From uranium mining at the Grand Canyon to the country’s largest nuclear plant, Arizona is ground zero for controversial atomic issues.
The subterranean memory haunted Gandalf. “You fear to go into those mines, don’t you?” Saruman telepathized, his talon-like fingers turning the pages of a weathered tome. “The Dwarves delved too greedily and too deep… You know what they awoke in the darkness…” The white wizard was referring to the Balrog, “a demon of the ancient world” that had slumbered in the subterrestrial shadows
until it was disturbed, unleashing a power no mortal could control.
Whether The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien intended the Balrog to be a metaphor for the potential hazards of careless mining, we will never know. But it serves as a useful cautionary tale for modern-day Arizona, where, in the ancient world of the Grand Canyon, slumbers a practically immortal, potentially deadly substance no human can fully control: uranium. Many people are concerned that uranium mining in the area could release a modern-day, real Balrog: an irradiated Colorado River.
For millennia, melted snowpack and rainwater trickled harmlessly over the deeply-buried, sleeping deposits of uranium, flowing into pristine creeks in the open air. But in the mid-20th century, miners’ drills awoke the element, releasing its radioactivity into the dust, air and water. Today, Horn Creek, which lies below a uranium mine on the South Rim and flows into the Colorado River, is spiked with radioactivity that exceeds EPA safe-drinking standards. A 2010 U.S. Geological Survey discovered that five wells and 15 springs in the Canyon contain EPA-exceeding levels of uranium. And scientists have found roadside dust that remains radioactive even though trucks have not transported uranium ore over them for 20 years.
“When [the uranium is] in situ and it hasn’t been disturbed, you have less likelihood of mobilization,” says Martha Hahn, chief of science and resource management at the Grand Canyon. “But once you disturb it, it can be mobilized if it has a water source.” Water sources like the complicated system of natural pipes, fissures, aquifers and springs that punctuate the Canyon’s walls, some eventually leading to the Colorado River, which supplies water for 30 million people.
However, advocates say mining would be an economic boon to the area and, thanks to improvements in oversight, even a worst-case-scenario mining accident would release not a Balrog, but a bunny rabbit of a problem.
In January, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar placed a 20-year moratorium on uranium mining encompassing 1 million acres around the Canyon, an area that contains about 3,200 mining claims. But that ban applies only to new claims, not to the one uranium mine currently operating in the area, nor the 10 more previously approved sites that may start up soon. And since mining and energy groups are suing to lift the ban, the story may be far from over.
Meanwhile, uranium’s main output – nuclear power – is stirring up its own controversy: While the media and politicians trumpet a “nuclear renaissance,” critics voice concerns over the safety of nuclear plants following Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster last year. Additionally, nuclear advocates and opponents spar over whether nuclear power is dirt cheap or exorbitantly expensive, an eco-messiah or an environmental wolf in sheep’s clothing. What is certain is that Arizona – home to the nation’s most contentious source of uranium and its largest nuclear power plant – is a hotbed for atomic issues.
World War II and the Cold War sent a shiver across the world that chilled even the sun-baked deserts of the American Southwest. Beneath a large swath of the Navajo Nation, nearly 4 million tons of uranium were extracted from the ground to fuel the Manhattan Project and the arms race with Russia. In the decades during and after the uranium boom, companies that operated the 1,000-plus mines and four milling plants carelessly left behind open pits and radioactive waste piles that blew with the wind into the lungs of the Navajo people. The Navajos built their homes out of radioactive uranium mine tailings. They drank contaminated water, gave it to their herd animals, and then ate the animals.
No cause-and-effect link has been confirmed, but between the ’70s and ’90s, cancer death rates on the Navajo Nation (which had traditionally been lower than the national average) doubled. The Navajo have since banned uranium mining on the reservation.
That legacy is all in the past, mining advocates say. “If you look back in the ’50s and ’60s, there was very little environmental regulations in place at that time,” says Katie Sweeney, general counsel for the National Mining Association (NMA). “Now pretty much every aspect of mining is highly regulated, and both the BLM and the Forest Service... went through, in the 2000s, some pretty significant revisions to further protect public lands from mining operations. And those relate to pretty much everything from how you deal with wildlife, how you deal with cultural resources, how you deal with revegetation, soil management [and] water management.”
