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Reflecting on nuclear crises doesn't leave clear answers

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jackiewheeler | Jul 19, 2011 11:00 AM

Southeast Utah - It's another magnificent day here in the remote pinyon/juniper backcountry; the recent  afternoon rains have cooled the air and sharpened the views of Canyonlands and the Abajo mountains off in the distance. As a freshly arrived, part-time resident, I'm keenly appreciative of the ambient sounds of this region: the wind (gentle today), the various bird calls, and most of all, the near-total absence of human-generated noise such as that in the bustling city where I live most of the time.  One sound, however, sometimes punctuates the Nuclear cooling towerprofound quiet around here - the distant but steady hum of a small uranium mine a few miles away.

Last September in this blog I wrote about my ambivalence  - shared by many -- regarding uranium mining in the West. I was and am perfectly willing to admit that my paucity of technical knowledge may unfairly color my views, yet subsequent studying of relevant impact statements and learning a good deal more about the mining and milling processes hardly lessened my discomfort. Likewise, I sought to understand longtime residents' views on mining, but there, too, reactions are mixed, both among Anglos and Native Americans. On the one hand, the mines and the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah, provide good-paying jobs and other boosts  to the otherwise anemic local economy; on the other hand, radiation exposure from midcentury milling activities caused much injury and death and spurred ongoing political activism  by those affected and their families and neighbors.

Of course, one major event has added significantly to this debate: the horrifying Tsunami-caused nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan, on March 11th. I wondered how this accident would reverberate here in the American West - would the value of Uranium drop, causing mines to shut down? Would permits be denied? Would opinions here change regarding the future of nuclear power as they have in Germany and elsewhere, and what would be the human costs of all of this?

What I found, once again, is that there are no easy answers, no smug sound bytes to be had. Uranium prices have indeed fallen and remain volatile , yet companies such as Colorado Goldfields  and Laramide Resources  recently purchased mines near here. Paradoxically, both mining and mine clean-up (in Moab and on the Navajo Reservation) are still major employers. It seems as though, when it comes to uranium, we can't live with it and we can't live without it. However, as a closing thought, I'll mention a significant impending date: July 16th marks the anniversary  of both the first nuclear test at the Trinity site in New Mexico in 1945 and the Church Rock radiation spill disaster in the same state in 1979. Regardless of what the future of nuclear energy holds for us in the West, we need to remember the hard, terrible lessons of the past: we've had our own Fukushimas.

Essays in the A Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Image courtesy Flickr user Michal Brcak

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