“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.
– Robert Oppenheimer, 1945
Uranium, sought for its power to destroy and its promise of “clean” energy, is the global political football du jour. It looks like Shiva, god of destruction, in black soccer shorts is kicking a bouncing bomb against a graffiti-ed wall in central Berlin.
The problem for Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and a few other investors in the newest generation of commercial nuclear generators is that Rosatom, a Kremlin conglomerate, has a monopoly on the production and sale of the high assay, low enriched uranium (HALEU) required for the design of their fourth generation, smaller generators. An immediate consequence of this inconvenience is that the U.S. has been unwilling to sanction Rosatom along with every other form of Russian economic enterprise, although it has sanctioned five subsidiaries and one individual associated with the company.
Despite abundant evidence that Russian companies have not allowed NATO sanctions to interfere with their energy business in either oil or uranium, senators funded by nuclear energy interests, warning of the threat to national security, are calling for a sanction “on Russian uranium,” and resumption of US uranium mining.
The “Nuclear Fuel Security Act of 2023” is authored by senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, John Barrasso, R-Wy., and Jim Risch, R-Id. It the nuclear industry’s wish list for renewed prosperity thwarted in recent years by the economic failure of earlier generations of reactors and momentary obstacles to profit like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the end of the Cold War, and Fukushima. Included in the full court press for the all-American uranium solution for clean energy and national security are sundry hundreds of millions in subsidies for the Gates-Buffett company, a competitor, and a uranium-enrichment start-up founded by a former assistant secretary of the Atomic Energy Commission. The Inflation Reduction Act provided $700 million and the White House has requested an additional $1.5 billion to ease any risk investors might incur investing in a new and untested nuclear reactor technology without a secure source of fuel.
“These are not your grandparents’ nuclear reactors”, Deseret News reported. “They occupy a much smaller footprint, can ramp up quickly or shut down with speed and use passive cooling systems. In addition, they are far less vulnerable to natural events like earthquakes or other disasters, according to the DOE.”
But the problem of fuel worries executives like Jeff Navin, director of external affairs at TerraPower, Gates and Buffett’s venture.
“We didn’t have a fuel problem until a few months ago,” he said. “After the invasion of Ukraine, we were not comfortable doing business with Russia.”
Sen. Manchin stated his motivation for the nuclear fuel security package: “Russia’s war against Ukraine has drastically disrupted energy supply chains around the world, and now is the time to take a hard look at how we source the raw materials necessary to power our nation and develop advanced energy technologies. This bill will help to start that process by directing the Secretary of Energy to establish a program that will expand both our uranium conversion and enrichment capacity to meet our domestic fuel needs. No matter what Russia does, the United States should always be ready and able to supply nuclear fuel for ourselves and our friends and allies.”
Meanwhile, the EU is completely divided about whether to include nuclear power plants in the category of clean energy at all. The Guardian reported:
“If France has the highest share of nuclear in its electricity mix (almost 70%), followed by Slovakia (52.4%) and Belgium (50.6%), others hardly touch it. The Netherlands stands at barely 3%.
“Germany’s opposition to nuclear goes back a long way; it was the main issue behind the launch of the country’s Green movement. Major accidents at Three Mile Island, Chornobyl and Fukushima reinforced an essentially ideological conviction.
“Advocates of its “Energiewende” green transition plan note that the 46% share of its electricity generated by renewables is far greater than the share that was produced by nuclear when its phase-out was first announced in 1998.
“While its plan, aimed at winning long-term public and industry support, will increase fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions in the short term (coal is due to be phased out by 2038 or earlier), Germany argues it will also stimulate renewables growth.”
Sen. John Barrasso’s state of Wyoming is hosting TerraPower’s Natrium reactor at Kemmerer, site of a retired coal plant. The only source of uranium in Wyoming is the Willow Creek Mine, owned by the Canadian firm, Uranium One, a subsidiary of Rosatom, the Russian uranium monopoly. Barrasso has introduced another bill to sanction Russia in this session. But Gates would still have to shop in Moscow for the enriched grade of uranium his new “fourth-generation” reactor requires.
Today, Russia sells nearly half the world’s supply of all grades of enriched uranium and all of the HALEU the newest generators will require. It is the world leader in nuclear reactor development, with projects all over the globe.
