I remember a feeling of foreboding and a sense of coming doom as I entered the Uranium Expo held in Grand Junction, Colorado almost five years ago. My name badge had a false name and said that I was an investor. Throughout the expo there were dozens of companies with slick booths and glossy literature. Many of the companies had recently formed and had begun buying mineral rights and old uranium mines throughout the American Southwest. The organizers touted the riches that were sure to come as uranium prices continued to rise. While the uranium mining boom that many speculated would be coming hasn’t quite manifested itself, they continue to push on. From 2004 until today, many mines have opened and closed as the price of uranium fluctuated between $43.50 to $140 per pound. Mines have traded hands. Many have been readied to go into production, but currently sit waiting for higher prices and, more importantly, a mill to process the ore.
Currently, there is only one uranium mill in operation in the entire United States. The mill is owned and run by Denison Mines and is located just outside the small town of Blanding, Utah. The mill has been running at a limited capacity. Until recently, it was mostly processing nuclear waste from the US and Canada, but, at the end of December, Denison Mines started pulling ore out of its Arizona 1 mine, just north of the Grand Canyon. This is the first uranium mining activity in Arizona in more than 20 years. The company plans on reopening as many as five additional mines in the Arizona Strip geological formation – all near the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The Denison mill currently has a monopoly on US produced yellow-cake uranium ore, and is not eager to mill other company’s ore.
This bottleneck in the supply chain has kept the full effects of the ‘Third Uranium Boom’ to a minimal. However, if the mining corporations have their way, this bottleneck will be eliminated and the boom will be on in full force. Opposition to the Nuclear Renaissance needs to take place at the source to keep the ore in the ground, because every step, from mining to milling, to refining, to reactors, to waste storage, is toxic to all living things.
Energy Fuels Inc., a Canadian company, is leading the charge with their proposed Pinion Ridge Mill, in the little-known but amazingly beautiful Paradox Valley, Colorado. The mill is well on its way to being permitted to break ground. If this happens, inactive uranium mines in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico will start pulling the toxic ore out of the ground, in earnest, for the first time in decades. “If the proposed mill in Paradox Valley is approved and constructed, the Division anticipates a surge of mine permitting and exploration activities,” states a Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining, and Safety report on uranium mining, from 2009.
Energy Fuels owns at least 40 uranium mines that would jump into production. The proposed mill is claiming that new technological advancements would make this mill environmentally sound, but every other uranium mill that has ever gone into production has ended up as an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site. To make things worse, the mill is to be situated forty feet above an aquifer and not one but two faults that have had more that 4,000 recorded seismic events since 1991, according to documents filed by Energy Fuels with the state.
Five years ago, when I infiltrated the Uranium Expo, the biggest player in uranium in the southwest was Cotter Corporation, a subsidiary of General Atomic. At that time, Cotter had four mines in operation in Western Colorado and the mill in Canyon City, Colorado. Due to fluctuations in the price of uranium and pressure in the form of lawsuits from environmental groups, the mill ceased operations in 2006. Between the years of 1999 and 2006, Cotter was found guilty of 90 different environmental and toxic waste violations, and the mill has been listed as a Superfund site for over 22 years with little to no clean-up taking place. Cotter announced last year plans for a $200 million dollar refurbishment and plans to begin milling again by 2014. Cotter has sold most of its Colorado holdings and instead is focussing on its Mt. Taylor mine, in Northern New Mexico. The Dine, the Acoma, Laguna and Zuni pueblos, and the Hopi peoples consider Mt. Taylor a sacred place, and it was listed on the New Mexican State Register of Cultural Properties in June of 2009. But the protection of the mountain as a sacred site starts at 8000 feet in elevation, and Cotter’s mine is just below that cut off. If Cotter is able to get their mill operational again, the ore will come from this sacred mountain.
There are two other mills that could potentially reopen and processing ore again if the price of uranium rises: one in Wyoming, owned by Rio Tinto, and another in Utah, owned by Uranium Utah, Inc. These two mills are not actively trying to reopen, but are waiting like vultures for the price of uranium to rise to the point of profitability. This new nuclear boom can be stopped if we organize widespread grassroots resistance to the mills and keep this ore where it belongs; in the ground.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2010 edition of the Earth First! Journal. It was written by a longtime Red Pill contributor, and appeared the The Red Pill in May 2010.