How yellowcake shaped the West

The ghosts of the uranium boom continue to haunt the land, water and people.

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.

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Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.