The 26,000 tons of radioactive waste under Lake Powell

Beneath the murky green waters on the north end of Lake Powell, entombed within the tons of silt that have been carried down the Colorado River over the years, lies a 26,000-ton pile of un-remediated uranium mill tailings. It’s just one polonium-, bismuth-, thorium-, and radium-tainted reminder of the way the uranium industry, enabled by the federal government, ravaged the West and its people for decades.

In 1949, the Vanadium Corporation of America built a small mill at the confluence of White Canyon and the Colorado River to process uranium ore from the nearby Happy Jack Mine, located upstream in the White Canyon drainage (and just within the Obama-drawn Bears Ears National Monument boundaries). For the next four years, the mill went through about 20 tons of ore per day, crushing and grinding it up, then treating it with sulfuric acid, tributyl phosphate and other nastiness. One ton of ore yielded about five or six pounds of uranium, meaning that each day some 39,900 pounds of tailings were piled up outside the mill on the banks of the river.

In 1953 the mill was closed down, and the tailings left where they sat, uncovered, as was the practice of the day. Ten years later, water began backing up behind the newly built Glen Canyon Dam; federal officials decided just to let the reservoir’s waters inundate the tailings. There they remain today.

If you’re one of the millions of people downstream from Lake Powell who rely on Colorado River water and this worries you, consider this: Those 26,000 tons of tailings likely make up just a fraction of the radioactive material contained in the silt of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

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