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The untapped story of Alaska's uranium

North of 60 Mining News - June 27, 2024

Plucky prospectors, with a dash of spite, set out to prove the wealth of Alaska; despite expert opinions none existed at all.

Nestled on Alaska's Prince of Wales Island, the Ross-Adams uranium mine tells a tale steeped in Cold War ambitions. Discovered in the 1950s and shuttered quietly by the 1970s, this historic site is one of many that perhaps invites a reexamination in the context of today's search for sustainable energy sources and offers a glimpse into America's domestic potential in the global uranium landscape.

In 1955, a woman by the name of Mrs. John Thomas of Ballston Spa, New York, would perform a historic act – according to the Associated Press, she would turn on an electric stove and cook a hamburger.

What would compel the news to report something so benign? It was the electricity she used for dinner. Generated by Niagara Mohawk, America's first nuclear-powered plant in upstate New York, its use marked a national turning point.

Around this same time, Canada opened its own first nuclear power plant and predicted that atomic energy would meet 75% of the country's electrical needs by 1970.

On the southern side of the border officials were forecasting that nuclear power plants would deliver 55% of America's electricity by 1980, and this was further supported by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), that certainly believed in the future of domestic nuclear power.

With the U.S. depending on uranium imports from Africa and Canada it the years following World War II, AEC invested nearly $2.5 billion to encourage domestic production of this energy metal, according to historian Raye Ringholz.

"The AEC constructed roads into the backcountry, promised $10,000 bonuses for new lodes of high-grade ore, guaranteed minimum prices and paid up to $50 per ton for .3 percent ore, constructed mills, helped with haulage expenses and posted geologic data on promising areas,"

Ringholz penned in her book "Uranium Frenzy, Boom and Bust on the Colorado Plateau."

Considering there were more than 800 uranium mines operating in the Colorado Plateau by the mid-1950s, this heavy incentivization worked.

Alaskan uranium

The uranium boom, however, did not immediately make its way to Alaska. This is largely due to the fact that many federal officials did not see much potential for the energy metal in the northern territory.

In his book, "Minerals for Atomic Energy," Robert Nininger, a leading expert at the Atomic Energy Commission, wrote that he felt that Alaska was unlikely to have much uranium.

Instead, he believed the American Southwest – in particular the Four Corners area where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet – was the best place to discover and find the nuclear fuel.

While his assessment of the Four Corners region continues to be proven correct, he did not completely hit the mark when it comes to Alaska.

With Alaska known to be a rich storehouse of almost every mineral there is, local officials felt that there must be uranium in America's northern territory.

Encouragement from local officials and the prospects of becoming an instant millionaire with a big discovery stirred up a uranium rush in Alaska.

A local of Ketchikan, the late Kenneth Eichner, wrote a book entitled "Nine Lives of an Alaskan Bush Pilot," that provides lengthy details about prospecting in the hills of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia around the time.

"I was bitten by the uranium bug, so this was the era when everywhere I went, I was flying with a nucliometer (a larger, more powerful version of the Geiger counter) fastened to my airplane," he wrote. "That meant I was flying into every little nook and cranny that I could into. It was a funny thing. The tighter into it you got, the better the readings were. It was kind of a sucker thing for us, but we soon learned that when the mountains started to close in you, what little uranium activity there was would be concentrated so you would get a higher reading, even though there wasn't a higher content of uranium."

Eichner wrote how he also thought that the southern part of Prince of Wales (POW) in Southeast Alaska might have been the place to hold uranium and planned to take a look at it in 1954.

"As fate would have it, one day I had a trip down to MacLean Arm (toward Cape Chacon on the southern tip of POW)," Eichner penned in his book. "On the way back, I decided to fly the nucliometer past Bokan Mountain, but on the way there I hit some heavy turbulence and had to turn aside."

If that turbulence had not been so rough, perhaps his name would be credited with the largest then known discovery of uranium in Alaska.

