The Second Uranium Rush
By Sandy Shore Associated Press
DENVER — Cattleman George Glasier sees the next nuclear era amid the blood-orange mesas of the Paradox Valley, the same Western range lands that hold a darker legacy from the last rush to pull uranium from the ground.
Residents of this valley near the Four Corners region are getting an unimpeded view of the second uranium rush. Many are worried.
Glasier, the one-time mining executive-turned-rancher, wants to build a uranium mill on cattle grazing land near his spread. It would be the country’s first in decades.
The land is not far from the toxic uranium mines, now mostly abandoned, that serve as a reminder of an industry born of the Cold War.
As the third global energy shock begins to drastically alter national economies, a potential shift in U.S. energy policy has moved to the forefront of the upcoming presidential election.
Barack Obama and John McCain are crossing the country this month, with Obama blasting Republican energy policies and McCain advocating a large expansion of nuclear power.
McCain earlier this month became the first presidential candidate in recent memory to tour a nuclear plant. His energy proposals include building 45 nuclear power plants by 2030.
Glasier also believes the time to return to nuclear power is now, and he believes Paradox Valley, 230 miles southwest of Denver, is well placed to reap the rewards.
But the nation’s turn toward nuclear energy is worrisome to many, and in particular in Paradox Valley, it is the plan drafted by Glasier’s Energy Fuels Inc.
The company has two mines that are close to being fully permitted, five parcels with existing but closed mines, about 45,000 acres yet to be explored plus the 1,000-acre Paradox Valley mill site. All of its properties are in Colorado, Utah and Arizona.
The proposed uranium mill would cost as much as $150 million to build, money that Glasier is still trying to raise. The company hopes to begin construction by 2010.
A Web site has sprung up in opposition to the plan, and some residents are forming groups.
Anna Cotter, 72, moved to the area in 1955, when the uranium industry was booming. Her husband sold mining machinery, and her relatives worked the mines.
But the valley has changed since then, she said.
“I personally don’t want that going on again,” Cotter said.
Glasier’s mill would process uranium ore into yellowcake and ship it to a conversion plant in Metropolis, Ill.
Industry officials say new technology such as enclosed radioactive waste containers has made processing safer than in the past.
But the plan drafted by Glasier’s Energy Fuels Inc. has not convinced everyone. The people of Paradox Valley have seen nearby communities saddled for years with radioactive contamination. Uranium miners have suffered from lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and pneumoconiosis, a lung disease from inhaling dust.
The same fight is brewing across the country, as residents and environmental groups try to block new mines and processing facilities for the nuclear industry.
From the 1940s through the Cold War, miners using Geiger counters staked out claims in areas with large uranium reserves, such as Uravan, Colo.; Ticaboo, Utah; and Grants, N.M.
There was little to no government oversight of mines or mills, said Glasier, who spent 14 years working for a large U.S. uranium producer.
Miners in the 1900s would toss aside uranium, which had no value next to the steel-hardening vanadium that they sought.
“They didn’t have regulations on how you dispose of waste and all these things in those days,” Glasier said. “So they didn’t build these mills with any of the environmental protections. Regulations today are tighter on uranium mills than probably any other chemical plant in world.”
When the Berlin Wall fell, uranium from weapons stockpiles flooded the market, and prices plummeted from $40 a pound in the late 1970s to less than $10 a pound in 2002.
The Three Mile Island reactor accident in 1979 and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster brought the nuclear industry to a standstill.
Only one conventional uranium mill remains in operation today, near Blanding.
There has since been a resurgence of support for nuclear power. There has been a 15 percent increase in the world’s known recoverable uranium resources, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Australia has the biggest supply of known recoverable uranium resources, about 23 percent. Russia has 10 percent and the United States has 6 percent.
About 90 percent of the uranium needed for U.S. power plants is imported, much of it from Russia, Glasier said. “The U.S. needs to have at least some degree of production to have security of supply.”
The first application since 1988 for a uranium-processing facility was filed in October with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Since then, the the commission has received 27 applications for facilities in Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, Arizona and New Mexico. Utah, Colorado and Texas have their own oversight agencies.
Conventional uranium mining removes ore that is transported to a mill, much like Glasier’s proposed operation. In the other form of mining, workers inject a mixture, such as oxygen blended with sodium carbonate, into the ore body. The uranium is dissolved into the mixture, which is pumped to the surface.
Steve Carlton, who heads the Colorado health department’s radiation management unit, said uranium-processing regulations have become much more stringent.
“These are complex facilities, and they require a lot of analysis on our part,” he said. “But they also require a lot of design and preparation by the companies.”
Glasier, 62, arrived in the Paradox Valley about 15 years ago and began raising cattle on a 120,000-acre spread. Three years ago, he began acquiring land in Colorado and eastern Utah, and he then formed Energy Fuels Inc.
In meetings to sell his plan, residents have vented their fears and sometimes their anger on Glasier.
“If they take a look at technical protections built into this mill, they’ll realize virtually this thing is benign when it comes to environment,” he said.
As momentum builds in the nuclear industry, so does the pushback.
In New Mexico on Navajo Nation land, there are some 500 uranium mines that were abandoned virtually overnight when the industry went bust. The Navajos say they have their own health issues related to the mines.
There are fears in South Dakota that uranium in the water has led to incidences of cancer on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The Energy Department in Utah this month said it would transport 16 million tons of uranium tailings, leftovers from a former milling facility about three miles northwest of Moab, to a disposal site in the eastern portion of the state. It is part of a $1 billion plan to clear tailings along the Colorado River.
Groups are fighting plans to expand uranium mining, and environmental groups this month filed a federal lawsuit claiming that a program clearing the way for uranium mines in western Colorado is illegal.
Marie Moore, 54, an organic farmer, has joined with neighbors to look into Glasier’s proposed mill.
“The fact is, people make mistakes. Accidents happen no matter how good they’re trying to do it,” Moore said. “We’d really like to see renewable energy be the focus rather than nuclear energy.”
(c) 2008 Deseret News (Salt Lake City). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.