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History with Phil: How 'Uranium fever' swept the nation

History with Phil: How 'Uranium fever' swept the nation

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Phil Connelly

Phil Connelly

The Atomic Energy Commission’s demand for uranium dramatically shot up in the 1950s. Part of this was because of President Eisenhower's "Atoms For Peace" speech, which called for nations to focus efforts towards peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The demand for uranium was never higher.

This increased demand for uranium led many to try and make it big in uranium prospecting. In 1952, Charles Steen and Vernon Pick discovered a large uranium deposit worth millions of dollars in the Colorado Plateau. Soon, "Uranium Fever" was sweeping the country, creating a perception that anyone with perseverance, grit, and an inexpensive Geiger counter could make it big, just like Steen and Pick had done.

Thousands of amateur prospectors flocked to Colorado, Utah and Nevada, hoping to become the next uranium millionaire. A few would become wealthy, but the vast majority soon found out that it was not quite as easy to strike it rich as they had been led to believe by the media.

Uranium prospecting was the subject of Hollywood films, such as “Uranium Boom” and “Dig That Uranium.” “Uranium Boom” romanticized uranium prospecting as a relatively easy endeavor; the “real” problem was how to deal with all that wealth after discovering uranium. “Dig That Uranium” was somewhat more realistic in that it dealt with the harsh legal issues that can surround property ownership.

Uranium prospecting was also portrayed in a 1955 Elton Britt song “Uranium Fever.” Britt was able to capture the realities of uranium prospecting with lines like “Well, you pack up your things, you head out again, into some unknown spot where nobody's been, you reach the spot where your fortune lies, you find it's been staked by 17 other guys”.

Even the TV show, “I Love Lucy” got in on the craze with an episode entitled “Lucy Hunts Uranium” in which Lucy inadvertently caused a small uranium rush. This episode aired in 1958 and helped people realize that uranium mining is hard work with little chance of getting rich.

Stories of millionaires Charles Steen and Vernon Pick, along with movies and songs attracted thousands of individuals (and some families) to western states in hopes of finding a big score. With a Geiger counter purchased from a local general store and a map from a gas station, amateur prospectors spread out over thousands of acres with varying degrees of success. However, success stories were few and far between.

Even so, regional newspapers continued the drumbeat about uranium prospecting long after it became apparent that the majority of prospectors were losing money. The papers often focused on the minority of successful prospectors to help generate economic prosperity for the region.

In reality, most prospectors left with nothing more than the Geiger counter they had come with. The boom pretty much came to an end in the 1970s when the Atomic Energy Commission ceased purchasing uranium.

Besides the physical and financial risks of mining for uranium, there was also the potential for negative health outcomes. Subsequent studies found a strong association between uranium mining and diseases like lung cancer, tuberculosis, emphysema, and benign and unspecified cancers and diseases of the blood. In addition, the accident rate for miners was twice the rate for workers in general. Unfortunately, at the time, the real risks of uranium mining were not well-known in the 1950s and early 1960s. So, thousands of amateurs sought fortune in the uranium mines unaware of the unseen but nevertheless real dangers associated with their quest.

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