The Hunt for the Singing Atom – by C. Fred Bodsworth (MACLEAN’S Magazine – August 15, 1948)

Gold’s old stuff; miners on the Trail of ’48 want uranium, the stuff that can chirp in their ears or flatten a city

WHERE Northern Ontario’s broad Abitibi River tumbles through the spruce-walled gorge of Otter Rapids and lunges northward on its final 90-mile dash for James Bay and the sea, I stood over one of Canada’s newest radioactive ore discoveries and listened to its tune of disintegrating atoms, the theme song of the atomic age.

Locked in a brown-red vein of ore at my feet there was possibly bread-and-butter stuff for scores of potential atom bombs, but the tune of cracking atoms I heard could have been drowned out by the snap of a jenny firecracker.

Detected and amplified by the Geiger counter which hung at my waist, a wondrous little electronic gadget which smells out disintegrating atoms of radioactive ore as keenly as a cat smells out fish, the atom tune in the Geiger’s earphone sounded merely like raindrops spattering on a tin roof. Without the Geiger to translate it into sound, those thousands of disintegrating atoms Would have been as undetectable as the 40-pound sturgeons which, so the natives say, lurk in the Abitibi’s khaki-colored water offshore.

Along Ontario’s Abitibi and throughout the whole of northern Canada’s vast reaches of rock and muskeg, there are hundreds of Canadian prospectors and mining engineers this summer toting Geiger counters and listening for the song of the atom. The greatest mineral hunt of Canada’s mining history is on. The stuff they seek is uranium, the metal of tomorrow, the raw fuel of atomic energy.

Uranium five years ago was one of the least valuable of metals, a practically useless by-product of radium and gold refining. Today it is the most sought mineral of the world. Some day scientists may learn how to release bottled-up energy in the atoms of other elements, but today and probably for years to come uranium is the only element which can be induced to yield the latent force of the atom.

In 1943, when the atomic bomb was emerging from a dream to reality, the Canadian Government claimed title to all radioactive minerals in the ground and warned private prospectors and firms off. Canada’s only producing uranium mine, the workings of the Eldorado Mining and Refining Co. which had been dug to extract radium from the bleak and rocky east shore of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, was expropriated by the Crown.

Then the UN made it apparent that international control, if any, would not include control of radioactive ores in the ground. On March 16, the wraps were thrown off. Prospectors and private mining companies were told, in effect: “Get out and find uranium. Mine it yourselves. But you’ve got to sell all you produce to the Government of Canada.”

Canada guaranteed a minimum of $2.75 per pound for the uranium oxide of an ore for the next five years. Through the hush-hush curtain of atomic secrecy the fact had leaked out that at this price Eldorado’s ore was averaging $55 a ton. That’s big money.

Some gold mines have made money on two-dollar-a-ton ore. Thus, the standards of what constitutes mineral wealth had changed overnight. The uranium hunt was on. Every prospector and his brother packed up his duffel, got himself a Geiger counter if he could, and went out listening for the song of the disintegrating atom.

One of the busiest focal points at present in Canada’s uranium hunt is the Abitibi’s Otter Rapids area in Northern Ontario.

The original Otter Rapids discovery was made and the first claims staked last -July by Alex Mosher, a Haileybury prospector with a yen for poring over old geological reports and maps in the libraries of Ottawa and Toronto.

Thirty years ago a government survey party had passed down the Abitibi and in their report they referred to the “mystery ore” of Otter Rapids. Radioactivity was not then generally understood and the “mystery ore” was forgotten. A year ago Mosher discovered the report, and went to the Otter to have a look for himself. After 12 days of searching he came across the vein. He had no Geiger counter but he suspected that the deposit was radioactive so he hacked off a few samples and sent them to Ottawa for analysis. Then he struck off 1,000 miles to the west to prospect for gold around Red Lake.

A couple of months later a hurried wire from Ottawa’s atomic experts caught up to him near Red Lake. “Please forward 150 pounds of further samples,” it said. Mosher knew then that he had something hot. He rushed to the Otter, collected the samples and staked his claims while the coast was still clear. Radioactive ore was still hush-hush stuff and Mosher had to keep mum about his discovery.

When Tony Morelia, the Italian-born, Glasgow-raised postmaster, asked why he was spending so much time around Coral Rapids close by, Mosher waved a fishing rod and said he was trying for the Abitibi’s goldeyes. So the Otter Rapids’ singing atoms remained a secret, even to the four white residents of Coral Rapids a few miles away, until the Government threw off the final restrictions this spring and let the secret out.

