How yellowcake shaped the West
The ghosts of the uranium boom continue to haunt the land, water and people.
This story is an excerpt from Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands, by Jonathan Thompson forthcoming from Torrey House Press in August 2021.
In late August 2018, in the heat of one of the warmest and driest years on record in the Four Corners country, under a blanket of smoke emanating from wildfires burning all over the place, I piloted the Silver Bullet — my trusty 1989 Nissan Sentra — to the quiet burg of Monticello, Utah. I was on my way from one camping site on the Great Sage Plain to another on Comb Ridge, where I would feed my misanthropic side with a searing hike down a canyon, seeking out potholes that still had a smidgen of stagnant water left over from the last rain.
I took a detour through Monticello to look into one of the most contentious fronts of the long-running public-land wars, the battle over uranium mining and milling and even radioactive waste disposal. San Juan County’s public lands played a major role in what I call the Age of the Nuclear West, which reached its multi-decade apex during the Cold War and hasn’t ended yet. It was an era of innovation and greed, of hope and harm, of faith in technology and the threat of annihilation, of an almost miraculous source of energy, and of indelible wounds on the land, water and people. Today, the ghosts of that age lurk everywhere in the county. In Monticello, where for decades a uranium mill churned out poisons, residents are still grappling with the long-term health effects. And the last operating uranium mill in the nation, located just outside Blanding, has yet to give up the ghost.
THE NUCLEAR WEST dates back to 1898, long before anyone had thought of nuclear power or nuclear bombs, when Marie Curie discovered radium in unrefined pitchblende. Radium is a radioactive “daughter” of uranium that was once seen as a sort of miracle substance, so much so that just one gram of the stuff could fetch upwards of $100,000. Paint it on watch numbers or even clothing, and they’d glow in the dark. It purportedly could cure cancer and impotence and give those who used it an “all-around healthy glow,” as one advertisement put it. During the early 1900s, it was added to medicines, cosmetics and sometimes even food. The Denver-based Radio-Active Chemical Company added radium to fertilizers. The Nutex Company made radium condoms. Makers of the Radiendocrinator instructed men (and only men) to wear “the adapter like any ‘athletic strap.’ This puts the instrument under the scrotum as it should be. Wear at night. Radiate as directed.”
Shortly after Curie’s discovery, she received a sample of uranium ore from western Colorado. Curie found that it, too, contained radium, and she named the ore carnotite. A boom erupted in western San Miguel County, Colorado, just along the Utah border. Hundreds of mines were dug into mesas and extraction plants built along the rivers to get at the high-dollar miracle substance.
The boom busted in the early 1920s when huge mines opened up in the Belgian Congo that were able to supply the globe’s radium hunger far more affordably. Radium’s glow dimmed soon thereafter when the women who painted it onto watches began dying, and the inventor of the Radiendocrinator was stricken with bladder cancer.
Since uranium ore also contains vanadium, a metal that is used to harden steel and to color glass, a few mines were able to stay afloat throughout the 1930s. The Shumway brothers of San Juan County staked claims on the public domain in Cottonwood Wash and elsewhere during this time under the General Mining Law of 1872, which, like the Homestead Act, is a federal government land-giveaway. After staking the claims, the brothers were able to patent them, thereby taking ownership of public lands. Today, those parcels are private rectangles surrounded by public land.
When the Manhattan Project was launched to build the first atomic bomb, the carnotite-mining infrastructure was brought back to life, and the mines began kicking out ore once again. The old extraction plants also were revived and new ones built. In 1941, the Vanadium Corporation of America — the company that ran many of the mills across the plateau, including at Shiprock, New Mexico, and Durango, Colorado, and was therefore responsible for poisoning the earth and waters around those mills — constructed a mill on the edge of the small town of Monticello in cooperation with the Defense Plant Corporation. The mill was purportedly built to extract vanadium from uranium ore to supply the war effort. The real target was the uranium. Throughout the war, the Vanadium Corporation secretly processed it for use in the Manhattan Project and the atomic bombs that would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the war ended, the mill — having served its purpose — shut down, along with many of the other facilities across the region. But when the Cold War and the arms race beckoned, the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission set out to manufacture a new uranium boom to provide the fuel for a massive nuclear arms arsenal and the nuclear reactors that would power cities, submarines and even airplanes. The Monticello mill was retooled with a nearly $2 million upgrade and churned through about 100 tons of uranium ore per day, crushing and grinding it up, then treating it with sulfuric acid, tributyl phosphate and other nastiness. One ton of ore yielded about five or six pounds of uranium, meaning that each day nearly 200,000 pounds of tailings were piled up outside the mill, in or next to a branch of Montezuma Creek, along with the liquid waste, or raffinate, which is not only radioactive, but also chock-full of heavy metals and other toxic material.
