Built in 1943, the Department of Energy Grand Junction Office, also known as the “Manhattan Engineer District Grand Junction Office” and the “Atomic Energy Commission Grand Junction Operations Office,” stands at 2591 Legacy Way in Grand Junction. During and after World War II, the complex served as the national headquarters of the Atomic Energy Commission, which acquired domestic uranium for use in nuclear weapons.
Today, the Office of Legacy Management maintains the site as part of the Department of Energy Decontamination and Decommissioning Program. In 2016 the office was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a district with twelve contributing structures and nineteen additional resources.
During World War II, the federal government chose Grand Junction as one of the sites for its Manhattan Project, the United States’ top-secret nuclear weapons program. The Grand Junction site was selected due to its relative seclusion and proximity to national rail lines. After the war, the office became the headquarters for the acquisition of domestic uranium intended for use in nuclear weapons production during the Cold War from 1947 through 1970. The office also handled contracts for the mining and milling of uranium, and headquartered geologists involved with mapping uranium deposits.
The northern section of the Department of Energy complex contains a campus of utilitarian office buildings centered around the Philip C. Leahy Memorial Park, named after the man in charge of Grand Junction’s Manhattan Project and early Atomic Energy Commission activities. Most of these structures are low-slung office buildings with shallow gabled roofs, linear window arrays, and metal wall cladding. One notable exception is the large modern entryway connecting the two primary office buildings. The southern portion of the Department of Energy complex is mostly open space where several large industrial buildings stood before their removal due to radioactive contamination. A chain-link fence topped by barbed wire surrounds the entire complex, and a levee built in 1957 for flood protection stands just beyond the National Register district boundary. The complex sits on the northeastern bank of the Gunnison River, one mile south of its confluence with the Colorado River. The location was originally selected due to its isolation in the Gunnison River Canyon.
Manhattan Project and Later Atomic Developments
All of the Manhattan Project’s domestic uranium (14 percent of the total uranium used) was obtained by employees working at the Grand Junction office. The uranium was incorporated into the atomic devices detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Domestic uranium production allowed the Manhattan Project to outpace the German nuclear program during World War II and allowed for the United States to deploy nuclear weapons in time to influence the course of the global conflict.
On March 23, 1943, Second Lieutenant Philip Leahy of the US Army Corps of Engineers arrived in Grand Junction by train. Leahy was directed to establish a program to discover and obtain unrefined uranium ore on behalf of the Manhattan Engineer District, the secret government agency tasked with developing the atomic bomb. Working from the small Grand Junction Department of Energy Offices and his log house at an old gravel mine, Leahy developed and constructed a uranium refinery that grew into the nation’s most productive facility for uranium prospecting, uranium mining, and experimental uranium processing through the rest of the Cold War era. After the government abandoned large-scale uranium mining operations, Leahy’s old compound became a Center of Excellence for cleaning up contaminated former uranium mines and processing sites across the United States.
A byproduct of the uranium mining process known as “green sludge,” contained large concentrations of vanadium, an expensive metal used to strengthen steel that became in great demand during World War II. One of the Grand Junction Office’s greatest accomplishments was to implement a program by which green sludge was collected (nearly thirteen tons a day) and processed to extract the vanadium held in solution. By the end of the war, the Grand Junction Office achieved 87 percent efficiency in their vanadium recycling operations, up from sixty percent in 1943.
By the end of 1946, American intelligence agencies had learned of the Soviet Union’s establishment of their own nuclear program. This knowledge led the United States to aggressively expand its domestic uranium industry. In August 1946, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act, establishing the Atomic Energy Commission to oversee research and development of atomic weapons and energy in the United States.
In April 1948, the Atomic Energy Commission offered more than twenty dollars per ton for uranium extracted from the Colorado Plateau, a significant increase from previous years, and ran its purchasing program through the Grand Junction Office. The commission successfully initiated a uranium boom by changing land use policies to allow for easier prospecting, bridging the gaps between prospectors and bureaucrats, surveying for radioactive anomalies indicative of uranium deposits, and conducting a public relations blitz that promoted uranium mining and prospecting. The Atomic Energy Commission also offered a standing reward of $10,000 for locating a sizable deposit.
The Grand Junction Office continued to organize and promote uranium prospecting in the private sector, and served as an experimental laboratory testing new methods of extracting uranium from its substrate ores. The expertise developed by the crew at the Grand Junction Office from 1943 to 1970 led to its final assignment: to serve as a nationwide center of expertise for cleaning up the radioactive waste strewn in the wake of four decades’ worth of nearly unregulated industries of uranium mining, milling, and weapons production.
By the mid-1970s, the health risks associated with long-term exposure to uranium or uranium mill tailings had become evident. Sandy mill tailings were especially dangerous, as they retained nearly 85 percent of the unprocessed uranium’s radioactivity. These radioactive materials could decay into radium and radon-22, which could cause cancer or genetic mutations. Before the health risks of uranium tailings were well-known, many mills sold their sandy tailings for use in concrete production, meaning that thousands of homes around the nation were potentially at risk of contamination. The Department of Energy promptly assigned the Grand Junction Office to manage the cleanup of properties in the vicinity of mill sites in Grand Junction and in Edgemont, South Dakota, another uranium boomtown. In the area around Grand Junction, around 5,000 total properties were found to contain radioactive materials in excess of the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines for safe habitation. Of these properties, 4,266 were treated in Grand Junction. Treatments ranged from removing a square foot of contaminated soil under a sidewalk to leveling entire structures, and most of the cleanup was completed by 1998 (although radon screenings continue to this day).
In 1988 the Department of Energy began contamination screenings at the Grand Junction Office to determine the extent of radioactive contamination at the site in anticipation of selling the land. The survey discovered that the testing and processing of uranium ore from 1943–58 in various buildings had contaminated 18 of the site’s 61 acres, totaling 81,000 cubic yards of contaminated material. During cleanup operations at the Grand Junction Office, radioactive contamination proved to be much more widespread than initially estimated, and nearly 30 acres and 300,000 cubic yards of material displayed radioactivity. Removal of this contaminated material spanned from 1994 to 2001 and involved demolishing several buildings that had been part of the second pilot plant. In 2001 the government sold the land to Riverview Technology Incorporated.