Colorado in crosshairs of nuke boom if climate bill sparks uranium revival

Colorado, historically a major uranium-producing state, will be ground zero of the nation’s nuclear revival if that form of power enjoys the renaissance proponents say is necessary for climate change legislation to win approval in the U.S. Senate.

Photo: Colorado College
Photo: Colorado College

Key Republicans like Arizona’s John McCain, whose state is also a hotbed of uranium mining, and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham are big backers of a nuclear-energy revival suddenly popular in some circles for its promise of nearly carbon-free power. Their votes may be needed to give Democratic co-sponsors Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts 60 filibuster-proof votes.

As the Senate this week commences three critical committee hearings on the Boxer-Kerry bill, Colorado’s Mark Udall has repeatedly made it clear nuclear needs to be a bigger part of the nation’s electrical-power mix, although he acknowledges uranium mining needs to be done much more safely than it was in the state’s not-too-distant past.

“You can’t consider expanding nuclear power without uranium mining, but that does not mean supporting irresponsible mining,” Udall told The Colorado Independent in an earlier statement. “It’s important that the state — which is the delegated agency for permitting authority for uranium mining — ensures that uranium mining is done safely, responsibly and with the full input of the affected communities.”

The Montrose County commissioners late last month approved a controversial uranium mill proposal for the far western end of the county, and the state will now take up to a year to issue its own permits. Some residents of the area that produced yellowcake for the first atomic bombs view a nuclear energy revival as the likely salvation of the local economy; others see it as another looming environmental disaster. Yellowcake is used to produce nuclear fuel rods.

Frank Filas, environmental manager for a U.S. subsidiary of Ontario-based Energy Fuels Inc., which proposed the Montrose County mill, said he understands the public trepidation given the industry’s checkered past.

“If you go back to the ’40s and ’50s and you look at our industry, well, we were doing a lot of things that weren’t necessarily best for our people, but we didn’t know any better — very similar to all the other industries at that time,” Filas said. “And when you had scares like Three Mile Island, and obviously Chernobyl was a horrible disaster, people see that and basically they wanted a safe supply.”

Those nuclear reactor meltdowns and explosions in the 1970s and 1980s put a halt to the expansion of the industry in the United States, basically leveling off nuclear power’s share of the nation’s electricity base load at about 20 percent.

According to The Associated Press, 104 reactors in 31 states currently provide that 20 percent of the nation’s electricity — amounting to about 70 percent of the nearly carbon-free power that doesn’t contribute to global warming. The goal of climate change legislation is to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by the year 2050, which would require, according to an EPA report, 180 new reactors.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing applications for only 30 new reactors, but 85 percent of the uranium used for nuclear power production in the United States is currently imported from abroad, according to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration.

That agency recently reported that so far in 2009 coal-fired plants contributed 44.7 percent of the nation’s electrical power; natural gas-fired power plants 22.3 percent; nuclear 20.6 percent; hydroelectric 7.4 percent; other renewables combined (biomass, wind, solar, geothermal) 3.7 percent; and petroleum-fired power plants 1.1 percent.

Coal belches by far the most carbon of all of those sources, and some say the duration of the nation’s coal supply is rapidly waning. Udall is also big backer of upping incentives for the natural gas industry in the Boxer-Kerry bill given Colorado’s abundance of gas, and that’s a sentiment Gov. Bill Ritter shares.

But Ritter also told The Denver Post he backs nuclear power and expanding uranium mining and milling, as long as modern technology ensures safe production: “Today’s standards for a new mill … are far, far more protective of health and the environment. We believe it is possible to construct a mill today that fully protects workers as well as the air and water.”

Energy Fuels’ Filas said nuclear wouldn’t even be on the radar right now if not for the global climate change debate.

“Let’s face it, if we weren’t worried about carbon dioxide right now and the burning of fossil fuels [nuclear wouldn’t be expanding],” he said. “Fossil fuels, whether it’s coal or natural gas or oil, are all very inexpensive forms of power. They’re a little less expensive than nuclear and obviously less expensive than renewables, so from a supply and demand point of view, those types of power sources made more sense over the last 30 years.”

But the potential public health risks of uranium mining are still far too high for some critics of the industry, including Keith Hay, energy advocate for Denver-based Environment Colorado. Hay disputes the notion that nuclear should be grouped in with other forms of clean energy: “Anyone who has seen the front end of uranium mining for nuclear knows that it is in no way clean.”

Travis Stills, managing attorney for the Durango-based Energy Minerals Law Center, says the environmental legacy at Uravana toxic ghost town cleaned up at taxpayer’s expense — mandates any new milling operation in the area must be required to post an enormous bond in the event the company goes out of business but leaves behind a radioactive mess.

“The starting point for any launch should be the amount of cleanup that was actually spent at Uravan. That should be the absolute floor [for a bond], and then we should start talking about what to do from there,” Stills said, adding the county commissioners seemed to have their minds made up long before the approval process began.

“[County commission chairman] David White attempted to run the best process that he could, but they fell way short of providing anything fair and balanced – maybe they did provide fair and balanced the way that means now – but they certainly didn’t provide anyone with the hours of PowerPoint presentation opportunity that they provided to Energy Fuels. [The mill] was a done deal when they met privately March 25, 2008, and it sort of remained that way all the way through.”

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