The smell of uranium


One evening in November of 1955 a pair of long-in-the-tooth miners rolled out of a West Coast pub. On the way home, Frederick Cassin and Charles Jacobsen pulled over for a comfort break near Hawks Crag in the Lower Buller Gorge. They had a Geiger counter in the truck and thought, why not? Crackle crackle. Or so the story goes.

Aotearoa’s atomic age

Uranium is a heavy metal best-known for its radioactive properties. It fuels both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. The British and Americans had been on the hunt for uranium since the early 1940s, when they launched the Manhattan Project with the goal of building a bomb to put an end to World War II  ̶  and possibly to war full stop. Nice try, guys.

Why Fred and Charlie were driving around with a Geiger counter looking for the stuff is part of a strange chapter in the history of “nuclear free” New Zealand. From Prime Minister David Lange barring nuclear-powered ships, and thus pretty much the entire US Navy, from docking here in 1984, to protesting French nuclear testing in the South Pacific (a movement recently appropriated by Steinlager to sell not very good beer), an aversion to nukes is part of our national identity. But it was not always so.

In May of 1944, Sir John Anderson, the cabinet minister who oversaw Britain’s atomic energy project, approached the Australian Prime Minister to discuss, according to the historian Ross Galbreath, “the ‘urgent need for greatly increased production of uranium for Empire and War purposes’, and asked that investigations be made of the extent of known deposits in Australia.” The Manhattan Project needed ore, and Australia delivered after local prospector and farmer Jack White hit radioactive paydirt at Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory and collected a £25,000 reward for his efforts – the mine went on to supply the American and British weapons programmes until the seventies.

No such request was made of New Zealand, but we still had a look. New Zealand had a big gun in the field in the form of Ernest Marsden. A protégé of Ernest Rutherford, he had worked with the great physicist at the University of Manchester in 1911 on his gold foil experiment, which proved the existence of the nucleus. Later, Rutherford was the first scientist to “split” an atom (on purpose, anyway) when he bombarded nitrogen with alpha particles and, lo and behold, out popped a proton. Very cool, but also, in one of those “unintended consequences” situations, a key step in the creation of the atom bomb, another step closer to the end of everything. 

By 1943, Marsden was living in New Zealand and serving as the first secretary of the newly-established Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). He was enthusiastic about the scientific potential of uranium and was keen to see Kiwi scientists involved. As Galbreath explains, “for Marsden, atomic energy had all the fascination of an unfolding field of science which he himself had helped to pioneer with Rutherford.”

Marsden sent a group of government-funded physicists and geologists out with Geiger counters, which work by detecting ionising radiation. Their main component, the Geiger tube, contains a positively-charged rod surrounded by inert gas. Ionising radiation knocks electrons off their atoms, which then stream towards the rod. The resulting current makes a noise like popcorn. The more electrons there are, the more crackling there is, a sound familiar to anyone who’s seen the Chernobyl mini-series or who enjoys playing Fallout 4 online.

Marden’s scientists didn’t find uranium in any significant quantities, but they did confirm the highest levels of the mineral were concentrated in old gold mining tailings along the West Coast of the South Island. This wasn’t that surprising. There’s a lot of granite, which is known for holding uranium, on the Coast, especially in the vicinity of the Buller River. Past graduates of Buller High School even recall learning in Science class that the area is subject to high rates of cancer because of radioactivity in the rock.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand Atomic Energy Act of 1945 both nationalised uranium, making any ore found within the country’s territorial limits the property of the Crown, and offered a reward for its discovery. It wasn’t just a war thing. As well as having military applications, uranium had potential as an alternative energy source to hydro or coal. Science historian Rebecca Priestly, author of Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age, notes that by 1954 it was in “hot demand worldwide”. The UK was by then sourcing ore from South Africa, Australia, Portugal and the Belgian Congo. It seemed like a good time to have another good look.

Hot rocks

On Sunday November 5, 1955 Charles Jacobsen and Frederick Cassin were driving home from Berlin’s Hotel near Inangahua in Charlie’s 1934 Chevy truck. The two miners were in the region to look for mica and uranium, and in their car was a DIY Geiger counter and a copy of a pamphlet: ‘Prospecting for Radioactive Minerals in New Zealand’.

The New Zealand Geological Survey had published the booklet in 1954 in the hope of getting a fleet of hobbyists on the job looking for uranium. It included schematics for a home-built Geiger counter which could be made for £10, and it was promptly snapped up by hundreds of “eager prospectors”, according to Priestly. Ten pounds was a small outlay for a potentially big reward. As a Radio NZ documentary put it, all you needed was a “a Geiger counter and patience”.

