NEW RUSH GAINS STEAM
(March 19, 2007) Late last year, the Bush administration delivered two big gifts to the nuclear power industry, signing deals to help India produce more energy from nuclear reactors and for Westinghouse to build four new reactors in China. Those countries are half a world away from Colorado, but the worldwide resurgence of interest in nuclear power runs risks for the state's public lands, health and safety.
(653.5790) Environmental Working Group - The nuclear industry's efforts to recast itself as a supposedly clean source of energy - a spin echoed by the US administration - has helped spark a uranium boom in the American West. Interior Department records show a sharp increase in mining claims on Western public lands since 2002, driven by a seven-fold increase in the price of uranium.
As recently as 2004, no uranium interests were among the largest mineral claimholders in the West. Now, government data show that uranium interests are among the biggest claimholders across the region - in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
According to Interior records, mining interests staked just 300 claims for uranium in Colorado in fiscal year 2004. But in the two years since, uranium interests have staked almost 3,500 claims in the state. The new claims are concentrated near the historic uranium towns of Nucla and Naturita in Montrose County, and in Rio Blanco and Moffat counties in the state's northwestern corner.
The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety says several older uranium mines in the state could be producing soon.
The Cotter Corp. has four mines near Naturita that were active until about a year ago. The mines closed in part due to rising fuel prices for transporting the ore to Colorado's lone uranium mill in Cañon City.
International Uranium also has about three or four mines in Disappointment Valley in southwestern Colorado. The mines have permits and are being readied for production.
Beyond Colorado, public land snatched up in this new land rush includes 365 claims staked within 5 miles of the Grand Canyon, many for uranium. A company that has staked dozens of these claims, Quaterra Resources of Canada, has already proposed to drill exploratory holes for uranium just north of the canyon. The operation would include a helicopter pad to carry mining supplies and ore in and out.
The idea of helicopter flights of radioactive material near America's greatest natural treasure, already crisscrossed by dozens of tourist flyovers a day, is disconcerting. But there are broader impacts from uranium mining. Colorado and other Western states are littered with radioactive waste sites that are legacies of previous uranium booms during the 1950s and the 1970s, when nuclear power plants sprouted across the nation and the price of uranium soared.
The Department of Energy has begun a decade-long project to clean up 12 million tons of radioactive uranium mine waste near Moab, Utah, that have contaminated land near the Colorado River. The waste is a threat that could pollute drinking water for millions. Cleanup estimates range between US$412 million and US$697 million (between Euro 308-520).
In a recent series, the Los Angeles Times found that abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners have led to deaths from lung cancer and a degenerative disease that's come to be called Navajo neuropathy. Among other routes of exposure, the Navajo had unknowingly drunk water from abandoned mine pits and had constructed some of their homes from the radioactive mine waste.
The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel recently reported that residents of Monticello, Utah, have unusually high rates of cancer they believe were caused by a now-closed uranium mill. Residents recalled replacing their screen doors because the metal mesh would become yellow and corroded. Schools used ground-up uranium waste in kids' sandboxes.
Also complicating the matter is the antiquated federal mining law, written in 1872, that governs much of the new uranium mining. Under the law, filing a claim for as little as US$1 an acre allows companies to mine on federal land - a right the government has rarely challenged despite the fact that metals mining is the nation's leading source of toxic pollution.
Mining interests routinely leave behind multimillion-dollar cleanups, yet - unlike timber, oil and gas and every other extractive industry operating on public land - they pay no royalties to taxpayers. There is no federal fund to clean up abandoned metal mines.
Mining uranium is not the only concern heightened by the nuclear resurgence. We still have no answer to the problems of disposing of the waste from nuclear reactors.
Even if the government's designated national nuclear waste dumpsite at Nevada's Yucca Mountain is opened, storing waste there will mean 50 years of cross-country nuclear waste shipments through major cities. We should ask if spending billions of dollars to subsidize the nuclear industry is a better choice than investing our tax dollars in clean renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Mining is a necessary part of a modern economy. But before permanently scarring some of our most treasured places to feed the nuclear industry, we should first dig deeper into the empty promise of nuclear power.
Source: Denver Post, January 27 2007. (re-printed with permission). See also EWG's "Uranium Fever Fuels Sharp Rise in Mining Claims" at www.ewg.org. Also see EWG's http://www.ewg.org/reports/nuclearwaste/ for "How Close Are You?" to a high-level radioactive waste transport route to Yucca Mountain, Nevada in the continental U.S.
Contact: Dusty Horwitt at the Environmental Working Group, 1436 U St. N.W., Suite 100, Washington, DC 20009, USA. Tel: +1-202-667-6982