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Radioactive Legacy, Part 1 of a Journal special report: A yellowcake gold rush via Rapid City Journal

Four million tons of radioactive waste are buried under a grassy field three miles southeast of Edgemont in far southwestern South Dakota.

North of Edgemont, two massive abandoned mines, the biggest measuring about a mile across, scar the range land.

They are the byproducts of a uranium mining boom, and because the waste is nine feet underground and the mines are too far from the roads to be seen, they’re largely forgotten. So, too, are the other ill effects of the uranium mining rush that took place a half-century ago.

Locals may remember the jobs, and the bustling processing plant. They perhaps never knew about the out-of-state tycoons who pulled millions in profits from the ground, and then left a big mess behind. And they tend to forget or overlook the abandoned mill waste, the workers sickened by dust and radiation, and the abandoned mines and possible environmental contamination.

Now those old buried memories are being stirred by two very different yet confluent developments: a proposal for a new method of uranium mining in the same area; and new federal studies of the environmental damage caused by the old mines.

Together, they form the latest chapters in a story that continues to unfold some six decades after it began amid the clamor and chaos of a yellowcake gold rush.

[…]

The rush began in 1951 and the boom lasted about 20 years. During those two decades, the town came to be dominated by a massive, Chicago-based holding company known as the Susquehanna Corporation and two of its subsidiaries, Mines Development and Susquehanna-Western.

The marriage between Susquehanna and Edgemont brought the town a temporary economic boost, but the divorce left it suffering economic, human health and environmental effects that still fester all these decades later.

It all began with atomic bombs, a discovery in a canyon wall, and a meeting between a young entrepreneur and a cunning financier.

Bombs and a bonanza

The Atomic Age exploded into being when the United States dropped its A-bombs on Japan in 1945.

[…]

Years later, a Denver Post profile of the babyfaced Gray did not specifically identify those firms but quoted Gray telling a similar story.

“I had been turned down four times by big companies, but I figured I’d give it one more try,” he told the Post.

That try was expended on J. Patrick Lannan, a Chicago financier in his early 50s. Lannan had amassed a fortune from investments in multiple companies and was an associate of the Kennedy family. After his death decades later, a pair of Chicago Tribune writers opined that Lannan made latter-day corporate raiders “look like Boy Scouts.”

In other words, Lannan knew a hot deal when he saw one, and this had all the makings. The ore was piling up at Edgemont and awaiting processing at the partially constructed mill, and the federal government stood ready to buy all the extracted uranium.

Lannan and Gray reached an agreement. The full terms did not emerge publicly, but it was soon reported that a holding company of which Lannan was a major stockholder, Chicago North Shore System Inc., took over Gray’s Mines Development for $2.5 million and retained Gray to run it from an office in Denver.

To the relief of observers in Edgemont, the deal allowed construction of the mill to restart after a 5-day stoppage. But it also meant Edgemont’s uranium industry would be dominated from the start by a Chicago-based holding company and its subsidiaries.

Within five months of the deal, Chicago North Shore’s name was changed to The Susquehanna Corporation; within two years, Lannan orchestrated a shareholder revolt and installed himself as Susquehanna’s president and CEO.

[…]

Gray predicted that the future of uranium lay in selling it to power producers. He cited Atomic Energy Commission statistics that projected U.S. electric power requirements would double by 1980 and half of the new demand would be met by atomic power plants.

In reality, 1980 found nuclear power accounting for only 11 percent of the country’s electrical generation.

As the 1980s dawned, Gray had long since been pushed out of Susquehanna Corp. by more of Lannan’s maneuvering. The country’s nuclear-power industry was reeling from the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979. Edgemont was saddled with a shuttered mill and its associated waste piles and abandoned mines. And people in uranium towns throughout the West were taking stock of their health amid growing concerns about their exposure to radiation and lung-damaging mining and milling dust.

Read more at Radioactive Legacy, Part 1 of a Journal special report: A yellowcake gold rush

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