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Demand for Energy Fuels Rush for Uranium in Utah

June 13, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT
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MINER: Fire in the hole!

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: The Pandora uranium mine, just south of Moab, Utah, is back in business after lying dormant for more than 15 years. It’s part of a brand-new uranium mining boom that is just beginning to sweep over the Western U.S.

MIKE SHUMWAY, Uranium Miner: We’ve got an ore heading here and one here that we’re shooting.

TOM BEARDEN: Mike Shumway is the contractor in charge of getting the uranium out of the mine. Both his father and grandfather were miners before him.

MIKE SHUMWAY: I guess it gets in your blood. I enjoy it. I like following the ore and seeing what it will do. You never know. You can’t see underground, so when you drill the holes, it’s just amazing what it does.

TOM BEARDEN: Moab has seen mining booms and busts many times before, first during the ’40s and ’50s, when nuclear weapons were being developed, and again in the ’70s, when the OPEC oil crisis re-ignited interest in nuclear power. Uranium is the fuel for nuclear reactors.

Each of those booms was quickly followed by a bust, when the price of uranium fell. But now, the price of uranium is skyrocketing, from $40 a pound a year ago to $120 today, and still climbing. It’s being driven by the search for clean alternative sources of power to fossil fuels.

It has also spurred a frenzy of prospecting and new claims. Shumway himself has purchased more than 150 old claims because he’s convinced this new boom is going to last.

MIKE SHUMWAY: We need to go nuclear, and I think people are starting to realize that, with greenhouse gases. And it’s safe. It’s clean. It’s the best power there is that we have, that we know of, and there’s abundance of it.

Leaving radioactive waste

Bill Hedden
Grand Canyon Trust
The rivers all had mills built on them and discharging all the radioactive waste into the rivers.

TOM BEARDEN: But not everybody here on the Colorado Plateau is thrilled about the idea of a resurgence in uranium mining; that's because they're still cleaning up the mess the uranium industry made here 30 years ago.

BILL HEDDEN, Grand Canyon Trust: Well, this is the access trail to Castleton Tower.

TOM BEARDEN: Bill Hedden directs the Grand Canyon Trust, a non- profit conservation organization.

BILL HEDDEN: This area was, in the '50s, completely overrun with people driving bulldozers. They pushed exploration roads into places that are practically unimaginable when you see the remains of them today. The rivers all had mills built on them and discharging all the radioactive waste into the rivers.

TOM BEARDEN: This is the site of one of those old mills, just two miles north of Moab on the Colorado River. The plant left behind this 130-acre pile of radioactive waste products after it shut down in 1984. Donald Metzler is in charge of the Department of Energy's clean-up project.

What's the ultimate plan here?

DONALD METZLER, Department of Energy: It is to safely move all these tailings. We have 16 million tons of tailings. We want to safely move them up to Crescent Junction, put them in an engineered hole, and then put an engineered cover on it. Once the tailings are in that disposal cell, nobody will have to worry about them for eternity.

TOM BEARDEN: The process is expected to take 20 years, involve hundreds of scientists and workers, and cost taxpayers more than $600 million. And the Atlas Mill isn't the only one that's left behind a toxic legacy.

So this is where it all was?

FRITZ PIPKIN, Local Resident near Uranium Mine: Yes, this is where the uranium mill was built back in 1941.

Researching cancer in the region

Fritz Pipkin
Monticello, Utah, Resident
When we were kids, we played down there for hours and hours, swam in the ponds, drank out of the creek, played in the tailing spouts....They never told us it was dangerous.

TOM BEARDEN: The small town of Monticello, about 45 minutes to the south, was host to another uranium mill. It closed in 1960 and sat abandoned for nearly 40 years before the government finally cleaned up its tailings. Fritz Pipkin grew up nearby.

FRITZ PIPKIN: When we were kids, we played down there for hours and hours, swam in the ponds, drank out of the creek, played in the tailing spouts. They encouraged our parents to haul off and use over 135,000 tons for backfill, sidewalks, roads, mortar, in the sandboxes us kids played in. They never told us it was dangerous.

TOM BEARDEN: Pipkin now has leukemia. His father, who worked in the mill, died 20 years ago from lung cancer, and his 26-year-old daughter was just diagnosed with lymphatic cancer.

BARBARA PIPKIN, Wife of Fritz Pipkin: I actually questioned it when your father first got sick.

TOM BEARDEN: Pipkin is convinced that the high rate of cancer in this town of 2,000 people was caused by the radioactive waste. The Utah Department of Health is now gathering data to determine whether the cancer rate here actually is elevated. A report is due in August.

BARBARA PIPKIN: All right, so that makes our total 611 cancer and serious illness.

TOM BEARDEN: In the meantime, Pipkin and his wife, Barbara, track every new case of cancer, marking it on a town map. They and other Monticello residents have been lobbying Congress for cancer treatment facilities for their town. Not having those facilities, Pipkin has to drive 400 miles just to visit his oncologist.

FRITZ PIPKIN: We want to have our hospital set up so they can do early prevention, detection, and, if they want to be treated here, be treated here. If they have to go out of town or somewhere else, then the government should pay for it. They're the responsible ones; they put this mill here.

TOM BEARDEN: But perhaps surprisingly, Pipkin supports a renewed mining industry; he says the government just needs to regulate it a lot better.

FRITZ PIPKIN: They can't do it roughshod like they have before. It has to be monitored. We have to get away from foreign oil, and I support it. That's what a lot of us do for a living. A lot of people around here still work in the mines. I mean, it makes a good living, you know, and it just has to be monitored really well.

TOM BEARDEN: It has to be done right?

FRITZ PIPKIN: That's right.

Monitoring nuclear mining

Charles Miller
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
What we have now got, as a result of the legislation that was promulgated in 1978, is authority to promulgate regulations, and we've done so to assure that situations that happened in those days do not reoccur.

TOM BEARDEN: That monitoring job falls to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Ironically, the NRC's predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, actually operated the mill that Pipkin believes made so many people sick. Charles Miller is in charge of safety for the NRC.

CHARLES MILLER, Nuclear Regulatory Commission: The Atomic Energy Commission had both a regulatory role and a promotional role. That was part of the reason why Congress, in its wisdom, split the role, which has now become the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Our job at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is that as an independent regulator. We do not get involved whatsoever in any promotional activities. What we have now got, as a result of the legislation that was promulgated in 1978, is authority to promulgate regulations, and we've done so to assure that situations that happened in those days do not reoccur.

TOM BEARDEN: Those assurances aren't much comfort to Robin Davis. She trains and boards horses on 80 acres of windswept prairie in Weld County, Colorado, about two hours north of Denver. There's never been a lot of mining around here, mainly because the quality of the ore wasn't good enough to be profitable. But with uranium prices so high, all that's changed, and low-grade ore bodies all across the West could now be profitably mined.

Davis and her husband, Jay, recently found out that the mineral rights to their land, which were owned by a railroad, were sold to a Canadian company called Powertech. Ranchers commonly own only the surface of their property; someone else usually owns the rights to any minerals below.

ROBIN DAVIS, Local Resident of Uranium Ore Deposits: When we got our first letter, we thought it was a joke that they wanted to come and mine uranium here. And Jay was the one who took the initiative and started researching what they were wanting to do, what the proposal was. As he started looking into the pollution, the impact on the surface, as well as the water, my eyes were opened wide right away, and I thought, "This is not something that we want."

JAY DAVIS, Local Resident of Uranium Ore Deposits: We found out that they're planning in-situ mining. And everything that we've read, researched and checked out on it, it's -- I would call it a disaster pretty much everywhere it's occurred.

ROBIN DAVIS: OK, let's go get a horse.

Dealing with in-situ mining

Richard Blubaugh
Powertech Uranium Corp.
The guarantee question is not really a fair question. I mean, there's no guarantees, but rules have tightened.

TOM BEARDEN: In-situ mining involves injecting chemically treated water into the ground to dissolve the uranium. The fluids are then pumped back to the surface. Davis and her neighbors are afraid the process will contaminate the underground aquifer that supplies drinking water to farms and ranches all across this part of the state.

RICHARD BLUBAUGH, Powertech Uranium Corp.: The monitor wells that exist today from the previous evaluation of the property...

TOM BEARDEN: Richard Blubaugh heads up the Health and Safety Division of Powertech. He discounts any real risk of aquifer contamination.

What are the odds of that happening?

RICHARD BLUBAUGH: Well, I'd say they're vanishingly small.

TOM BEARDEN: Can you guarantee it won't happen?

RICHARD BLUBAUGH: The guarantee question is not really a fair question. I mean, there's no guarantees, but rules have tightened. The regulators have taken a much more active role in inspection, and monitoring, and looking over your shoulder.

JAY DAVIS: What we want to do tonight is to present what we've been researching here over the course of the last six or seven weeks.

TOM BEARDEN: The Davises and others are now trying to organize their neighbors to oppose the project. They're holding town hall meetings and writing letters, hoping to persuade local and state governments to deny the mining company the permits it needs to start construction.

Even Powertech admits that, with all the permitting requirements, mining operations couldn't start for a couple of years. And by that time, no one knows whether the uranium business will still be booming.