Japan disaster may have chilling effect on nuclear revival, new Colorado uranium boom

The Alvin Vogtle nuclear power plant expansion under construction in Georgia. Photo by U.S. Energy Information Administration

America’s “nuclear power renaissance” – and a concurrent Colorado uranium mining revival — could cool considerably in the wake of an 8.9 earthquake and tsunami off Japan’s northeast coast that caused two partial meltdowns at two nuclear reactors and serious problems at two more plants.

The growing disaster plaguing four of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors – the third most in the world behind only the United States (104) and France (58) – has sparked unpleasant memories of the Chernobyl meltdown in the Ukraine in 1986 and the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania in 1979. The mounting crisis in Japan — where officials now fear radioactive steam may spew into the atmosphere for weeks — is sending shockwaves through the nuclear power industry.

Both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island contributed to a decades-long slowdown in nuclear power production in the United States, although the nation still generates 20 percent of its electrical power from nuclear facilities. America’s 104 nuclear reactors are located in 31 states, mostly east of the Mississippi River, and none are in Colorado.

But Colorado historically has been a hotbed of uranium production dating back to World War II and the Cold War, and the state has slowly been ramping back up its uranium milling and mining operations to meet an anticipated spike in demand as nuclear power enjoys renewed interest because it doesn’t generate nearly the carbon emissions of conventional fossil fuels.

There are currently 13 new nuclear facilities either in the planning stages or under construction in the United States, mostly in the South, and more than 65 new facilities are being planned or built worldwide. Questions about safety will undoubtedly surge back to the forefront after the Japan disaster, especially in more earthquake-prone states like California – home to four nuclear reactors.

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat, has previously introduced legislation to boost the nation’s nuclear power industry because he feels it’s an essential part of the energy mix needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global climate change.

“The scale of the energy changes we must make dictates that we be open to the widest variety of energy options, particularly those with domestic potential and those with cleaner emissions,” Udall said in a previous interview. “In other words, there is no silver bullet that can solve all of our energy challenges; we are going to need silver buckshot.”

But Udall knows the state must avoid the uranium mining mistakes of the past that left a toxic legacy for future generations. Colorado conservationists frequently decry what they call the “dirty front end” of the nuclear power business.

“You can’t consider expanding nuclear power without uranium mining, but that does not mean supporting irresponsible mining,” Udall said. “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.”

Frank Filas, environmental manager for a U.S. subsidiary of Ontario-based Energy Fuels Inc., which has earned state approval for the first new uranium mill in the United States in more than 30 years, previously told The Colorado Independent he understands public trepidation given the uranium 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.”

Environmental groups have sued the state and county to block Energy Fuels’ proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill in western Montrose County near the Colorado-Utah border. Opponents cite health concerns, safety issues and doubts about the company’s ability to pay cleanup costs in the event of an environmental disaster.

In northern Colorado, conservation groups and landowners have been battling to mitigate the impacts of a proposed in-situ leach uranium mine on private land 15 miles northeast of Fort Collins. That project recently had its U.S. Environmental Protection Agency permit pulled, although representatives of Powertech – another Canadian company – remain confident they’ll ultimately win approval.

Udall also acknowledges there needs to be greater control over foreign uranium mining companies looking to exploit resources on public lands in the United States, where there is currently no royalty structure for hard-rock mining such as the fees assessed the oil and gas industry.

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