By GREG WALCHER
The administration recently released a report called “Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Advantage,” compiled after an eight-month review by the White House Nuclear Fuel Working Group. That was composed of all the federal agencies involved in nuclear power, nuclear defense, and public lands. It proposes a $150 million strategic uranium reserve (like the petroleum reserve) and revitalizing the domestic uranium industry, which is almost extinct.
The previous administration had blocked uranium mining on federal lands, especially targeting mining proposals in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon, whereas the new plan would once again allow uranium mining on some federal lands, with all the required permitting and environmental controls. It would also encourage the development of new technologies, such as small modular reactors like those being developed at the Idaho National Laboratory.
Opposition from the environmental industry was immediate, and venomous. One Popular Mechanics editorial writer said, “In an idea that sounds like it’s from Mad Libs, President Trump has suggested he wants to mine the Grand Canyon,” an absurd accusation that others quickly repeated. Several paragraphs later that writer admitted, “That doesn’t specifically mean the Grand Canyon,” but that it might possibly include already existing mines nearby. The vitriol is actually surprising, because many environmental organizations now claim to prefer nuclear power to fossil fuels, as their focus on climate change has led them to view nuclear reactors as reliable carbon-free generators. The Union of Concerned Scientists has sounded an alarm about plans to close more than a third of the nation’s existing nuclear plants, saying that those plants provide critical low-carbon electricity that will likely be replaced by fossil fuels. That support is echoed by a wide range of environmental groups, though the largest organizations still oppose nuclear power, and the uranium mining it requires, despite their calls for emission-free energy.
In New York, state regulators, under pressure from environmental groups, shut down one nuclear reactor at Indian Point that for decades provided downstate New York with reliable energy with no emissions. It was replaced by two giant new gas-fired power plants. In a scathing Daily News op-ed, Gary Krellenstein, a nuclear engineer and former energy analyst for JPMorgan-Chase who is now a technical advisor for NY Energy and Climate Advocates, says that exchange caused New York to lose more carbon-free electricity than is produced every year by every wind turbine and solar panel in the state. “Nobody should call that an environmental victory,” he wrote.
The closure of so many American nuclear plants is largely because of onerous environmental regulations, and the high cost of importing uranium, less than 1 percent of which now comes from the U.S. That is a consequence of shutting off access to America’s own domestic supplies, mostly on public lands. America’s dependence on other countries for raw materials remains a dire threat to economic security, thus the new plan to build a strategic uranium reserve, and to jump-start domestic production.
Some environmental critics called the plan a bailout of a “dirty” industry (go figure), and questioned why the administration instead isn’t doing more to support existing nuclear plants, the source of at least a third of the nation’s carbon-free electricity. Perhaps the reason is that those same organizations have opposed every single attempt to do so.
This is not about mining in the Grand Canyon, which will never be legal. It most directly affects Wyoming, which leads the nation in uranium production and employment. The EPA announced a new regulatory framework last week at a meeting in Wyoming. However, it could also bring new attention to the shuttered uranium industry in western Colorado.
The largest production in American history was from the Uravan Mineral Belt, the 70-mile zone of uranium and vanadium deposits between Gateway and Slick Rock in San Miguel, Montrose, and Mesa counties. For decades the region provided half the world’s supply of radium (today worth $2.7 million per gram) creating the region’s first major energy boom. That’s why the Mesa County Fairgrounds were originally called “Uranium Downs.”
It seems likely the environmental industry will file its usual epidemic of lawsuits to stop the new nuclear plan, even though the program might produce untold volumes of carbon-free electricity. This administration has already been sued more than any other, including litigation to stop every proposal to produce American minerals, so that is expected. But the way these groups handle this proposal will surely tell whether their real agenda is clean emission-free energy, or just the lucrative business of filing and settling lawsuits.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.