Uranium mining in Colorado dates to the late nineteenth century, when uranium resources were discovered in the southwestern part of the state. The region’s Uravan Mineral Belt is rich in carnotite, the ore that produces uranium and vanadium. Both elements have various industrial and military applications. Originally considered a worthless byproduct of vanadium refinement, uranium became a highly valued material when it was found to be useful in the production of nuclear power and weapons. The development of Colorado’s uranium resources spurred a growth in population, industrialization, and public infrastructure, but it also came with troubling consequences for the environment and public health.
Uranium mining in Colorado was an expansion of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century vanadium extraction. During World War I, vanadium was used as a steel-strengthening alloy, among other applications. An early and prominent example of a vanadium mine was Standard Chemical’s mine at Joe Junior Camp, sixty miles south of Grand Junction. The company also operated a uranium mill near present-day Uravan.
With the rise of nuclear power after World War II, uranium became a highly sought after element. Since only New Mexico and Wyoming have more uranium deposits than Colorado, the Centennial State became one of the national sources for uranium mining and processing. US Vanadium, the Vanadium Corporation of America, and the Metal Reserves Company soon opened uranium mining and refinement facilities around the towns of Naturita, Durango, Loma, and Slick Rock.
Uranium extraction in Colorado was a marriage of private mining enterprise and government interest. After World War II, the US Atomic Energy Commission and the US Geological Survey collaborated to study the Uravan Mineral Belt in Montrose and San Miguel Counties. The Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation received federal contracts to form the Union Mines Development Corporation and the Manhattan Engineer District built its own refinement facility near Durango.
In the 1940s, uranium mining led to the establishment of several mill towns in Colorado, dubbed “yellowcake towns” because the uranium powder they produced—uranium oxide—resembled cake mix. Union Carbide Corporation built a town around an old Standard Chemical mill and named it Uravan, a hybrid of “Uranium” and “Vanadium.” Other yellowcake towns in the Uravan Belt included Naturita, Nucla, Paradox, and Slick Rock. Mines and mills were also set up in existing towns such as Cañon City, Golden, Loma, and Rifle.
Some yellowcake towns, such as Uravan, boomed but experienced labor shortages when uranium demand increased during World War II. Many of these remote communities could not rely on a labor influx when work was readily available elsewhere. The increase in output demand per worker nearly resulted in general strikes, but workers’ concerns were alleviated through negotiations.
In many yellowcake towns, mining companies provided schools, hospitals, and other civic functions—even Miss Uranium beauty pageants. Particularly burdensome was the need to import water into mining towns, as many of them were in exceptionally dry areas. While many experienced brief periods of prosperity, these towns were nonetheless dependent on federal uranium policy.
Cold War Era
In 1948, as US-Soviet tension increased, the federal government promised to purchase privately extracted uranium to ensure a continuous supply. It also encouraged citizens to explore for radioactive ore and built roads into remote places rich in radioactive ore. Federal buy programs set up prices for different tiers of ore quality and provided bonuses for initial production.
With a guaranteed customer in the federal government, uranium mining boomed throughout southwestern Colorado in the 1950s. Firms typically invested in mining rather than refinement because mines had lower start-up and operation costs than mills. As the United States built up its nuclear arsenal between 1948 and 1978, the 1,200 mines of the Uravan Belt collectively produced 63 million pounds of uranium and 330 million pounds of vanadium.
Uranium production boomed into the 1970s. Despite government buy programs intended to build up reserves of domestic uranium, Colorado uranium production was unable to compete against considerably cheaper uranium resources found in the Congo or the more plentiful deposits of pitchblende, a uranium-rich mineral, in Canada. Uranium prices sank even lower after the onset of nuclear arms reduction treaties and the nuclear power plant disasters at Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986). In the 1970s, new federal environmental regulations forced the company town of Uravan to close.
Production continued into the early twenty-first century, albeit at a significantly lower rate. A small boom briefly revived the industry in the early twenty-first century, but drops in uranium prices in 2008 ended almost all mining of the mineral in Colorado; the state reported no major uranium ore production between 2009 and 2014. However, in 2011 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved designs for radioactive waste disposal facilities submitted by Energy Fuels Resources Inc., and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment approved the company’s application to build a uranium mill in the Paradox Valley in 2013. If completed, the facility would be the first uranium mill built in the United States in more than twenty-five years. But languishing uranium prices persuaded the company to hold off on building the facility, and Energy Fuels sold its permit rights to Pinon Ridge Resources Corporation in 2014. As of 2016, the mill had yet to be built.
Although it provided hundreds of jobs and helped the United States in its nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, uranium mining has left a toxic environmental and human legacy in Colorado. Both Uravan and Cañon City’s Lincoln Park mill site are Superfund sites, high-priority cleanup sites as identified by the EPA. Fifteen other sites are under review by the US Department of Energy. In 2011 the EPA cautioned that even inactive sites, like those near the Dolores River, pose an environmental threat, as flooding may release buried contaminants.
The state’s radioactive legacy also reaches into Colorado’s population and communities. Workers in the essentially unregulated industry were exposed to radon gas underground, and the EPA estimates that 67,000 Coloradans live within one mile of a uranium mine, with an additional 1.2 million living within five miles of a mine. In places like Uravan, radioactive tailings were reused in construction sites and home gardens. Children played atop discarded mill equipment, much of it contaminated with radon-emitting materials.
As miners began dying of cancer in the 1950s, federal investigations revealed a connection between the toxic work environment and the epidemic, but the industry did not implement any strict regulations until the mid-1960s. Finally, in 1990 Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which offers financial restitution to sickened miners or their surviving family members. As of 2015, there are ongoing investigations on the exposure of uranium miners to radioactive materials without proper protective equipment.