Timeline of the Uranium Boom in Grand Junction, Colorado

Image of vanadium, both in natural form, and some refined samples in tubes

Agricultural goods such as livestock, fruits and wine have been beneficial staples of Western Colorado’s economy. The other not so stable part of the economy has been the mining industry. Mining for specific minerals has always been followed by waves of economic and population booms followed by devastating. Fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas continue to be extracted in rural parts of the Colorado Plateau, but there is another mineral that has been historically sought out and is worth millions. It is neither gold nor silver, but uranium.

 

Since 1898, the Colorado Plateau has been a central hub for prospectors, miners, scientists, and companies to profit from the rich minerals beneath the surface. Many booms came from the use and study of radioactivity, specifically that of uranium and radium. These minerals are often found within carnotite compound along with vanadium. Moab was one of the many self-proclaimed uranium capitals of the world, resting along the Morrison geological formation, a hotbed for carnotite fissures.

 

Image of sign saying Welcome to Grand Junction, with an atomic symbol on it.

 

Uranium

Uranium discovered

Uranium was discovered by German chemist Martin Klaproth. It is a dense, heavy radioactive metal and is the only organically occurring element which can sustain a chain reaction known as fissionable fuel.

Vanadium Discovered

This element is mostly used as a high temperature alloy. It adds strength to steel and increases temperature stability of titanium. 

Paradox Valley Discovery?

“The Talbot Brothers of Paradox Valley, found a fissure vein carrying some odd mineral, which they assumed to be silver, and sent a sample thereof to the American Smelting & Refining Company’s smelter, at Leadville, Colorado… However, the folks at the smelter advised them that they had no idea what the material was but were sure it was not silver.”[1] This is one of the earliest uranium interactions on the Colorado Plateau.

[1] Robert Sullenberger, “100 Years of Uranium Activity in the Four Corners Region,” Journal of the Western Slope 7, no. 4 (Fall 1992): 2.

Rajah Mine

Tom Dolan of Paradox Valley took a sample of a fissure vein from what would be called the Rajah Mine and sent it to the Smithsonian Institution, confirming that it was a high-grade uranium.[1]

[1] Sullenberger, Journal of the Western Slope, 2.

Radium Discovered

Polish chemist Marie Curie and her husband Pierre discovered the element radium and studied the element, writing 32 scientific papers on the subject in four years.

Radium is a highly radioactive mineral that occurs from the radioactive decay of uranium over time. 

Carnotite Discovered

Carnotite is a compound ore containing uranium, vanadium, and minute amounts of radium.

Radium & Vanadium Boom

Several companies, including General Vanadium Corp., Standard Chemical Co., and Radium Luminous Material Corp., laid claim in Paradox Valley in Western Colorado to cash in on radium and vanadium and shipped carnotite ore to radium extraction plants in France.[1] Varying on the season, the Standard Chemical Co. employed 125 to 275 workers who integrated themselves into communities across Montrose County.[2]

Uranium miner Howard W. Balsley of Moab, Utah, was contracted to supply uranium ore to the Vitro Manufacturing Company. He claims, “the only use for uranium-vanadium ore was for its radium content. We producers built up a fairly good market.”[3]

[1] Department of the Interior, Report of Investigation: Exploration of Vanadium Region of Western Colorado and Eastern Utah, W.P. Huleatt, Scott W. Hazen Jr., and William M. Traver, Jr., R.I. 3930, September 1946.

[2] Joel Lubenau & Edward Landa, Radium City: A History of America’s First Nuclear Industry (Pittsburgh, PA: Heinz History Center, 2019), (Lubenau and Landa 2019) 42.

[3] Sullenberger, 11.

Standard Chemical Company

The Standard Chemical Company built a radium processing plant in Montrose County and was at one point the largest supplier of radium.

30%!

30% of the world’s vanadium was produced from two mills in the Placerville area.[1]

[1] William Chenoweth, “Uranium in Western Colorado” The Mountain Geologist 14, no. 3 (July 1978): 92.

Competition

Mining for radium in Western Colorado ceased when the Belgian Congo found another fissure vein, producing richer ores that could be cheaply mined. Additionally, vanadium mining faced economic competition with Peru, which was extracting sizable quantities of vanadium to be used in alloy-steel industries.