Why Otter Is Important

IRONICALLY, there hasn’t been an atom of uranium found at Otter Rapids yet. Electronic and chemical analyses of samples obtained from Otter Rapids so far have all shown that the deposit’s radioactivity originates in thorium, an element closely related to uranium which, at our present stage of atomic know-how, isn’t a practical source of atomic power. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of interest in Otter Rapids among Ottawa’s atomic and mining experts.

Here’s why: In the present state of our knowledge, the only practical way of mining uranium is from a vein deposit. In another kind of deposit the ore is found sprinkled in a variety of granite known as pegmatite. The only radioactive vein deposit known to have been found in Canada outside the Northwest Territories is at Otter Rapids. All the other strikes, in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec have been pegmatite deposits.

Men representing the Geological Survey, the Bureau of Mines, Ontario’s Department of Mines and the Eldorado Co. have all had a fling at studying the Otter Rapids deposit. (The Bureau of Mines sent its first party in as long ago as last fall.) But no one yet has either called it a big discovery or pooh-poohed it as worthless.

They’re cagey about making definite statements, but one official described the Otter Rapids prospects in this way: “The Otter Rapids vein formation bears quite a resemblance to the big Great Bear Lake formation at the Eldorado mine. True, there’s been no uranium found there yet, but, according to all the uranium rules we know, there’s a big likelihood that uranium is there. The fact that its structure resembles Eldorado and, like Eldorado, is located on a fringe of the Precambrian Shield, makes the whole setup look very interesting.”

Interesting enough, anyway, that the prospectors have been flocking in with their Geiger counters like flies to honey. In May the discovery was announced by the Ontario Government; by midsummer the staking score was nearly 200 claims, representing about 20 private prospectors and mining firms. All of the land for about two miles on every side of the originally discovered vein has been staked.

Prospectors are jolting northward through the muskegs on the Ontario Northland Railway’s Cochrane-to-Moosonee Polar Bear Express, sharing seats with Cree Indians. They’re throwing off their tents, canoes and duffel at Mile 92, halfway point to Moosonee and James Bay (Conductor Sam Farmer will pull the cord and the twice-a-week Polar Bear will rumble to a stop wherever a passenger desires) and they’re tramping eastward from the railway along a half-mile trail that is now worn deep and wide to pitch their tents and throw down their sleeping bags where the rushing white water of the Abitibi bars the way.

Or, if the Polar Bear is running late and there’s not enough daylight left for pitching camp, the prospectors are riding four miles on to Coral Rapids (population—four whites, three Indians and a dozen or so Huskies; real estate—one house, one freight shed, three tar-paper shanties and a dozen or so dog kennels).

Tony Morelia, only postmaster in 80 miles, gives them bed and breakfast and calls them fools for “going ahuntin’ that atom stuff when you could be catchin’ speckled trout and goldeyes over in Little Beaver.” The dawn is still a blushing youngster when the prospectors start out on their four-mile backtrack toward Otter Rapids’ singing atoms.

I was lucky that frosty mid-June morning when I bade good-by to Tony Morelia, for section man Gord Killins was going south on a tour of track inspection with his gasoline-powered jigger. A cloud of mosquitoes and black flies convoyed me along the springy muskeg trail from the track to the rumbling Abitibi.

Soon the damp woodsy smell of the spruce gave way to a different aroma: Dave McDougall, a geologist from Montreal, straightened up stiffly above his sizzling frying pan and introduced himself from behind a two weeks’ crop of very black beard. He said he was surveying 54 claims (40 acres to the claim) which were held by his company, Moneta Porcupine Mines Ltd.

“The Geiger counter gives a few kicks wherever there’s an outcropping of rock anywhere in this area,” he said.

But most of the time we’re looking for the rocks instead of looking at them. There’s a 50-foot overburden of gravel and clay in most places. The Geiger won’t pick up radioactivity through that, it’ll need drilling and trenching before we know what’s under all this muskeg.”
Two of his crew, he said, had covered nine claims the day before, wading ankle and knee-deep in muskeg, and hadn’t found a single outcropping of rock.

When you start out in the morning the Geiger counter weighs 15 pounds,” he said. “By the time you get back to camp at night, you’re swearing that it weighs 1,500.”

The development of The Bomb transformed the cumbersome Geiger lab model to about the size of a mantel radio, weighing from six to 15 pounds. A prospector carries it in a canvas case on a strap which loops around his neck or over a shoulder. The simplest models have only an earphone, more elaborate models have earphones and a recording meter as well.