“One of the big changes has been that all mine sites, whether they’re on federal or private land, must be reclaimed,” adds NMA spokesperson Carol Raulston. “The reclamation process must protect water resources, wildlife, air, all the main environmental values that we have to protect, and none of that was done in the ’50s... and so when there was interaction with the environment, there were some problems that came up.”
But environmental laws mean little if they are not enforced. “The mining companies, particularly in Arizona, have been very effective at avoiding much-needed regulation,” says Roger Clark, Grand Canyon program director of the Grand Canyon Trust. “One of the arguments for continuing uranium mining is that they’ve changed how they do the mining and the regulations are tighter now. And they’re wrong on both cases. The Orphan Mine was mined out in the exact same way that the Arizona 1 Mine is being mined.”
The Arizona 1 Mine, located about 12 miles north of the Colorado River, is currently the only uranium mine operating in the area, though the Pinenut Mine – owned by the same Canadian company, Denison Mines – is preparing to open as soon as this summer. Environmental groups including the Grand Canyon Trust are contesting the permit granted by the Bureau of Land Management to let the Arizona 1 Mine move forward given that an environmental assessment has not been performed since 1988.
The Orphan Mine provides a sobering cautionary mining tale. Hikers starting from Grand Canyon Village and walking west along the Rim Trail two miles, just past Maricopa Point, must detour around the Orphan Mine. The uranium mine was abandoned in the 1990s when its owners went bankrupt, and now the National Park Service is assuming the responsibility of the clean-up – and its $15-million-dollar price tag.
At the bottom of the Canyon, directly below Orphan mine, lies Horn Creek, about which the Park Service posts this information on its website: “There is water in the bed of Horn Creek about half the time, but unfortunately it is radioactive so don’t drink it unless death by thirst is the only other option. The source of the radioactivity is a deposit of high quality uranium contained within a collapsed cave system geologists call a breccia pipe. The odd yellowish stain on the rocks near the rim at the head of Horn Creek testifies to the presence of unusual minerals and a claim predating the park allowed the deposit to be actively mined as late as 1969… Percolating ground water picks up traces of the radioactivity and carries it to the surface in the bed of Horn Creek.”
Some mining proponents have stated that the uranium present in some of the Canyon’s creeks and springs is not a consequence of mining: “Uranium is prolific throughout the Earth’s crust, and the amount of uranium in those streams is naturally occurring,” Ron Hochstein, CEO of Denison Mines, told the Arizona Capitol Times last year.
However, a 2010 U.S. Geological Survey reported that “The USGS found elevated radioactivity at every mining site they visited relative to a nearby un-mined watershed with similar geology. Groundwater samples from many of those mines also exhibited uranium concentrations above EPA standards, whereas the natural background for dissolved uranium in Grand Canyon’s watershed is far below EPA standards.”
“[Mining companies] assume that there’s no possible link between the mine shaft, the ore body and water in the mine shaft, and contamination of the groundwater beneath it,” Clark says. “They assume it’s a completely impervious and permanent rock barrier between the mining activity and the aquifer beneath it, and at least in one known exception, the Orphan mine, that’s simply not the case.”
Improvements have been made in the mining process with regard to increased ventilation for the miners, Clark says, but “The physical act of mining and the way they obtain the ore hasn’t changed in four decades, and the regulatory conditions that are designed to prevent contamination have not gotten stricter – in fact, they’ve gotten weaker, particularly in the budget crisis Arizona is in where they don’t have the people to really do their job.”
But mining advocates insist that even if uranium did leak into the Colorado River, it would not be the calamity many people assume. They point to research by Arizona Geological Survey scientists who hypothesized an “extremely unlikely... worst-case accident in which a truck hauling thirty metric tons (66,000 pounds) of one-percent uranium ore is overturned by a flash flood in Kanab Creek and its entire ore load is washed into the Colorado River where it is pulverized and dissolved during a one-year period.” Such a catastrophe, they posited, would increase the uranium levels in the river water from 4 parts per billion to 4.02 parts per billion – well below the EPA’s maximum contaminant level for uranium in drinking water of 30 parts per billion. Hardly a Balrog-level fiasco.