The federal government offered prospectors a cornucopia of subsidies, including bonuses of up to $35,000 for initial uranium ore production and grubstake loans to finance mining operations. Most significantly, the government agreed to be the exclusive purchaser of ore and yellowcake, and guaranteed a price to be paid for it, thus eliminating financial risk from what otherwise would have been a high-risk, high-return proposition.
A frenzied boom erupted on the Colorado Plateau, and San Juan County, which until then had been a fairly quiet place, was suddenly abuzz with humanity and greed. The mid-century equivalent of the gold rush infused popular culture. A 1949 cover story in Popular Mechanics instructed readers how to build their own Geiger counters, and in 1953, a New Yorker feature article was devoted to an “alert-looking man named Calvin Black,” who was working as a foreman at a uranium mine at the time. “Uranium is all I’ve bothered with since I left high school five years ago,” Black — who, two decades later, would come to be known as the father of the Sagebrush Rebellion — told the reporter, “and I guess I’ve been lucky so far.” A board game called Uranium Rush included a “Geiger counter” that “lights and buzzes your way to fun and fortune.” Prospectors from across the demographic spectrum descended on the sparsely populated region, Geiger counters in hand, combing public lands in search for the next bonanza. In the mid-1950s, some 750 mines were active across the Colorado Plateau. Ranchers were pushed off ancestral grazing lands, and quiet little Mormon towns erupted into boisterous, whiskey-soaked ones almost overnight.
To facilitate the craze, the Atomic Energy Commission, county bulldozer crews and prospectors cut roads up cliffs, across mesas and through washes. They didn’t even need to ask permission, thanks to a provision in an 1866 federal mining law, known as Revised Statute 2477, which gave anyone the right to build a road across Bureau of Land Management land to anywhere or, for that matter, to nowhere, without getting a permit or even informing the federal land agency. A vast expanse that in 1936 was declared the largest roadless area in America was soon covered with a web of roads.
San Juan County’s population exploded, relatively speaking, as did the assessed valuation, going from about $4 million to nearly $140 million. Ranching was no longer the main economic driver; uranium was, followed by oil. If the shift from farming to ranching in the 1880s represented a deviation from Brigham Young’s collectivist leanings, then the side-by-side uranium and oil booms pretty much nuked everything for which Young and Joseph Smith had stood. The Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition, sent to the corner of Utah in order to repel the advancing forces of greed and unbridled capitalism and act as stewards of the land, was no more; the Hole-in-the-Rockers themselves were now fully invested in the avarice-driven society, and the county rose from one of the poorest to one of the wealthiest in the state.
The transformation in San Juan County — which would become the heart of the Sagebrush Rebellion — mirrored a similar one happening simultaneously within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, itself. When McCarthyism infected the nation in the 1950s, church leaders started an effort — perhaps concerted, perhaps not — to change their public image from borderline theocratic communists to full-on capitalists.
The ideological leader of this new, free-market Mormonism was Ezra Taft Benson, a rabid anti-communist who served as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of Agriculture and was LDS president for 14 years beginning in 1985. Benson was a contemporary, friend and ideological twin of W. Cleon Skousen, the ultra-conservative political theorist whose teachings would influence the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, the wise-use and patriot movements of the 1990s, and the violent right-wing uprisings of the mid-2010s, including the armed occupation led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016. Benson and Skousen both were strong supporters of the John Birch Society, which was considered extreme even by the likes of hardcore conservatives such as Barry Goldwater. The society’s founder, Robert Welch, derided Eisenhower as a communist, and Benson concurred. And in 1963, Benson predicted that within the decade the United States would be ruled by a communist dictatorship, which would include military occupation, concentration camps and the like. He then said, in what sounded like a call for violent revolution: “Words will not stop the communists.”
Neither Benson’s nor Skousen’s rhetoric was accepted by the entirety of the church leadership, by any means, but over time, the resistance to it waned, and the church and its membership moved much further to the right, thereby abandoning many of the principles of both Young and Smith.
The government stopped buying ore in the 1960s and yellowcake in the 1970s, but continued to prop up the nuclear industry as a whole with a slew of subsidies. Many of the smaller uranium mines and mills shut down or were purchased by larger corporations and consolidated into big operations. The Monticello mill was among those that perished in 1960, much to the dismay of the local business community, after having processed 900,000 tons of uranium ore, churned out more than 800,000 tons of tailings, contaminated the soil and groundwater with a litany of toxic and radioactive materials, and left a permanent stain on the land and on the collective health of local residents.
