Friday, March 28, 2008

Uranium Mining: The Dirty Side of "Clean" Nuclear Power

Those who tout the benefits of "clean" nuclear energy don't usually talk much at all about the dirty sides to this industry: uranium mining. As many of the most abundant sources of ore are on Native American lands, the pressure is on once again to open these lands to mining.

As reported by the Washington Post, Navajos in particular have borne the consequences of mining operations.

Like many Navajos who worked in the mines, Larry J. King didn't know then that there was anything dangerous about it. "We had no respirators; you'd have sweat running down your face with the uranium dust getting in your ears, nose and mouth," said King, who surveyed mine tunnels from 1975 to 1982. "You couldn't help but swallow it."

During mining's peak, from the early 1950s to the early 1980s, about 400 million pounds of uranium were extracted from the region. At the end of the boom, around 1984, the price of uranium languished below $10 a pound. Mines shut down, and the United States began importing nearly all of its uranium, with the bulk coming now from Canada, Russia and Australia. But by last summer, the price had rebounded to a record high of $136 a pound.

Though the mines created numerous jobs and substantial royalties for the Navajo and Laguna tribes, the decades of extraction took a heavy toll: lung cancer, kidney disease, birth defects and other ailments at notably high levels among miners and families who lived among piles of uranium tailings -- the ground-up waste from milling -- and even used the material to build their homes.

All but one of the major companies now seeking to mine in New Mexico are newcomers to the state and have promised to do a better job than their predecessors. In addition, pending state legislation would require them to deposit a small percentage of their profits in a "legacy fund" to clean up existing uranium contamination.

But King said, "I don't believe them one bit."

He blames his recent health problems on uranium. He remembers July 16, 1979, when more than 90 million gallons of uranium-contaminated water burst through the dam of a tailings holding pond and into the Puerco River running by his land. And he remembers seeing his cattle drop dead from, he thinks, drinking polluted mine runoff.

There is other dirt deeply embedded under this industry's fingernails as well, of course. Periodic tritium discharges from the stacks. Fish kills from overheated cooling water effluent. The carbon costs of the coal-fired plants that power the uranium processing facilities.

But, that's another story for another day.