In the 1950s the Cold War forever changed the American southwest, as thousands of hopeful uranium prospectors took to the hills in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and beyond. Mining companies and government agencies hoped to build up our nuclear arsenal and, as an afterthought, create a free-energy utopia.
Instead, the poorly regulated industry poisoned native communities and has since suffered a decades-long boom-and-bust cycle. Much of the industry is on standby today, waiting for the next rise in uranium prices. Mines and mills sit unattended or with skeleton crews. Some are unsecured and abandoned.
Environmentalists and native communities argue that such sites should be closed and reclaimed, a process that can cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars per site. But many locals are still hoping for a market turnaround to provide much-needed jobs in the area, and advocates argue that nuclear power is our likeliest solution to the global warming crisis.
This much is clear: our dreams of a uranium-powered utopia never came to be. For this project, Ben Mauk visits both prominent and forgotten sites of the uranium boom to report on what's become of America's atomic heartland.