August 4, 2008
By Jack Spencer and Nicolas Loris
What does uranium have in common with Arctic oil, off-shore
natural gas, coastal wind and cellulosic ethanol? They're all
sources of energy that government bureaucrats have declared
Just last month, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., declared an
emergency situation to withdraw public lands adjacent to the Grand
Canyon from uranium mining. The rarely used emergency resolution
would force Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to ban more than
1,100 mining claims on approximately 1 million acres.
Banning uranium mining isn't unique to Arizona. The nation's
largest-known uranium deposit was discovered in the 1980s on a farm
in southern Virginia. The owner of that land has been exploring the
possibility of mining the 110 million pounds of uranium believed to
be on the site. But Virginia banned uranium mining in 1982 and more
recently decided to prohibit the land owner from even studying its
This quantity of uranium could supply all 104 nuclear reactors
in the United States, which provide 20 percent of the nation's
electricity, for two years. And we're not even talking about new
technology. Uranium has been mined safely for decades in many
global spots, including in New Mexico, Nebraska, Utah and
Uranium is found throughout the world, but often in quantities
too small to be economically mined. Australia has the most; Canada
has the highest-grade uranium. Kazakhstan, South Africa, Niger,
Namibia and Brazil also have large deposits. The United States has
about 3 percent to 4 percent of the world's known uranium and
produces about 4.3 percent of the world's supply, despite operating
about one-quarter of the world's commercial power reactors.
Barely a day goes by without a story on some country planning to
expand commercial nuclear power. Indeed, 35 reactors are under
construction today. U.S companies alone are planning to build up to
30 reactors _ though none have actually started construction.
As the only proven power source that affordably provides large
amounts of primarily domestic energy without atmospheric emissions,
nuclear energy is a logical choice for nations struggling to
reconcile energy policy with economic, environmental and security
More nuclear power will inevitably lead to higher demand for
uranium. Given that more than half of the world's uranium
production comes from three countries, the United States faces
substantial incentives to increase access to domestic uranium
Uranium is mined in one of three ways. Deposits near the surface
are accessed though open-pit mining, while underground mining is
used for deeper reserves. A third method, called in-sito leaching
(ISL), is most often used in the U.S. ISL entails dissolving the
below-surface uranium into a solution and pumping it to the
It's unclear which type would take place in Arizona or Virginia.
But depending on the method, the project would create hundreds of
Of course, the primary concern is safety and radiation exposure.
But the impacts of uranium mining aren't much different from other
mining. Natural uranium ore is about as radioactive as granite.
There's often more dangerous radium or radon with uranium, but
these elements are managed safely to protect workers and the
Most environmental and operational oversight is conducted by the
Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission. These agencies have found that both mining and ISL
operations pose a low risk to the public.
The waste from conventional open-cut mining and related
activities does create radioactive solid products that could pose a
danger. However, these byproducts are safely managed to protect
public health and the environment. Regardless of the mining method,
the sites are restored and revegitated. In the case of ISL, because
the only surface disturbance is bore-hole drilling, the groundwater
is cleanly restored and the site is returned to its original
Nuclear energy is a safe, affordable, clean energy source.
Uranium is a necessary component of nuclear energy, and firms that
choose to mine uranium shouldn't be burdened unnecessarily by fear
and government overreach.
Arizona and Virginia surely won't be the only states that
attempt to prohibit access to uranium reserves. Three decades of
anti-nuclear propaganda continue to influence the public's
perception of nuclear power. That, however, shouldn't cloud the
fact that uranium mining has proved to be safe for workers, the
public and the environment. For the United States to enjoy all of
the advantages of using more nuclear power, it's indispensable.
Jack Spencer is a
research fellow in nuclear energy and Nicolas Loris is a researcher
at The Heritage Foundation.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service
What does uranium have in common with Arctic oil, off-shore natural gas, coastal wind and cellulosic ethanol? They're all sources of energy that government bureaucrats have declared off-limits _ needlessly.
Director, Roe Institute
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