Monday, April 27, 2009

Addressing the Uranium Mining Hype (Guest Post)

(Reader Linda offers this guest post responding to the hype of uranium mining. If you are an activist who cares about this issue, take the time to read this post!)

I hope one day to meet Joe Bouchard and hear more about what he says to answer the questions that were posed in this article. In the meantime, I have my own answers and a few questions about points made in that article.

Mining promotes energy independence.

Energy independence is not a retreat from global economic interdependence, a move that would disrupt free market trade and that would lead America toward economic and politial isolation. Nor is energy 'independence' dependent upon mining. Energy independence means that a search for alternative energies must be a global effort. The point, in my opinion, is to create alternative energy supplies that run on renewable resources. Uranium is not renewable.

It could hold down electric rates.

First, I'm unsure how much uranium is to be mined at Coles Hill, and I doubt anyone knows this amount for certain. Secondly, the assumption - at least the one that this Washington Post story took last year - was that the uranium in this particular project would supply the country's nuclear 140 power plants for about two years.

I'm unsure whether this is a true statement or not, so I won't get into the financial logistics of the cost of the mine and mining compared to two years' worth of nuclear power nationwide, but it seems disproportionate. The real cost behind this mine is the land values, water safety and individual health. While a handful of families plan to make money on their properties, others may lose everything they have. In fact, the mine proposal already has affected home sales and business recruitments in the area. While the statement above seems to provide hope for the immediate future, in the here-and-now just the mere topic of this mine is costing this area money.

Thankfully, this statement uses the word, "could." Any time that word is used, it means that no one knows the answer.

It complements existing nuclear design and construction operations in Lynchburg and Newport News.

I'm of the opinion that nuclear power is no safer than it was two decades ago, because uranium mining and depleted uranium - or, the before- and after-products of nuclear power - are the "dirty" parts of this picture that have changed little since this country began to use nuclear power. If Virginians want to mine uranium, then Virginia also should create an enrichment plant and plan to store depleted uranium so populations in other states won't be affected by Virginia's decision to mine and transport yellowcake.

The Coles Hill mining project is expected to produce yellowcake (also called urania). The uranium ore is mined and then milled on the mine site to separate the uranium oxide from other substances. This yellowcake is then put into containers and shipped off to be enriched - but, sometimes the yellowcake simply is stored at other facilities in hopes that prices will increase on this commodity. Yellowcake is owned by various business entities and governed by U.S. and international laws. That uranium from the Coles Hill project could end up anywhere. Take, for example, Lehman Brothers' ownership of 450,000 lb of uranium stored in Canada.

Currently, the only enrichment plant in the U.S. is located in Paducah, Kentucky - however, some yellowcake also is shipped to a plant across the Kentucky River from Paducah at Metropolis Illinois, and other enrichment plants are planned (such as the one at Lea County, New Mexico, five miles east of Eunice). Other enrichment plants are located in Canada.

To understand more about how the market sees yellowcake, please read this Forbes article written in 2007 - this article was written just when the market began to see a possibility that nuclear reactors might make a comeback. However, pricing uranium is another story - previous to twenty years ago, uranium was not privitized. Therefore, pricing uranium is a risky business. This is not stopping many risk-takers in their efforts to mine, mill, enrich and store depleted uranium products and byproducts in this country. Uranium, to these folks, is an investment opportunity rather than a source of energy.

Uranium mining further complements this state's lack of renewable energy resources (But, customers can purchase "green" energy through renewable energy certificates (RECs), which Virginia's power companies purchase from other resources).

Mining is potentially hugely profitable, and, by extension, a potent source of local and state tax revenue. A mine would generate jobs in a region rapidly losing them to the collapse of manufacturing.

Uravan, Colorado, a mining town that was shut down in the early 1980s when the demand for uranium and vanadium waned, is uninhabitable even after the Superfund cleanup (which lasted twenty years at a cost of $120 million). The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) plans to turn a portion of the Uravan area into a campground with a museum focused on the history of uranium mining in Colorado. Yet, more than 13 million cubic yards of mill tailings, evaporation pond precipitates, water treatment sludge, contaminated soil, and debris from more than 50 major mill structures on the site and from a nearby abandoned mill in Gateway, Colorado, and mill tailings from the Naturita, Colorado, millsite are contained in the ground at Uravan.

Why a campground? Because homes cannot be built there. Granted, Uravan was a major project that lasted almost five decades. And, because of that project and others, a special program was set up just for uranium miners who worked with radioactive substances. If uranium was not a health problem, why was this program developed?

Outside of total depletion of land values with uranium mining, I've never met a rich miner, no matter the substance he or she was mining. So the question I would ask here is, "hugely profitable" to whom? As I mentioned previously, uranium prices are subject to fluctuation and have no historic bearing to help determine the actual price of yellowcake on the market. To state that yellowcake is a "potent source of local and state tax revenue" is making a promise based upon a theory.

Uravan consisted of about 800 people, and that number included wives and children of the miners. That town was involved with active mining with no other income from businesses that would sustain that town outside the mining. If the Coles Hill mine is expected to carry the county with the loss of manufacturing businesses, it sounds to me that Coles Hill is about to become another Uravan.

While I've never met a rich miner, the cost to the miner is high. Here's another link to the RECA, or the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. If you scroll down the page, you'll see that a miner isn't eligible for a claim on this act unless the claimant worked in a uranium mill for at least one year beginning January 1, 1942 and ending on December 31, 1971. What I find interesting is the information in the first paragraph, which shows that uranium miners from this era actually receive higher compensation than anyone who was exposed to a nuclear weapons test. This attests to the fact that long-term exposure (at least one year) to uranium mining and milling is, indeed, hazardous.

The time frame mentioned in the RECA compensation is important, because it means that this compensation may not apply to miners who work at the Coles Hill project. Taxpayers have granted $1,396,375,620 [PDF] as of 23 April 2009 for radiation exposure claims through this program and taxpayers may still pay the Navajo Nation for the deaths, birth defects and diseases caused by uranium mining on their lands. But, this latter struggle is now ten years old. What would a miner expect from a private company, if previous uranium miners still are fighting for compensation for illnesses from the U.S. government?

Finally, at the end when all mining is done, who cleans up the site? Although most contracts for uranium mining put this onus on the mining company, the first story I've seen about a company that has been forced by the government to clean up a mining site was published just this April. Atlantic Richfield Co. has agreed to spend $10.2 million for future and past cleanup efforts at an old copper mine in Yerington, Nevada. This was not a uranium mine, but it was a mine that produced a uranium byproduct, which contaminated the site along with arsenic and other heavy metals. Other than this site, taxpayers pay for remediation for sites such as those on Navajo land. Other sites are now claiming funds for cleanups that have been decades in the making. These cleanup operations now are paid by Superfunds or stimulus funds (such as Moab, Utah).

What makes me think that a private company would do a better job than the government at protecting their workers and cleaning up - which was a lousy job at best when done by the U.S. government? What could make me believe that this project may cost local, state and national taxpayers more than it proposes to benefit those taxpayers? I don't have the answers, but it appears that many government entities, geologists and others who want this Coles Hill mine are repeating many of the same things that the government told the Navajo Nation and the Uravan workers fifty years ago.

How does repeating history make uranium mining dramatically different and far safer today than it was when it was run by the government?


Drew said...

Thanks, Linda, for this great post!

Linda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda said...

Thank you, Drew, for the opportunity to address these issues! I'll be anxious to hear any comments, pro or con. One thing I've learned about uranium and uranium mining - there are always more surprises than answers.

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