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James St. John, Carnotite in sandstone, Montrose County, Colorado, 11 June 2015, Wikimedia Commons

Issue Brief

Radium, Uranium, and Vanadium

Radium, uranium, and vanadium are elements extensively deposited in the sandstone formations of western Colorado. In the twentieth century, the region developed largely around the mining industry and has struggled to diversify its economic base even as the health consequences of extracting and processing radioactive materials have mounted. The Uravan Mineral Belt—named for uranium and vanadium—is a seventy-mile deposit of uranium, vanadium, and radium that straddles the Colorado-Utah border in an area known as the Colorado Plateau.

Radium, vanadium, and uranium are found in Colorado in an ore known as carnotite. In contrast to pitchblende—the blackish ore in which uranium was discovered in 1789—carnotite is a secondary ore that developed over time through weathering processes. It appears yellow or greenish-yellow and appears in sandstone, a sedimentary rock, near fossil matter.


Radium is a soft, shiny, and silvery radioactive metal. In 1898, radium was discovered by Marie Sklodowska Curie and Pierre Curie in pitchblende. The element is about one million times more radioactive than uranium. The element is so extremely radioactive that it only has a few uses. It is sometimes used to treat prostate cancer that has spread to the bones. It formerly was used in luminous paints on clock and watch dials; however, it is now known to be far too dangerous to be employed in this way.

Radium is present in all uranium ores, including carnotite, and can be extracted as a by-product of uranium refining. One ton of uranium ore contains only about .14 grams of radium. Today, radium is sold as radium chloride or radium bromide, not as a pure material. Additionally, radium is extracted from spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors.

Radium was the first of several radioactive metals in carnotite to come under significant demand: scientists wanted it for research, and the medical industry used it for health applications such as cancer treatment. Because carnotite had the highest radium content of known ores, the world turned to Colorado’s Montrose and San Miguel counties for its radium between 1899 and 1910.

The Colorado Plateau contained most of the uranium and vanadium resources of the United States. However, due to the lack of processing capability, most of the carnotite produced from western Colorado between 1900 and 1912 was sent to Europe for the extraction of radium and vanadium. Stephen S. Hart and Eric Twitty, "Colorado's 'Lost' Radium Boom: Early 20th Century Mining and Processing Landscapes on the Colorado Plateau and in Denver," p. 3, accessed July 30, 2020, https://montrosecounty.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=141&meta_id=10184.Because there were no federal government funds available in 1913 for the development of the Colorado Plateau’s carnotite resources, the Bureau of Mines determined that a cooperative agreement with a private medical group could provide the funding, while the Bureau could provide technical support. This arrangement created the National Radium Institute. Denver was selected as the location for the radium processing plant of the Institute, and regular production began in June 1914. The Institute closed in January 1917 after processing approximately 1,500 tons of “yellowcake” to produce 8.5 grams of radium. Radium continued to be processed in minimal amounts in other mines throughout Colorado.

The Colorado radium boom came to an end in 1923, when rich ore from the Belgian Congo upended Colorado’s radium industry. The National Radium Institute was forgotten until the EPA borrowed a helicopter equipped with radiation sensors and flew a grid over the Denver area, finding more than 30 “hot spots.” Stephen S. Hart and Eric Twitty, "Colorado's 'Lost' Radium Boom: Early 20th Century Mining and Processing Landscapes on the Colorado Plateau and in Denver," p. 5, accessed July 30, 2020, https://montrosecounty.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=141&meta_id=10184.The cleanup of this Denver radium Superfund site required as much time to complete as the original radium boom lasted.


Uranium deposits in the Colorado Plateau are primarily disseminated carnotite minerals in sedimentary rocks. R. U. King, B. F. Leonard, F. B. Moore, and C. T. Pierson, "Uranium in the Metal-Mining Districts of Colorado," Geological Survey Circular 215, U.S. Department of Interior, Geological Survey, 1953, p. 1, accessed July 31, 2020, https://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1953/0215/report.pdf.The vein deposits—crystalized minerals in rock—are the most important type of deposits in the metal-mining districts.

Uranium-235 is the only naturally occurring fissionable fuel (a fuel that can sustain a chain reaction) and has been used commercially to generate electricity. Uranium fuel used in nuclear reactors is enriched with the U-235 isotope of uranium. The heat generated by the fuel is used to create steam to turn turbines and generate electric power. Depleted uranium (uranium with much less uranium-235 than natural uranium, thus, less radioactive) is a dense metal that can be used as ballast for ships, counterweights for aircrafts, ammunition, and armor.

