purple. Like an opening parachute, the plume climbed up to 43,000 feet while its slate-colored cloud hovered over the 123-square-mile dry lake bed of Frenchman Flat, reducing visibility to a mere...

    (pp. 43-56)

    It was a typical February day in Salt Lake City. Grey. Cold. Intermittent blizzards raged over dirty corn snow speckled with dead leaves exposed by a false spring thaw. Duncan Holaday, sitting in his office in the two-story wooden building that used to be a World War II army barracks, couldn’t even see the city in the valley below. Showers of snowflakes blocked out the granite Mormon temple spires topped by the golden statue of Moroni blowing his trumpet. The Walker Bank, Utah’s sixteen-story “skyscraper,” was invisible. The Great Salt Lake, pewter-colored, disappeared into the whitened west.

    The Public Health...

    (pp. 57-70)

    A year was enough. A year when every rasp of the saw, each thwack of the hammer drove the dream of uranium deeper. All the time that he worked as a carpenter in Tucson, Charlie thought of nothing but his twelve claims at Big Indian. He tortured himself with newspaper articles and stories in mining magazines.

    “More uranium was mined in the Colorado Plateau in 1951 than in any previous year.”

    “In November 1950, 145 claims were staked;February 1951 tallied 600.”

    “J.W. Gramlich received the first AEC bonus payment of $9,672 for 2,763 pounds of uranium oxide in .20 percent...

    (pp. 71-86)

    So a spindly young Texan with a pretty wife, a gaggle of kids and a nickel in his pocket grabbed for the brass ring and caught it! The AEC couldn’t have scripted it better if they tried. They baited the lure with greenbacks, and Charlie Steen, one of the “little guys,” got the big one.

    What made it even better was that Charlie’s story let loose the hoped-for prospecting rush on the Colorado Plateau. He didn’t strike carnotite. He discovered pitchblende, lots of it in unexpected places, and made it clear that America’s uranium industry was only in its infancy....

    (pp. 87-95)

    Any apprehension Dr. Arthur Bruhn’s geology students had was relieved by the letter from the Nevada Test Site. For two years the youngsters had felt the earth shake and seen the pinkish clouds drifting over St. George after the nuclear detonations but the idea of getting close enough to actually see an explosion, even from a distance, was disconcerting. It was reassuring to initial the letter as indication that they had read the words affirming that there was “absolutely no danger” and the AEC welcomed Dr. Bruhn and his students “in furthering their education.”¹

    Arthur Bruhn’s method of teaching “all...

    (pp. 96-108)

    “The only way we can ever get anything done is to collect bodies and lay them on somebody’s doorstep.”¹

    Duncan Holaday made the statement in exasperation. It was December 1953. Holaday was speaking at the fifth meeting of the Uranium Study Advisory Committee in Salt Lake City. Another prestigious group of doctors and scientists had gathered. Duncan’s colleagues from the Public Health Service were there, along with representatives from the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the AEC Division of Biology and Medicine.

    Three years had passed since the survey on the effects of radon in the...

    (pp. 109-131)

    Jay Walters, Jr., wasn’t the type of man you’d expect to find in Jack Coombs’ address book. Coombs, a Sigma Chi at the University of Utah, had graduated in 1950 with a B.S. in Business, after which he began his career with J.A. Hogle and Company, Salt Lake City’s oldest and most prestigious brokerage house. One year later, Coombs left Hogle’s to join the ultra-conservative Harrison S. Brothers firm as a partner. The young man had an air of honesty and dependability. He moved in Utah’s better circles. With his dark wavy hair, blue eyes and athletic build, he was...

    (pp. 132-146)

    In the Canyonlands of southeastern Utah there is a rock formation they call “Jacob’s Chair.” The gigantic sandstone throne commands a broad expanse of ruddy desert interrupted by deep, jagged cracks and phallic pinnacles. Some mighty being might rest in this solitary seat of honor to view the wonders he has created. Jacob’s Chair was Floyd Odlum’s favorite geologic structure in this land he so admired.

    “That chair’s too big for me,” he would say when flying over the broken landscape,“and I’m not sure I’d be worthy of sitting in such a big one. But I hope someday I’ll deserve...

    (pp. 147-174)

    Success to Charlie Steen was something like baking in a sauna and then dashing outside to roll in a snowbank: gratifying, exhilarating, and sometimes downright uncomfortable.

    It started quickly. Once the Mi Vida mine was in production, Steen’s lifestyle cartwheeled. No longer was he forced to shore up a ramshackle tarpaper shack to house his family. He lived on a lofty mountaintop in a $250,000 mansion that had a swimming pool, a greenhouse, and a separate cottage for servants. The days of pounding the pavement to find a grubstake were behind him. He was now an established executive. Utex Exploration...

