Articles

THE HOTTEST SQUARE MILE IN THE WORLD

Geologists, miners and construction men are already swarming over a chunk of Saskatchewan’s rock-and-water wilderness, bringing in the first of the big new uranium mines which could give Canada world leadership and fantastic wealth in the coming atomic age

B. T. RICHARDSON October 15 1951
Articles

THE HOTTEST SQUARE MILE IN THE WORLD

Geologists, miners and construction men are already swarming over a chunk of Saskatchewan’s rock-and-water wilderness, bringing in the first of the big new uranium mines which could give Canada world leadership and fantastic wealth in the coming atomic age

B. T. RICHARDSON October 15 1951

THE HOTTEST SQUARE MILE IN THE WORLD

Geologists, miners and construction men are already swarming over a chunk of Saskatchewan’s rock-and-water wilderness, bringing in the first of the big new uranium mines which could give Canada world leadership and fantastic wealth in the coming atomic age

Articles

B. T. RICHARDSON

IN THE TWISTED precambrian humpland of rock and water that makes a lonely wilderness of northern Saskatchewan there are two little ponds of lakes, one called Beaverlodge and the other called Ace, which are destined to become household names. For the hillside between them probably encompasses the hottest square mile in the world and it is here that a new kind of Canadian boom town is planned. Its name: Uranium City, Sask.

Here the government-controlled Ace Mine promises already to double or triple Canada’s uranium output. It is destined to eclipse Eldorado, the original uranium mine on Great Bear Lake, and it is expected to rank second only to the great ShinkoLbwe mine on the panhandle of the Belgian Congo. It will affect Canada’s industrial, political and military future as has no single geological strike in the country’s history. It will produce enough ore to put this country in the forefront of the coming atomic revolution. And it will pose on us one mighty problem: now that we have the

second largest potential source of uranium on the globe—perhaps even the largest what are we going to do with it? Shall we continue simply to ship the raw ore to the United States? Or shall we begin to process it here for the atomic furnaces that an industrial country in the new age must have?

Canada’s economic future is vested in this wild mist-shrouded lakeland under whose tough crust lie tens of millions of dollars’ worth of the new ore. Neither the recent discoveries of oil in Alberta, the development of iron mines in Labrador-Quebec, nor the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway will in the end mean as much. There is no doubt about the richness of the ore in the Beaverlodge Lake area. It is patched and pocketed bacon-strip fashion with fat and lean areas of pitchblende. One three-foot vein in the Ace mine shows ore worth thirty-four dollars a ton running for three hundred and thirty feet. Another is fifteen feet wide and worth forty-eight dollars a ton. One unbelievable drill hole was cut through ore worth more than four hundred and seventeen dollars a ton. One large deposit proved as hot as uranium can come —an ancient gravel pile worth one hundred thousand dollars.

Athabaska Is a Shining Streak

Small wonder that the government’s Eldorado Company will have eight million dollars invested here by 1953 when the first ore starts coming up the main shaft at the rate of five hundred tons a day. And this shaft (called Fay after a prospector’s girl friend) is being cut to handle an eventual two thousand tons of ore a day.

I have just returned from the ore fields, five hundred air miles northeast of Edmonton. At first glance from an airplane Beaverlodge Lake might be any one of a thousand in this country of dark blue water, spruce-clad shorelines and rounded ice-age rocks. Almost every valley holds a crystal lake, stained with brown muskeg water. Beaverlodge is a hundred miles off the main route of air travel into the Mackenzie River region, but that defect was remedied by a new air strip at Ace Mine which opened for heavy air traffic from the south late in July.

At Edmonton airport, Alf Cay wood, chief pilot of the Eldorado Company, gave me the flight plan when we boarded his DC-3. We would stop at McMurray and then fly to the Fort Smith air strip. Here we would transfer to a Norseman on pontoons for a hop of a hundred and thirty-five miles eastward, doubling back to cut across the boundary of Saskatchewan. That would put us down at the front door of Ace Mine.

There is a sharp change of landscape when one enters the Lake Athabaska country from the west. The fiat forested plain, through which the Athabaska, the Peace and the Slave Rivers meander northward to the Mackenzie and the Arctic, turns abruptly into the precambrian land of rock and water. The long expanse of Lake Athabaska comes into view on the right, a shining streak on the horizon with its long sand beaches on the distant shore making yellow Continued on page 38

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gashes in the verdant landscape. The rocky hills become whale-back ridges as they slip down into the big lake. One ridge only a mile across separates Beaverlodge Lake from Lake Athabaska. The pilot flipped the plane into a gliding turn and we landed in front of Eldorado camp. We were in Uranium country.

We climbed a sandy path and struck a firm roadway, well stamped down by bulldozers. The road became a wide street with neat buildings on both sides. A queue of workmen was waiting at the dining hall for the supper gong. “It’ll be an hour before we eat,” said Robert Sexsmith, the camp superintendent. “Everything’s crowded here — -we’ll take the second shift.”

