This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
MOAB - Young Jimmy Walker was pumping gas at his uncle's service station here a half-century ago when he caught uranium-hunting fever. He taught himself geology in one of nature's best-endowed classrooms anywhere, the red rock Colorado Plateau. He became a prospector in time for a second uranium boom two decades later.
Now 77, Walker leans forward over his breakfast. It must be cold, the syrup-drenched pancakes and eggs, but he is oblivious. Eyes sparkling, he takes off again on the uranium boom he sees on the horizon, coming fast.
"Let me tell you," he says, "there's no thrill bigger than the thrill of discovery."
Signs of a new boom have people all over southeastern Utah just as stirred up.
But this won't be another bonanza like Charlie Steen's. Not the 1952 uranium boom that sprouted rags-to-riches stories and put Moab on the map as "The Uranium Capital of the World" and transformed sleepy Salt Lake City into the "Wall Street of Uranium Stocks."
Uranium has become an enterprise for corporations, not upstarts. The government has become more impediment than inspiration. And, for some, a half-century of uranium cleanups and lives ruined by radiation exposure have tarnished the glow of the metal used for nuclear-reactor fuel.
"I don't think [a uranium boom] could possibly be like that [first] one," says Salt Lake City author Raye Ringholz.
She examines "the fever" in Uranium Frenzy: Saga of the Nuclear West. A onetime "women's page" writer for the defunct Salt Lake Telegram newspaper, she began the book to put flesh on the incredible tales of prospectors, like Steen, and Salt Lake City's penny stock promoters.
Then she decided to include the darker stories: about uranium workers toiling in cancer-causing radiation, their families living around it. She later added a chapter on Downwinders, who blame their cancers on fallout from atomic bombs made from the uranium.
"This is a two-faced animal," she says. "It has two sides to it, and you can't put just one face on it."
That's been tough lately. The price of uranium has jumped to $30 a pound, up from $7 just four years ago. So, it's easy to let uranium's virtues overshadow its hazards.
County clerks' offices in southeastern Utah have fielded thousands of new claims since last fall, not the usual dozens. Idle mills in White Mesa, south of Blanding, and Ticaboo, south of Hanksville, might soon groan back into action.
Reports like these make lots of people twinkle-eyed. It is a reflection, perhaps, of the near-mythic times that began in 1952, after Charlie Steen happened on an unlikely bonanza in an unlikely spot southeast of Moab.
The Texan was drawn to the area by a federal program under the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) that offered top dollar for uranium, more than other metals fetched. As part of an effort to provide a domestic supply of uranium, the AEC paid a bonus of $10,000 - roughly $70,000 in today's dollars - for significant finds.
When Steen's drill tapped into uranium-rich deposits in the Lisbon Valley's Big Indian Wash, a California gold-style rush began.
Four Utah counties saw 309,380 claims between 1946 and 1959. Even shepherds and farmers would set out on family picnics with the AEC's how-to prospect pamphlet and a Geiger counter.
People pulled trailers onto lawns in Moab for living space. Some slept on the courthouse lawn. Schools swelled with prospectors' children. The town's population ballooned from 1,000 to 8,000 in a matter of months.
Steen moved his young family from their tar paper shack into a $250,000 mansion on a bluff overlooking Moab, swimming pool and servants' quarters included. His legendary parties drew thousands, and he created a sensation by flying to Salt Lake in his private airplane for weekly rumba lessons.
Mark Steen, Charlie Steen's son, foresees a resurgence. He and a partner have staked about 2,500 claims since last fall.
He wrote this summer in the Canyon Country Zephyr that AEC bought more than 40 million pounds of uranium concentrate from the processing mill his father started in Moab - a quantity worth $325 million between 1948 and 1971. The same concentrate at $110 a pound - where many believe the price of uranium is headed - would be worth $4.4 billion. Steen is among those who wouldn't be surprised to see it reach $200 a pound.
"Brace yourself, Moab," he warns, "the third uranium boom on the Colorado Plateau is on the way."
That sort of conviction has driven old-timers, their younger kin and fortune seekers to revisit old claims and search out new ones.
One is Moab resident James Tibbetts, a stonemason and father of four who has staked a few dozen claims. The son of a boom-time prospector, he has been researching uranium on the Internet. He also attended an industry forum in Grand Junction, Colo., a few months ago with Walker, his father-in-law.
Electricity demand in India and China keeps growing and "OPEC's got us by the throat." Hydropower, coal, oil - they've all got limitations and hydrogen, he says, "that's like putting a bomb in your car."
"I think uranium's going to come back," says Tibbetts.
And then there is International Uranium Corp.'s White Mesa mill south of Blanding.
There is talk about getting the mill running and again, bringing jobs to San Juan County. Opened the year after the Three Mile Island nuclear-plant accident in 1979 but mostly idle for the past six years for a lack of material to process, it is now one of just two operating uranium mills in the United States.
