This exhibit was created by a USU student. (learn more...)

HIST 3770, Spring 2016: Nuclear West: Uranium Fever: From Boom to Bust

Array ( [0] => HIST 3770 Spring 2016 [1] => nested [2] => student exhibit )
Two Men Struggling to Find Uranium
Two uranium miners during the boom of the 1950s. 

The Atomic Energy Commission’s demand for uranium exploded in the 1950s. This was due, in part, to President Eisenhower's "Atoms For Peace" speech, which encouraged the governments of the world to focus more time, effort, and resources on research for peaceful uses of nuclear energy.[1] The demand for uranium was higher than ever while the United States government explored both belligerent and peaceful uses for the atom.

This increased demand for uranium led many to try and make it big in uranium prospecting. In 1952, several individuals, such as Charles Steen and Vernon Pick, discovered large uranium deposits worth millions of dollars in the Colorado Plateau; a uranium-rich zone that covers much of the deserts of southeastern Utah, western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and northern Arizona.[2] Soon, "Uranium Fever" was all over media, creating a national perception that anyone with grit, determination, and a Geiger counter could make it big, like Steen or Pick.[3]

Thousands of amateur prospectors flocked to the Colorado Plateau, hoping to become the next uranium millionaire. Some would strike rich, but most soon discovered that uranium prospecting was more than they bargained for and left the plateau with nothing. While a small few would continue to find their fortune in the uranium mines of the Colorado Plateau through the end of the 1950s, by 1955, Uranium Fever began to become a national joke.

[1] “Atoms for Peace,” Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum and Boyhood Home, accessed May 1, 2016, https://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/atoms_for_peace.html.  

[2] “Colorado Plateau,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Acessed May 2, 2016, http://www.britannica.com/place/Colorado-Plateau.

[3] Taylor, Samuel, and Raymond W. Taylor. "Uranium Fever." 1970. MS 194, USU_COLL MSS, Utah State University.

In the end, Uranium Fever ended as fast as it had began. Spirits had started high when amatuer prospectors, like Charles Steen, made millions. These fantastic stories, portrayed in popular media and local newspapers, led many to try their hand at uranium prospecting to no avail. People began to flock to the Colorado Plateau like it was Las Vegas, but without all the lights, entertainment, and spectacle of Sin City. Eventually, the fad ended as most amateurs discovered that prospecting was not worth the gamble. The public turned Uranium Fever into a laugh, as it was now seen as a fool’s errand. This left uranium prospecting as a humorous footnote in the history of the Nuclear West.