A ten-foot notice board near the lake front brings a visitor to a halt: “WARNING. Beaverlodge Lake is a ‘protected place’ under the atomic energy regulations of Canada.” This means it is an offense to carry a gun or “any missile weapon,” as the notice says. That notice board is the only visible evidence of security surrounding the uranium workings.

Their Own Post Office Soon

As the cookhouse gong rang the doors at both ends of a long bunkhouse began to disgorge men for the cafeteria-style supper line. A cluster of tents and tent-houses among the spruce trees added more men to the line. A few more, emerging from a big bunkhouse still under construction, stepped gingerly down a teetering plank set as a gangway to the door. Where the road turns and goes over the hill to Fay shaft, a mile away, the high whine of a power saw came from the woodworking shop. Next to it a mechanic was fussing over a roaring Caterpillar tractor in front of the machine shop.

Carpenters were building company houses among the trees a few hundred yards away, where a bulldozer was moving rock and sand for a street. A half dozen small excavations marked sites for future houses. From over the hill came the rumble of giant earth carriers moving the landscape to make the air strip. The dynamite was set to blow the top off a ridge at exactly one o’clock.

The Eldorado, with a population of two hundred, will double in size within a year. Meanwhile the men are crammed three in a room and four in a tenthard-rock miners in helmets from the underground levels and men in plaid shirts and denims from the surface gangs.

Beaverlodge is a common name on the Canadian map. A new employee may find that his mail winds up at Beaverlodge, Alta., unless he remembers to use Eldorado Company’s Edmonton address. But the mining field is going to have its own town and post office soon—Uranium City. Saskatchewan’s Minister of Natural Resources, J. H. Brockelbank, picked out the site this summer, four miles from the Eldorado camp. Pilot Dave Dyck showed it to me from the cabin of the Norseman one day. It was only a spruce park edging a beach of sand on an inland lake. He pointed to the spot where a new wharf would be built at the head of Black Bay on Lake Athabaska. It will handle barge loads of freight brought down the river from McMurray and across the lake. He pointed to where the road would be built this year, five miles from the wharf to Uranium City and another five miles to Ace Mine. All this is only in the mind’s eye yet.

Many a Canadian mining camp has the bleak aspect of carelessly scorched earth. When Eldorado picked Robert Sexsmith, the superintendent of its Port Radium operation on Great Bear Lake, as superintendent of operations at Beaverlodge Lake, it picked a man who was determined that the new camp would be a place where people would like to live. Perhaps he was thinking of his family of four children, who will come to live in one of the staff houses in the fall. On the hillsides the birches and the spruces are being spared to add beauty to the campsite.

But some errors slip through. Bill Hacker, in charge of the company’s exploration, and I were watching the unloading of earth-moving equipment from a barge at the lake front. A bulldozer knocked down a handful of trees and started heaping up sand as a makeshift wharf. It made a raw gash in the symmetry of the shore. “They’re sure ruining a beauty spot,” he said between futile passes at the clouds of insects around our heads. He has spent four summers at Beaverlodge

Lake. “This was a pretty picture when we moved in,” he said. He looked across the lake, and added: “It still

is.” A sweep of his arm took in the blue lake edged with evergreens and the purple hills beyond, where an evening mist was tinting the scene like a Maxfield Parrish print. “When the mist comes across those hills,” said Bill, “it’s a wonderful sight.”

Beaverlodge Lake may prove that private mining companies can make big money in uranium. That needs to be proved because uranium is so strange and so unknown that private interests have tended to leave it to the government. One reason why the security black-out on uranium is easing up is that the results of four years of prospecting have been disappointing. Uranium is too important to make a mystery of it.

From the Flicker of a Geiger

The Canadian Government made uranium a crown monopoly in 1944. By law, Eldorado is the sole purchaser in Canada of radioactive ore. But anyone can find it, mine it and sell it to Eldorado. The private producer would not have to worry about refining costs as Eldorado operates the only uranium refinery in Canada, at Port Hope, Ont. Moreover, the Ace Mine mill will be ready to do custom milling for other mines in the area.

Private concessions issued by the Saskatchewan Government blanket the countryside for twenty miles around. Nine concessions of varying size may be counted in the immediate vicinity of Ace Mine, for which Eldorado has staked two hundred and thirty-eight claims. So far none of these concessions has been explored to the point of

proving substantial, continuous zones of radioactive ore. But some of them may turn out to be valuable mines. The Saskatchewan Government puts a three-year limit on its concessions, after which the holder must select the claims he wants and release the rest. The Lake Athabaska country is rife with speculation that Ace will not be the only mine to come into production. But it is a long way from the flicker of the dial of a Geiger counler at the moment of discovery of radioactivity to a producing mine.

The Ace Mine’s main Fay shaft has been sunk squarely into the St. Louis fault, a giant wrinkle in the earth’s crust named after Phil St. Louis, who, with Einar Nelson, discovered the field in 1946. Four seasons of digging and drilling have proved the size of the radioactive area. The fault itself is radioactive for six or seven square miles and the area on both sides of it is patched and pocketed with pitchblende for six to eight miles in all directions. The Fay shaft will be the core of the entire sprawling field.

