Colorado Experience: Uranium Mania


[music playing] NARRATOR: This is the tale of
two towns in Western Colorado that were inflamed by enthusiasm
for mining and refining the rock called carnotite, with
its stored resources of radium, vanadium, and uranium
that held the potential for unimagined riches,
scientific discovery, miracle cures, and the ultimate force
to energize or destroy nations. MAN: It’s the story of the
three different booms and busts that we have related to this
one rock in Western Colorado. MAN: The uranium boom was much
bigger than gold and silver, including California and
including Pike’s Peak and all of these places. MAN: The government
needed uranium so bad, they spent millions
of dollars to get it. And their wildest dreams were
fulfilled, they found so much. NARRATOR: Uranium
made one town famous, while the other town was
almost completely buried by its own radioactive legacy. WOMAN: Grand Junction kind of
went into the uranium frenzy– the love affair that
the country had. MAN: A lot of the community felt
that uranium was good to us. Uranium helped us. Uranium employed us. A lot of other people said,
no, this is really, really going to hurt us. MAN: Night and
day, night and day, you could hear the trucks
go over the noisy bridge, going into Uravan. And it would clank
three or four times as it goes across the bridge. MAN: And they promised–
the great promise of cheap nuclear
power never developed. WOMAN: The bulk of Uravan
was shredded and buried in a hole up on top of
the mountain above Uravan. It’s all buried in there. It was covered up, and
everything is gone. NARRATOR: To this
day, both towns remain fascinating
yet fearful symbols of the rise and fallout caused
by a century of uranium mania. MAN: This program was generously
made possible by the History Colorado State Historical Fund. WOMAN: Supporting projects
throughout the state to preserve, protect,
and interpret Colorado’s architectural and
archaeological treasures. History Colorado
State Historical Fund. Create the future,
honor the past. MAN: With support from
the Denver Public Library. History Colorado and
the Colorado Office of Film, Television, and
Media, with additional support from these fine organizations
and viewers like you. Thank you. [music playing] NARRATOR: The allure of
uranium in the mineral belt spanning the Four Corners
area of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and
Colorado begins with the eye-catching yet
cautionary color of carnotite. MAN: Carnotite is kind of the
darling of the Colorado Plateau uranium deposits
because of it’s color. It’s a bright canary
yellow, so it stands out like a sore thumb. NARRATOR: This
Pandora’s rock contains legions of the
dangers, expectations, and hopes that inspire
and plague humanity. It was forged over many
millennia of geological drama when mountains were
moving, volcanoes were blanketing
the land with ash, and subtropical rivers
were changing course to lay the groundwork
for the uranium enriched Colorado Plateau. MAN: For the mountains were
far to the west and southwest. Think Phoenix. Think where the present
day Sierra Nevadas are. And these rivers were
draining toward Colorado. Of course, you’d have large
dinosaurs and so forth, and different kinds
of vegetation. But there would have been
a lot of organic matter that just accumulated
in these channels and just got carried along with
the sediment and it got buried. The uranium was
being dissolved out of the adjacent rocks
that had volcanic ash. NARRATOR: Turning fossilized
bones, petrified wood, and the Jurassic sandstone
of the Morrison Formation into yet-to-be-discovered
treasures of mining eras to come in places like
Colorado’s Paradox Valley. WOMAN: Some of the
prospectors that were here looking for gold and silver
thinking that it had come down the San Miguel river were
finding rock in the mountains, in the hills, and they
didn’t know what it was. Some of it was yellow in color. MAN: Winton [inaudible]
in Leadville, who was also a bit stumped. Eventually, by the
late 1890s, carnotite makes its way into France. And some scientists in France
take a close look at it and they realize that
carnotite contains three very valuable things. NARRATOR: The uranium that
was dismissed as waste rock before it was transformed into
an engine of power and doomsday device. Vanadium that would strengthen
the lightweight steel of the Panama Canal,
Henry Ford’s cars, and the weaponry
of two world wars. And radium, a rare metal
worth far more than its weight in medical and
experimental value, made famous by its
first lady, Marie Curie, who dedicated her
life to researching its radioactive effects, only
to die of radiation poisoning. WOMAN: People
thought it was just a miraculous cure for
cancer, and, you know, could grow your hair,
and all these things. So we found out, of course,
that that was not the case and that radium was extremely
dangerous, poisonous, and toxic. NARRATOR: It was
the specter of death and the prospect of profit
