Fallout in the Family

There are peaceful uses for atomic energy, and then there's the Steen family, blown apart by the biggest uranium bonanza in American history.

Shreds of memories and court documents now litter the landscape of what started out as one of the century's most inspiring success stories.

Charlie was the indomitable miner, Minnie Lee (or M.L., as she liked to be called) his vibrant, strong wife. Both were quick-witted Texans who came armed with quips and quotes. In the Fifties, the faces of their four boys--John, Charles Jr., Andy and Mark--smiled at the nation from the pages of countless magazines and newspapers. They were all heroes for helping win the Cold War.

And they'd done it through hard work, out in the wilderness, suffering extreme hardship.

It was a true rags-to-riches story.
Years later, it was back to rags. The Cold War ended, but the battle between the Steen boys was just beginning.

When M.L. Steen, long suffering from emphysema after a lifetime of smoking, died last summer, one chapter of the family's history closed. Her death, unfortunately, opened another chapter, this one radiating back-biting and bitterness and laid out in court documents filed in the brothers' dispute over her will.

M.L. was the best storyteller in the family and kept her sense of humor after the most trying of times. She needed all of it to deal with the awesome power of uranium--and the fallout from the fortune it created.

Charlie Steen, a Depression-era kid with no money and a quick mind, chased a dream. "He always thought he would find something," recalls his sister, Maxine Steen Boyd, now 76. She can still picture her older brother looking for butterflies and lugging around big books when he was only eight or nine. "We used to call him 'Dr. Dolittle,'" she says. "My, he was a fast reader. But I always teased him about not having much common sense."

Adventure was in his blood. Maybe he also inherited a lack of business acumen: His father had been a Texas oil wildcatter who made and lost $100,000 before he was 22. Eight years later, the wildcatter married a fifteen-year-old girl named Rose and fathered Charlie and Maxine. The marriage collapsed after four years, and the kids grew up with a succession of stepfathers. The first, Lisle, was killed in a construction accident. Young Charlie later worked summers for the company where Lisle had worked; that company also helped finance his education.

At John Tarleton Agricultural College in Stephenville, Texas, Charlie was smitten by geology and by a handsome, tall brunette named Minnie Lee Holland. A 130-pound prematurely balding guy with glasses, he was deceivingly wiry and ornery.

Charlie's poor eyesight kept him out of the military, so when M.L. enlisted in the Navy--she was one of the first WAVES--he went to South America, armed with a 1943 geology degree from the Texas School of Mines.

He found work in Bolivia and in Peru, where he mapped out a gas field that still serves Lima. But Charlie didn't want to follow orders--he wanted to strike it rich. He was fired for insubordination and was proud of it.

M.L. returned from the war with a bad back and a small monthly disability pension, intending to finish her education at Hardin-Simmons College in Abilene, Texas. Then one day Charlie showed up and said, "Let's get married." Six weeks short of a degree, she left school and cast her lot with him. They started making babies immediately, and Charlie took a job in Chicago. Once again, he was fired for insubordination.

That was when Charlie Steen's dream coincided with the government's. Uranium was the wonder ingredient fueling both dreams.

The United States needed uranium--not just to fend off Russia, but potentially for peaceful uses here in America. The first uranium had been mined in the nineteenth century near Central City, then shipped to Europe to color ceramics; that vein eventually petered out. Marie Curie went to Moab, Utah, in search of uranium ore from which to extract radium. Yellowish carnotite ore, a source of low-grade uranium, was known to occur in shallow deposits in southeastern Utah's Morrison Formation, as geologists called it. But the processing cost for carnotite was too high to make it attractive to big mining operations, despite the fact that radium was worth $120,000 an ounce even back in the Twenties. A grayish-black sludge called uraninite, or pitchblende, was far purer than carnotite, but no one had found much of it.

Uranium's real allure lay in its destructive power--and that's how a market for it finally developed. During World War II, U.S. scientists desperately needed uranium for their secretive Manhattan Project's atomic bombs. Unless they could find a local source, they would have to import it from the Belgian Congo. They found they could squeeze some uranium out of the tailings of vanadium mines (that metal, used in hardening steel, often occurred with uranium), so they began processing tailings in western Colorado, near Uravan.