Welcome to A People's Atlas of Nuclear Colorado

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Path Introduction

Following tectonic events that gave rise to the Rocky Mountains around 75 million years ago, a thick unbroken shelf known as the Colorado Plateau eventually rose a mile above sea level and now covers what is today the Four Corners area of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Sitting within the inner folds of sandstone, mudstone, and siltstone layers of the region, uranium deposits in the form of breccia pipes ranging from 100-400 feet in diameter and up to 3,000 feet deep disperse throughout the Plateau in three main mineral belts that range in content from a few tons to more than a thousand.

This pathway explores how the atomic age drew settler-colonial control of land and resources in the U.S. to its apex with the hunt for an infinite source of cheap and clean energy. In the settler society of the United States, raiders headed West for land and gold in the nineteenth century, armed with a mythos that the earth is inexhaustible and available for the taking. The resultant land grab threatened the existence of the Plains and Plateau tribes and tore one-fifth of the new state of Colorado from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Nation. As the resource extraction expanded, reconnaissance appraisals by the U.S. Geological Survey bored thousands of holes into the Colorado Plateau in search of oil, gas, and eventually uranium (carnotite) deposits. The heaviest naturally occurring element, uranium—named for Uranus, child of Gaia and father of Titans—came to be a highly sought-after material, used as an abundant source of concentrated energy. In the wake of WWII, the Atomic Energy Commission Division of Raw Materials lured prospectors out West with inflated buying rates, discovery bonuses, and a plethora of maps and road infrastructure supporting a guaranteed uranium market with a single buyer—the U.S. federal government. Due to the uranium frenzy and development of power generation on the Plateau, Colorado emerged as one of the nation's main sources of uranium mining and processing.

The path also excavates power relations involved in this history of appropriating the earth, including Colorado's partition of surface-land property from water rights and mineral claims. These divisions are codified in law as parcelized rights to exploit resources, with market relationships intensifying the separating, extracting, and commodifying of materials. This apprehension of property also operates at the larger scale of earth systems, in the technological view of the earth as a laboratory of extraction and ultimately nuclear testing, creating "national sacrifice zones" of scorched earth and contamination. How has "mastery" of the earth positioned some populations as more vulnerable to environmental change? How do the inequalities and harm of the atomic age actively shape our futures and how should they be redressed? Whose earth is it, and how can this question help organize issues of rights and justice surrounding the unfinished Cold War?