Accounts of the nuclear fuel cycle typically begin with extraction, defined as an act of removal requiring special skill, effort, or energy. Labor is part of the process from the very beginning, as are technology and force. The extraction of uranium ore traditionally involved the drilling, blasting, and crushing of rock in open-pit or underground mines. Extraction therefore produces excess materials—known as “overburden”—that must be swept away and discarded for the success of the enterprise. The Latin root of the word extraction is extrahere, “to draw out.” Accordingly, this section draws out the literal and metaphoric implications of extraction and overburden: the places, technologies, economies, and laborers involved in extraction and the matter, organisms, and relationships rendered expendable in the process.
At its core, extraction removes, relocates, and surfaces matter from below ground. In the process, workers, their communities, and the surrounding areas can be exposed to fine particles of naturally radioactive minerals. For decades, the Atomic Energy Commission and private mining companies failed to provide even basic safety equipment to miners and properly close abandoned mines—especially on and near Indigenous lands, where extraction-related health problems have persisted intergenerationally in one of the worst cases of environmental injustice in U.S. history. Non-Native mining communities that prospered during the Cold War often developed strong identities around extraction, downplaying health and environmental risks and celebrating values of patriotism and masculinity associated with uranium. However, reliance on a single industry—and often a single company—renders their economies vulnerable to the boom-and-bust cycles common to all forms of extraction. This is especially true of uranium mining, as demand for nuclear materials is concentrated in a few nations and dependent on geopolitics. The physical distance of mining operations from large population centers and the popular association of extraction with a supposedly earlier and dirtier stage of capitalism has further rendered these communities politically and culturally invisible. And although uranium production has declined in the United States since the 1980s, extraction continues globally in ways that perpetuate neocolonial relations of environmental injustice in places such as Kazakhstan, northern Saskatchewan, Namibia, and Niger. In all these places, it is the bodies of workers, animals, plants, waters—along with the economies and ecologies with which they are entangled—that are themselves overloaded or excessively burdened with the negative effects of extraction.
Attending to the legacies of extraction in Colorado has taken on renewed urgency in light of the Trump administration directive to create a strategic uranium reserve within the United States to expand nuclear power generation. Harkening back to the Atomic Energy Commission policy in the 1940s and 1950s, the prior administration hoped to restart domestic mining and milling by guaranteeing a government price for uranium produced "domestically," which has often meant on the lands of sovereign Indigenous nations on the Colorado Plateau. Although it is not clear (as of September 2021) that the reserve will ultimately be created, the Biden administration has continued to explore the concept.