A mill and low buildings

Uravan

The town of Uravan (a combination of the words uranium and vanadium) in Montrose County was established when the United States Vanadium Corporation constructed a 125-ton mill and roasting plant. Another 25-ton plant was established in Cedar by the Utah Vanadium Corporation.[1]

 

 

[1] Department of the Interior, R.I. 3930, September 1946.

Image caption: Manhattan Project mill at Uravan. 

Gateway

Another small mill was established in Gateway, CO by the Gateway Alloys, Inc.

World War II Begins

In Europe, anyway. . . 

Naturita

Vanadium Corporation of America reopened a plant in Naturita, CO.

Pearl Harbor

Japan bombed a US naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, launching the United States involvement in the war.

Metals Reserve Company Formed

The Metals Reserve Company was formed to stimulate the production of minerals, including vanadium and uranium resulting in construction of mills in Durango and across Colorado.

Black and white photograph of Manhattan Project headquarters in Grand Junction - a small log cabin

Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project came to the Colorado Plateau. The US War Department acquired a 55.71-acre tract of land 2 miles south of Grand Junction, CO and constructed a few buildings, a uranium refinery mill, and a log cabin. This was the established as the headquarters for the Manhattan Project: a top-secret government-supported organization to develop atomic weapons.  Grand Junction was a strategic location for the project because of its proximity to the mining towns of the Colorado Plateau and the railroad.

Image caption: Manhattan Project headquarters in Grand Junction, CO. 1983.63.122

A pan pushes an orecart down a track.

Slowing production

With the end of the war nearing, the Metals Reserve Company had slowed production resulting in the end of production, buying, and selling of vanadium.

 

Image caption: Typical scene of mining on the Colorado Plateau in the 1950s. 1982.171.30

Nuclear Bombs

The United States dropped two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in between 129,000 and 226,000 deaths. The Pacific War ended when the Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945.  

Man next to a mine cart

TNT

Some urban legends suggest the Army Corps of Engineers test atomic weapons in Mesa County, but the truth is they (only) tested TNT and bunker designs on the Uncompaghre Plateau.[1]

 

Image caption: Worker “probing” a car load of minerals, tests its radioactivity with a T-handle probe and ratemeter, April 4, 1967. 1981.267.4. 

[1] Jean Moore, Gateway/Unaweep Canyon: At Some Point in Time (Decorah, IA: Anundsen Publishing Co., 2000): 345.

Atomic Energy Commission plaque -- blue circle around a black field, with an atomic symbol in the center.

Manhattan Leaves

The base for the Manhattan project was transferred to the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which took ownership of the Gunnison River site and the Calamity Mesa Claims.[1] 

 

[1] William Chenoweth, “The Manhattan Project in Mesa County”, 2.

Image caption: Plaque from the Atomic Energy Commission. It was displayed at the headquarters in Grand Junction. Former AEC manager, Elton A. Youngbert, donated it to the museum.

Atomic Energy Act

The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 became Public Law 585 – 79th Congress. In summary, the Commission declared the essential production of fissionable materials, specifically uranium, thorium, or any other material for the purpose of common defense and security and with the health and safety of the public. [1] This committee had exclusive control over materials used in the production of atomic bombs, and licenses were required for the use of atomic energy.

[1] Atomic Energy Commission & Geological Survey, Prospecting for Uranium, (Washington DC: 1951), 120.

Black and white photo showing uranium processing

Monticello

The Atomic Energy Commission opened the only government-owned processing mill at Monticello, Utah.

 

Image caption: Yellow Cake (uranium) after processing in Monticello, UT. 1982.171.61

Aerial photo showing the Colorado River, and parts of Grand Junction, including the Climax Uranium Mill.

Climax Uranium Mill

The Climax Uranium Mill replaced the former sugar beet mill and processed more than 2 million tons of ore, producing 12 million pounds of uranium oxide, and 46 million pounds of vanadium oxide.[1]

 

[1] Department of Energy, Environmental Assessment of Ground Water Compliance at the Grand Junction UMTRA Project Site, (Grand Junction, CO: Department of Energy: 1999).

Image caption: Aerial shot of the Climax Uranium Mill. 1983.63.234

Aerial view of the AEC. An assortment of land features and buildings.

