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Prospecting for Uranium

Knowing that uranium is radioactive, when I pictured uranium production, I imagined scenes with laboratory equipment, full chemical suits, and 1970s-era computers with warning alarms. I did not think of prospectors looking for minerals.

Prospector with a 5 o'clock shadow, mustache and pipe, who has dropped his pickaxe for a geiger counter.

A new prospector. Image from Prospecting with a Counter. United States Atomic Energy Commission. Washington, D.C., 1954, page III.

Similar to the gold rush a century before, but this time with radiation detection equipment in hand, prospectors headed out west and southwest beginning in the late 1940s to look for uranium. They were spurred by the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which started an effort in 1947 to identify and develop domestic sources of uranium for purposes of national security. The AEC put out advertisements and offered financial incentives plus a $10,000 bonus to those that found uranium deposits.

In April 1948, in order to encourage domestic discovery and mining of uranium, and thereby decreasing the United States’ reliance on uranium from other countries, the AEC established a guaranteed minimum price schedule. For uranium production at the Colorado Plateau, a known location of uranium deposits, prices started at $0.30 for ores with 0.10% uranium oxide with increasing prices corresponding to higher concentrations of uranium. The minimum guaranteed price was $3.50 per pound of uranium oxide found outside of the Colorado Plateau.

Cover of the booklet Prospecting for Uranium, published by the United States Atomic Energy Commission and the United State Geological Survey. Washington, D.C., 1949.

The amount of interest and questions from the public about uranium overwhelmed government agencies and so in 1949, the AEC and the U.S. Geological Survey published the pocket-sized guidebook, Prospecting for Uranium. According to A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, by the end of 1950 the AEC saw an increase in deliveries of uranium ore from the Colorado Plateau and new deposits in New Mexico. In February of 1951, the AEC increased the guaranteed minimum price schedule for uranium ores in order to encourage more production.

The uranium rush was on! “Vacationists and week-end prospectors are taking to the hills, the deserts, and the woods to try their luck at prospecting for uranium. Oil workers, farmers, clerks, mechanics, retired men, and even housewives swell the ranks of the professionals,” wrote Donald W. Swanson and William Van Der Ley in the 1957 Uranium Prospecting: A Complete Manual. Theirs is just one of many books published for uranium prospectors, along with The ABC’s of Uranium Prospecting: A Guidebook for the Amateur, the Uranium Prospecting Handbook, and another publication of the AEC, Prospecting with a Counter.

Advertisement showing different types of Geiger Counters for sale.

Geiger Counters on sale at Sears. Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 11 July 1956. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

Geiger-Müller counters, also known as Geiger counters, are a mechanism used to detect various types of radioactivity. The uranium rush was a boom to companies that manufactured and sold radiation detection equipment. One company, Radiac Co., reported to the New York Herald Tribune in 1954 that their sales of Geiger counters over the previous year increased by 500%. The AEC published the Radiation Instrument Catalog starting in 1949, with sections on accessories, special components, scalers, monitors, personnel monitoring devices, and survey meters. The National Bureau of Standards published Circular 490: The Geiger-Müller Counter on January 23, 1950. Its director, E. U. Condon, provided a preface to the standard, noting that this circular was prepared to address basic information, a description of features, and a bibliography, because the National Bureau of Standards had been receiving “frequent requests for information regarding the nature, construction, and use of Geiger-Müller counters.”

Advertisement that says Get In the Uranium Business for $1.00.

Advertisement from Uranium Information Digest, 1954, issue 1, page 3.

While uranium prospecting advertisements encouraged the average citizen to become part of the Uranium Frenzy, it was mostly companies that had the resources and the equipment to mine large enough amounts of ore that could make a profit. The U.S. Government was the primary (and originally, the only) buyer of uranium ore, although uranium could be sold to any person or company within the U.S., as long as both the buyer and seller were licensed by the AEC. The Semiannual Report of the Atomic Energy Commission lists companies with uranium mines in operation. In 1956, on the high end, The Anaconda Company in Bluewater, New Mexico, produced 3,000 tons of uranium ore per day. On the low end, one of Vanadium Corporation of America’s mills in Naturita, Colorado, had the capacity to produce 350 tons of uranium ore per day.

To fill the need for uranium mining news in the booming industry, The Uranium Information Digest, published monthly by the Uranium Ore Producers Association, released its first issue on September 15, 1954. Each issue contained editorials, legislative news, featured articles with tips and mining strategies, a small professional services directory, and advertisements. It was also an excellent source for company updates. The November 1954 issue reported on the merger of Colorado Uranium Mines Inc., Three States Uranium Corp., Paradox Uranium Mining Corp., and Mesa Uranium Co. with Consolidated Uranium Mines Incorporated, which, according to the article, formed “one of the largest domestic uranium operations.”

United States Uranium Resources Map. Denver: Berge Exploration, 1978. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Two Navajo Indians on horses with butte in background.

Near the base of Old Shiprock, a future site of uranium mining. c.1914. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The AEC’s guides included information on land licensing and mineral rights. A number of uranium deposits were located on or near reservations, which, according to AEC, required a permit to prospect from the superintendent of the reservation; once a discovery was made, leases could be requested from the Office of Indian Affairs. Uranium mining was devastating for the health of nearby communities, particularly the Diné (Navajo), many of whom worked in the mines. Lack of mandatory clean-up, hazardous conditions without safety equipment, and inadequate education about uranium dangers left these communities with radiation exposure and increased rates of cancer, later becoming the subject of lawsuits and congressional hearings. The Federal Government did not establish or fully implement mine safety standards until 1971.

The uranium incentive period ended in 1956, although the AEC continued its uranium procurement program until the end of 1970. The AEC was abolished in 1974, and its functions transferred to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and to the precursor of what would become the Department of Energy.  Starting in the early 1980s, the market price for uranium began to drop as military demand waned and nuclear power demand slowed.

To read more about the uranium rush and its effects:

Johnson, Robert R. Romancing the Atom: Nuclear Infatuation from the Radium Girls to Fukushima. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012.

Pasternak, Judy. Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and the Betrayal of the Navajos. New York: Free Press, 2011.

Taylor, Raymond W. and Samuel W. Taylor. Uranium Fever; or, No Talk under $1 Million. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

Nuclear Energy Agency, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Forty Years of Uranium Resources, Production and Demand in Perspective. Paris, France: OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, 2006. This is a retrospective of their “Red Book,” which contains key data on world uranium resources from 1965 to 2004.

Technical Reports (search via OSTI.gov, or browse the Library of Congress microform holdings)

  • Uranium price formation. Final report. [EPRI-EA-498] United States. 1977. https://doi.org/10.2172/5292237
  • Albrethsen, H. Jr., and McGinley, F. E. Summary history of domestic uranium procurement under US Atomic Energy Commission contracts. Final report. [GJBX-220-82 / DE83 001355]. United States. 1982. https://doi.org/10.2172/6743792.

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