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Is It Time to Restart the Uranium Industry in the U.S.?

A proposal to build the nation's first uranium mill in 25 years has divided opinions between those who see good jobs and those fearful of uranium's history of health impacts



WikimediaCommons/Alberto Otero Garc

In Colorado's far western reaches is a valley called Paradox. Unlike most, it is cut crosswise through the middle. The Dolores River runs perpendicular through it, creating a geologic anomaly that is also the valley’s namesake.

Brilliant orange cliffs cradle the valley floor under the white gaze of Utah’s La Sal Mountains. Sagebrush plains and irrigated hay fields are broken only by herds of cows and the tiny hamlets of Bedrock and Paradox. Within the region's perplexing geology run rich veins of uranium, fuel for the nation's incipient nuclear renaissance.

A proposal to build the nation's first uranium mill in 25 years has divided the community there between those who see good jobs and a stable economy and neighbors fearful of uranium’s history of health impacts, environmental harm and unstable prices. Both sides recognize that the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill – fed by ore from up to 41 nearby mines – could transform this quiet corner of Colorado into the fountainhead of the nuclear fuel industry.

“As far as that mill here, boy we need it,” said Mike Moore of the Western Small Miner's Association, based in nearby Naturita. “Not only financially, but the whole area, the country needs it.”

Uranium has been a boom and bust industry in Western Colorado, where communities still struggle in the wake the last bust in the early 1980s. Support is strong locally for the mill, particularly in the towns of Nucla and Naturita, the population center of the county's western end, about 12 miles east of the mill site.

"You just go down Main Street and you can see,” said John Reams, president of the Miners Association and owner of Tomcat Mining Company in Naturita. “We barely have a motel. We don't really have any restaurants. There used to be five or six of them. Our schools are way down. So, we need it.”

The mill could provide up to 85 jobs paying $45,000 to $75,000 per year, according to mill operator Energy Fuels Resources, a wholly owned subsidiary of a Canadian corporation of the same name. A county study showed the mill could increase county housing demand by 31 percent and generate up to 564 additional long-term jobs in the county in sectors like construction, retail, and mining.

But this is not a tidy story, with camps cleanly divided between those who reap benefit and those who see harm. Many in the valley have seen both sides: The lure of a steady paycheck, the devastating effects of ill health and premature death.

Leah Christen's father was a uranium miner. He died at age 70 of emphysema, an illness common among miners exposed to radon gas, especially those who smoked tobacco. Her support for the mill is undeterred.

"Would I follow in my dad's footsteps?" she asked. "Most certainly.... This is the natural resource that God gave us so let's use it.”

While excitement for economic growth is high, cautionary tales abound from the uranium past. The deaths of many sick uranium workers and residents still haunt the area. Studies have found increased deaths among uranium miners and mill workers in the region from lung ailments including cancer even among non-smokers.

The demolished company milling town of Uravan, 16 miles from Naturita, shows this flip side of uranium. Born as a radium mining site in the early 1900s, it became a company town in 1935, when U.S. Vanadium Corp. built a mill and expanded the mine. Its output fueled the Manhattan Project and the Cold War's nuclear arms race. But few measures were in place to protect workers, residents or the environment from uranium's harm, and the town was evacuated in 1984 due to extensive radioactive contamination. After becoming a federal Superfund clean-up site in 1986, the site was reclaimed in 2008 at a cost of $127 million, paid for Vanadium Corp.'s owner, Union Carbide Corporation. In August 2009, a federal appeals court ruled against past residents of the mill town who sought compensation for their illnesses, siding with Union Carbide.

Mill supporters discount that history, arguing that regulations have drastically improved since Uravan, with multiple government agencies now overseeing milling and mining operations.

"The health issue of the past – people recognize it, but it's not going to be the case," said George Glasier, chief executive of Energy Fuels. "The regulations are so much tighter on everything."

Toxic radioactive waste from the proposed mill will be stored in triple-lined tailings ponds with leakage containment, said Glasier. The company will have to post a $12 million bond upfront for clean-up of the site should the company go bankrupt, according to application documents.

Improved environmental regulations have, however, highlighted many problems with past uranium milling in the United States. Of 20 former mill sites tested nationwide for groundwater contamination by the US Department of Energy, only two were not contaminated. Five of those contaminated sites are in Colorado.

The Cotter uranium mill in Cañon City, Colorado, (another federal Superfund clean-up site) has had 99 violations in the last 10 years, according to the group Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste. Leaking tailings ponds have contaminated area groundwater.

"If that is the model for how uranium mills will be run moving forward, we are in trouble," said Matt Garrington, advocate for Environment Colorado, a Denver environmental group. Glasier of Energy Fuels insists that will not be the case.

Mill opponents also cite potential impacts to air and water quality, wildlife habitat and the cumulative stresses of increased mining in the area – issues they claim are not sufficiently addressed in the permitting process.

Sheep Mountain Alliance, an environmental group in nearby Telluride, sued Montrose County for issuing a special use permit for the mill on agricultural land, alleging they broke zoning laws and held private meetings with developers. The Alliance, along with two Utah environmental groups, has also filed opposition to Energy Fuels' water rights application, claiming impacts to the Dolores and Colorado Rivers. The mill would use about 150 gallons per minute to process uranium ore.

Julie Schneider is a part-time resident and board member of the Paradox Valley Sustainability Association, a group formed in response to the mill proposal. In her living room in Paradox, an aerial photo popped up on her laptop. Squiggly mining roads from previous uranium booms made convoluted patterns through the forest on the surrounding mesas above the valley.

“This is the sort of environmental damage it does,” she explained. “This is going to happen again to another extreme.”

Opponents, who are mostly concentrated in the west end of the valley where the mill would be in plain sight, say it will have negative economic impacts as well.

"The community is in the shape it is in because of uranium mining," said Craig Porazzi, president of the Paradox Valley Sustainability Association, referring to past boom and bust cycles. "To say that uranium mining is going to pull [the community] out of its economic state is crazy."

Tourism and renewable energy development will bring safer, more stable economic growth, opponents say. A 2009 study by the Sonoran Institute predicts that uranium development could hinder tourism in the nearby resort town of Gateway, Colorado, by degrading natural and scenic resources. The valley's location between tourist hubs Telluride and Moab, Utah, brings relatively meager traffic but has potential for growth.

“My dad said when he first entered the valley it looked like a Norman Rockwell picture,” said Schneider, whose parents were lured by the beauty of the area 15 years ago. “If you put in a uranium mill, it’s not going to appeal to people anymore.”

One family who left the area knows well the paradox uranium has brought to the region. They lived in Uravan in the 1960s and paid a tragic price for living in the old mill town. Three daughters died of cancer. The parents each have lost cancer-ridden body organs. They still have ties to the area and requested anonymity given the contentious nature of the uranium debate in the valley.

“A man’s family and his rent are big issues,” said the husband. “They are so anxious for these jobs, which we understand.”

“But they just don’t remember,” said the wife “They say, ‘Oh, it will be different now.’

“Well,” she continued, “for their sake I hope it is.”

 

Nathan Rice is a freelance reporter based in Boulder, Colo. DailyClimate.org is a nonprofit news service that covers climate change.

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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