Cosmic rays, which affect a Geiger counter in the same way as do radioactive materials, are constantly showering on the earth. When a Geiger counter is turned on and given time to warm up like a radio, these cosmic rays produce a “background count” of from five to 40 clicks a minute in the Geiger’s earphone. But when the Geiger comes within four or five feet of a deposit of radioactive mineral, the clicks speed up and they may come in so fast that the instrument whirs like a muffled alarm clock.

A hundred yards away, closer to the river bank, Nelson Hogg, an Ontario Government geologist from Timmins, was breaking camp. Hogg wanted to make a final survey of the originally discovered radioactive vein before leaving. So I had a chance to listen to the singing atoms.
We paddled across the Abitibi and beached the canoe at the head of Otter Rapids. Then we followed an old Cree portage trail for a quarter of a mile downstream. I carried the Geiger counter. Its single earphone was giving a sharp click about once every five seconds.

We came out again to the river at a canyon 25 feet wide, whose rock walls towered 60 to 75 feet upward on either side. Massive red boulders, washed clean, strewed its bed, but now it contained only a narrow trickle of water. Hogg led the way down into the jumbled mass of boulders, saying nothing. Suddenly the Geiger counter’s earphone started to click rapidly. I took another step and the clicks ran together into a continuous whir. Then I noticed the foot-wide sharply outlined band of browner rock at my feet.

“This is it,” Hogg said, smiling. The Geiger’s tiny earphone was raising a clamor that could be heard six feet away.

Hogg showed me where the vein was exposed for a length of 250 feet, disappearing at both its ends beneath the foaming rapids. Geologists told me it could be several miles in length and hundreds of feet deep with only that one 250-foot section exposed. The microammeter of the Geiger counter showed an average reading of six just a few feet away from the vein, but when the counter was moved directly over the vein the hand of the meter snapped up and went off the top of the scale at 50. Otter Rapids radioactive atoms, whatever their breed, sing a lusty tune.

Outside Otter Rapids, across the Dominion, the uranium hunt goes on. How many Canadian prospectors are listening for the atoms? Nobody knows exactly. But a big Toronto firm, chief producer of Canada’s Geiger counters, hasn’t been able to supply the demand since restrictions went off in March. They have 500 Geigers out this summer, costing from $140 to $500 apiece.

And, in Ottawa, where radioactive ore is examined free, the samples are coming in by the ton. Testing is also being done at Victoria, B.C., and Toronto.

While private enterprise joins the most exciting and portentous mineral hunt in history, Eldorado, the Crown-owned company which has been doing extensive uranium prospecting since 1944, is redoubling its efforts. “We will have 75 men out prospecting for uranium until the freeze-up,” W. J. Bennett, Eldorado president, told me. “We have staked about 160 likely looking uranium claims in the name of Eldorado since 1944 and the boys are staking new claims every week.”

Canada Near the ‘Top

At Ottawa’s Bureau of Mines, they are developing an ultrasensitive type of Geiger counter to be used in aerial prospecting for radioactive minerals. First sets will be turned over to Eldorado. By late summer, at least two helicopters may be skimming over the rocky outcroppings of the Northwest Territories with electronic ears tuned delicately to listen for the song below.

Meanwhile, the atom hunt has struck out in yet another direction. The Bureau of Mines has asked that ore samples be sent in from the slag heaps and waste dumps of every abandoned and functioning mine in Canada. It is quite possible that the ore discarded after its gold or other metals had been removed might still contain commercial quantities of uranium.

There is no doubt that if Canada isn’t actually on top of the atomic heap today, she is very close to the top. Canada’s big atomic research centre at Chalk River makes her the only nation in the world which produces the raw materials for atomic fission in any appreciable volume and possesses a plant for their utilization as well.

Before scientists started tampering; with the atom, Eldorado was yielding; $500.000 a month in gold, silver and radium, but her uranium was of little value, some of which could be sold at a giveaway price of 70 cents a pound as a coloring agent for glass, but most of which had to be thrown away.

With the arrival of the atomic age, Eldorado’s uranium suddenly became the source of most of the atomic wallop that went into the atom bombs of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Operation Cross roads. Today the volume of Eldorado’s uranium production is one of the world’s top secrets, but the mine has been called the world’s biggest single uranium producer.