Uranium mining in Colorado boomed during World War II. The United States Government started increasing its demand for uranium, as well as vanadium, as hardening agents in steel. Demand for uranium lasted through the Cold War for the growing defense and nuclear power industries. Christian Flanders, "Uranium Mining in Uravan, Colorado,” Intermountain Histories website, May 29, 2019 [last updated], https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/54.Ultimately, public attitudes related to the growing nuclear power industry and the related environmental and health concerns led to a decrease in uranium mining.

Private mining enterprises also had a significant impact in Colorado. After World War II, the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation received federal contracts to form the Union Mines Development Corporation. The Manhattan Engineer District built its own refinement facility. Union Carbide Corporation built the mill town of Uravan; other “yellowcake towns” included Naturita, Paradox, and Slick Rock. Bernard Conway, "Uranium Mining," Colorado Encyclopedia, accessed July 31, 2020, https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/uranium-mining.Many of these were remote communities that were completely dependent on the population growth and economic results of mining uranium.


Deep orange crystals of the rare vanadium mineral huemulite on a dark contrasting matrix.
David Hospital, Huemulite with vanadium crystals from the Sunday Mine, Slick Rock Mining District, Colorado, 2018, Wikimedia Commons

Vanadium is a soft, ductile gray-white element found in different minerals including vanadinite, carnotite, and patronite. The majority of vanadium produced is used as a steel additive. The chief domestic source of vanadium is sandstone that also contains uranium in the Colorado Plateau. Vanadium-bearing sandstone spans western Colorado and eastern Utah and has been the principal domestic source of vanadium, uranium, and radium.

Between 1910 and 1922, vanadium came under heavy demand as an alloy for steel. In Colorado, the Montrose and San Miguel counties were among the world’s most important sources of vanadium. The alloy metal was used in the domestic steel industry as well as for weapons production during World War I. World War II led to increased demand for the element. However, in 1944, the government announced that it was overstocked and stopped purchasing ore for its vanadium content. Mining History Association, "History of Radium, Uranium and Vanadium Mining on the Colorado Plateau," accessed July 30, 2020, http://www.mininghistoryassociation.org/RadiumUraniumVanadiumMining.htm.By 1964, the Colorado Plateau yielded 98 percent of the vanadium produced within the United States, and 44 percent of the world’s vanadium.

Vanadium mining can expose workers to vanadium peroxide dust, which can lead to severe eye, nose, and throat irritation. Lenntech, "Vanadium - V," accessed April 1, 2018, https://www.lenntech.com/periodic/elements/v.htm.When the uptake is too high in the air, the element can cause bronchitis, pneumonia, and other severe health complications.


Conway, Bernard. "Uranium Mining." Colorado Encyclopedia. Accessed July 31, 2020.

Flanders, Christian. "Uranium Mining in Uravan, Colorado.” Intermountain Histories website. Accessed July 30, 2020.

Hart, Stephen S. and Eric Twitty. "Colorado's 'Lost' Radium Boom: Early 20th Century Mining and Processing Landscapes on the Colorado Plateau and in Denver." Accessed July 30, 2020.

King, R. U., B. F. Leonard, F. B. Moore, and C. T. Pierson. "Uranium in the Metal-Mining Districts of Colorado." Geological Survey Circular 215. U.S. Department of Interior, Geological Survey. 1953. Accessed July 31, 2020.

Lenntech. "Vanadium - V." Accessed April 1, 2018.

Mining History Association. "History of Radium, Uranium and Vanadium Mining on the Colorado Plateau." Accessed July 30, 2020.

Nichols, Jeffrey D. "Southern Utah's Boom and Bust Uranium Industry." History Blazer, December 1996. Accessed April 1, 2018.

Royal Society of Chemists. "Periodic Table: Uranium." Accessed July 31, 2020.

Schulz, Wallace W. "Uranium Processing." Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 31, 2020.

ThoughtCo. "What is Pitchblende? (Uraninite)." Accessed July 31, 2020.

Weeks, Alice D. “Mineralogy and Geochemistry of Vanadium in the Colorado Plateau." Journal of the Less Common Metals 3, no. 6 (December 1961): 443–450. DOI:10.1016/0022-5088(61)90029-7.



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