Thursday, July 23, 2009

Uranium poised for another boom

Warning signs and barbed wire mark the old townsite of Uravan. Once home to a uranium mill, the entire town was removed during a Superfund cleanup that ended last year. (Photo by Joe Hanel)

Warning signs and barbed wire mark the old townsite of Uravan. Once home to a uranium mill, the entire town was removed during a Superfund cleanup that ended last year. (Photo by Joe Hanel)

The Rocky Mountain Independent is running a three-part series of environmental snapshots from the Front Range. Part two examines how some Colorado residents fear that the industry and government regulators will repeat previous safety missteps.

No one wanted the piles of gray rocks with the yellow and bright green flakes. They lay in piles outside the vanadium mills in Southwest Colorado until World War II.

The suddenly, military men arrived and claimed the piles for the Manhattan Engineering District. A mill town called Uravan became a secret military city.

The yellow flakes became fuel for the first American atomic bombs, and Colorado’s uranium boom was born. For decades, the government bought all of the uranium that miners could find. But in the 1980s, the market crashed, and uranium resumed its status as a nearly worthless rock.

Now uranium is poised for a comeback. Companies are pushing projects near Fort Collins and Cañon City and in Southwest Colorado’s remote Paradox Valley.

“Population is growing, demand is increasing, and the world is also looking for affordable energy that produces no (greenhouse) emission and is very safe,” said Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association.

Uranium prices have rebounded since the early part of this decade. Although, at $50 a pound, they are below their record $138 during a speculative bubble in 2007. A U.S.-Russian program to use fuel from old Soviet weapons in American power plants will end in 2013, which could create demand for domestic uranium. Also, nuclear power might become more popular as an alternative to fuel sources that emit global-warming gases.

Uranium critics scoff at the idea that it is a safe fuel source.

“I’ve been in misery, sometimes literally hell, for 41 and a half years,” said Reed Hayes, of Paradox, who fell into a vat of uranium in 1967 at a mill in Moab.

Hayes has suffered rashes all over his body and sometimes in his mouth and eyes. Of the 26 workers who started at the mill when it opened, 23 have died, mostly of cancer. By contrast, most of his high school class is still alive, Hayes said.

He opposes a new uranium mill planned for his valley, saying that the element of human error can never be overcome.

“I don’t want to see any more people die,” he said.

In every place in Colorado where a company has proposed a uranium project, a citizens group has risen up to oppose it.

  • Powertech Uranium Corp. plans to open an “in-situ” mine east of Fort Collins that would leach uranium out of the groundwater. Coloradans Against Resource Destruction is fighting
  • the plan.Cotter Corp. plans to reopen
  • its Cañon City uranium mill by 2014. It shut down the mill in 2005, and Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste wants it to remain closed. The mill polluted the nearby Lincoln Park neighborhood, and residents blamed it for causing cancer in their families.
  • Energy Fuels Inc. plans to build a uranium mill in the Paradox Valley. Mill backers say it would spur the region’s dormant uranium mines back into production. But opponents in the Paradox Valley, which has become a haven for organic agriculture, want the region to turn its back on mining permanently.

Both the Cañon City mill and the Uravan mill — just outside the Paradox Valley — were on the federal Superfund list for environmental cleanups. Although the Cañon City mill remains, Uravan had a different fate. The entire town — homes, church, swimming pool, soda fountain — has been wiped off the map. All that remains is an office building and a barbed-wire fence marked with red-and-yellow radiation signs.

During the last uranium boom, government regulators failed to keep people safe. The Department of Energy published an extraordinary mea culpa during the Clinton administration, admitting that health experts in the federal and Colorado governments knew about the dangers of unventilated mines but hid the danger from miners. That story and many others are chronicled in the DOE Openness Project.

Congress set up a compensation system for uranium workers in 1990. But not everyone qualifies, and payments come slowly, if at all. The Department of Labor has paid only 43,000 claims out of 165,000 filed, according to a 2008 Rocky Mountain News investigation.

State health officials say things will be different this time.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has no applications on file for uranium mills. But Powertech, Cotter and Energy Fuels all will need radiation permits before they start operating. Warren Smith, of the state health department, said he expects Powertech and Energy Fuels to apply for their permits this year. When they do, it will trigger an intense 15-month review that includes at least two public meetings.

Steve Tarlton, who is in charge of the health department’s radiation program, says times have changed.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t have seat belts. Things are different now. The same is true of the uranium industry,” Tarlton said. “We have learned a lot from past mistakes.”

Joe Hanel reports from Denver for The Durango Herald and the Cortez Journal. Watch and this month for a four-part series on uranium mining in Southwest Colorado.

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