AEC Exploration

The Atomic Energy Commission partnered with the United States Geological Survey to carry out extensive geological studies and exploration of nuclear energy along the Colorado Plateau.

 

“One of the important jobs of the AEC is to obtain the raw materials… With a start of eleven employees in 1947, now more than fourteen hundred AEC and contractor employees work out of the Grand Junction office, surveying, geologizing, analyzing, bookkeeping, managing, explaining and answering questions about uranium and how to find it.”[1]

 

[1] Al Look, U-Boom: Uranium on the Colorado Plateau (Denver: Bell Press, 1956)

Image caption: Aerial view of the AEC in the 1950s. 1983.63.19

A man and a boy prospecting for uranium.

Mi Vida Mine

Geologist Charlie Steen struck gold (errr uranium) when he invested $1,000 into a massive high grade uranium deposit found in Big Indian Wash of Lisbon Valley in Moab Utah. Steen named the mine “Mi Vida” (My Life), that earned him millions. His winnings would make Moab one of the most important uranium deposits and inspired a movement for people to seek fortunes in the Four Corners region.

 

Image caption: The hunt for uranium inspired a new generation of prospectors eager to cash in, such as this man and boy. 1983.63.71

Photo showing stores and the street in downtown Grand Junction.

Mill Tailings

Between 1952 and 1966, between 150,000 and 200,000 tons of mill tailings[1] were used by construction companies, materials supply contractors, and individuals for a variety of purposes, specifically used as backfill for building and construction projects in Grand Junction.[2]

 

[1] Mill tailings: the mineral residue after uranium ore has been processed.

[2] US Atomic Energy Commission, Report of Practicability Study & Cost Estimate Removal of Uranium Mill Tailings from under or near certain residences in the Grand Junction, Colorado Area. (Grand Junction: AEC, Sep. 1971), 3.

Image caption: 1996.64 Downtown Grand Junction in the 1950s. Many structures, roads, and projects in Grand Junction were built with radioactive materials that have been proven to be hazardous and dangerous. 

2 men stand in front of a small plane with the word "SURVEY" on the side.

Airborne Section

The Airborne Section was formed in Grand Junction to survey the rugged landscape in search of mineral outcrops. 10 Piper Super Cub planes, pilots, and a geologist-observer took to the skies.

 

Image caption: One of the survey planes used to identify potential mining locations. 1983.63.193

Beauty queens picking up a piece of uranium ore out of a pile.

Miss Atomic Energy

Grand Junction hosted its second Miss Atomic Energy, a contest sponsored by the Uranium Ore Producers Association and the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce. The winnings included a truckload of uranium, amounting to 11.2 tons worth $523.54. ($5,258.74 in 2021 dollars)

 

Image caption: Karen Keeler (third from left) of Denver is crowned Miss Atomic Energy, winning a truckload full of uranium ore. Left to right: Shirley Riggs, Eugene H. Sanders, Karen Keeler, Cathy Gordon, Jo Reva Beane, and Barbara Talarico. 1983.63.236. 

Stacks of drums of vanadium

Uranium Production

The AEC purchased uranium ore from 531 producers across 11 states, primarily coming from Utah (197 producers) and Colorado (142).[1]

The Airborne Section program ceased, after surveying 81,000 acres across 11 states.

Utah Uranium Production [2] 
Year Pounds Value $/pound Inflation adjusted $/pound
1955 2,219,000 $9,454,000 $4.26 $27.19
1960 6,539,000 $27,843,000 $4.26 $38.74
1970 1,635,000 $6,742,000 $4.12 $28.58
1980 2,397,000 $68,248,000 $28.47 $93.01
1982 2,895,000 $111,080,000 $38.37 $107.04
1987 5,320,000 $146,610,000 $27.56 $65.31

 

 

Image caption: View of vanadium drum storage in 1958. 1983.63.156

[1] The Daily Sentinel, September 2, 1956, 1

[2] Despite its high values, the market could not sustain itself and there were limited buyers. Pounds and value per year from (Raye Ringholz, “Utah’s Uranium Boom,” historytogo.gov)

A man in front of equipment

Cancer and Uranium Workers

Dr. Geno Saccomanno of Saint Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, CO, was funded by the U.S. Public Health Service, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of Energy, and the Uranium Producers of America to further examine correlation between cancer and uranium workers. He became a leading figure in the medical community, and published 95 articles examining different medical issues, specifically lung cancer, that drastically increased throughout the uranium boom.  