Having had a drink or two at the pub, Fred and Charlie were about 10 minutes into their drive home when they pulled over to answer nature’s call by the side of the road at Batty Creek near Hawks Crag, a bluff in the Buller Gorge. Since they had stopped anyway, Charles decided to put the Geiger counter against the rockface. It clicked at double the Rum Jungle rate.

According to an article by Gerard Hindmarsh in Stuff, “They stopped half a dozen more times up the road, noticing each time that the readings only seemed to be getting stronger … [Charlie] spotted a coloured patch of rock in the bank out his right side and immediately pulled over. To his amazement, the needle of his Geiger counter went hard over when he put it near the outcrop, the clicks near continuous.” Crackle crackle.

The pair chiseled off some large samples with a pick borrowed from Berlin’s, then, after a big night at the pub, caught the ferry to Wellington the next day. Government tests confirmed that Fred and Charlie’s rock contained uranium ore. The Press called the find potentially “the most important mineral discovery in New Zealand, outstripping in terms of economic advantage even the gold discoveries of the 1860s,” while Fred told reporters “it is possible we have discovered the second most concentrated uranium deposit in the world.” The Prime Minister sent a letter of congratulations.

Like all good tales, there are details of this one that are disputed. It’s not clear the two were actually heading back from the pub when they made their find, and they may not have returned to Berlin’s to celebrate after. Most accounts refer to the miners as being in their seventies, but Charlie was only 68. Never mind. Accurate or not, the story of a couple of half-cut septuagenarians stumbling on a motherload of mineral wealth between pints is hard to pass up. Atoms are mostly made of empty space, but we fill in the blanks.

What is clear is that the rock was real and it made Fred and Charlie famous, briefly. It also caused a bit of a frenzy on the Coast. One regional newspaper touted the possibility of a uranium processing plant at Westport, under the headline ‘A Prosperous, Modern, Uranium City!’ The local Snowflake Ice Cream Company launched a yellow-hued Uranium Ice Cream. Geiger counter sales went through the roof and the Prospecting pamphlet needed another print run.

In the week after the find, the Berlin Hotel had its biggest trading day since the West Coast Gold Rush of the 1860s. Priestly described it like this: “The hills soon rang to the sounds of clanging rockhammers and ticking Geiger counters as more prospectors – labourers, businessmen, chemists, miners, weekend trampers and deerstalkers – flocked to the Coast. The uranium fever raised the prospect of a return to the days when public houses and dancehalls lined the streets and West Coast ports were the busiest in the country.”

Reports of mineral wealth, however, were exaggerated. Further analysis showed that Fred and Charlie’s paydirt contained far less uranium than was originally thought. Other samples had as little as 0.01 to 0.25 times the radiation clocked in the original rocks. Its reading was deemed a fluke, possibly due to a high level of zircon.

Nonetheless, New Zealand didn’t abandon the nuclear option yet. According to Priestly, “Over the next four years the government spent more than £35,000 on the West Coast search for uranium, mostly to fund the prospecting efforts of Buller Uranium and Uranium Valley.” And in 1964, the Electricity Department was mooting a nuclear power station as an option for the country – Oyster Point on the Kaipara Harbour was identified as its likely location. A homegrown supply of uranium would be just the thing to futureproof the nation’s power grid. It’s not as mad as it sounds. In his 1958 Presidential Address, the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Lindsay H Briggs noted the potential for the “peaceful uses of atomic energy” and its advantages over hydro. “The use in New Zealand of nuclear energy, perhaps from its own recently discovered uranium supplies, would prevent the destruction of some of our scenic gems such as the Huka Falls and the Aratiatia Rapids in the North Island, and Lake Manapouri in the South Island.”

The 1969 discovery of the energy-rich Maui natural gas field, however, put an end to that. Mining continued in the Buller region for a time, but by the late seventies the country had lost its appetite for fission. In 1986 the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. A year later, 1987 David Lange’s Labour government passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act, making the country officially nuclear free. Uranium prospecting and mining has been prohibited under the Crown Minerals Act since 1996.

In them hills

They didn’t make the West Coast rich, but Charlie and Fred received a reward of £100 each for their discovery, thanks to the Atomic Energy Act. It came too late for Fred, who had died in 1956 at the age of 76. An amendment to the Act in 1957 upped the reward amount, and the two received an extra £400 each – good news for Charlie, because prior to going prospecting with Fred, he had given £100 to his wife Mary “to keep her happy” while he went off prospecting. Money aside, Charlie dined out on his success story until he passed away too, in 1960. He kept his best uranium rock in his pocket and revelled in pulling out his Geiger counter to show people how it clicked.

And on either side of the Buller River, just past the Uranium Point Half Bridge on the way to Hawks Crag, there are two peaks: Mt Jacobsen and Mt Cassin. Nearby, at Berlin’s Café and Bar, a lump of uranium ore sits on the bar to this day. Can you smell it?