Nuclear boom leads to uranium claims near proposed wilderness area

(Photo/pjbalde, Flickr)
(Photo/pjbalde, Flickr)

A spike in uranium prices in recent years has sparked a mining-claim rush near a proposed Colorado wilderness area — a situation that would be exacerbated by a federal energy bill that may include nuclear power in a national renewable energy standard.

Several uranium mining claims have been filed near the proposed Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Area along the high desert cliffs of a river known for its scenic rafting and kayaking from high in the San Juan Mountains to the border of Utah.

The Dolores was initially recommended as a wild river under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1976 and for years has been part of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s 29,000-acre Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area.

Official wilderness designation would require an act of Congress, and a local environmental advocacy group has been pushing U.S. Rep. John Salazar, a Manassa Democrat, to introduce such legislation and include 12,000 additional acres.

Uranium mining could complicate that process given the revival of the nuclear-energy industry as a means of combating global warming and reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Some have even suggested nuclear plants as a means of powering the oil shale industry on Colorado’s Western Slope.

A comprehensive federal energy bill introduced in late March seeks to mandate a renewable energy standard of 25 percent by 2025. It also would mandate efficiency standards and possibly create a cap-and-trade system or carbon tax to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But none of those possibilities is a sure thing.

“All three of those are deeply in danger of getting removed or watered down,” said Keith Hay, energy advocate for Denver-based Environment Colorado. “There’s a strong push by southern Democrats to include nuclear and clean coal in the renewable energy standard, for example, and we in the advocacy community are pushing back strongly that those are not clean fuels, especially here in Colorado.

“Anyone who has seen the front end of uranium mining for nuclear knows that it is in no way clean.”

Indiana, the only state in the upper Midwest without a renewable energy standard and one of only 21 in the nation, recently saw a bid to implement such a standard fail in the statehouse. Early versions of the bill sought to include nuclear power as a renewable energy source.

Colorado is one of five uranium-producing states in the West and has a long history of producing weapons-grade uranium. The current boom in mining claims, which has waned a bit in recent months with a worldwide drop in prices, has focused mostly on states such as Utah and Arizona, where activists have been fighting new claims near national parks such as the Grand Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands.

Even politicians in gas-rich areas of Colorado say nuclear may be the solution.

“What we have to say is we’re using the energy, everybody uses energy, and who’s going to produce it for us? We’re going to have to solve it,” Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said when asked if nuclear should be considered to power oil shale production on Colorado’s Western Slope, adding Europe is far ahead of the United States in that arena.

“Because of the regulations in the United States, [nuclear energy] companies have gone to Europe and have developed that and actually mastered it, and now what we need to do is bring back our own technology and use it in the United States,” Martin said.


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