Even so, this is the Grand Canyon, arguably the most wondrous of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Uranium mining supporters including John McCain have said that the mining would occur “many miles from the Canyon walls.” And some of it would. But there are in fact hundreds of mining claims within five miles of the Canyon.
Mining operations, if they continue to expand, may go unnoticed by most of the tour bus throngs who visit the South Rim. But for the hiker, the hunter, or the backcountry camper, the industrialization can be jarring, Clark says. “In my recent trip to the Arizona Strip… to access trails on the north side – Tuweep, Tuckup Canyon, Kanab Point – access to all these points on the Grand Canyon are on the very same roads that are now being used for uranium mining. So you have truck traffic,” he says, adding, “A [uranium-transporting] truck spill on Highway 64, the main road to the south entrance, would most certainly shut down that road for a few hours or a few days, and on busy days 10,000 cars go into the park. That’s a big impact.”
“You have this industrial presence that begins to dominate the rest of the landscape,” he continues. “We camped within a mile from the Pinenut Mine and they’ve got fans blowing... So we heard this roar of fans all night. It’s an incredibly dark place even on a moonlit night, and the lights from the mine cast lights across the landscape. So it really is an imposition on the recreationist who’s out there to enjoy solitude and a relatively undisturbed landscape.”
However, mining proponents argue, a certain amount of mechanization and industrialization translates into a huge economic boon to the region. Uranium mining in Northern Arizona could generate $2 billion in federal and state corporate income taxes over a 42-year period, according to a report prepared for the American Clean Energy Resources Trust, a uranium mining advocacy group. Over the same time period, uranium mining could create 1,078 new jobs and generate $18.9 billion in sales (which would go to the mining companies) and $10.5 billion in indirect sales. Much of that $10.5 billion would go to the region, the NMA’s Raulston notes. “Almost all of [the mining companies’] costs are going to derive to Arizona and the region. Payroll taxes, sales taxes, severance taxes, equipment and other services they purchase – all that will be done regionally. Obviously all the employment will be done regionally.”
“The lion’s share of the profits end up nowhere near Arizona,” counters Clark, adding that “certainly over half” of the mining claims in the area are from foreign companies that will take the money and uranium with them.
He notes that, unlike oil companies, which must pay millions of dollars in royalties to the federal government to lease public land, uranium mining companies are not required to pay royalties, thanks to the 1872 Mining Law. They can claim land for about $5 an acre, and since they don’t own the land, they’re shielded from property taxes. Contrast that, he says, to the Grand Canyon, which brings $687 million to Arizona every year.
As for the 1,078 mining-related jobs, environmental groups point out that number pales in comparison to the 12,000 full-time equivalent jobs the Grand Canyon supports in the region. But the NMA’s Sweeney argues that “The mining jobs [pay] significantly more than the tourism jobs and the hospitality jobs. And when you [examine] the two counties that would be most impacted by this, the wages there are quite low… So it could have a huge impact on the communities.”
Mining advocates also say tapping Arizona’s uranium stockpile would lead to more energy independence. Most uranium today goes toward nuclear power, and in 2011, 92 percent of the uranium used by American nuclear plants was imported, Sweeney says. Clark and others dismiss this, saying that since most of the mining companies with claims in the Grand Canyon area are foreign, most of the uranium will be shipped overseas.
But what do U.S. nuclear energy companies have to say about the issue? Let’s turn to the largest nuclear plant in the country, Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, located about 45 miles west of Phoenix.
Jim McDonald does not mince words. He cleaves them. When asked how uranium mining at the Grand Canyon affects Palo Verde, the Arizona Public Service spokesman leaves no doubt: “It doesn’t.”
In fact, APS opposes uranium mining at the Grand Canyon as a source of fuel for Palo Verde. “That’s out of respect for the Grand Canyon,” McDonald says, noting that the plant’s uranium sources come mainly from Kazakhstan, Australia and Canada.
Palo Verde contributes $1.8 billion annually to the Arizona economy, and directly or indirectly supports 8,800 jobs and $508.8 million of annual payroll in Arizona, according to APS. Because of Palo Verde, nuclear power comprises 28 percent of Arizona’s energy portfolio, about 10 percent higher than the national average.