that drove two vanadium titans to become radium innovators. WOMAN: The Flannery brothers– James and Joseph– were
undertakers in Pennsylvania, and they had gotten into
the vanadium business. But they did have a sister
who was dying of cancer. And that’s what piqued
their interest into getting into the radium business. And that started the
Standard Chemical Company. Joseph heard that there was
this experimental research that was happening in Europe– in France, in particular–
with Madame Curie that radium could cure cancer. So he was instrumental
in getting radium kind of on the map. They found the Club Ranch was on
the San Miguel River in the San Miguel River Valley just over
the mountain from Paradox Valley. And that’s where they
built the Joe Jr. Mill to process the carnotite
ore to get the radium out of it. MAN: In the nineteen
teens, radium was one of the most
valuable things on Earth. One gram of radium was selling
for upwards to $160,000. MAN: And that’s a tiny,
tiny, tiny amount, which you’d have to mine
hundreds of tons of uranium ore to get that tiny speck. NARRATOR: But neither
of the Flannery brothers lived to see their
company’s greatest success– a gift of radium to
its foremost champion, followed by paradoxical
accounts of her Western travels. WOMAN: Madame Curie’s
daughters say that she never came to Western Colorado. When she came to get
her one gram of radium from the women of
America in 1921, she did visit the White House. She visited the
Standard Chemical Plant in Canonsburg and the
lab in Pittsburgh. And she did get on the train
and go see the Grand Canyon. But they said that she never
made it to Western Colorado, although she wanted to
because her radium did come from these
mountains– these hills. There are family
stories out in Paradox that the little French
woman came for dinner. We would like to think that
that was Madame Curie that came to Paradox Valley. But we don’t know. NARRATOR: It would have been a
fitting but bittersweet finale to the glory days of radium
because in 1923, the Flannery brothers’ Colorado empire ended. WOMAN: It was just abandoned. And then US– United States
Vanadium Company came and bought all the holdings
of Standard Chemical Company. And they’re the
ones that actually built the town of Uravan. They had a contest
amongst the people that were living there
to name the town. And that’s where
somebody came up with the name Uravan, which is
a take-off of uranium, vanadium. [music playing] NARRATOR: Vanadium
production had its day for strengthening American
industry, construction, and armaments. But it was the cast off
rock of that process which would cause the most amazing
craze for the nuclear chain reactions of the
late 20th century. WOMAN: The scientific
community had found that some types
of uranium were fissile. Smile And what that means is
that the nucleus of the uranium atom will break apart and
form different elements. And when it does that, it
releases a lot of energy. So they saw this as a
potential for a weapon to end World War II. NARRATOR: With a furious sense
of urgency and unparalleled ingenuity, the US government
organized the massive Manhattan Project to develop
the first atomic bomb. Guided by the physics
wizard J. Robert Oppenheimer and the hard-driving
General Leslie Groves, the project would
leave no stone unturned searching for domestic
sources of the ore. WOMAN: Lieutenant Philip Leahy
was sent by General Groves to Grand Junction. He got on the train in
Chicago and opened his orders, and it said, find uranium. NARRATOR: Which led Leahy
to set up his Grand Junction headquarters to collect
all of the uranium available on the
Colorado Plateau. MAN: 14% of the uranium
used by Oppenheimer and during the Manhattan Project
came from the Colorado Plateau. WOMAN: One of the things
that Philip Leahy did here at the Grand Junction
site was establish a metallurgical
laboratory to do research on what’s the most effective way
to get uranium out of the ore. So crushing it is
the first step. Then they would process
the ground-up uranium with different chemicals. When they evaporated off the
chemicals, it’s very yellow. It was called yellow cake. NARRATOR: And it was
this concentrated uranium Leahy needed so desperately
from a location that offered ideal access to
the necessary resources, including secrecy and security. MAN: One, it’s
close to the source. It’s close to where,
by now, we know uranium is common in
these carnotite fields. Two, it’s next to a railroad. And three, it’s near
a quasi major town. So Grand Junction,
you have an airstrip. You have roads. You have a community. You have infrastructure,
but it also offers privacy and an abundance
of water out of the Gunnison River. [music playing] NARRATOR: Even in Uravan,
far away from the fighting, the people were kept in
the dark about their part in the Manhattan
Project but felt it was essential enough to make
them targets for destruction. WOMAN: My grandmother
talked– and my mother talk about the blackout–
blackout the windows when an airplane would fly over. They were just sure they
were being attacked. There was just
that constant fear, and I think a lot
of the unknown. They didn’t really know
what they were doing there, but they were there
for something. NARRATOR: Something like nothing
the world had ever seen before. The mining of an unnamed
strategic mineral intended to arm the
first atomic bombs that would incinerate the
Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. WOMAN: Both my brother,
my uncle, and my husband were all in World War II. So it was with relief
that we knew it was over. It was later that the
shocking news of what had really happened
kind of set in. MAN: Pretty soon,
the Soviet Union develops the
technology themselves. Pretty soon, now, we have
two global superpowers with atomic energy. And this renews an interest. So in 1947, the Atomic
Energy Commission is established with
this idea of making sure that the United States keeps
a global superior knowledge and supply and
stockpile of uranium. [music playing] NARRATOR: And so
began a manic dash for the All-American
sources of the ore that was accelerated by the
first and only government subsidized mineral rush. WOMAN: It was a full
scale exploration for uranium reserves in
the Colorado Plateau area. And they found uranium
beyond their wildest dreams. They were so successful. MAN: They offered
all these deals– all these bonuses, and
incentives, and all that. You could get $10,000
for a brand new discovery of high grade ore. Or if you found a
new discovery, you could get up to
$35,000 for that. This uranium boom was one of the
greatest mineral hunts we ever had funded by the government. And I don’t think we’ll ever
see anything like it again. But it was something to see. See prospectors climbing
the hill, looking for uranium all over, not
really know what they’re doing. NARRATOR: But
fervently believing in a get-rich-quick cult
promoted by the Atomic Energy Commission, preached
by the popular media, and radiating
throughout the country. MAN: Life magazine writes an
article on Grand Junction, and they called the
city that glows. They talked about this area
being this hotbed for uranium, and uranium research,
and uranium mining. And so they claimed that
at night, Grand Junction has a subtle glow to it because
of all the uranium nearby. Perhaps my favorite element
during this time period– I think what really really
captures this idea best– is the 1954 Miss Atomic
Energy Competition held in Grand Junction. And the winner received
whatever a truck full of uranium was valued at that day. And running it
through inflation, that’d be about $4,000. NARRATOR: Whenever Uravan’s
uranium delivery system was operating at top speed,
it offered a bit of a bonanza to everyone in the
nuclear family. MAN: My house was
right beside the road. But the trucks that came night
and day, and night and day, you could hear the trucks
go over the noisy bridge, going into Uravan. And it would clank
three or four times as it goes across the bridge. The trucks came 24 hours
a day, night and day, to provide the mill
with uranium ore. WOMAN: The general
manager asked me what I was doing for the summer. And I told him, not much. And they said he’d give me– if I would go along the
roads with my dad’s pickup and pick up uranium
along the roads that had tumbled off
of the mine carts, he would pay me for them. So I earned my
school clothes money picking up uranium
along the roads. NARRATOR: At the height of
the post-war uranium boom, Uravan had all of the comforts
of a close-knit company town. WOMAN: We had a swimming pool. We had a commissary. We had a library. We had a roller skating rink. MAN: The company
bought us uniforms, and we had baseball teams. Pretty amazing place to live. I mean, we never
wanted for anything. WOMAN: When you were
sitting outside at night– because it was always cooler
at night, and we’d sit outside, and you could hear
the voices carry up the river from the ballpark. And you could just about
follow the plays of the game, and who was yelling, and
if it was louder yelling, you know Uravan must be winning. NARRATOR: Of course, the bust– as it always must– was coming in a series
of atomic shock waves, beginning with the end of the
government’s payouts because of a uranium glut. MAN: They were looking
at their budget, and they said, we can’t
buy all that uranium. So they made the
famous announcement that I’ll never forget
on November 24th, 1958 that beginning in 1962, they’ll
only buy uranium in concentrate from ores that were
discovered prior to that date. So that really shut down the
Uranium Exploration Program. [music playing] NARRATOR: Then, suddenly, death
from a slow-developing disease started shaking the uranium
workers and their families. WOMAN: Actually, my
father was the first one that died of lung cancer
associated with uranium miner– in this area– that
they knew about. My dad went to see Dr.