Bokan discovery

In those days, Bokan would prove to hold the largest deposit of uranium in Alaska. Since that time, more deposits of uranium have been found in America's 49th State, including the Death Valley discovery about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northeast of Nome on the Seward Peninsula.

Nevertheless, this discovery would have to wait at least a year longer for the combined efforts of more Ketchikan residents – pilots and prospectors Don Ross, Kelly Adams, and Bill Easton.

In April of 1956, The Alaska Sportsman (predecessor of Alaska Magazine) published a lengthy account of the trio's efforts.

Adams, a geologist, disagreed with the federal mines assessment of the uranium potential of Alaska, and Ross and Easton agreed with him. Together, they pulled together around $6,000 to cover the costs of making a big uranium discovery and proving federal naysayers wrong.

A year before the article was published, the trio formed the Uranium 55 syndicate.

"Kelly Adams, pilot, geologist, aircraft mechanic and longtime prospector reasoned that Alaska lands could possess valuable deposits of uranium because they definitely had other minerals," wrote B.G. Olson in The Alaska Sportsman. "Don Ross, a successful young pilot and a close friend of Adams agreed with him. Bill Easton, another friend and successful businessman, was also interested in this new adventure."

Using the money they saved up, they acquired their own nucliometer and a Piper Cub J-3 aircraft. In late April, Ross began flying over Prince of Wales Island, a location they also determined as most likely to hold economic quantities of uranium.

U.S. Forest Service

Location of Bokan Mountain where the Ross-Adams uranium mine was operated.

A couple weeks later, Ross was flying with his wife Jan when they got a very high reading above Bokan Mountain, a 2,500-foot peak between Moira Sound and Kendrick Bay at the south end of Prince of Wales.

Much like Eichner, poor weather prevented them from landing at the site.

"Suddenly the nucliometer went crazy," Olson wrote. "It flipped clear off the dial at the least sensitive setting. The prospectors then had to find some way to reach the 'hot spot' without landing on the salt water and leaving their plane to the mercy of the tides. They decided that Hessa Lake, about two miles from the outcropping, would be the best bet."

It is unclear whether it was Ross and his wife who returned the next day, or Ross and Adams, however, given the naming of the eventual mine, perhaps the staking is attributed to them as it is recorded that two landed at the lake, hiked to the outcropping and staked the site-all within two weeks of the syndicate's inception.

The big "POW" discovery

Not wanting to stir up competition on Bokan Mountain, the Uranium 55 syndicate shipped their samples to the Atomic Energy Commission under a cloak of heavy secrecy.

Anxious to know if they had made the big discovery, the Uranium 55 team also brought samples to Art Glover, the assayer-engineer in Ketchikan for the Territorial Department of Mines, and Phil Holdsworth, the territorial Commissioner of Mines in Juneau.

Intrigued, Holdsworth flew out to the mine and collected his own samples and then got on the wire with Climax Molybdenum Company out of Colorado.

Also intrigued, Climax flew their own team out to investigate the claim. Their tests indicated ore grades that were even higher than the uranium that was being mined out of the Rockies.

By this time, the cat was out of the bag and news of the big "POW" uranium discovery graced the headlines of Southeast Alaska papers.

Working quickly, the syndicate sold some of their earlier stakes to garner additional capital and staked 14 more claims around the initial hotspot.

"In Southeastern Alaska, especially around Ketchikan, rumors started to leak out about 'the big strike on Prince of Wales'," wrote Olsen in The Alaska Sportsman. "Claim jumpers turned up, caused trouble, then disappeared again. Ross had to 'ditch' other planes which tried to follow him every time he headed for the claim."

The Uranium 55 team would then travel to Seattle to begin negotiations with Climax.

Looking for an immediate payout from the first Alaska uranium discovery, the syndicate entered the negotiation asking $5 million for its claims. Climax, which did not want to layout that kind of money on a prospect that may not prove to be feasible to mine declined the offer.

