“Uranium Drive-In,” a new documentary by Telluride filmmaker Suzan Beraza, takes a revealing look at Nucla and Naturita, two western Colorado communities that hoped a controversial uranium mill would bring economic revival. But local hopes were dashed when the company involved, Energy Fuels Resources, recently walked away.
It’s a tribute to Beraza’s empathy that the film has been well received by both environmentalists and miners. Rather than attempt a hard-hitting polemic on the politics of nuclear power, the filmmaker created a close-up portrait of life in an area that’s remote, rural and just about jobless.
The U.S. uranium industry, which has been trying to come back strong in the Four Corners region, faces bleak prospects -- not from political opposition but from market economics.
Energy Fuels, for example, has announced that in 2014, the controversial White Mesa Mill near Blanding, Utah -- America’s last active uranium mill -- will be closed for at least a year. Two of the company’s mines near the Grand Canyon will also be idled. Because the price of uranium is at a five-year low, Energy Fuels says it’s cheaper to buy it than to mine and mill it. The shutdown affects hundreds of jobs in Blanding alone, where not long ago civic leaders called Energy Fuels the county’s “economic juggernaut” and a “crown jewel of private enterprise.”
“Fukushima” is likely the best one-word explanation for what has happened to the price of uranium yellowcake. Since the destruction of Japan’s nuclear power plant and the closure of many nuclear plants in Japan and Germany, surplus uranium has piled high. Speculators had based their hopes on what they call a looming supply gap, wherein we reached peak uranium in 1981, and -- depending on which study you believe -- the world runs out in 12 years, or perhaps in 100 or 200 years.
Starting in 2005, thousands of new uranium claims were filed in the American Southwest. The price of yellowcake spiked in 2007, but the boom ended when the 2008 financial crash crippled commodities and uranium mining stocks tanked. Finally, the Fukushima disaster wiped out what was left of price gains.
For Blanding, Nucla and Naturita, the outlook is even darker because the United States holds only 4 percent of the world’s known uranium reserves. Eighteen other countries, including Australia, Canada, Russia and Kazakhstan, are more than willing to supply future nuclear power plants. But Jennifer Thurston, a uranium-mining activist who is featured in “Uranium Drive-In,” thinks that a lot of rural jobs could be created simply by cleaning up the mess that the industry has already left behind.
A prime target for such cleanup is the White Mesa Mill in Blanding. Controversial from the beginning, it was built in 1980 near the Ute village of White Mesa, where it displaced numerous Anasazi cultural sites. Early on, the Ute Mountain Tribe challenged its licensing, calling the state’s environmental standards inadequate. The Grand Canyon Trust also said that “systemic” problems were apparent at the mill, including violation of radon standards and contamination of local springs and ground water.
One of its harshest critics has been Moab environmentalist activist Ken Sleight, who has called it a “full-scale nuclear waste dump.” He says much of the mill’s profit has come not from processing uranium ore, but from fees for “recycling” nuclear waste (a process in which a small amount of uranium is extracted). Tailings and contaminated soils are trucked in from several states and even other countries. What’s left over is a toxic and radioactive industrial chemical stew stored in open pits with 30-year old plastic liners. In 2010, a monitoring well near the village revealed elevated amounts of chloride, fluoride, uranium, cobalt, cadmium, molybdenum, nickel and manganese.
Cleaning up uranium is never cheap. It cost $127 million to turn the town of Uravan into a theme park of radioactive rubble. It cost taxpayers a half-billion dollars to clean up a mill at Monticello, and it will take a full billion to finally dispose of the Moab tailings. Untold billions more will be needed just to clean up the 30 uranium-related sites on the EPA’s national priorities list. Who will be left holding the bag? Hint: a scant $18 million bond has been posted for the White Mesa Mill’s cleanup.
“Uranium Drive-In” has been screened at festivals in Telluride, New York City and Denver. Upcoming showings of the documentary include Naturita, Jan. 14, Aspen, Feb. 17, and the Durango, Colo., Film Festival, Feb. 28 to March 2.
Jon Kovash is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a writer in Moab, Utah.