The whole region, as Bill Hacker put it, is “an area of excitement.” The main aid to the prospector is the Geiger counter, a geophysical device that detects the heart beats of a uranium atom. It is customary luggage these days in the north. When eight men were getting out of a small plane just in from Fort Smith, Dr. E. B. Gillanders, Eldorado’s mining manager, nudged me. “Look,” he said, “that tall guy in the Australian hat has a Geiger.” A lanky surveyor’s assistant carrying his packsack to the bunkhouse had a Geiger counter slung over his shoulder. One radioactive showing near Ace Mine was staked by red-headed Johnny Nesbitt, a bush pilot who spent his spare time three summers ago climbing around the moon-landscape hills with a Geiger counter. Beaverlodge Lake country comes in on a Geiger dial almost anywhere, like a special event blanketing the radio networks.

New as nuclear fission is, uranium is an old story to the geologist. The heavy coal-like ore of the uranium lodes in northwest Canada is said to be the oldest rock formation in the world. As far back as, perhaps, a thousand million years ago, a vast and yeasty solution, hot, corrosive, and strongly laced with radioactive salts and other mixtures, rose through a crack in the outer shell of the earth’s crust. This primeval brew splashed and corroded the rock, settled in seams and veins, and left a carmine-orange stain to meet the eye of the twentiethcentury prospector.

Although there’s an estimated hundred million million tons of uranium in the top ten miles of the earth’s crust it is distributed mostly in minute quantities, not enough of it worth mining. It might as well be dissolved in the oceans. World production in 1939 was only one thousand tons.

Thus, to discover a new uranium mine at this moment of history is obviously the best fortune that can befall a country. The Ace Mine means that Canada will have plenty of the raw stuff of atomic power. But it also means that Canada will have to decide what it is going to do with it.

From what has been published about the United States atomic energy program it is clear Canada could now go a good deal farther than it has in processing uranium. We have the uranium and we have a small refinery, but it is not modern enough and can’t refine uranium to the high degree of purity required for it to be processed. Our present product is sent from the Port Hope refinery to the U. S. for further refining before it comes back to Chalk River. A bigger and r refinery is planned by the Eldorado

Company—but that is still in the negotiating stage.

After it is refined to a high degree of purity, metallic uranium can be fed into a nuclear reactor to produce plutonium, the miracle fuel of nuclear reaction. Plutonium is the explosive charge that goes into the warhead of an atomic bomb. It is also the stuff that will drive atomic power plants when they are ready to operate. An atomic power plant will be only a slowed-down atomic explosion.

Dr. Henry D. Smyth, one of America’s leading atomic scientists and a member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, said recently, “We expect to have power-producing reactors running within a year or so.” He added: “We do not know yet when or whether such reactors using uranium as fuel will be able to compete economically with power plants burning conventional fuels.” The significance of such a statement lies in the fact that one pound of uranium-235 would release as much energy as can be obtained from burning thirteen hundred tons of coal.

The dawn of atomic power for industry presents Canada with crucial questions of high policy. At present the entire Canadian output of uranium is exported. It goes to one market, the United States Atomic Energy Commission, under a contract which is one of the most guarded secrets of Canadian-American relations.

We have developed atomic energy as a research tool as well as anyone, better than most. But we have not yet begun to contemplate its industrial use as a source of power. Canada is building a second reactor, but it will be just as dependent as the first on American supplies of pure uranium unless we reorganize and expand our atomic program.

The plutonium reposing in the American stockpile of atom bombs can be used industrially and, if it is not expended in war, will be so used in

It9s Confusing 1 can never decide between eether or eyether, So I shall use neether .... or is it neyether? —L. G. MENDERSHAUSEN JR.

the future. In this sense, the United States is already stockpiling the fuel for the greatest possible extension of its civilian power supply.

The Canadian atomic energy program has been, from the start, dedicated to peaceful uses. But since the fuel that explodes in an atom bomb is the same that is required for industrial power, Canada will have to start making plutonium some day to enter into the age of atomic power.

The present policy will soon lead to the position in which Canada remains the producer of uranium for the industrial reactors of the United States, and that is the same thing as selling natural gas or hydro-electric power abroad rather than utilizing these forms of energy at home for industrial development. Such a policy seems politically untenable for any Canadian government. The alternative is to set up in this country the whole process of atomic power, from the uranium mine to the plutonium pellet.

The shaft being sunk to tap the Ace Mine’s wealth of uranium brings into focus Canada’s greatest opportunity. It heralds the industrial revolution that wise men saw in the first successful experiments in nuclear fission, before they were diverted to the A-bomb. Uranium is the decisive military factor in a world balanced between American atomic know-how and Russian land power. But it is also the stuff of industrial atomic power. That makes Beaverlodge Lake, Canada’s newest mining saga, the key to our future, if