Grants Uranium Mining Museum

I woke up to pouring rain on Friday morning. I needed to kill a couple hours so where better to go than a museum?

First a little background. One of the major employers in the town I grew up in was the Goodyear Atomic Plant. Most people I knew worked there or had a family member work there at one time or another. My mother, uncle and sister-in-law all worked at the “A-Plant” at various times but not in any of the process areas. The simplified version I was always told was the plant enriched relatively stable uranium into unstable uranium isotopes that can be used for nuclear fuel, either in nuclear weapons or nuclear power plants.

So when I heard the place I am staying, Grants, New Mexico, between the years 1955 and 1985, had the largest uranium production mine in the United States I was interested. And when I found out Grants had a museum about uranium mining it went on my “must do” list. So on this rainy day – off I went.

The simulated mine tour (below) was rather interesting but I enjoyed and learned more from the brief movie we were shown before the tour. In the movie it was explained that they decided the best places to mine by using a Geiger Counter. Even experts can’t always identify just from sight a rich sample. They would take soil samples from ground level and then geologists would determine where to locate the mine for the best production based on the depth where radioactivity was found.

It takes 1000 lbs. of uranium ore to produce 4 lbs. of uranium at 83% pure, which is what enrichment plants need. They do this by first grinding the ore and then using various types of acids to separate out the pure uranium. Eventually this results in a powdery, bright yellow substance called “yellow cake”. This gets sealed in barrels and shipped to the enrichment plants. Up to this point the a person standing near the barrel gets no more radiation than he would in an airplane.

Our guide was a former uranium mine worker. He said in the 50’s men were lured to the uranium mines by appealing to their patriotism, although they weren’t sure how the uranium was used, and by good paying jobs. Grants was a boom town.

They were not told there was any danger in mining uranium and at first they had no protective gear beyond what would be used in a regular mine. Soon it was noticed miners seemed to be dying of lung cancer at unusually high rates. The guide said his experience was if a miner was a smoker he had a higher chance of lung cancer than a normal smoker but if a miner did not smoke he was at no higher risk by working in the mine. The danger, according to our guide, was the radon in the mine. Eventually radon was monitored and more emphasis was put on air flow. Miners were given breathing protection when the radon was high and they wore protective coverings.

As the stockpiles of nuclear weapons were built up and ultimately depleted there was less military need for uranium and uranium demand switched from military to private power plants. Demand continued into the 1980’s but new ways to extract the uranium were discovered. Finally the demand declined until it was not economical to mine uranium in Grant’s mines and they closed completely by the 1990’s. Grants is now pretty much a ghost town. It is conveniently located on I-40 and is near two National Parks so there is some tourism.