But there are many people who would like to see that number increase. Governor Jan Brewer told a business summit in 2010, “I’m a strong advocate for the development of more nuclear energy in Arizona.” John McCain has called for 45 new nuclear reactors in the country by 2030. President Obama recently pledged $8 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors. And the media is trumpeting a “nuclear renaissance.” So how does this nuclear rebirth affect Palo Verde?
“It doesn’t,” McDonald says. “In fact, I would question whether there’s a nuclear rebirth. And the funds the Obama administration is putting into nuclear are very, very small compared to historical levels.”
He has a point: $8 billion sounds like a lot, but it’s only enough to build about half of a single nuclear plant. Palo Verde cost $5.9 billion to build in 1988, or $11.5 billion in current dollars. But today’s plants are promising to be even more expensive: A cost estimate submitted by Florida Power & Light for a nuclear plant in the Keys topped out at $18 billion. Much of those costs would shift to ratepayers, but taxpayers would foot the bill for loan guarantees, tax breaks, insurance benefits and subsidies.
When the cost of building plants is figured into the equation, nuclear energy is now more costly than solar, according to a study by Duke University economists prepared for NC WARN, a nuclear energy watchdog. According to the study, nuclear energy now costs 20 or more cents per kilowatt-hour, while solar costs 14 cents or less per kilowatt-hour.
“Nuclear power is, in terms of operating costs among traditional forms of generation, among the least costly or very close to it,” McDonald says. “But to build a nuclear plant you have very high capital costs. After the plant is built and paid for, it’s very inexpensive.” That statement gibes with a study from the Nuclear Energy Institute that put Palo Verde’s 2002 production cost at a bargain 1.33 cents per kilowatt-hour.
But the Union of Concerned Scientists argues on its website that established nuclear energy is cheap only because of taxpayer-funded government subsidies: “These legacy subsidies are estimated to exceed seven cents per kilowatt-hour – an amount equal to about 140 percent of the average wholesale price of power from 1960 to 2008, making the subsidies more valuable than the power produced by nuclear plants over that period.”
So, nuclear is both inexpensive and expensive, and to make matters even more confusing, it’s both eco-friendly and eco-rude.
“Nuclear power doesn’t emit greenhouse gases; it doesn’t contribute to global warming,” McDonald says.
That’s true as long as you only examine nuclear plants. But nuclear energy requires the mining of uranium and its transportation to facilities where it is milled and enriched, every step of which produces greenhouse gases. Yet even when you consider nuclear power’s life-cycle emissions (the start-to-finish process), nuclear power emits fewer greenhouse gases than solar, according to a study from the University of Wisconsin. Solar’s life-cycle emits 39 tons of carbon dioxide per gigawatt hour; nuclear emits 17.
In that sense, nuclear appears to be greener than solar. But environmental groups point out that nuclear power consumes more water than any other energy technology. (Note, however, that Palo Verde is the only nuclear plant in the U.S. not situated on a body of water; it uses recycled wastewater.) The U.S. also has no long-term disposal method for nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for thousands of years. And if a catastrophe happened at a nuclear facility, it could release massive amounts of cancer-causing radiation into the air. That’s been a concern on people’s minds since last year’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster.
“Palo Verde is as different from Fukushima as could be possible,” McDonald assures. Arizona is not prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Palo Verde’s pressurized water reactor has a larger, stronger containment dome that can withstand much higher pressure than Fukushima’s vintage boiling water reactor, McDonald says. Palo Verde also has numerous backup systems in place, from water to keep the system cool to generators to a network of supports from other nuclear plants in the West.
But today’s world has more threats than natural disasters. If a terrorist breached a nuclear plant with an explosive device, you’d have a recipe for a dirty bomb.
“You’d be a pretty stupid terrorist,” McDonald says. “At Palo Verde we in essence have a small army protecting that plant.” And as for 9/11-esque attacks, McDonald says, “You could take the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, crash them into the domes of Palo Verde, and they in essence would do nothing.”
No word on how they would respond to a Balrog attack.