Uravan, in southern Colorado, was once a bustling uranium mill town in the remote West End of my home county. There, employees transformed uranium ore into green sludge, not knowing that it would be used in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now, Uravan is a deserted cleanup site, too hazardous for anyone to live in. Chainlink fence encloses ponds full of radioactive salts.
In the surrounding hills, thorium still laces the ground where cattle graze, and tailings heaped outside of open pit uranium mines continue to leach runoff into the San Miguel River.
So it was with some consternation that I learned recently about the resurgence of uranium mining in the West End. After 20 years of dormancy, new owners of the Cotter Corp. have been granted a permit to mine uranium in San Miguel County. Apparently, there’s a sudden demand for yellowcake, a 300 percent price jump, and President Bush says, "It is time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again."
Industry spokespeople at a Uranium Expo recently held in Grand Junction, Colo., agreed that we’re on the precipice of a "Third Uranium Boom," claiming "the sky is the limit," as they urged investors to get back in the game. Even some environmentalists support a resurgence of nuclear power as the only antidote to global warming. After all, nuclear energy does not involve burning fossil fuels, and in that sense, it’s "clean."
But to say that nuclear energy is clean is to use one of those over-simplified, fuzzy euphemisms. It’s true that we’d solve the problem of emissions by going nuclear, but then we’d increase the problem of what to do with radioactive waste and the risk of a nuclear meltdown, two reasons why building nuclear power plants was phased out by the 1980s.
As my neighbor put it when I mentioned the country’s renewed interest in uranium, "Didn’t we learn anything the last time?"
Industry pundits say we have made advancements. A geologist at the Expo said the atomic-power business has seen a continual evolution of design and safety for 30 years. Yet if one examines the record of the Cotter Corp., the same problems persist. Cotter is an affiliate of General Atomics, whose recent attempt to import 10 million pounds of radioactive soil from New Jersey and to store it at Cañon City has been forestalled by the Colorado Legislature.
Why? Because radioactive waste is hazardous, and no one wants to live near it. That is why Nevada is adamant about never opening the federal repository planned for Yucca Mountain.
In Colorado, Cotter Corp. has accumulated 140 violations of environmental and public health regulations since it began operating in 1959, most recently because an employee ingested uranium when a pipeline broke at the Cañon City mill. And since General Atomics manufactures weapons, will depleted uranium from Colorado be used in weapons and expose our troops to radioactive dust, which happened in the first Gulf War? As for the risk of a meltdown, a simple failure of communication nearly caused one at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, which doesn’t give one faith that it couldn’t happen today. "To err is human," as Shakespeare wrote.
It is equally disconcerting that the Bush administration has ordered our national laboratories to begin research on new nuclear weapons designs and to prepare the underground test sites in Nevada for nuclear tests, if necessary, in the future. If we are serious about stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, do we want to be exporting more yellowcake?
Nuclear energy is not our only option to our mainstays, coal and oil. Besides solar, wind, biomass and small-scale hydropower, there is Jimmy Carter’s seemingly forgotten suggestion: energy conservation. This can be achieved through economic incentives, as is done now in Aspen, where households that consume more energy pay higher taxes. Conversely, businesses that convert to alternative energies, for example the New Belgium Brewing Co. of Ft. Collins, which generates electricity from brewing waste, should be granted tax exemptions.
America is an inventive nation, but resorting to nuclear power isn’t inventive; it’s just plain backwards.
Rhonda Claridge is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Telluride, Colorado.
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