World Nuclear News presented the situation succinctly:
“HALEU fuel is enriched to between 5% and 20% uranium-235. Most of the advanced reactors under development in the USA will use HALEU to enable them to achieve smaller designs, longer operating cycles, and better efficiencies than previous reactor designs, but it is not yet available at commercial scale from domestic suppliers. DOE projects that more than 40 tonnes of HALEU will be needed by 2030, with additional amounts required each year to deploy a new fleet of advanced reactors in a timeframe that supports the US administration’s net-zero emissions targets by 2050.
“According to the Request for Information (RFI) published in the Federal Register, this lack of capacity is a significant obstacle to the development and deployment of advanced reactors for commercial applications. Most of the stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU) held by the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration is reserved for the USA’s naval reactors and other military uses, and is not available for downblending to use in advanced reactors used for commercial applications.”
The deadly Plateau
US Geological Survey’s “Colorado Plateau Sandstone-hosted Uranium and Vanadium Deposit Model” stated:
“The Colorado Plateau physiographic region is the largest uranium province in the United States, and one of the largest in the world. Uranium, often accompanied by vanadium, has been mined from the Plateau since the 1940’s, and the only actively operating domestic uranium mill is in this region. Since 2020 USGS has been compiling data, sampling known deposits, and analyzing samples throughout the Plateau. Last comprehensively studied in the 1980’s, this work has resulted in a new genetic deposit model that will benefit the identification of prospective regions.”
But several parts of the Plateau are resisting uranium mining, which left behind it more than a thousand separate abandoned mines on the Navajo Nation and a legacy of radiation-caused death and disease that have affected hundreds of families, poisoned land a aquifers throughout the region.
KFF Health News reported: “On the morning of July 16, 1979, a dam broke at a uranium mine near Church Rock, New Mexico, (on the Navajo Nation-ed.) releasing 1,100 tons of radioactive waste and pouring 94 million gallons of contaminated water into the Rio Puerco. Toxic substances flowed downstream for nearly 100 miles, according to a report to a congressional committee that year.”
Larger than the Three Mile Island spill four months earlier, the Church Rock spill remains the largest release of radioactive material in US history.
When the price for uranium dropped below the cost of mining it, the mining companies bailed out, leaving millions of tons of radioactive tailings strewn across the Plateau, mostly on tribal lands. In 2005, the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining; in 2012 the tribe banned all transportation of radioactive materials on and through the reservation. When the industry was winding down, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar in 2012 declared a 20 year moratorium on uranium mining on over a million acres around Grand Canyon. But pressure to reactivate the domestic uranium industry began again during the Trump administration and one working mine was exempted from the ban.
With the outbreak of the Ukraine War, lobbyists in Washington DC capitalized on a one-two propaganda combo: National Security and Clean Energy, and money began to flow despite or perhaps due to general ignorance of how raw uranium ore is milled into grades of enrichment suitable for different purpose – very high levels of enrichment for weapons-grade uranium, less in various degrees for reactor use.
Arizona senators Kyrsten Sinema, Mark Kelly and Rep. Raul Grijalva authored the Grand Canyon Protection Act. It passed in the House twice but failed in the Senate. Under the mounting pressure to resume mining at the Pinyon Plain Mine 10 miles from the Grand Canyon Rim, this year Sinema and Grijalva, joined by the Grand Canyon Trust, a partnership of 10 tribes in or near the Grand Canyon and the Navajo Nation and the Hopis, are petitioning the White House to declare the Grand Canyon region a national monument, which would terminate any mining in or near the canyon. Grand Canyon Trust has pointed out for years that tourism, a $1.5 billion industry is a far larger economy that the Canyon Mine, now renamed the Pinyon Plain Mine, which has only a handful of employees yet manages to threaten the water quality of both the tribes living in the canyon and tourists visiting it.
The only mill operating in the country for enriching uranium is at White Mesa, on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, in southeast Utah. The Durango Herald reported in December 2021:
“The mill, owned by Energy Fuels Inc. of Denver, is the only conventional uranium mill in the nation. It processes waste from the cleanup of other mines to make a uranium concentrate, which is later sold to make fuel rods for nuclear power plants. The leftover waste from the milling process is then stored in containment pods at the mill.
