These are some of my stories (fiction) and essays (opinion) that illuminate Colorado’s roles in the history of radiation. There are more stories to tell, and possibly others that can tell them better. Perhaps any deficiencies on my part will encourage them to speak out.
Colorado has been caught up in the swirl of issues surrounding radiation since its discovery in 1895 and radiation continues to be an important and controversial issue here. As one of the states with the highest elevation, Colorado receives more than its share of sunshine and cosmic radiation. The natural level of radioactive materials in our soils and rocks is also high, contributing to high natural background exposure.
Colorado is home to some of the most important known deposits of radioactive materials in the world — which continue to contribute to local, national and world economies. Our radium was used in research and medicine at the turn of the 20th century, and a radium refining industry flourished in Denver before WWI. The radium industry died in the early 1920’s only to become noteworthy again in the early 1980’s as legacy contamination was found throughout Denver.
Many uranium mines and mills have produced vanadium, a key component to high-strength steel, as well as uranium for military and industrial use. Legacy, current and proposed mills and mines reflect the national changes in worker and environmental protection, and citizen activism that have occurred over the last fifty years. Colorado regulations have led the national efforts for greater protection.
Colorado played an important role in the Cold War, through the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, which received significant attention both for its contribution to national security and as a focus for the peace and environmental movements. Our one nuclear power plant — Ft. St. Vrain — was unprofitable and became one of the early nuclear decommissioning projects. Colorado hosted two attempts to demonstrate peaceful uses of nuclear devices directed at underground “fracking” of natural gas bearing formations.
Today, Colorado continues to dance with the real and perceived perils and promises of radiation.