After five days of negotiations, Climax agreed to pay Uranium 55 $25,000 up front for the right to prove up and explore the claim for one year. At the end of the year, Climax agreed to pay the syndicate an additional $55,000, plus $50,000 a year or 25% of the profits whichever was greater until 1960.

From this agreement, the Kendrick Bay Mining Corporation was founded.

In the end, one can only estimate how much the syndicate made from their agreement with Climax. However, based on ore mined out of Ross-Adams, uranium price at the time, and other factors, a final estimate falls fairly short of the initial $5 million, landing closer to $700,000.

Still a fairly significant number considering the original investment of $6,000.

Ross-Adams

Although the name of the Ross-Adams mine can obviously be attributed to principal discoverers, it is unclear why Easton was not included in the naming of the eventual site. Nevertheless, his involvement in the initial work must have been significant enough seeing as the operation was able to get underway.

Wikimedia Commons

The Ross-Adams uranium mine on Bokan Mountain, Prince of Wales Island, Alaska during operation in the 1960s.

Mining began in 1957 and continued intermittently until 1971 to fulfill sales contracts with the Atomic Energy Commission.

According to U.S. Bureau of Mines records, 1.3 million pounds of uranium was produced from approximately 90,000 tons of ore averaging 0.76% triuranium octoxide (U3O8) during three periods of mining over this 14-year span.

This uranium ore was mined from a steeply dipping pipe-like orebody with a combination of a small open pit mine, which looks like a trench, and an underground mine.

The ore mined at Ross-Adams was not processed on the Bokan property. Instead, the material was shipped by barge to facilities in Washington and Utah for beneficiation and processing.

"Forty men now live in the self-contained quarters that can hold up to 42," the Daily News reported in the summer of 1971. "They work three shifts a day, seven days a week. (Company officials) said the ore should be extracted by the middle or end of September."

By this time, the uranium "boom" was clearly in its sunset years.

"Utah alone had produced approximately nine million tons of ore valued at $25 million by the end of 1962," Ringholz wrote. "But then the industry almost came to a standstill. The AEC, now holding ample reserves, announced an eight-year limited program, and finally completely stopped buying uranium in 1970. Private industry triggered a brief second boom when nuclear power plants came on line in the mid-70s, but foreign competition, federal regulations and nuclear fears virtually put an end to domestic uranium mining."

Decline of nuclear

Perhaps the final nail in the coffin of private, domestic uranium mining was the bankruptcy of the multi-billion dollar nuclear-based Washington Public Power Supply System as well as the infamous Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents.

Further turning the public against nuclear, likely fostered by Hollywood influence in media as well, the latter part of the 20th century instead saw many of the older plants begin decommissioning as the public debate over what to do with nuclear waste began to heat up.

U.S. Forest Service

The old Ross-Adams uranium mine site, you can see some of the surface trenches and mine passages on the left side.

Although uranium mining at Bokan Mountain is dormant these days, it is estimated that it still hosts around 11 million pounds of uranium. In recent years, Ucore Rare Metals Inc. has been advancing Dotson Ridge, a rare earths deposit at Bokan Mountain that is associated with but separate from the uranium at Ross-Adams.

Given the critical role of rare earth elements in the ongoing energy transition and the recent ban on Russian uranium imports by the Biden administration, Ucore is considering the possibility of vending Ross-Adams to a third party to advance the uranium potentials at Bokan Mountain. However, their primary focus remains on rare earths, emphasizing the strategic importance of these materials for future technologies and energy solutions.

While the Ross-Adams mine's days of uranium production are long past, its legacy endures as a testament to the era's pioneering spirit and the ongoing quest for energy independence. As the world pivots towards sustainable energy solutions, the lessons learned and resources discovered at Bokan Mountain continue to shape America's approach to resource management and technological innovation.

 

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