Uranium boom draws fire
Opposition to revitalized nuclear industry speaks up

SideStory: Smelter site has yet to make the grade

Remnants of the last uranium boom rest beneath a concrete cap at the Durango Smelter Superfund site in Ridges Basin. Conservationists and members of the public are now expressing concerns about renewed interest in uranium mining and miling in the region. Nearly a dozen uranium mines are set to reopen on the Western Slope./Photo by Jared Boyd

by Will Sands

Uranium is currently a hot item in Southwest Colorado. High prices for the radioactive ore have driven the reopening of numerous dormant mines, and a boom in mining and milling of uranium is currently under way. Opposition to this “renaissance” is also getting hot, as a new generation of activists question threats to human and environmental health.

Fueled by a national call for more energy and a resulting hike in prices, nearly a dozen uranium mines in western Colorado have reopened or will be back in business early in 2007. The White Mesa uranium mill, located in Blanding, Utah, is also scheduled to reopen late next year, and the Cotter Corp.’s mill in Cañon City is actively stockpiling ore mined from newly reopened mines in the vicinity of Dove Creek and Naturita. Meanwhile, speculators have filed thousands of mining claims in San Miguel, Mesa and Montrose counties, all in an effort to get a piece of the pie.

Calling the trend a “nuclear renaissance,” Ron Hochstein, president of International Uranium Corp., said his company is happy to be back in business.

International Uranium owns the White Mesa mill in Blanding and plans to have six mines in Colorado and Utah up and running by early next year. The Cotter Corp., a subsidiary of General Atomics, has also reopened several mines in the vicinity, and is actively mining ore and trucking it to a mill in Cañon City.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy recently issued its preferred alternative for the management of 38 lease tracts in the Uravan Mineral Belt, which includes portions of San Miguel, Montrose and Mesa counties. The DOE has proposed keeping 13 of the leases active and putting another 25 up to bid, effectively opening up 27,000 surface acres to uranium mining. The industry is pleased.

“International Uranium is happy to be back as a significant U.S. uranium producer and at a time of record uranium prices,” Hochstein commented. “Our mines and mill will provide us with many years of rapid growth to look forward to.”

These many years of rapid growth are not as exciting for the region’s conservationists. Among top fears are the lingering impacts to health and the environment from the last uranium boom, which ended with a crash in pricing in the early-1980s.

Roger Clark, energy coordinator for the Grand Canyon Trust, cited numerous incomplete clean-ups, major incidences of groundwater contamination and ongoing health problems throughout the Southwest. “The renewed interest in nuclear power is of great concern for us, largely because we have not dealt with the repercussions of the last uranium boom,” he said. “We’re watching new activity with a lot of trepidation.”

Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste is one group that has felt the repercussions first-hand. Headquartered4 near the Cotter Corp.’s mill in Cañon City, the group has labored to draw attention to the facility’s 84 violations since 2000. The group has also watched hundreds of trucks full of uranium ore mined on the Western Slope drive into town in recent months.

“Many of us here are really troubled by the renewed interest in mining,” said Sharyn Cunningham, co-chair of CCAT. “The Cotter Uranium Mill sits right next to our city limits and next to 7,000 people. Ore trucks coming from the Western Slope pass through 3 miles of city streets and dozens of houses.”

The Colorado Environmental Coalition is also taking an active interest in the regional resurgence of uranium mining. “It’s definitely on our radar,” said Lee-Ann Hill, public lands organizer for the watchdog group. “And we have a lot of concerns that are not being addressed by the Department of Energy. We’re worried about transportation of the ore, dangers to human and environmental health, and the lack of public involvement opportunities.”

Hill pointed to the recent DOE process and accused the agency of lack of accountability. “The DOE has not held public forums in any of the areas that are really impacted, including Cañon City and Grand Junction,” she said. “We’re talking about uranium here. This should all be wide open, but people’s opportunity to give input has been very limited.”

The party line has been that the current pop in uranium development will provided much-needed, clean energy for the United States. Opponents dispute the claim.

“The last time I checked, nuclear power is by far the least cost-effective type of power we produce,” Clark commented. “It seem like even natural gas is a better choice.”

Tackling allegations that nuclear energy is the cleanest source available, Cunningham added, “The big argument is that we need the energy, and that it is clean. When you go and visit the mines, the mills and the conversion facilities, it’s a major mistake to think this power source is clean. There are still in the neighborhood of 1,500 mine site in Colorado that have not been cleaned up.”

Hill noted that Western Slope uranium will not even fuel domestic power needs, but is being put on the international market, saying, “The DOE has indicated that the uranium will be used for the international market. That’s troubling. What kinds of regulations are being imposed on the sale of this dangerous substance? Why aren’t we saving it for domestic needs?”

All opponents agree that citizens in Colorado, Utah and Arizona will be paying the long-term price for the mining and milling of the yellow rock. For Clark and the Grand Canyon Trust, uranium development joins an equally troubling growth in the development of other fuels.

“The current surge of interest in mineral and fossil fuel removal is overwhelming,” Clark concluded. “To add renewed interest in nuclear energy is over the top. It seem like we’re in the final feeding frenzy here before this country actually gets serious about renewable energy.” •