4 spots in Colorado with a radioactive past

File photo. Photo Credit: Milos Dimic (iStock).

After the discovery of nuclear fission in the 1930s, humans sought to harness its explosive nature for energy and warfare. Colorado played a larger role in the development of nuclear technology than you might think. Below, you’ll find four sites steeped in the history of atomic weapons, nuclear power, unbelievable experimentation, and a radioactive past.

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1. Uravan

Uranium mining in Uravan, Colorado started in the late 19th-century with the hunt for radium, though nuclear fission would not be discovered for several decades. The mining operations in the tiny town of 1,000 residents would eventually contribute to the nuclear weapons built during the Manhattan project.

The mine and mill at Uravan opened in the late 1800s and remained operational as late as the 1980s. Unfortunately, the government did not yet know the full implications of the elements they were dealing with during the early days of mining in Uravan. Workers who were regularly exposed to hazardous radiation levels have since experienced disproportionately high rates of cancer. Risks of mining uranium were not understood until it was too late.

In 1986, the infamous Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in Russia resulted in multiple deaths, lingering radiation poisoning, and a worldwide attitude shift towards the safety of nuclear power. The same year, efforts to clean up the radioactive town of Uravan began. Not only did the residents relocate, but the mill and residential buildings were all torn down, with remnants buried in a huge pit under layers of gravel.

The abandoned town is now a Superfund hazardous waste site as designated by the EPA. If you visit Uravan, there’s almost nothing left to see save a “No Trespassing” sign from the Department of Energy.

Uravan was one of many uranium mines in Colorado, with the Colorado Plateau being the richest uranium deposit in the United States. Colorado still has plenty of uranium underground and there’s talk about mining more of it in the future.

2. Fort St. Vrain

After a nuclear reactor uses uranium to create steam, it pushes a turbine to create power resulting in a small amount of radioactive waste being left behind. This waste remains hazardous for a very long time, often sequestered in storage facilities designed to withstand natural disasters, security threats, and deterioration over the years.

Here in Colorado, we have a heavily guarded repository of high-level nuclear waste at the site of the state’s only nuclear power plant, Fort St. Vrain, located just north of Denver. Nuclear operations there stopped in 1989, despite the plant being considered one of the safest of its type in the country. About a third of the total accumulated waste was moved to a facility in Idaho for storage, with the rest split between South Carolina, Washington state, and Colorado.

The waste is held in dry storage, encased in graphite and special coatings that prevent leakage. The facility isn’t supposed to be permanent, with the Department of Energy slated to remove the material from Colorado per an agreement with the state by 2035.

Some believe that the safest thing to do with all of the nation’s nuclear waste–currently at spots around the country like St Vrain’s–is to bury it deep underground, in a centralized, super-secure repository. Finding the best place to build this facility is no easy task, as the location would need to be somewhere that underground water and seismic activity wouldn’t threaten the structure’s integrity. Another complication is that nobody wants the waste to be in their backyard. As a result, the fate of the country’s 90,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste is still up in the air.

3. Rulison

In September of 1969, a nuclear bomb more than twice the size of what was dropped on Hiroshima was detonated underground in Garfield County, Colorado. The goal of the project was to blast natural gas deposits trapped in shale 8,400 feet beneath the surface, reinvigorating local gas fields and bolstering the economy.

The day of the blast, residents were asked to leave their homes and many got the day off work. People reported feeling the tremor and even being lifted off the ground.

The U.S. actually implemented this gas-freeing tactic 27 different times at different sites around the country as part of Project Plowshare. At first, it seemed like it was working, with natural gas yields on the rise. Emboldened, the Atomic Energy Commission detonated more underground nuclear bombs in May of 1973, just north of Rulison in Rio Blanco County.

Anticlimactically, the natural gas they procured from this flashy fracking project ended up being too radioactive for commercial sale. The sites of both the 1969 and 1973 blasts are marked with small plaques, asserting that companies aren’t allowed to dig too deep anywhere near the bomb cavities.

4. Rocky Flats Plant

Nuclear weapon components were produced in Colorado at a facility only 16 miles outside of downtown Denver. The facility primarily produced plutonium “pits” that acted as triggering mechanisms inside bombs. When the Rocky Flats Plant opened in the 1950s, details about its purpose and radioactive hazards were reportedly kept fairly secret in the interest of national security.

Close to controversy since its creation, the plant actually caught on fire in 1957 and again in 1969, potentially exposing some in the area to plutonium.

The plant suddenly closed in 1989 following a covert FBI raid to uncover suspected illegal burning of radioactive waste. “ Infinity rooms” were uncovered, named due to extreme readings they produced on Geiger counters.

The area became an EPA designated Superfund site and the entire facility was soon razed and buried in an attempt to protect nearby suburbs from radioactive exposure. The cleanup cost reached $7 billion and former workers of the plant are said to have suffered long-term health effects. Now, an 11-mile perimeter around the site has been converted into a publicly-accessible wildlife refuge. The government has tested the site recently and determined that it’s safe to visit, though some remain doubtful.

VOTE NOW: OutThere Colorado has been nominated for “Outdoor Publication of 2019.” Cast your vote on the official ballot that’s pinned to the top of our Facebook page. Click  here.


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