As a crucial part of the 20th Century, the early Atomic Age brought about profound changes to society and humankind. Not only were we faced with the horror of possible worldwide thermonuclear destruction for the first time, but we were introduced to a number of “futuristic” industries and endeavors, including space exploration, nuclear power, nuclear engineering, nuclear physics, and nuclear medicine. The common thread (or ore) that linked these space-age achievements was uranium. This mineral (often known as yellowcake) could be transformed into both productive and deadly forces and was the key element for reaching a promising future…or at least that was what we were told.
No one is dismissing the importance of uranium, even today, but behind it’s prospecting allure and potential benefits, lies a darker side that many of us became all too familiar with in 1979 at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania; in 1986 at Chernobyl, Ukraine (then USSR); and once again in 2011 at Fukishima, Japan. Furthermore, the long-term health and environmental hazards associated with uranium mining, milling, processing, and tailings disposal have become better known. Many a past Atomic Age boomtown have endured lengthy remediation and removal of toxic substances from their soil, air, and water.
But, let’s backtrack, because this story is not about the future, it’s about the early days of the Atomic Age when areas of vast and desolate emptiness could be transformed literally overnight into a vibrant mining community. It was a time when due to market forces, that same mushrooming community could nearly disappear from the landscape within a dizzingly short span of time. And it was an era when, even if civic leaders foresaw the needs for economic diversity, survival of their boomtown community was not assured. For those with 20/20 foresight, the transition would be painful, causing economic, social, political, environmental, and demographic upheaval.
The fantastic and informative book, Yellowcake Towns by Michael A. Amundson explores many of these issues as it looks at four specific towns in the American West, which both benefitted and suffered as a result of uranium discoveries: Grants, New Mexico; Jeffrey City, Wyoming; Moab, Utah; and Uravan, Colorado.
But these four towns were not alone, as the early atomic age saw mushrooming boomtowns from across the globe — and not just in places where uranium was discovered and/or mined. Other communities benefited from the development of atomic engineering and research, atomic weapons production, and atomic energy research.
The list at the end of this post, while certainly not comprehensive, attempts to identify and catalog as many of these cities and towns as possible, for a number of them have become modern-day ghost towns that hardly resemble anything from their Atomic Age glory days. Places like Uranium City, Saskatchewan; Port Radium Northwest Territories; as well as previously mentioned Uravan and Jeffrey City here in the United States certainly fit into this mold. Once uranium mining ceased, many of these communities simply began to fade away, eventually becoming haunted reminders of their former heyday. Below are several of these communities with the peak and current populations listed:
- Atomic City, ID: 250 residents in 1950 versus 29 in 2010
- Dominionville, South Africa: peak of workforce 4,500 versus 676 residents in 2011
- Elliott Lake, ON, Canada: more than 26,000 in 1961 versus 11,348 in 2011
- Jeffrey City, WY (Western Nuclear company town): approx. 4,500 residents in 1979 versus 58 residents in 2010
- Oak Ridge, TN, USA: approx. 75,000 residents in 1945 versus 29,300 in 2010
- Uranium City, SK, Canada: approx. 5,000 residents in 1982 versus 201 today
- Uravan, CO (Union Carbide company town): approx. 1,000 residents 1958 (per Yellowcake Towns) versus none today.
- Yangiobod, Uzbekistan: approx. 5,000-6,000 residents in the 1960s versus 500-600 today
On the other hand, some of the former boomtowns have survived by making the successful (and painful) transition from being a one-industry community to a place with multiple eggs in its collective economic basket. As cited by Mr. Amundson, Moab, Utah is one of the best examples with its tourism-based economy, but there are others like Grand Junction, Colorado; the Tri-Cities of Washington; Durango, Colorado; and Grants, New Mexico who have achieved this diversification in a variety of ways. Lastly, there are several communities listed whose economy remains largely based on the atomic/nuclear industry. These include Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and the scientific cities of Obininsk and Sarov in Russia.
FYI: For purposes of this list, uranium-based activities must have started by 1970 for inclusion as part of the early Atomic Age.
- Arlit, Niger – uranium mining (1969-present)
- Atomic City, ID, USA – atomic energy testing facility (1949-present)
- Bancroft, ON, Canada – uranium mining (1954-1982)
- Batchelor, NT, Australia – uranium mining and processing (1948-1971)
- Cameron, AZ, USA – uranium mining (1950-1963)
- Dolni Rozinka, Czech Republic – uranium mining (exact dates unclear)
- Dominionville, South Africa – uranium mining (exact dates unclear)
- Durango, CO, USA – uranium mining and milling (1942-1963)
- Elliott Lake, ON, Canada – uranium mining (1955-1996)
- Franceville, Gabon – uranium mining and natural fission reactors (1956-1999)
- Grand Junction, CO, USA – uranium mining and milling (1950-1970)
- Grants, NM, USA – uranium mining and milling (1950-1985)
- Jachymov, Czech Republic – uranium mining (1948-1964)
- Jaduguda, India – uranium mining and purification (1967-present)
- Jeffrey City, WY, USA – uranium mining and milling (1956-1982)
- Konigstein, Germany – uranium mining (1963-closed?)
- Krasnokamensk, Russia – uranium mining (1963-present)
- Los Alamos, NM, USA – Los Alamos National Laboratory for atomic/nuclear research (1942-present)
- Moab, UT, USA – uranium mining and milling (1910s-1980)
- Monticello, UT, USA – uranium mining and milling (1941-1964)
- Mounana, Gabon – uranium mining (1960-1999)
- Naturita, CO, USA – uranium mining and milling (1960-1999)
- Oak Ridge, TN, USA – Oak Ridge National Laboratory for atomic weapon research and production (1942-present)
- Obininsk, Russia – atomic/nuclear research (1945-present)
- Port Radium, NWT, Canada – uranium mining (1932-1982)
- Pribram, Czech Republic – uranium mining (1949-1991)
- Sarov, Russia – atomic/nuclear research (1946-present)
- Tri-Cities (Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick), WA, USA – Hanford site for atomic/nuclear weapons production facility (1943-present)
- Tuba City, AZ, USA – uranium refining (1955-1966)
- Uchkuduk, Uzbekistan – uranium mining (1958-present)
- Uranium City, SK, Canada – uranium mining (1949-1982)
- Uravan, CO, USA – uranium mining and milling (1936-1984)
- Ust-Omchug, Russia – uranium mining and processing (1945-1955)
- Wendover, UT, USA – site of Project Alberta (part of the Manhattan Project) and station for the Enola Gay (1945)
- Yangiobod, Uzbekistan – uranium mininng (1950s-1991)
- Zalesi, Czech Republic – uranium mining (1959-1968)
Those communities who are facing rapid growth from tar sands and oil exploration today, such as Fort MacMurray, Alberta and Williston, North Dakota would do well to heed the hard lessens learned by the boomtowns of the early Atomic Age. As with nearly all commodity-based economic booms, there is an inevitable reversal of fortune, as is clearly evident with the dramatic drop in oil prices in the past six months. Without steady and determined economic diversification, the fate that befell Jeffrey City, Uravan, Port Radium, Uranium City, and other Atomic Age boomtowns will surely come to pass, yet again.
- Amundson, Michael A. Yellowcake Towns, Uranium Mining Communities in the American West, 2004.