“Just 3 miles north of tribal lands and the reservation of White Mesa, north of Bluff, Utah, the mill came under scrutiny when the Ute Mountain Ute tribe claimed the mill was not correctly storing chemicals left over in the milling process.
”The EPA confirmed as much on Dec. 2 when it notified Energy Fuels that the conditions ‘render this facility unacceptable for the receipt of off-site wastes generated as a result of removal or remedial activities under CERCLA.’”
The Utes have been protesting against contamination from this mine for years.
But the worst uranium horror show on the Plateau is the Navajo Nation. Dr. Tommy Rock, a Navajo soil and environmental scientist, described the situation in a letter to the Navajo Times two weeks ago:
“We are in a different position than we were when the federal government and its contractors took advantage of us as early as 1942. Today, we have the awareness, data, and experience to know that uranium mining transforms our living environment into a slow killer.”
When the uranium mining rush was on, the government did not tell the Navajos that uranium mining was dangerous and known by the early 20th century in Europe to cause lung cancer. Nor did it tell the people of the dangers of mining tailings or contamination of aquifers. The American Journal of Public Health reported in 2002:
“IN 1990, THE US CONGRESS passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). This act acknowledged responsibility for the historical mistreatment of uranium miners by the US government, the sole purchaser of uranium from 1948 to 1971,1–3 and made provision for financial compensation to miners with diseases that could be related to their mining experience. Ten years later, in June 2000, the US Congress passed and the president signed legislation amending the original law to correct for what were widely perceived as areas of unfairness in the original legislation.”
Dr. Rock’s warned the Navajos that a mining company had started drilling on the Old Church Mine site, where the worst uranium spill in US history occurred in the late 1970’s, disregarding the tribal ban on mining or transporting uranium on the Navajo Nation, and apparently without notifying the tribal government of this intention. The offending California mining company’s claim, Dr. Rock said, was that it had an “estate” in the underground mineral rights and that the Navajo Nation only had surface rights. Dr. Rock said today that he hopes the Nation will sue the company to stop.
The Pulizer Center wrote in February 2021:
“The Navajo people once had such low rates of cancer, they were thought to be almost immune to it. Those statistics dramatically changed during the Cold War nuclear arms race.
“The U.S. government contracted private mining companies to blast four million tons of ore out of Navajo land with little environmental, health, or safety oversight.
“For almost 40 years, Navajo women, men, and children worked in the uranium mines. Families, livestock, and crops used contaminated well water. Families built their houses out of radioactive materials, and children swam in open-pit mines filled with radioactive rainwater…Today, 85 percent of all Navajo people are living in uranium-contaminated homes. Lethal and aggressive subtypes of cancer like myeloma and stomach, kidney, liver, gallbladder, and cervical cancer have become all too common. Yet, there is not one oncologist on the 27,000-square-mile reservation where 175,000 Navajo people live…”
Regretfully, efforts the federal government made under the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act have been underfunded and too late to help many of its intended recipients. In fact, in tandem with the uranium mining boom of the 1950s and 1960s on tribal lands on the Colorado Plateau, the federal government was promoting its “Indian termination policy,” with the aim of compelling Indians to assimilate into white society. Typical of the types of “vocational education” programs taught to young Indian men in cities like San Francisco was welding, but not arc welding, which made this training laughable if you weren’t a young man trying to find a job with this inadequate training. It turned out to be more appropriate to camp out on Alcatraz Island for a couple of years and start a pan-Indian political movement.
No government effort yet has remediated a radioactive aquifer. This should add weight to the Navajo Nation’s arguments in the US Supreme Court now in its suit to compel the federal government to assess its water needs and propose a plan for meeting them in the future. At the moment, the Navajo people are consuming on average 7-10 gallons a day and many of them are being forced to drive long distances to haul that water from uncontaminated wells.
Unfortunately for the cause of world peace, the uranium mining companies and their customers, the Pentagon and nuclear generators, have successfully agitated Congress enough to grant Cold War-level subsidies to private corporations to begin to compete with the Russian advanced nuclear industry. Tragically for the people of the Colorado Plateau, this corporate drive to develop more nuclear power, boosted by the battle cry of “national security,” will broaden and deepen the deadly contamination of the inhabitants’ environment.
A new uranium-mining rush must be opposed.