Uranium ore, that is.
On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb. Needless to say, this created quite a stir in the U.S. which launched a massive bomb building campaign to counter the Soviet threat. American policymakers strategically decided the develop native sources of uranium ore (aka U308) so as not to be dependent on foreign sources. The newly created Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was designated as the only legal buyer of the ore. For several years, the AEC had already been paying top dollar for the ore, touting it as the energy source of the future. AEC chairman, David Lilienthal, crossed the country telling audiences that a uranium pellet the size of a peanut contained the energy of a ton of coal; holding up a lump of coal, he would tell his audience the equivalent size rock of uranium would heat a large city for an entire winter. With the combination of a successful Soviet atomic bomb test, the Korean War, and the beginnings of the domino theory of the fight against communism, the pressure was on the AEC to develop enough weapons-grade uranium to reduce the USSR to pea-gravel several times over.
In March 1951, the AEC doubled the price it was paying for uranium ore and offered a $10,000 bonus to anyone who developed a productive new mine. The AEC also provided guidebooks and geology reports, built supply roads, and constructed ore processing mills -- all in support of uranium miners. A uranium rush occurred in Utah. Moab, Utah went from 500 to 5,000 people virtually overnight. There were stories of prospectors renting planes and throwing out claim stakes in an massive mineral rights grab. Not coincidentally, Moab was the first place in Utah to allow alcohol.
Into this rush came Charlie Steen, an unemployed geologist from Texas, hitchhiking into Utah in 1952. Until this time, most uranium was either found on the surface or in excavated mines. Steen believed the ore could be found using drilling derricks to bore vertically to the ore. Legend has it that, in July 1952, he was down to his last dollar, wearing boots so worn his toes stuck out through holes, when his drill bit broke off in his bore hole. In disgust, he collected his samples from that day and drove home. On the way, he stopped at a service station where a friend had a Geiger counter. Apparently, everyone in Moab had a Geiger counter in those days. When he put the counter on his samples, the needle pegged all the way over. Steen had found a huge vein of uranium ore. His mine eventually produced over $100 million of ore. Steen had his worn-out boots bronzed.
The AEC continued its favorable pricing policies until 1966. By the early 70's the price of uranium ore had bottomed out. Then came the oil embargo of the 70's, and ore prices again skyrocketed as America was again electrified about nuclear power as the solution to America's energy needs. The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island -- less than 2 weeks after the opening of the movie The China Syndrome -- violently swung the public opinion pendulum against nuclear power. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) halted the construction of any new nuclear power plants. In 1986, the Chernobyl reactor explosion occurred, releasing 400 times the radiation as the Hiroshima bomb, further contaminating the reputation of nuclear power.
In the late 80's the fall of the Soviet Union, was another shock to the price of uranium ore. Ironically, much of the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal was recycled into fuel for nuclear power plants in the U.S. In fact, 20,000 Russian warheads have been dismantled and recycled into fully half of the uranium used for power generation in U.S. reactors. By the year 2000, uranium ore was selling for roughly the same price as it was 50 years before. In summer 2000, Invention and Technology magazine published an article detailing the history of uranium mining and its demise, saying that "uranium mining will not be a profitable venture any time soon." The market was dead and its prospects for a recovery were very dim indeed.
Now, however, the U.S. government is on the verge of granting permits for the first new nuclear power plants in 30 years. The soaring price of petroleum in recent years has again highlighted the folly of U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources. Growing concerns over global warming and greenhouse gas emissions are fueling the demand for forms of energy other than coal and oil. Even hard-core anti-nukes are warming to the idea of nuclear power; Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace, said in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, that nuclear energy is "the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce greenhouse emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power."
And the U.S. isn't the only country with a re-energized nuclear power industry; Russia has unveiled plans to build 24 new nuclear reactors, and China has scheduled building more than 30 reactors (two 1,000-megawatt plants every year for the next 20 years). India is also going nuclear at a rapid pace. Worldwide, there are 160 power plants proposed or currently under construction.
Today, demand for uranium is outstripping the supply and the price for uranium ore has not just risen, it has absolutely skyrocketed. There's an ore rush occurring in Moab, Utah again -- almost 60 years after the first rush. And recently, a landowner in Virginia is trying to mine the largest deposit of uranium in the U.S.. A supply that is worth an estimated $10 billion and is the estimated energy equivalent of 7.4 billion barrels of oil. In the 80's, Virginia banned uranium mining but, of course, uranium ore wasn't extremely lucrative then -- and money talks.
Personally, I favor nuclear power despite its dangers and by-products; both of which I believe are far less than all other ready-for-primetime energy sources. But as a history addict, I find it interesting to compare the previous uranium rushes to the current one. The first rush in the 50's was fueled by fears of national security from a military perspective. The second rush of the 70's was generated by national security concerns over the U.S. over-reliance on foreign oil. Today's rush is plugged into America's growing concerns over rising petroleum prices, our voracious appetite for energy, our continued over-reliance on energy imports, and recognition of the need for clean yet economical energy sources -- in other words, economic national security tempered with a bit of environmentalism.
It's deja vu all over again. --Yogi Berra