What the Nuclear Boosters Don't Tell You

 

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 boomTo 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 substantialAfter 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.

Read More:

HCN Cover Story: Dueling Claims

Grist: The Return of the Uranium Boom

HCN story: Navajo's Pay for Industry's Mistakes

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -