Uranium Rush

Published: Tuesday 15 July 2008

Can the Grand Canyon survive it?

Many attribute this rush to the belief that nuclear power is poised for a revival, with a new facelift of 'zero co2 emissions'. In the five western states in the us where uranium is mined, 4,333 new claims were filed in 2004, according to the Interior Department; last year the number swelled to 43,153. "We have seen a kind of gold rush," says William von Till, chief of the uranium recovery branch at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (nrc) in Washington. In the last four years, mining interests have staked new claims on a whopping 9,30,780 ha of western public lands.

The nrc expects orders for 28 new reactors over the next two years; scores more are planned worldwide over the next decade, says Larry Camper, director of nrc's division of waste management and environmental protection. Trading at us $7 a pound in 2001, 'yellowcake' hit us $120 a pound in May, 2007. The surging price has lured more than two dozen companies to the high-desert uranium fields in just the past year, says John Indall, a Santa Fe lawyer for the Uranium Producers of America.

A three-month Environmental Working Group (ewg) investigation found mining claims registered with the Bureau of Land Management (blm) rose from 2,20,265 at the end of 2002 to 3,24,551 in September 2006, a 47 per cent increase. Many of these are for potential uranium mines.

Under the 1872 Mining Law, still in effect, companies can stake claims for as little as us $ 1 per acre. Metals mining companies need pay no royalties for extracting from federal land, nor do they pay into a fund for clean-up of abandoned mines. Companies also can receive a tax break for up to 22 per cent of the metal they extract. ewg's investigation seeks to raise awareness about reforming the law so that mining companies pay a fair price for land use, clean up the pollution they leave behind and leave treasured places untouched.

The push to extract more uranium has caused controversy, too, for it involves federal land as well as private and state land. In Virginia, a company's plan to operate has spurred a hearing in the legislature. In New Mexico, a Navajo activist group is challenging, in federal court, a licence issued just over their reservation's eastern border.

Canyon at stake
The most claims staked near any national park are in the Grand Canyon area, which draws 5 million tourists a year. Last year Vane Minerals, a British company, applied to start exploratory drilling on seven sites in the Kaibab National Forest, near the canyon's popular South Rim. In response to the approval, the Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club sued in federal court. In April, a judge issued a temporary restraining order.

Mining so close to the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, which runs through the canyon, is a serious concern. The river is the source of water for more than 18 million people in Arizona, California and Nevada and is used to irrigate more than 1 million acres of farmland. The river feeds Lake Mead, which provides about 90 per cent of Southern Nevada's water supply.

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