Uranium in the Grand Canyon: 1 Million Acres that Could Help Fuel a U.S. Nuclear Energy Revival
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The dramatic potential for a meltdown and the dilemma posed by spent fuel tend to dominate discussions of nuclear power’s drawbacks, making it easy to forget the front end of that equation: uranium mining.
The United States imports the bulk of its nuclear fuel, but there are large deposits of uranium, mostly in the western part of the country, that could be mined. A new report from the U.S. Geological Survey looks at one such parcel of land in the Grand Canyon watershed area. It suggests that previous mining activity in the region has not resulted in serious contamination of soil or groundwater, but environmental groups and others are still trying to halt what they fear could become a huge upsurge in uranium mining activity.
The study focused on an area covering about 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon — including land within a few miles of the Colorado River — where the Department of the Interior enacted a land segregation order in July 2009. That order started a two-year period during which the DOI will assess the impacts of extracting the resource and will eventually decide whether or not to "withdraw" the land from consideration for mining under the Mining Law of 1872; that withdrawal would last 20 years.
Roger Clark, the air and energy program director at the environmental group Grand Canyon Trust, said that commercial interest in uranium mining swung in the last decade when the price of the fuel shot from around $5 per pound to over $100 until settling recently to just below $50.
“With that upsurge in price of milled uranium, the demand has gone up, and the number of claims around the Grand Canyon has surged,” he said. “More than 10,000 new claims were filed in the last five years.”
Uranium mining in the geologic formations known as breccia pipes that abound in the area around the Grand Canyon did occur during the 1980s but diminished as the prices dropped. Now, in spite of the thousands of new claims, only one mine in the area is currently operating. Clark said Grand Canyon Trust has filed a lawsuit attempting to block it because of a lack of a thorough environmental impact assessment, but for the moment, the mining is ongoing.
Huge Uranium Deposits
The USGS report found that within the almost 1 million acres of segregated land there is an estimated 163,000 tons of uranium oxide, from which yellowcake or enriched uranium can be extracted. This represents about 12 percent of the total amount in the northern Arizona area.
It's difficult to estimate how much of the total uranium in the country that would be, "because for the last 30 years, there has been no federal assessment of minable uranium,” said James Otton, one of the study's authors and the project chief with the USGS for the Uranium Resources and the Environment project.
The Energy Information Administration, part of the Department of Energy, estimated in 2003 that the total uranium oxide reserves that could be mined — outside of restricted areas — at a price of $50 per pound is 445,000 tons (or 890 million pounds), but Otton said they will most likely update that quantity in the near future. The Obama administration and members of Congress have started pushing for a nuclear power revival after years of little new nuclear activity.
The 104 nuclear reactors currently operating in the United States use between 25,000 and 27,500 tons of uranium oxide per year, Otton said. Previous federal protections have already cut off about 460,000 tons of uranium oxide from mining in the Grand Canyon region.