    (pp. 175-190)

    The names were appealing. Absaraka. Aladdin. Apache. Arrow. Atomic. Black Jack. Jolly Jack. Lucky Strike. King Midas. Newspaper readers followed daily listings of uranium stocks and figured on all of the money they could have made if they had had the nerve to buy. Many stocks went up thirty—even sixty—times the offering price in days. Soon the temptation to gamble a few bucks was irresistible. Those who had lagged behind took the plunge.

    And it seemed they were in good company. The big boys were getting into the picture. How could you go wrong when Atlas, United States...

    (pp. 191-202)

    Kern and McRae Bulloch thought nothing of it at the time. They were in camp, trailing their herd of 2,510 sheep from their Nevada ranch to the lambing sheds in Cedar City. It was four o’clock in the morning. Dark. Cold. The light from their gas lantern flickered as they lit the small wood stove in the sheep wagon and prepared breakfast. It would be a long day of riding, and they would have to start before daylight in order to travel ten miles or so while keeping the large flock in tow.

    Moving the sheep was a thirty-day job...

    (pp. 203-214)

    “It’s started,” Dr. Victor Archer thought.

    The new medical director of the uranium miner study laid the letter on his desk and sighed. It wasn’t much. Nothing conclusive. Not enough to prove that the “European Experience”was being repeated in America. But the report Archer received from Uravan, Colorado, that day in September 1956, read like a portent.

    Dr. David J, Berman had admitted a patient named Tom Van Arsdale to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. Van Arsdale, a fifty-one-year-old hardrock miner from Nucla, Colorado, had spent over half of the past sixteen years working in uranium mines. He had...

    (pp. 215-234)

    In 1958, people weren’t calling Charlie Steen “that crazy Texan” anymore. It was hard to ridicule a guy who had parlayed his geologic hunches into a bonanza and triggered a modern-day prospecting rush. Steen’s Uranium Reduction Company mill, which processed some seventeen hundred tons of ore per day, had the largest payroll in Grand County. Utex Exploration Company was one of the area’s biggest property owners. Besides its mines, the corporation held twenty-one rental homes, eight executive residences, and acres of commercial and residential land. Moab Drilling Company dominated the field in local mine exploration activities.

    And Charlie Steen had...

    (pp. 235-249)

    Tex Garner didn’t know he had less than twenty-four hours to live.¹ It had been one week since the doctor, talking of “cancer” and “one to fifteen years,” dismissed him from St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction and sent him home to Moab. Tex was a bit tired, but there wasn’t much pain in his lungs and the scar from his liver biopsy was fading already. He thought he was making good progress. In no time, he’d be pitching a few innings and showing the kids how he could walk on his hands all around the front yard. The old...

  18. 17 FULL CIRCLE
    (pp. 250-266)

    It was the Siren Song all over again. The mailbox at the AEC compound in Grand Junction overflowed with letters and postcards. “Tell me about the new uranium boom.” “Where can I go to prospect?” “Where can I sell it if I find it?”

    By 1966, word had spread that the long-awaited commercial uranium industry was finally gearing up. Fifteen nuclear power plants were in operation in the United States. Eight more were under construction and twenty in the planning stages. This was music to the ears of mining companies whose production had been slashed by a series of stretchouts...

    (pp. 267-283)

    It was at a hearing of the Joint Senate-House Committee on Atomic Energy that he first heard about it. J.V. Reistrup, a reporter new to the beat of science, space and energy for the Washington Post, was intrigued when someone asked, “What about these uranium miners that are dying of lung cancer?”

    Reistrup started to dig for more information, asking questions and delving into files. Finally he tracked down a copy of the 1967 revised edition of the Federal Radiation Council’s action paper, “Radiation Protection Policy: Guidance for the Control of Radiation Hazards in Uranium Mining.” He knew he had...

    (pp. 284-303)

    The marks on the map were within a two block area of her home in St. George. Irma Thomas made a dot for every friend or neighbor who had contracted a radiation-induced disease or died. By the late 1970s there were twenty victims, fourteen deaths.. Wilford—cancer. His wife—stomach cancer. Carl—throat cancer. The boy across the street—leukemia. Irma’s sister—breast cancer. Her sister-in-law, Hattie Nelson—dead at the age of forty-seven from a brain tumor.

    From all outward signs, Irma was a typical Mormon housewife. She and her husband, Hyrum, manager of the local J.C. Penney store,...

  21. 20 AFTERMATH
    (pp. 304-323)

    “People have got to learn to live with the facts of life, and part of the facts of life are fallout,” said AEC commissioner and noted scientist,Willard F. Libby, at a commission meeting on February 23, 1955.

    “I was a teacher in Panguitch in ’51 when the testing started,” said Irene McEwen of St. George. “One day after a blast it was my turn to take my phys ed class out on the field, and I didn’t want to because I’d read about Hiroshima. But the principal told me I had to. Later he died of cancer. So did three...