Students at Mesa State College think it's about time the city's radioactive uranium mill tailings are played for laughs.

They have made "Glowing into the '90s" their homecoming theme.Residents, however, are not entirely sure whether the tailings are a laughing matter.

At Mesa State's homecoming later this month, there will be T-shirts bearing the international radiation symbol, screened with glow-in-the-dark ink. Uranium mining carts and geiger counters will be in evidence.

"We think it's making lemons out of lemonade, even if it is a little bit of black humor," said Gary Ratcliff, Mesa State's information director. "Everybody on campus thinks it's hilarious."

Grand Junction's tailings problem is a unique one - contractors used the low-level radioactive tailings from the milling of uranium to build houses, schools, apartments, office buildings and roads.

Now, the city is in the midst of two federal cleanup programs totaling $235 million. A 10-year, $175 million program scheduled for completion in 1992 involves ripping up foundations, basements, patios and sidewalks in and around more than 4,000 buildings in Mesa County. The other, a $60 million program, is to remove a giant tailings pile near downtown and the Colorado River.

The college's homecoming is an attempt to make Grand Junction lighten up in its attitude toward a weighty problem. But residents are not entirely sure how to react, given the scope of the tailings removal program and uncertainty about whether the tailings' presence will cause long-term health effects.

Dale Hollingsworth, who spent 25 years working for the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce before retiring in 1984, says the tailings have been disastrous for Grand Junction.

"It wasn't good for Grand Junction. It's never been good for the town but at least it's almost over," he said.

"I suppose the students can do what they want, but I for one don't think it's funny," said Hollingsworth. "At the same time, there's some comfort in the young people laughing about it. It's been a fiasco."

During the federal government's nuclear bomb-building binge of the 1950s, western Colorado, eastern Utah and parts of New Mexico and Wyoming found themselves in the midst of a uranium mining and milling boom.

Like other Western resource booms, it busted, and the region limped along until the oil, gas and oil shale boom of the late 1970s and early '80s, a boom that also went flat.

Ironically, Grand Junction's tailings cleanup has prevented the economy from declining even further during the 1980s.

Longtime residents still question the hazard, arguing that the amount of radiation in the tailings is so minute that it poses no health problem.

"I don't think it's a problem at all. I never did," said Sam Suplizio, a member of the chamber board and longtime Grand Junction business leader. "We resented people making it sound like everything in Grand Junction was burning up. We didn't like any of that."

At Mesa State, Ratcliff said students will be inconvenienced by the eight-month shutdown of the College Center this year so tailings can be removed. But "making lemonade out of lemons" is the goal, he said.

In keeping with that idea, Mesa State has launched an environmental sciences program and many of the instructors are engineers from the tailings removal project, he said.

"The students want to make the best of the situation," he said.