Still, uranium is not the romantic business it used to be for some. Big business overtook the little guy decades ago.
Conventional wisdom has it that the easy uranium already has been mined. New deposits are bound to be deeper, out of Geiger-counter range. So, most exploration would cost too much for casual prospectors.
Old-timer Earl D. Shumway also blames environmentalism and red tape. Staking and maintaining a claim used to cost about $10. Nowadays it's $165, plus the yearly expenses involved in keeping claims active.
At 79, he is not deterred. He has made his way into the Grand County Clerk's Office a few weeks ago with the needed paperwork for an old quarry claim.
"All of these things are making the uranium boom quite complicated," he says. "And there's no guarantee of the [selling] price" as when the AEC was the buyer.
"It's a fiasco."
For some people, an even greater fiasco is the widespread willingness to overlook all the damage left in uranium's wake.
Once people really think about it, says former Grand County Commissioner Bill Hedden, they won't be so enthusiastic. It would be different if they talked about uranium trucks rolling through downtown Moab again and rebuilding the mill.
"Then, if it's not just hypothetical but it's got a face on it, then you'll see people go, 'Wait a minute.' " he said.
Cleaning up Utah's uranium mills is costing taxpayers nearly $1 billion, by current estimates. The tab for treating people made ill by working in the mines, moving uranium, milling it - and, in some cases, those who just lived around it - cannot be tallied.
The AEC knew about the radiation in the uranium ores could be dangerous, even fatal. Yet, eager to ensure its uranium supplies, it had allowed miners, millers, transporters and their families to be exposed to high levels of radiation throughout the '50s and '60s. Exposure standards were not set until 1969, and then, many say, poorly enforced.
In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to partly address the government's responsibility for these health problems. Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and the late Democratic Rep. Wayne Owens were two of its strongest advocates.
So far, the fund has distributed nearly $1 billion to Downwinders and uranium workers, including about 858 Navajos. And efforts are under way to expand the program to cover a broader range of illnesses suffered by people in a broader geographical area.
Even today's enthusiastic prospectors acknowledge this health toll.
Shumway, for instance, lost a brother and a son to radiation disease. And his own compensation check went largely to caring for his dying son.
"Very few miners got rich out of mining," he says. "We got more money out of the [compensation] payments."
Former San Juan County Commissioner Bill Redd is among the 3,651 Utahns who has gotten RECA payment. He worked in uranium from age 16.
He married into a uranium family, too. All six of his wife's brothers, including Shumway, and her father were miners. One died in a mine accident. Two succumbed to mine-related illnesses, says Redd.
He now has "lung problems," silicosis. A respirator sits on his desk. A box of inhalers sits among the stacks of such books as the Wisdom Paradox and The Portable MBA. He sometimes uses an oxygen tank.
"Personally, I was completely ignorant of silicosis and radiation," says Redd, who, like most miners, did not wear a respirator while working with uranium.
Meanwhile, the environmental toll is still being tallied, too. Cleaning up the 130-acre pile left behind by the bankrupt Atlas Corp. remains one of the biggest challenges.
Utah already has seen more than $446 million in uranium cleanups. Atlas, built in Grand County and later sold by Charlie Steen, is expected to cost at least $475 million. Meanwhile, uranium waste faces no special regulation either at the state or federal level.
"We're planning a boom," says Grand County Councilwoman Judy Carmichael. "We're planning a 100-person boom" to deal with cleanup workers over the next decade.
Down the highway in Monticello, they continue dealing with the fallout from uranium booms past. Fritz Pipkin - not an environmentalist but "a normal Joe Humbug who was raised in this town" - is pushing the government to study the health problems that have plagued his community because of ore-processing.
The Vanadium Corp. of America built the Monticello mill - called Madame Curie's mill because of the radium it processed for the Nobel scientist - in 1941 and sold it to the federal government in 1948. It produced uranium and metal-strengthening vanadium for 12 years before being shuttered, leaving behind 2.5 million cubic yards of sand-like uranium tailings that released radioactive radon gas and tainted a creek running through the mill site.
Although $250 million has been spent cleaning up the community, the site continues to affect those who live around it, says Pipkin. More than 400 residents have detailed illness they blame on the site. And, in a place that ought to expect just one case of leukemia in three decades, locals count 21.
Pipkin played on the tailings as a kid. Today, he is preparing for another round of leukemia treatments.
"We gotta have it," he says of the uranium now being prospected. "It just has to be done right."
Mark Steen agrees. He foresees modern mines with better attention to health and environmental safety. He doubts the stories of kids playing in tailings and workers toiling in unhealthy mills and mines.
"My old man used to say atomic bombs saved more lives than they ever took."