the Nuclear Boom: A new wave of uranium mining threatens Indigenous
communities in the Southwest
By Klee Benally and Jessica Lee
December, miners have resumed crawling deep into the earth on the edge
of the Grand Canyon to mine high-grade uranium ore at the Arizona 1
Mine, which had been closed since the late 1980s. Owned by the Canadian
Denison Mines Corp., it is the first uranium mine to open in northern
Arizona since nuclear power again became a popular idea in Washington
within the last decade. The greater Grand Canyon area faces a possible
explosion in the number of new uranium mines.
The price of
uranium has rebounded in recent years due to a surge in reactor
construction throughout the world and thanks to political support from
the White House, starting with George W. Bush and reinforced by Barack
Obama. The price has varied from $10 to $138 per pound since 2001, and
is currently valued at $41.25 per pound.
More than 8,000 uranium
mine claims have been filed in northern Arizona, an increase from 110 in
2003 — a rate seen across the West. The area’s sedimentary rock layer
called breccia pipes, which exists up to 1,800 feet below the surface,
is the most concentrated source of uranium known in the United States.
to the Arizona Daily Sun, Denison plans on operating four days per
week, extracting 335 tons of uranium ore per day. The hazardous ore will
be hauled by truck more than 300 miles through towns and rural
communities to the company’s White Mesa mill located near Blanding,
Utah, where it will be processed into “yellowcake” (refined uranium ore
to make uranium oxide) and then sold.
A coalition of
environmental groups filed a lawsuit last November to stop the opening
of the mine, alleging that the legally required documents were outdated
and did not offer protections required by contemporary environmental
laws. While the lawsuit is pending, the Bureau of Land Management and
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality say the mine is properly
In response to growing concern about the pending
mining boom in northern Arizona, U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar
called for a “two-year time-out” last summer to allow federal agencies
to complete a two-year environmental review before authorizing new
mining claims within the one million acres on federal lands near the
Grand Canyon. Existing claims, such as Denison’s mine, were exempt from
the temporary moratorium.
Environmentalists and local Indigenous
communities hope that after the review in February 2011, Salazar will
make the area unavailable for new mining claims for the a maximum
20-year period allowed by the Interior Department. Meanwhile, the U.S.
House of Representatives is considering the Grand Canyon Watersheds
Protection Act (H.R. 644), legislation that would permanently protect
the one million acres on federal land from new mining claims — creating a
five-mile buffer zone of around Grand Canyon National Park.