Our Precious Shield

Authorities who have burned midnight oil poring over the world’s niggardly statistics on uranium production say that it is probably a tossup as to whether Canada or the Belgian Congo tops the list. At any rate, Canada’s top geologists say that no other nation of the world has as promising a field for the location of new uranium deposits. Her great Precambrian Shield, the foundation rock of the world which loops in a massive two million-square mile horseshoe around Hudson Bay, is home of the rarest and most comprehensive assembly of minerals found anywhere in the earth’s crust. Uranium has already been found here in several locations. And the surface has been but scratched.

“We are confident that there is much more uranium there than has yet been uncovered,” I was told by G. M Jarvis, secretary of the Atomic Energy Control Board at Ottawa. “There’s a vast area to cover before we will find it. That’s why private prospectors wore given the go-ahead signal. It; too big a job for the Government to do alone.”

Much of the Precambrian has been combed and recombed by prospectors in the past seeking gold, silver, iron and the other minerals of pre-atomic age demand, but no one had bothered recording or even taking a second glance at anything that looked like that worthless nuisance stuff— uranium. Geological studies have revealed that uranium and the other radioactive minerals seem to occur most commonly in the transition zones where the ancient Precambrian rock merges with neighboring rocks of more recent geological ages, and that’s where the search is being concentrated.

Biggest activity is in the far north west, near Eldorado. Crowded around Great Bear are several other properties which contain uranium and which are being explored and developed by private firms. And 500 miles south if Northern Saskatchewan’s Goldfields area on the north shore of Lake Athabaska, several firms, including Eldorado, are scrambling for properties (143 out of Eldorado’s 160 uranium claims are in this area).

Leaving the northwest and swinging eastward along the Precambrian Shield’s horseshoe, uranium strike; have been reported in recent month; in the Flin Flon and Lake La Ronge areas of mid-Saskatchewan, at Otter Rapids in Northern Ontario, around Burks Falls west of Ontario’s Algonquin Park, in Eastern Ontario’s Hallburton area and in Northwestern Quebec east of Noranda and Rouyn. That some of the story is still untold there is no doubt.

“We know of other uranium properties which have not yet been made public,” C. S. Parsons, Bureau of Mines chief at Ottawa, told me. “One of them is second in importance only to Eldorado. It belongs to the Eldorado Company and they have already progressed as far as putting a shaft underground.”

It was in the Northwest Territories, he said, “but a long, long way from the well-known uranium field at Great Bear Lake.”

How important any one of these new Canadian uranium properties may become in the future, there is yet no sure way of predicting. It takes months of Geiger counter and geological explorations, diamond drilling and laboratory testing to determine whether a showing of uranium is merely a shallow isolated patch of the mineral or a deep extensive deposit which could father a mine.

Ninety per cent of the prospectors’ samples being tested by the Geological Survey are “rubbish,” one authority said, usually pieces of granite with a high content of potassium (which will show activity on a Geiger). One man excitedly telephoned the Bureau of Mines: “I’ve found a lot of uranium. My Geiger counter is buzzing like a bumblebee.

I could be ready to start shipping out ore in two weeks. Where does it have to go?” Government officials calmed him down and suggested that he forward a few samples first for assaying. The samples arrived. They possessed no radioactivity at all. Enquiries revealed that the prospector carried a large watch with a radium-painted dial in a pocket touching his Geiger counter.

And, as in every form of mining, there’s already skullduggery at work among the high-pressure boys. Some firms are publishing assay results claiming they have ore which runs up to 10% uranium—$550 a ton!
“And they really get those assays,” an official of the Atomic Energy Control Board told me. “But they’re selected samples.”

Even where a sizeable deposit of uranium is proven, there is still no assurance that the deposit is a potential mine. The type of ore in which uranium occurs is an important consideration in determining whether a deposit can be economically mined.

And it is this business of mining economics, incidentally, that has our atomic bosses watching Otter Rapids. Most of Eldorado’s freight is air-borne but its high-grade ore—one per cent uranium—and its big reserves make economical mining possible. Cheaper power and transportation, such as at Otter Rapids, might make it possible to mine ore with a uranium content as low as one tenth of one per cent.

But today life at Coral Rapids still jogs along at its leisurely two-trains-a-week pace. There’s no excitement here about the boom days that may be just around the corner.

Only section man Killins can be said to be excited. “I’m getting tired of playing three-handed whist every night,” he told me. “Maybe soon the atom stuff will bring us new residents, then we’ll be able to round up a foursome.”

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