The Time Of The Great Fever

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Gold is where you find it, goes the old prospectors’ saw. But uranium, according to at least some members of that grizzled and vanishing breed, is where you dream you’ll find it, where your bones and your hunches tell you it hides—no matter what some government geologist or petroleum industry big shot thinks. Finding gold may be equal parts luck and science, but locating uranium is an art that asks you to close your eyes and picture the earth as an immense layer cake that has been dropped, fractured, folded, and upended: in a few of those layers you will find traces of something very sweet.

That, at least, is a paraphrase of how Howard Balsley and Cecil Thompson saw it last year from Moab, Utah. They were in a position to know. Balsley, age ninety-three, who once sent radium to Madame Curie, was the acknowledged grandfather of all uranium seekers and finders; and Thompson, a robust man of eighty-eight, was with Balsley one of the few successful survivors of the greatest mining rush in American history—two of the few who took more money out of the earth of the Colorado Plateau than they put in.

It is still not mythically comfortable to accept the fact that the biggest bonanza of them all was not the Mother Lode or Cripple Creek or the Klondike, and was not in nineteenth-century gold, but that uranium was the metal and that the rush took place in the twentieth century on the 120,000 square miles of the Colorado Plateau, where the four states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico share ownership of a multilayered uplift of mostly sedimentary rock that in times past was the bottom of an ancient sea. That here, in perhaps the most remote and beautifully desolate region of the nation, more man-hours were spent hunting uranium than were spent seeking all other metals since man first crafted himself a pick and shovel, according to an Atomic Energy Commission estimate.

The Atomic Energy Commission was certainly the best qualified body to make that estimate. Probably the only body qualified to do so, for this most curious of all mineral rushes was distinguished chiefly by the fact that it was promoted by the federal government, supported by the federal government, and controlled by the federal government through the AEC. Yet even though the control was absolute and the operations largely secret, there was a gentle paternalism about it. If it was by the government, it was at least for the people; through a sliding scale of subsidy and guaranteed price supports, the average American was invited to participate.

In 1948 the AEC offered to pay a minimum of three dollars per ton of uranium ore, with generous premiums and development allowances, until 1962; to pay an initial-production bonus of between fifteen and thirty-five thousand dollars for the first five tons of uranium oxide until the year 1957; and to guarantee purchase of at least one thousand tons of ore a year from every miner until the year 1962. The actual formula was more detailed and provided an incentive for finding richer ores—the ultimate carrot being a bonus of ten thousand dollars for the first twenty tons of 20 per cent high grade.

Uranium and gold have existed billions of years in the earth. Not surprisingly, of the two, gold early struck man’s fancy. It was rare and true, incorruptible, constant in its color, a loner metal, malleable in the hands of an artisan. Uranium was in most every way its opposite, capricious and atomically unstable, the ultimate mixer that never occurs pure in nature, a vagabond element that some think welled up from deep in the earth, soluble and liquid-borne, seeping into Jurassic and Triassic host rock in half a rainbow’s colors.

The German scientist Martin Klaproth first identified the element in 1789, naming it after the planet Uranus, discovered a few years before. A mere curiosity, it was thought useless and not present in the United States. More than a century passed before its radioactive properties were discovered jointly by the Curies and Henri Becquerel in France. Even then it was a companion element, radium, that engaged the attention of those pioneers in the study of radioactivity, and it was radium that for a limited time spurred mining and financial speculation.

In the early 1880’s a strange, soft, bright yellow ore was first puzzled over on the heavily mineralized Colorado Plateau. It took twenty years, however, for carnotite (as it became known, after the French physicist Carnot) to gain any value, and then only for the small amounts of radium—one part for every 3,000,000 parts of bothersome uranium—it contained. A decade’s traffic in the ore with France brought rewards (albeit slim ones) to Howard Balsley and the other pioneer miners in the Uravan mineral belt of Colorado and Utah— until richer finds of the first wonder “yum” (the word prospectors used to lump uranium, radium, vanadium, thorium, and other radioactive metals) were shipped out of the Belgian Congo.

The status of “baggage” element was to dog uranium through another small mining boom on the Colorado Plateau. In the 1920’s vanadium, also found in carnotite, became an item of export because of the great tensile strength it lent to steel, and the veterans of the radium hunt prospered in a region that always had been shortchanged in deposits of gold and silver. But then a richer strike, this time in the Peruvian Andes, stilled the picks of those who pecked away at the small surface outcrops of American carnotite.