By the late 1970s, the prospecting boom was long gone, and many of the smaller mines had shut down, giving way to larger strip mines in Wyoming or Grants, New Mexico. A handful of mines and mills across the Colorado Plateau were still operating at the time, but their days were numbered. In March 1979, one of the reactors at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania experienced a partial meltdown, thanks in part to a stuck valve. While a devastating catastrophe was narrowly averted, the accident was enough to spark fear in a populace among which an anti-nuclear-weapon movement was already growing. A few months later an even more damaging, yet far less visible, accident occurred on the Navajo Nation, when a uranium mill tailings dam owned by the United Nuclear Corporation was breached near Church Rock, New Mexico, sending more than 1,000 tons of tailings and 94 million gallons of radioactive liquid into the Puerco River, affecting livestock and contaminating the drinking-water wells of countless people downstream. The China Syndrome hit theaters that same year, and a rousing, star-studded No Nukes concert rocked Madison Square Garden, with Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, John Hall and Bonnie Raitt imploring the world to “take all your atomic poison power away.”
Even as public perception of nuclear power dimmed and U.S. utilities stopped building new reactors, uranium mining and milling operations were ramping up in other countries, leading to a global glut and a uranium price crash. With cheaper yellowcake flooding in from overseas, the domestic industry withered. Uranium production in the United States peaked in 1980, then fell precipitously after that.
MONTICELLO STARTED LIFE as a Gentile cow town, not becoming a mill or mining town of any sort until World War II. Though it is the county seat, and though there is an LDS temple there, it still retains a smidgen of that non-Mormon cowboy, mining-town flavor, with the only real bar in San Juan County — a speakeasy sort of place with a Mormon teetotaler mixologist who throws together complicated cocktails, including one called “The Best Blow Job Ever.” It is home to the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education, started here in 1984, and the Canyon Country Discovery Center, founded in 2015. At the time, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman called the center a Trojan horse for the pro-wilderness crowd, and others said it was a gateway drug that would lead to Monticello becoming a new Moab. Monticello also is home to Uranium Watch, founded years ago by a woman named Sarah Fields, who is currently the watchdog’s sole employee.
During my 2018 stop in Monticello, I looked Fields up and invited her to lunch on a shady café patio to talk about the nuclear West. The wind had blown the smoke away and the air was clearer than it had been for much of the summer, but the heat was as intense as ever.
In 1987, Fields and her husband and kids moved from San Luis Obispo, California — just a couple miles inland from the then-new Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant — to Moab. There, the Atlas uranium mill, located on the edge of town along the banks of the Colorado River, was about to shut down for good, thanks to the crash of the domestic uranium market. The owners and the federal government had to figure out what to do with the 16 million tons of radioactive tailings that sat onsite and that was leaching into the river — and the water supply of millions of people downstream. Fields jumped into the fray, watchdogging the process for the Sierra Club and Friends of Glen Canyon before starting Uranium Watch in 2006.
With a shy smile, big blue-gray eyes and straight silver hair, Fields is tireless in her activism, most of which is funded by her. She puts countless miles on her decades-old Toyota station wagon driving to hearings and conferences and site visits. She has learned the art of activism on the fly, brought herself up to speed on the myriad technical complexities of her focus issue. She’s often the only member of the public to attend public hearings held to consider permit renewals for uranium mines and mills. When others do show, they tend to make emotional pleas against permit renewal, recounting uranium-related health problems that have plagued their families, or for renewal, due to the economic boost it could bring. Fields’s comments, by contrast, are always based in science, can be highly technical, and typically are aimed not at getting permits revoked, but at making sure that the facilities do as little harm as possible while still operating. And she’s an expert at badgering agencies with Freedom of Information Act requests to get them to cough up pertinent documents, such as letters concerning the 26,000-ton pile of uranium tailings now inundated by Lake Powell. Over the years, Fields has continued to monitor the Atlas mill cleanup — which won’t be completed until approximately 2030 — and fought hard to stop a proposed nuclear plant in Green River, Utah, while keeping an eye on the lingering pollution and health problems left behind by the Monticello mill.
In the late 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy came to Monticello and spent $250 million in taxpayer dollars to clean up the mill mess — a mess that was made by the feds, too, and financed with taxpayer dollars. Mills all over the West were remediated at around the same time, from Uravan, Colorado, to Grand Junction to my hometown of Durango. Today, you can find the former mill sites by studying satellite maps on Google Earth and looking for the telltale tombs — big, gray, featureless monoliths in which the tailings reside — out among the sage or the sandstone. You can find the memories of that time stored up in the silt of Lake Powell and the San Juan River. And the bodies and the cells remember, too — the bodies and cells of those who worked in the mines and the mills or lived nearby, and who played on the tailings piles, swam in the raffinate ponds, and put the sandy, radioactive tailings in their vegetable gardens.
A 1997 public health assessment found that in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, white men in Monticello suffered from tracheal, bronchial, lung and pleural cancer at rates three to four times higher than in the general U.S. population, and white women had similarly elevated incidents of breast cancer. A follow-up study in 2014 found, again, “evidence of significantly elevated risks for lung and bronchus cancer in residents of the City of Monticello … consistent with known exposures and are biologically plausible with prolonged exposures to the contaminants from the MMTS (Monticello Mill site).” An informal survey found 600 incidents of people with cancer, 26 of which were leukemia.
