Saturday, March 10, 2012

Imagine Their Embarrassment!

Put yourself back in 1950, even if you weren't even born at the time, or like me, were barely a toddler. The atomic age had begun when the United States wiped out two towns in Japan in 1945 with a bomb created out of an esoteric element called uranium. Fear was rampant. What if OUR ENEMY built a similar bomb and used it to wipe us out? Our experts decided to stockpile the element for testing and future use, hopefully keeping it out of the hands of our enemy, who could be hiding under every bush, even hiding under our beds. The government created new rules about public access to secrets. Everything dealing with uranium and nuclear materials was "born restricted." It did not need to be stamped "classified"; it was inherently so. And in the midst of that, one geologist decided to hunt for the elusive element uranium in a place the experts had definitely determined it did not exist. Imagine their embarrassment when he not only found it there, but his discovery started a very noisy and public uranium boom.
"Uranium is an abundant element. Yet the quantities of this material which have been found in high-grade ores such as pitchblende are comparatively small. In the United States, where essentially no pitchblende deposits have been discovered, the most accessible supply of uranium is in the form of fairly low-grade carnotite ores. Consequently, a development of the carnotite fields in the Colorado Plateau is being organized by the Raw Material Division of the Atomic Energy Commission."

V. L. SAINE and K. B. BROWN, Declassified 1949 document, "STUDIES OF RECOVERY PROCESSES FOR WESTERN URANIUM BEARING ORES"

We know that the AEC had no interest in promoting the mining of ore in the San Juan Valley of southeastern Utah when the "uranium king" made his famous strike there. The experts had long since written it off as a non-viable source for nuclear material. (See above quote.) In the spring of 1951, however, twelve new claims were filed in the Lisbon Valley anticline in San Juan County, Utah about 35 miles south of the town of Moab and east of the breath-taking Monument Valley region. The miner who filed the claims was a Texan named Charles A. Steen, who was in search of uranium, and had become an object of ridicule by other miners at the time.

Lisbon Valley facing north
Those who believed in the Atomic Energy Commission experts, who had previously determined the area to be devoid of that now lucrative but dangerous element, called Steen's search for uranium in the San Juan region "Steen's Folly." They did not stop laughing until Steen had set up several corporations to raise just enough capital to dig a shaft to allow him to produce the pitchblende required to prove his claim. Not until he actually received a check in the millions did the laughter subside.

Even before Charlie Steen announced his discovery in the four corners region, Time magazine had reported in June 1950 that geologist Robert J. Wright of the Atomic Energy Commission, in a paper presented at a Los Angeles meeting of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, had admitted that:
several kinds of uranium ore are being mined in the U.S. on a large scale. More important for the nation's future, said Dr. Wright, are the traces of pitchblende, the richest uranium ore, that have been found. There is an excellent chance, he believes, that deeper drilling will uncover more. If these hopes fade, said Dr. Wright, the U.S. can turn to enormous reserves of oil shale and phosphate rock that carry small percentages of uranium. ["Uranium Optimism," Time, 0040781X, 06/19/1950, Vol. 55, Issue 25]
Dr. Wright, listed as a recipient of the formerly classified document excerpted at the top of this page, told those at the California meeting that The Atomic Energy Commission would soon be asking Congress for authority to launch a "multi-million dollar project for big-scale production of H-bomb explosives." The United Press (Yuma, Ariz. Sun-Advertiser June 15, 1950) also revealed that "informer sources said today the request probably will go to Congress in the next two weeks. They said the AEC will ask authority to commit at least $200,000,000 to the project."  Scientists would be using these funds to search for tritium, which AEC board member, Dr. Robert Fox Bacher explained, could "be produced in the same kind of piles now used at Hanford, Wash., to manufacture plutonium for atomic bombs." Another mineral, thorium (10 times as plentiful as uranium) could also be used to make U-233. Somebody, no doubt, expected to receive a big chunk of those government funds to produce the valuable ores. Little did they know at the time that the rules they generated would kick off a uranium boom in precisely the area they said was nonproductive.


Worth Its Weight in Gold

Several months before Charlie Steen confirmed in his own mind that he had discovered a huge reservoir of uranium in pitchblende and many months before he received his first check for it, the AEC announced a new pricing policy. Jesse C. Johnson, manager of the raw materials operations for the AEC reported to the Salt Lake Tribune's Sunday readers on January 14, 1951 the following pricing policy:
$2.50 to $3 per pound of U308 content, depending upon grade, delivered at mill. This price includes a development allowance of 50c per pound of U308 content. In addition a haulage allowance may be granted to defray part of the cost of moving the ore from mine to mill. Ore specifications will be established by each mill and ore which does not meet specifications will not be accepted. Metallurgical tests may also be required to determine acceptability.
pitchblende ore
The minimum U308 content for an acceptable ore may be from 0.10% to 0.30% U308, depending upon the type of ore. Payment may be made for other valuable constituents of the ore provided the receiving mill can recover them economically. In general, payment for these other constituents will be based upon their market value, less deductions to cover metallurgical losses and the cost of milling, transportation, smelting, refining and marketing. The new price policy for uranium will remain in effect until March 31, 1958, subject only to changes or modifications designed to benefit the producer and stimulate production for defense needs.
San Juan Oil Company

The San Juan Oil Company out of Bakersfield, California, had drilled for oil in the San Juan field even before the radium boom created when Madame Curie discovered its use in treating cancer in the 1910s. The oilmen may have even found a bit of carnotite there before the "radium boom" had dissipated, especially since better pitchblende ores were discovered in Canada and the colonial African empires of the Belgian Congo. It was these foreign sources used to build the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.

Then the West Rand Consolidated gold mine near Johannesburg, South Africa began a plant to extract uranium in 1951 at Krugersdorp, and the United States sent Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa), vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy to join an international group inspecting the facilities in 1953.

The Senator had been in the news when his committee had to defend security measures imposed on nuclear materials prior to the summer of 1947. A United Press item (in the Ogden Standard-Examiner evening edition on July 9, 1947 reported what Hickenlooper told the Senate investigators looking into claims that government secrets on building atomic bombs had been stolen:
This theft ... occurred while the war department, was in charge of the country's $2,000,000,000 atomic energy plant..... Hickenlooper told the senate that the theft at Los Alamos was committed by two army sergeants who had been detailed to the project by the war department....The civilian atomic energy commission, he said, discovered the theft shortly after it took control of the atomic program from army hands on Jan. 1 this year. The theft was brought to the attention of the FBI at once and Hickenlooper added that "we believe they (the papers) were completely and fully recovered."
The theft occurred in March, 1946, 10 months before the civilian commission headed by David E. Lilienthal took over the program from the army. The FBI, he said, promptly located the two army men and from the FBI's evidence it was believed that the sergeants were "souvenir hunting," Hickenlooper said. Hickenlooper said that the FBI evidence indicated that the sergeants "did not allow any unauthorized persons access to these documents....His committee, Hickenlooper said, had been "zealous" in checking atomic energy commission security regulations, and the commission had cooperated with "promptness and dispatch" on suggestions for improving security practices."

After hearings in Congress about the theft were complete, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists August 1949 issue contained an article entitled "How Not To Investigate the Atomic Energy Commission," which depicted Hickenlooper in a role which could well have served as a model Inspector Clouseau of the later Pink Panther flicks.

South Africa's uranium production would come from the discarded tailings from the gold fields originally discovered by diamond miner Cecile John Rhodes at the turn of the 20th century. De Beers, Anglo-American, and Rio Tinto--and their successors (innocuously labeled "British capitalists") have had a virtual monopoly on strategic metals and diamonds in South Africa since those days, and their representatives sat on boards that made decisions about atomic energy, according to  news reports that advised Americans in 1949:

HOUSTON, TEXAS, SATURDAY AFTERNOON, NOVEMBER 12, 1949
New Uranium Source Seen
Washington.—The United States atomic energy commission disclosed that it is engaging in discussions which may result in acquisition of uranium—heart  material of the A-bomb—from the Union of South Africa.
The discussions, now going on in Johannesburg, South Africa, are an outgrowth of discovery over a year ago that uranium occurs as a minor element of gold ore found in certain sections of the South African Union. The AEC announcement said that representatives of Great Britain and South Africa are participating in the conferences.
Dr. John Kyle Gustafson
Inclusion of Great Britain in the meetings recalled still-current negotiations  between England and the United States for future division of the priceless uranium deposits in the Belgian Congo. The Congo deposits are the largest known in the world and are owned by companies controlled by British capital. Britain reportedly wants a larger share of the output, along with latest American atomic energy knowhow.
Transmittal of such data is at present forbidden by the atomic energy control act. AEC's raw materials operation director, Dr. J. K. Gustafson, is the American representative in the Johannesburg meetings. It was Gustafson who, in  September, 1948, announced discovery of the uranium element in South Africa's fabled gold, and said: "The intriguing prospect exists therefore of future by-product uranium from the great gold mining industry of the Union of South Africa."

When the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was passed, along with it a new method of classifying data went into effect under executive regulations implementing secrecy and restricted status of the nuclear data, as set out in the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science by Allen Kent and Harold Lancour:


President Eisenhower signed E.O. 10501 into law on November 5, 1953.

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