Let's not forget the hidden costs of uranium mining

  • Jen Jackson

 

Here in the West, uranium mining continues its wobbly resurgence. In recent years, it has sputtered through the peaks and valleys of pricing to once again climb in importance and output. The graph-line of this revival seems to correspond with the vicissitudes of our love-hate relationship with fossil fuels.

In 2003, a time of cheap oil, there were only 321 uranium miners working in the West, producing 779 tons of uranium that year. In 2008, there were over 1,500, who produced about 1,500 tons. In 2006, the Pandora mine south of Moab, where I live, reopened with just 10 employees. This year, it has 57. Recently, however, it lost one. Hunter Diehl, a 28-year-old Moab man, died in the mine this May, crushed by rock falling from the mine's ceiling. It was the first uranium mining death in the country since 1998, and the first since uranium's fickle resurgence.

If uranium makes a strong comeback, what other such tragedies lie ahead? With the epic oil spill in the Gulf causing many to question our current energy policies and to begin viewing nuclear power in a more favorable light, the uranium industry's slow resurgence may turn into another spike in growth. But at what cost?

With other extractive industries, we tend to see the tragedies boldly splashed across the front page of the newspaper -- the massive oil spills, deaths on the natural gas rigs, or the dozens of coal miners killed in collapses and explosions. We can't avoid a general awareness of some of the true costs of fossil fuels-based energy production. But many of the costs of nuclear power -- beyond the Three Mile Island tragedy now fading in our memories -- have been more insidious.

Cancer deaths do not occur suddenly, inside a mine. Instead, they happen slowly and at a remove from the time and place of exposure. The deaths occur at home or in the hospital, surrounded by grieving loved ones rather than reporters with TV cameras. The family mourns, but the nation goes on about its business; nobody makes speeches. Mining disasters are horrible, but uranium takes an even more deadly toll. And it's not just the miners who are affected. It's also the families that live near the mine or the mill.

South of the Pandora mine, in Monticello, Utah, a uranium-processing mill operated through World War II until 1960. Children at the time would play in the tailings piles and drink water from the millponds. People living in the shadow of the mill knew not to hang laundry on windy days because their linens would turn yellow from the mill's dust. Now, 600 cases of cancer -- a number that is growing each year -- have been confirmed among current and former Monticello residents. The town has a population of just under 2,000. The Utah Department of Health has finally labeled what is occurring in Monticello as a cancer cluster that does not appear to be a random occurrence.

If 600 mine workers died in a single day, the nation would be abuzz. People would be outraged and collectively grieving. Instead, news of the Monticello cancer cluster hasn't reached much beyond Utah's borders.

Nor do most of uranium's environmental impacts occur publicly, suddenly or explosively, as was the case with the massive BP spill in the Gulf. Rather, like cancer, the effects are slow and insidious. One doesn't see uranium-covered aquatic life nearly paralyzed by the weight of its residue. We don't witness death washing up on the Colorado River's shores. Instead, uranium's equivalent of the oil spill -- the Atlas Mill's uranium tailings site -- accumulates over decades. Eventually, we find 16 million tons of still-radioactive uranium tailings piled up on the banks of the river, leaching tens of thousands of gallons of deadly soup into the life-giving river. But all of this happens beneath the horizon of our perceptions. It happens with the relentless force of erosion rather than the immediate shock of an earthquake.

The death of the Pandora miner last month was sudden and tragic. Many in Moab are mourning Diehl's loss. Yet perhaps we can take this tragedy as a shout in the darkness, alerting us to the otherwise whispery warnings that surround us amid this current uranium renaissance.

Jen Jackson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Moab, Utah.

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