Southwestern Colorado's Nuclear Past, Present, and Future

September 2010

The disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have long lingered in Westerners' psyches as a warning of nuclear fallout, inciting garish thoughts of birth defects, terminal cancer, and other feared afflictions. The former southwestern Colorado town of Uravan doesn't rank with those calamities on an international scale, but perhaps it should.

As a feature in this week's New Yorker explains (subscription required), due to the toxic contamination caused by years of mining radioactive elements for various projects, Uravan residents were eventually evacuated and nearly everything that remained of their small town was destroyed as a precaution. The perimeter was then fenced off, and signs reading "Radiation Caution: Radioactive Materials" still serve to keep people out.

Although many Uravan miners died of cancer, that hasn't stopped their widows, descendants, friends, and other native residents in the area from championing a renewed opportunity to mine for the purposes of nuclear energy—a reality thanks to Energy Fuels' plans for the country's "first new uranium mill in almost 30 years." Their support may seem counter-intuitive, and environmental activists rallying against it in the wealthy nearby town of Telluride certainly have more star power (notably, actor Daryl Hannah), but right now, the pro-mining natives have science on their side—as well as U.S. Senator Mark Udall, whose uncle Stewart Udall once fought to take down the nuclear establishment.

"Colorado's atomic history is full of contradictions," writes the article's author, Peter Hessler, before he dispels plenty of conventional wisdom on the topic.