A man in a hard hat drills into rocks

Uranium Bust

With 9 million tons of ore valued at $250 million, the Atomic Energy Commission announced that “it no longer in the interest of the Government to expand production of uranium concentrate.” The uranium boom busted once the there was no longer a market, and there were still 71 million tons of uranium ore in reserve. Private enterprises were invited to continue the buying and selling of uranium products, but over time, it decreased in value.[1]

 

Image caption: Miner in action. 1983.78.13

[1] Raye Ringholz, “Utah’s Uranium Boom” Beehive History 16 (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1990), 25.

Two men smoke in a mine entrance.

Recession

In the 1970s, Grand Junction entered a recession era, with limited jobs, as uranium mining went bust as the US government stopped paying private companies for uranium. Uranium had found its way into the foundation of Grand Junction and had to undergo a massive reconstruction and reassess health issues. Workers found employment in mill tailing removal.

 

Image caption: Woody Powell, 23, and Walt Moore, 21, taking a break at a mine entrance. 1982.171.66

A mill tower falls during demolition.

Nov. 24, 1970

The 140-foot smokestack of the Climax uranium mill was demolished.

 

Image caption: Photos of the Climax Uranium Mill tower being demolished. It took 1.5 seconds to fall and 190 explosives. 1983.51, .52, .53, .58. 

A forklift operator moves a barrel.

Jan. 26 1971

The AEC delivered its last load of uranium products from Atlas Corporation’s Plant in Moab.

 

Image caption: The last load of uranium/vanadium being transported. 1983.63.163

Subcommittee on Atomic Energy

The Congress of the United States, Subcommittee on Raw Materials of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy met to reevaluate the removal of uranium mill tailings. Honorable Wayne N. Aspinall, chairman of the subcommittee, used the hearing as “an opportunity to develop a public record on how the situation has developed and what should be done about it.”[1]

[1] Hearing before the Subcommittee on Raw Materials of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, 92nd Cong, 1st sess., Oct. 1971,

 

 

Department of Energy

The Department of Energy was established and united most federal energy projects under this department, which focused on environmental clean-up and proper disposal of radioactive materials.  

UMTRACA

Congress passed the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act (UMTRACA) [Public law 95-604], resulting in the stabilization, disposal, and control of uranium mill tailings.

Colony Project Ends

Exxon shut down the Colony Project, an oil shale development project near Parachute Creek, CO, resulting in over 2,000 people being laid off. Many of these employees found work in construction, especially in the removal of radioactive materials.

A man sits in his torn up living room

Mill Tailings Removal

From 1989 – 1994, the City of Grand Junction underwent a massive removal of mill tailings affecting approximately 4,000 properties. The DoE spent $65 million in western Colorado, $27.5 million dedicated to Mesa County alone.[1] UMTRAP dedicated $180 million to Mesa County’s mill tailing removal.[2]

 

Image caption: Yves Gallet is sitting in his living room during the mill tailings removal. Photographed by John McCoy of the Daily Sentinel. 2004.44.151

[1] Ginger Rice, “Tailings work boon to area economy,” The Daily Sentinel, July 17, 1990.

[2] Steve McMillan, “GJ may get some help with pool: mill tailings may force DOE to help pay bill,” The Daily Sentinel, March 6, 1985.

protest memorabilia

Cheney Disposal Site

The city faced backlash from the community in Whitewater, who did not want the disposal site to be in the vicinity.

 

Image caption: Memorabilia from the Uranium Club and two items created to protest the location for mill tailings disposal. The can of “sun-dried whitewater prairie dog, killed by a mill tailing truck off of US 50. . . best served with pinto beans and a Cok” was sold in the Whitewater General Store for 99 cents as a humorous dig against the disposal site. 1991.96.1, 1990.61.1, 1990.61.2

A barrel on its side.

US Radiation Exposure Compensation Act

The United States Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was passed, providing monetary compensation to those affected by radiation exposure during uranium extraction, transportation, and nuclear testing.

