Last week the United States Nuclear Fuel Working Group, which was established by the White House in July 2019 to investigate more avenues for uranium acquisition, among other things, released a report they’ve submitted to the President for consideration. Chief among their recommendations: more uranium mining.
The report, which you can find here, mentions two specific needs for increased domestic uranium production, neither of which are, as some might expect, to boost nuclear energy to combat carbon emissions. Rather, the aim is to provide more material for the next generation of nuclear weapons, as well as to produce reactors to power naval vessels. Additional benefits would include, according to the report, stockpiling uranium for future needs, and reducing dependence on imported uranium.
The timing comes as the price of uranium has plummeted in recent years, with the uranium mining industry struggling under enormous financial pressures.
So where would an increase of domestically mined uranium come from? The desert southwest, especially around the Grand Canyon. An area long coveted by uranium mining interests, and which has been protected by a 20-year ban on further uranium mining instituted by then-secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar in 2012, based on the toxic leavings and groundwater pollution of previous mining in the area.
The Working Group’s plan advocates for rolling back such federal protections, as well as easing National Environmental Policy Act protections, which the White House has already hinted they’d like to see weakened. Further, the National Historic Preservation Act, which in this case serves to protect sensitive archaeological sites and require the involvement of Native American groups in any mining discussions and plans, would also be “streamlined” in its enforcement according to the report.
Environmental groups are concerned about the risk of groundwater contamination. Modern-day uranium mines appear tidy at the surface, just a small building or two, a pond, and rock stacks, and energy companies assure that they operate fully above the water table.
Hydrologists, however, point out that the watershed of the Grand Canyon is still poorly understood; some water can take centuries to percolate through the intricate folds and twists of rock, some of which is many thousands of feet deep, only to reappear from a spring at the surface.
Furthermore, uranium mining can produce radioactive dust that can not only cause health risks if breathed, but that can also make its way into groundwater.
NEPA and the ban on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon were meant to mitigate such concerns. The Working Group’s plan, however, recommends waiving those protections to shore up domestic uranium production.
“These dangerous recommendations invite more deadly uranium pollution in rural communities and places like Grand Canyon National Park,” said Taylor McKinnon, a campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Every federal dollar wasted on this effort is a dollar stolen from cleaning up the industry’s toxic pollution legacy in the Navajo Nation and across the West. It’s despicable to risk irreversible harm to spectacular wild places by propping up uranium companies that can’t compete in global markets.”
While the uranium industry applauds the report’s findings, which look to shore up a flagging domestic uranium production capacity, critics point out that the US imports most uranium it needs from international allies like Canada and Australia, and there’s no real need to ramp up domestic production, especially in light of the Atomic Energy Commission’s establishment of a global uranium bank that sells the element at competitive prices, and which is not running short of uranium anytime soon.
It remains to be seen what actions will be taken, but with areas formerly within Bears Ears National Monument that were removed from federal protections that have now been approved for uranium mining, there is precedent to roll back environmental and cultural resource regulations to speed mining.
Top photo: Clay Banks