What does uranium have in common with Arctic oil, offshore natural gas,
coastal wind and cellulosic ethanol? They're all sources of energy that
government bureaucrats have declared off-limits - needlessly.
Just last month, Rep. Raul Grijalva, Arizona Democrat, declared an
emergency situation to withdraw public lands adjacent to the Grand
Canyon from uranium mining. The rarely used emergency resolution would
force Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to ban more than 1,100 mining
claims on approximately 1 million acres.
Banning uranium mining isn't unique to Arizona. The nation's largest-known uranium deposit was discovered in the 1980s on a farm in southern Virginia.
The owner of that land has been exploring the possibility of mining the
110 million pounds of uranium believed to be on the site. But Virginia
banned uranium mining in 1982 and more recently decided to prohibit the
landowner from even studying its viability.
This quantity of uranium could supply all 104 nuclear reactors in the United States,
which provide 20 percent of the nation's electricity, for two years.
And we're not even talking about new technology. Uranium has been mined
safely for decades in many global spots, including in New Mexico,
Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming.
Uranium is found throughout the world, but often in quantities too
small to be economically mined. Australia has the most; Canada has the
highest-grade uranium. Kazakhstan, South Africa, Niger, Namibia and
Brazil also have large deposits. The U.S. has about 3 percent to 4
percent of the world's known uranium and produces about 4.3 percent of
the world's supply, despite operating about one-quarter of the world's
commercial power reactors.
Barely a day goes by without a story on some country planning to
expand commercial nuclear power. Indeed, some 35 reactors are under
construction today. U.S companies alone are planning to build up to 30
new reactors - though none have actually started construction.
As the only proven power source that affordably provides large
amounts of primarily domestic energy without atmospheric emissions,
nuclear energy is a logical choice for nations struggling to reconcile
energy policy with economic, environmental and security objectives.
More nuclear power will inevitably lead to higher demand for
uranium. Given that more than half of the world's uranium production
comes from three countries, the U.S. faces substantial incentives to
increase access to domestic uranium mining.
Uranium is mined in one of three ways. Deposits near the surface are
accessed though open-pit mining, while underground mining is used for
deeper reserves. A third method, called in-sito leaching (ISL), is most
often used in the U.S. ISL entails dissolving the below-surface uranium
into a solution and pumping it to the surface.
It's unclear which type would take place in Arizona or Virginia. But
depending on the method, the project would create hundreds of jobs.
Of course, the primary concern is safety and radiation exposure. But
the impacts of uranium mining aren't much different from other mining.
Natural uranium ore is about as radioactive as granite. There's often
more dangerous radium or radon with uranium, but these elements are
managed safely to protect workers and the environment.
Most environmental and operational oversight is conducted by the
Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
These agencies have found that both mining and ISL operations pose a
low risk to the public.
The waste from conventional open-cut mining and related activities
does create radioactive solid products that could pose a danger.
However, these byproducts are safely managed to protect public health
and the environment. Regardless of the mining method, the sites are
restored and revegitated. In the case of ISL, because the only surface
disturbance is bore-hole drilling, the groundwater is cleanly restored
and the site is returned to its original condition.
Nuclear energy is a safe, affordable, clean energy source. Uranium
is a necessary component of nuclear energy, and firms that choose to
mine uranium shouldn't be burdened unnecessarily by fear and government
Arizona and Virginia surely won't be the only states that attempt to
prohibit access to uranium reserves. Three decades of anti-nuclear
propaganda continue to influence the public's perception of nuclear
power. That, however, shouldn't cloud the fact that uranium mining has
proven to be safe for workers, the public and the environment. For the
U.S. to enjoy all of the advantages of using more nuclear power, it's