Saccomanno in Grand Junction. And they did chest
x-rays and other tests. And they couldn’t find
anything in April of 1956. But he wasn’t feeling good. And they went to a rodeo
in Ridgeway, Colorado on Labor Day. And he got really sick. My mom took him
to Grand Junction. They saw a Dr. Saccomanno again. And they told him that he
had oat cell type cancer, and he probably had
three months to live. He died in November of
1956, just about six months after he had told me he
thought he had lung cancer. WOMAN: Their health
was being impacted by primarily radon gas
that was in the mines, because the mines
were not ventilated. But it takes over 10 years
for these cancers to show up. NARRATOR: Throughout the
communities of Western Colorado foundations were being built
on radon-producing sand that was free for the taking
from the neighboring mills. MAN: Each one of these places
that’s processing uranium also involves a lot of waste. And this waste is something
that needs to be dealt with. In Grand Junction,
the waste rock was used for
foundations on homes. WOMAN: As far as
we know, there’s not a large tailings
problem in residences because of the vicinity
property cleanup program– that deal we sponsored in
the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. But as maintenance
occurs on the roads, or the city is
changing a pipeline, or improving a bridge,
they work with us. They know where these impacted
concrete structures are. And they clean them up
on a continuing basis. NARRATOR: Over time,
there have also been critical meltdowns of
faith that mankind can ever create a uranium utopia. WOMAN: Scientists thought,
oh my goodness, we’re going to be able to cure cancer. We’re going to be
able to power– provide electricity to everyone. There’s all this
potential for all these exciting new discoveries. We’re going to be
able to go to the moon with a nuclear
reactor as our engine. Unfortunately, of course, a
lot of those very optimistic predictions did
not come to pass. And then we had
Three Mile Island, which really
galvanized the country about using nuclear technology. MAN: I came back to
[inaudible] in 1980. And Three Mile Island happened,
and I was on the school board. And we went from 600 kids
to 300 kids in less than a year in the school district. It was just absolutely
devastating. NARRATOR: And the
devastation would continue with a
series of attempts to totally obliterate Uravan. WOMAN: U-METCO
told the rimrockers that they could have the post
office and the post office boxes inside, and that
they would leave the post office for the rimrockers. And Marie went down one
day and it was just gone. Everything. Things just would
just disappear. They were just gone. That was very hard. NARRATOR: Although the
Rimrocker Historical Society managed to arrest the decay of
Uravan’s remaining buildings and had a museum in
mind, other forces were dead-set on burning the
old boarding house and rec center down to the
ground, then burying the rest of the town, along
with its health threats, legal liabilities, and memories. WOMAN: I even remember the guy
from the Colorado Department of Health said,
let’s get this done, or burn those buildings down. So they called us
up and said, we’re burning the buildings tomorrow. You’re what? We’re burning the
buildings tomorrow. If you want to come
down and watch, you’ll want to be there about
a certain time, you know. All that hard work just going
up in smoke was horrible. It’s gone. There’s nothing you
can do about it. NARRATOR: Because now,
ground zero for the town is the man-made burial mound
where Uravan was laid uneasily to rest. WOMAN: The bulk of Uravan
was shredded and buried in a hole up on top of
the mountain above Uravan. It’s all buried in there. It was covered up,
and everything’s gone. Everything’s in there. NARRATOR: Except for two
relics, rich with memories of the town that once was,
patriotic in peace and war– and Cold War– and
playing America’s game. WOMAN: We’re pretty
fortunate to have the flagpole at the ballpark. That flagpole was across the
street from the post office all the time I was growing up. When we first thought about
trying to get the ballpark was when we were told we
couldn’t have our picnic there. And the picnic had
been there for years. We were going to have our picnic
in the middle of Highway 141 if we need to shut
down the highway. But we were going to have
our picnic in Uravan. It turned out that the property
went through to the county very quickly after that. NARRATOR: Giving the
former residents of Uravan their own field of
dreams deferred. WOMAN: So now they
have a place to go. They can sit on
the river and just sit there and think
about the ball games, and the swimming
pool, and the roller skating, and riding our
bikes all over town, kick the can at night. And if that’s all we
ever have, that’s OK. But we still think there
should be at museum. NARRATOR: Because
there’s so much musing to do about the
nuclear capabilities and failings of humanity. MAN: The development
of uranium– the use of uranium– is probably one of the crowning
achievements for mankind, from a scientific standpoint. This is absolutely amazing. We split an atom. We had this vast
amount of energy. We figured out
how to contain it. And we figured out uses for it. The contrast to that,
though, is at what cost? NARRATOR: Which isn’t just
a hypothetical question of politics, physics,
or economics, but one of personal
victories and casualties. WOMAN: A lot of
people said, well, how can you want to open
up this industry again with both of your husband
and your father dying as a result of their
mining history? And those guys knew
that there was a danger. But they were feeding a family. WOMAN: People’s perception
of nuclear energy and nuclear technology is
very tied into their emotions. And I understand that. Because it’s a high risk– it’s low probability that
anything will happen, but if something does
happen, it’s very high risk. NARRATOR: As risky or
rewarding as the fire next time unleashed from
within the Pandora’s rock of the Colorado
Plateau that could end in the ashes of an
inferno, the dust of a tomb, or the nuclear-fueled
west resurrected by some future
mania for uranium. [music playing]

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