Citing these grim statistics, residents of Monticello and victims of the mill’s pollution went after the federal government, demanding that it fund a cancer screening center in Monticello and create a fund for offsetting health care costs for victims. Many of the victims were uninsured or underinsured and were unable to pay the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for medical treatment. Some were forced to take out mortgages on their homes or even go bankrupt. Residents here had yet another reason to be disdainful of the government. Indeed, when the BLM was looking to build a new headquarters in town, it originally chose the old mill-site, since federal officials had told townsfolk that it was no longer hazardous. They chose another location after Department of Energy officials verbally warned them away from the site — a courtesy they did not extend to the locals.
Studies in Shiprock have found elevated levels of birth defects, kidney disease, cancers and other persistent health problems. In Durango, a local doctor raised alarms in the ’70s regarding what he saw as a lung cancer cluster in neighborhoods adjacent to the mill and the abandoned tailings piles. A recent study in Moab showed relatively high levels of lung cancer. Yet in almost every case, the researchers stop short of putting the blame on the obvious culprit, the nearby mill or the mines. They call for more monitoring. They attribute the illnesses to higher levels of naturally occurring radiation, or to cigarette smoking, even in a predominantly Mormon town like Monticello, where smoking is rare. And then they move the tailings, ship them off to where they can’t be seen, “reclaim” the site, build dog parks or golf courses or wildlife refuges there, and hope that people will forget.
Yet no matter how many millions of tons of tailings are removed, and how many millions of dollars are spent to “reclaim” the land, the toxic legacy endures, somewhere, somehow. Radioactive, heavy-metal-laden water continues to seep into Many Devils Wash, adjacent to the site of the Shiprock mill, and then into the San Juan River, flummoxing scientists. Groundwater beneath the Durango dog park still swims with high levels of uranium, lead and other contaminants. And, in Monticello, shallow groundwater is still contaminated with elevated levels of uranium, arsenic, and manganese, and every effort to clean it up has failed.
It’s no wonder, then, that people like Fields are worried about what messes might yet be made by the industry, even one that appears to be dying. In 2019, U.S. uranium producers kicked out a record low of just 86 tons of uranium concentrate, less than 5% of the fuel consumed by domestic nuclear plants (and 95% less than they produced a decade earlier). The industry employs about 265 people nationwide; it’s not exactly a job-creator. Nearly all of the fuel for U.S. reactors is imported, mainly from Canada, Australia, Russia and Kazakhstan. These countries can supply uranium for far cheaper, in part thanks to government subsidies like those that propped up the U.S. uranium industry from the 1950s to the 1980s. Plus, because of uranium’s high energy density, it is relatively cheap to ship overseas. Energy Fuels, the owner of the White Mesa Mill outside Blanding, has lobbied the federal government to limit uranium imports in order to jack up the price and keep it in business. At the same time, the company has resorted to importing and reprocessing nuclear waste from Estonia to keep the mill clinging to life.
The Trump administration balked on the import limits, in part because it would hurt the nuclear power industry by increasing prices. Instead, it proposed infusing the industry with cash by purchasing large quantities of uranium for a national reserve and asked Congress for $150 million for that purpose in 2021. If that proposal were to survive into the Biden administration, and if Congress gave it the go-ahead, it could immediately and substantially up demand and prices for domestic uranium, potentially raising production to levels that haven’t been seen in decades. Meanwhile, a movement to turn to low-carbon-emitting nuclear power as a tool for fighting climate change is gaining steam, and the development of smaller, cheaper nuclear reactors could lead to a miniature nuclear-power boom.
If any of these developments were to breathe new life into the domestic uranium industry, it would be felt in San Juan County and the greater Four Corners region. Energy Fuels’ Daneros Mine, located on the edge of Bears Ears National Monument in the White Canyon drainage, is currently in standby mode and would surely be put back into operation, along with Energy Fuels mines near the Grand Canyon and La Sal, Utah. Residents of White Mesa, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe nearest to the mill, have fought alongside Fields and other environmental activists to get the company to implement better safety measures at the mill to ensure that it doesn’t contaminate their groundwater. And the neo-Sagebrush Rebels have been there as well, cheering on the industry. “I think it is a beautiful industry,” said Lyman, in a hearing on the White Mesa Mill’s permit renewal in 2017. “I think it holds the key to a peaceful and clean world and in the future, we will be a nuclear-powered civilization. … Claiming to shut down the mill to protect the environment is akin to turning Bears Ears to an industrial tourism mecca in order to protect cultural resources.”
This story is an excerpt from Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands, by Jonathan Thompson forthcoming from Torrey House Press in August 2021.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and runs the Land Desk. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor.