Nuclear Energy Insight Winter 2012
—The Arizona Strip is a parcel of land that covers 7,900 square miles north of the Colorado River. It is covered with sagebrush and home to juniper trees, pinyon pines and, in its higher elevations, ponderosa pines, even firs and aspen. Its southern edge abuts the northern rim of the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead; Utah is to the north.
It is also rich in uranium.
But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in January banned new uranium mining claims in the strip, closing off a million acres of uranium-rich land. According to members of Arizona and Utah’s congressional delegations, the action would wreak economic havoc on a depressed area, breach an agreement made years ago by the federal government, and do nothing to improve or protect the environment.
The Department of Interior’s concern with the area, said Robert Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management, has to do with its proximity to the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. He told a congressional panel that a U.S. Geological Survey study concludes the area has not been studied enough to know whether uranium mining would cause environmental damage.
But most other speakers at the hearing disputed this view on economic, scientific and environmental grounds.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), in comments about the Interior Department’s draft environmental impact statement on the area, said the administration ignored existing state and federal programs designed to protect the environment. The ADEQ saw no basis for a blanket withdrawal.
“As the lead regulatory agency responsible for the protection of Arizona’s environment, ADEQ closely regulates uranium mining activities in northern Arizona. The environmental risks posed by mining in Arizona have been successfully managed by both state and federal environmental requirements currently in place,” said Richard Myers, NEI’s vice president of policy development, planning and supplies programs.
Myers added that the imminent end of the U.S.-Russia “Megatons to Megawatts” program, which converted surplus Russian nuclear weapons to fuel-grade uranium, adds a sense of urgency to developing new sources of supply. The program provided nearly half the uranium used at U.S. nuclear facilities. “This arrangement expires in 2013,” Myers said, “and will leave a gap in U.S. demand that must be filled from other supply sources.”
“The Obama administration’s ban on uranium mining is a devastating blow to job creation in northern Arizona, particularly in Mohave County,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said. “This decision is fueled by an emotional public relations campaign pitting the public’s love for the Grand Canyon against a modern form of low-impact mining that occurs many miles from the canyon walls and in no way impacts the quality of drinking water from the Colorado River.”
“Mining this land poses no environmental threat and is expected to create thousands of jobs,” Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) said, expressing the interests of his state.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said the decision breaches the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984. “Secretary Salazar’s decision is irresponsible and overturns a reasonable, decades-old compromise between conservationists and uranium producers,” Barrasso said. “With 8.5 percent unemployment [in the area], we need the good jobs and the energy that America’s uranium producers provide.”
—Read more articles in Nuclear Energy Insight and Insight Web Extra.