New Mexico lawmakers introduce bill to require uranium mining royalties

Two New Mexico Democrats today introduced a bill that would require uranium mining companies to pay a 12.5-percent royalty on federal lands – a move Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado at least favors studying given the growing interest in uranium mining and nuclear power.

The Uranium Resources Stewardship Act introduced by U.S. Reps. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján would shift the regulation of uranium mining from the 1872 Mining Law to the Mineral Leasing Act and require royalty payments to federal and state governments similar to those paid by the coal, oil and gas industries.

Last year, Udall introduced SB 796, which would have studied “whether uranium should fall under the Mineral Leasing Act system and be subject to a federal royalty that is shared with the state.” But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has consistently blocked any significant reform of the 1872 Mining Law, which was passed by the Grant administration to encourage settlement of the West by miners in the late 19th century.

“It’s time to seriously consider whether uranium should still be classified as a ‘locatable mineral’ governed by the hard-rock mining laws,” Udall told the Colorado Independent last year. Critics of the U.S. uranium mining industry say it is dominated by foreign companies taking advantage of a lack of royalties on federal lands, and that too often toxic waste has been left for American taxpayers to clean up.

Udall is a proponent of reviving the U.S. nuclear power industry to combat climate change by reducing the amount of fossil fuels being consumed to produce electricity. But members of the Colorado conservation community say the state has for too long been on the hook for the “dirty front end” of the uranium mining industry.

“Taxpayers have been fleeced out of millions of dollars in royalties from uranium companies mining on public lands,” Earthworks Policy Director Lauren Pagel said in a release. “The Uranium Resources Stewardship Act charges a moderate 12.5-percent royalty on uranium, which will allow the industry to contribute to cleaning up old uranium mine sites that continue to pollute water and harm nearby communities.”

Uranium prices have dropped in recent weeks due to the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, but they’re still up dramatically over the last decade, and Udall says the United States must continue to pursue new nuclear power facilities. He’s introduced a bill this session that would facilitate the construction of smaller, “modular” nuclear reactors.

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