On its surface, Grants doesn’t look like the Gateway to the Nuclear West. Its shuttered buildings, dilapidated store fronts, and overgrown vacant lots are what’s left of the promised prosperity from the last uranium boom. To really understand Grants’ and the region’s past and potential future, you’ve got to go below the surface.
From the 1950’s until the mid-80’s Grants was the epicenter of the uranium mining industry in America. The uranium that was used in the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki came from here. Later, the Grants area also gave us the uranium that ushered in the era of “too cheap to meter” nuclear power. This is a town that was built on the 1950’s utopian dream of a George Jetson-like personal hovercraft powered by atomic reactors and endless nearly-free nuclear generated electricity that would turn the high desert into a Garden of Eden. But when the uranium market tanked in the mid-1980’s the fickle uranium mining companies packed up and left, leaving the local population jobless, broke and sitting on hundreds of piles of radioactive and toxic waste.Uranium mining is rarely talked about in the media, yet it is indispensible to the nuclear fuel chain.
Gallons of ink have been spilled on the dangers of nuclear power plants and problems of storing highly poisonous nuclear waste. But the toxic legacy (and equally toxic future) of uranium mining gets little press. And that’s a shame, because it all begins with uranium ore.
Uranium is the lifeblood of the nuclear industry. It’s the fuel for nuclear power plants and the raw material for atomic weapons, and New Mexico is the unfortunate host to one of the largest uranium deposits in the world. The Grants Mineral Belt stretches from just west of Albuquerque to the state line with Arizona. The uranium mining industry estimates there are 300 million pounds of recoverable uranium in the area. For industry, this means significant profits so long as governmental energy policy continues to subsidize nuclear power (without government largesse, the entire nuclear industry would collapse).
On the other hand, if history is any teacher – and it should be – the presumed impending "nuclear renaissance" and "uranium boom" means hard times for communities that will host it. Sure, the industry might bring some short term tax revenue and jobs, but the costs to that community will be substantial. After the ore is removed, processed and sold, the profit motive disappears and companies (and complicit government agencies) shortchange clean up to save money on what is a liability on the corporate balance sheet. Conventional deep shaft and open pit mines will result in huge amounts of waste rock with residual radioactive materials and their decay products which are unlikely to be remediated or cleaned up to any acceptable standard. It will also result in milling operations that will leave behind massive tailings piles that will continue to contaminate soil, air and groundwater for generations.
The more modern in situ leach or ISL mining is no better. Companies use ISL technology to release uranium ore from its surrounding rock matrix by injecting chemicals into a uranium ore bearing aquifer through a series of hundreds of wells. Left undisturbed, uranium remains in long, thin, discreet ore deposits within an aquifer and water even just feet away can be suitable for drinking. However, once the chemicals react with the uranium ore, it’s freed from the surrounding rock, and the resulting toxic soup is drawn to the surface by another series of wells. Problem is, most of the uranium ore that is amenable to ISL mining is also located in aquifers that are either currently used as drinking water supplies or have water quality good enough to be used for drinking water in the future. And the clean-up record for ISL mining is just as disgraceful as that of conventional mining. A recent survey of ISL mining in south Texas revealed that Texas regulatory agencies regularly relaxed groundwater restoration standards for uranium mining companies because these companies could not clean the water to pre-mining groundwater quality. Even then, companies were rarely able to meet the relaxed standard. As a result, millions of gallons of groundwater are contaminated with radioactive and toxic heavy metals for centuries, if not millennia.
The people in Grants, N.M. and the rest of the mineral belt deserve to be able to make a decent living. But they shouldn’t be forced to choose between making a living and their health, environment, or water supply. Many in these communities see a different future for themselves and their neighbors, despite the pressure from the uranium mining industry to mine the ore. This future has nothing to do with the cynically labeled “clean” nuclear power. It involves locally generated and distributed renewable energy. It involves sustainable agriculture. It involves ecotourism and a diversity of economic development engines that will sustain the community for generations, not just for 20 or fewer years. Most important, it involves leaving the uranium where it belongs – untouched, in the ground.
Eric Jantz is a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.
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