Prospectors on the Nuclear Minerals Frontier

URANIUM FRENZY: BOOM AND BUST ON THE COLORADO PLATEAU by Raye C. Ringholz, New York: W.W. Norton, 310 pp., $18.95

CHARLIE STEEN was a figure right out of the 1850s, rushing off to the Western mountains to strike it rich. He lived on beans, slept in a tent, and prospected tirelessly. But he poked the cliffs and buttes in the 1950s, and his quest wasn't gold, but uranium. When his eureka came, it was a true mother lode, destined to make him a millionaire and launch the West's last great mineral rush.

Following Steen's discovery of a rich vein of pitchblende near Moab, Utah, in 1952, prospectors combed the government-owned high desert of the Colorado Plateau. Claim markers sprouted on barren, sagebrush land that had no proven uranium potential at all, but happened to be in the rough vicinity of a bona fide strike. This activity was consciously generated by the United States government. Uncle Sam found himself in an intensifying cold war and in need of a nuclear arsenal - and thus of a sure supply of weapons-grade uranium ore. Washington provided the land for prospecting and a guaranteed market for all the yellowish rock the modern argonauts could haul out of their shafts.

``Uranium Frenzy'' chronicles the rush for buried wealth, drawing largely on press reports and interviews of those days. It's a lively account, if a bit disjointed and inelegant at times. Raye Ringholz patches together three or four separate narratives under the uranium theme.

Steen's personal history is the most intriguing of these. He is a salty character, bristling with Western independence. Charlie became a legend in his region. His Mi Vida mine spawned an empire of uranium holdings. His Utex company parties were splendidly wild; his temper explosive. After leaving Utah in the early 1960s, put off by Mormon morality and state taxes, Steen and his wife, M.L., settled near Reno, Nev., and built their dream mansion. The Internal Revenue Service soon followed, serving a tax bill in the millions. The dream had burst. Charlie blamed it on friends' bad advice to diversify his business holdings, set his jaw, and went back to the hills in search of another fortune.

Ringholz also writes of the freewheeling penny stock boom that financed the uranium hunters. This breed of quick-money scheming produced its own club of millionaires - as well as legions of small-time losers, who bet their life savings on worthless uranium stocks. The law caught up with the slick stockbrokers, too.

The saddest story line traces the health controversy surrounding uranium mining. A few government inspectors, men of conscience, suspected from the beginning that poorly ventilated mines were subjecting men to serious damage from concentrated radon gas. Not until the 1970s, when dozens of miners had already died, did the story surface through press expos'es and congressional hearings. By then it was too late for many families, whose battles for compensation dragged on and were never fully won.

For most readers, this book will be a window on an episode of Western history that - though recent - remains obscure. It's a quirky tale, yet it connects with issues still very much with us: concern over nuclear power, both military and industrial; wild, speculative stock dealings; toxicity and worker safety. The frenzy, it seems, has just taken new forms.

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