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Uravan, Colorado: a buried uranium mining town ~

4 min read

The story of this Old Mining Town: From the A Bomb to abandonment – the whole town was torn apart and buried in order to prevent an environmental hazard.

Only a simple caution sign remains of this old mining town, that warning all those who dare to venture close enough of the dangerous radiation levels beyond the barbed wire, and a story about an event which had change the world. On this remote site in Montrose County, Colorado, was once a company town of U.S.Vanadium, that had only one objective: to extract and process the carnotite mineral, which is rich in vanadium, uranium, and radium. As a chemical element, vanadium is hard and grey and it doesn’t look much “famous”, but its uses are copious, from jet engines to superconducting magnets.

Founded in 1936, the town was located approximately 90 miles to the southwest of the city of Grand Junction. At its peak, Uravan numbered around 800 people, and the flourishing village had its own school and medical facilities, tennis courts and a recreation center, all provided by the company. But it was the byproduct made with the vanadium processing, the more widely known radioactive chemical element uranium, that gave this town a permanent, sad place in the history.

Carnotite was discovered in the Uravan mineral belt in 1881 by Tom Talbert, who was a gold prospector, and when he first stumbled upon this new and enigmatic yellow substance, it was a quite unremarkable find.
Almost two decades later, Marie Curie’s discovery of radium and polonium and her research into it’s use for medical purposes gave value to Talbert’s carnotite. While she and her husband Pierre laid the foundations for the development of radiotherapy and nuclear medicine, other researchers started looking at other uses for these new radioactive substances. It was then was born the market for carnotite, and individuals and companies alike all wanted to be part of it. Mining for carnotite started at Uravan in 1914, and in 1915 the Standard Chemical Company realized a uranium processing plant named the Joe Jr.Mill. Before the dangers of radioactive substances were understood, uranium was lot used in luminous paints, or on watch dials and gun sights.

The company was successful throughout the First World War but at the end lost in battle with the competition. It was 1928 when the U.S.Vanadium bought Joe Jr.Mill and slowly began to create a community. The vanadium plant at Uravan processed carnotite from several nearby mines, and a secondary mill was built in the 1940s to process the byproduct into a “yellowcake”, radium oxide. In this period, the United States government began work on an ultra-secret project that years later would become known as the Manhattan Project. In short, this program was designing the first weapon of mass destruction, and in the heart of it all, there were uranium.

It was in 1945, and with a cost of $35 billion the R&D team of the Manhattan Project gave birth to a nuclear weapon. The yellowcake from Uravan was enriched and used to build the first and only nuclear weapons to be utilize in war: those detonated over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The end result was 130,000 dead and many others wounded, or facing long-term health defects.

The government acquisition of uranium for the country’s defense program continued to keep the Uravan Mill active into the early 1970s. After this funding ended, and public fear of radioactive substances increased (especially after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident) the town of Uravan fell slowly into decline.
By 1986, the story was over and Uravan became a ghost town, and two years later, the whole town was torn apart and buried in order to prevent an environmental hazard. Today nothing, only a yellow sign remains on the spot where an silent, innocuous yellow substance once provided a livelihood to thousands of people, but also killed hundreds of thousands more.

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