 

Image caption: Close-up view of a corroded vanadium drum with a hole. 1983.63.161

Cheney Disposal Cell

Construction began for the Cheney Disposal Cell, a disposal site 18 miles southeast of Grand Junction. This disposal site is the “only government-owned, noncommercial disposal facility in the country that is still open to accept uranium mill tailings.” It is scheduled to officially close in 2023.

The site is now referred to as the Grand Junction Disposal Site. 

 

Grand Junction Disposal and Processing Site Fact Sheet

Long-term surveillance plan for the Cheney disposal site near Grand Junction, ColoradoreportApril 1, 1997; Albuquerque, New Mexico. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc679131/), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library, Government Documents Department.

Grand Junction Disposal Site Extended

A COVID-19 relief and federal spending bill has reevaluated how long the Cheney disposal site will remain open. Currently the cell is at 95% capacity, yet this new relief could extend its opening through 2031 or until it is full. Mill tailings continue to be disposed of in this area and costs about $100 a cubic yard. Closing the cell would result in seeking out private disposal sites out of town, increased disposal rates, and transportation costs.[1]

[1] Dennis Webb, “Trump signed bill extends life of area mill tailings disposal site,” The Daily Sentinel, December 29, 2020, https://www.gjsentinel.com/news/trump-signed-bill-extends-life-of-area-mill-tailings-disposal-site/article_47892fa0-4929-11eb-bcf1-9f5d69fb2853.html

2021
Brown earth/tailings at the disposal site

Disposal

About 4.4 million cubic yards of contaminated materials were disposed of in the 94-acre Cheney cell, which has controlled access and lacks any source of groundwater.

 

Image caption: Cheney Disposal Site in 1994. 2019.9.16


Bibliography

Amundson, Michael A. Yellowcake Towns: Uranium Mining Communities in the American West. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2004.

Atomic Energy Commission. Prospecting for Uranium. Washington DC: Atomic Energy Commission, 1951

Chenoweth, William. “The Manhattan Project in Mesa County.” July 1984.

Chenoweth, William. “Uranium in Western Colorado.” The Mountain Geologist 14, no. 3 (July 1978): 89-95.

Huleatt, W.P., Hazen Jr., Scott W., Traver Jr., William M. Report of Investigation: Exploration of Vanadium Region of Western Colorado and Eastern Utah. US Department of the Interior, September 1946.

Look, Alfred. U-Boom: Uranium on the Colorado Plateau. Denver: Bell Press, 1956.

Lubenau, Joel, and Edward Landa. Radium City: A History of America’s First Nuclear Industry. Pittsburgh: Heinz History Center, 2019.

McMillan, Steve. “GJ may get some help with pool: mill tailings may force DOE to help pay bill.” The Daily Sentinel, March 6, 1985.

Moore, Jean. Unaweep Canyon: At Some Point in Time. Decorah, IA: Anundsen Publishing Co., 2000.

Rice, Ginger. “Tailings work boon to area economy.” The Daily Sentinel, July 17, 1990.

Smithsonian Institution Online Collection. https://www.si.edu/object/piper-pa-18-super-cub%3Anasm_A19761155000

Sullenberger, Robert. “100 Years of Uranium Activity in the Four Corners Region.” Journal of the Western Slope 7, no. 4 (Fall 1992): 2.

US Atomic Energy Commission. Report of Practicability Study & Cost Estimate Removal of Uranium Mill Tailings from under or near certain residences in the Grand Junction, Colorado Area. Grand Junction, CO: AEC, 1971.

US Congress. House. Hearing before the Subcommittee on Raw Materials of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. 92nd Cong, 1st sess., 1971.

US Department of Energy. Environmental Assessment of Ground Water Compliance at the Grand Junction UMTRA Project Site. Grand Junction, CO: Department of Energy: 1999.

Webb, Dennis. “Trump signed bill extends life of area mill tailings disposal site.” The Daily Sentinel, December 29, 2020.

 


Supported in part by an award from the Colorado Historical Records Advisory Board, through funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), National Archives Records Administration.

 

Additionally, the William Chenoweth Collection, which includes a variety of materials relating to the history of uranium in western Colorado, was catalogued and digitized as part of the grant. Soon, you’ll be able to view these items online!