By Stephanie A. Malin
The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan have captured international attention, which now lingers on the nation as Japan struggles to control and contain repeated disasters and tense moments at its six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. I focus on this series of events for this month’s blog because these nuclear accidents may have unexpected impacts on economies in remote rural pockets of the American West.
Even as the Fukushima Daiichi workers struggle through tense moments, in southwestern Colorado, Energy Fuels’ Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill (PR Mill) has been given approval by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPH&E) to receive and process radioactive materials. Local communities like Nucla and Naturita are populated with many people in vocal support of the mill for the jobs it will likely provide, with the most vocal being residents possessing fond memories of the last uranium booms. Though a few licenses must still be acquired before construction can begin, the CDPH&E’s approval in January of the PR Mill holds significance and substantive meaning, given Colorado’s status as an Agreement State in which state-level institutions such as the CDPH&E give final approval on the mill equivalent to that granted by the federal-level Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Company leaders and local residents remain confident that ground will be broken by 2012 and that the mill will provide at least 65 full-time, benefitted jobs. This assurance remains, despite a lawsuit brought against the CDPH&E and Energy Fuels by regional environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliance (SMA).
Politically, state-level approval of this mill signals that perhaps US sentiments regarding nuclear power have shifted for the first time since the late 1970s. Since that time – when the Three Mile Island incident left Americans largely skeptical of siting new nuclear facilities anywhere near their own communities – not a single nuclear reactor has been built or waste repository location approved. Even the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, if constructed, will be the first uranium mill built since the end of the Cold War. Residents of communities near the mill that I have interviewed and surveyed see the mill as one of the best chances for the area to reclaim its economic and cultural glory days as a uranium production powerhouse.
Current events at the Fukushima Daiichi Plant may, however, pose a palpable threat to this possible local-level economic resurgence; a bigger ‘threat’ than even the hotly-contested SMA. As an international audience watches radioactive steam releases, explosions, and a public terrified of radiation exposure, the uranium market has been dealing with its own unpredictability (eg., see http://www.cbc.ca/fp/story/2011/03/16/4451889.html). Uranium prices and worldwide demand have halted as the Fukushima Daiichi drama unfolds. China, one significant source of demand for processed uranium – even from the PR Mill – has announced it will slow down its plans for nuclear expansion in the country. With about 77 nuclear reactors either in the planning or construction phases, even a temporary moratorium on China’s nuclear reactors deeply impacts the global uranium market. For example, a large Canadian uranium corporation – Uranium One, Inc. – was supposed to join with another Russian-owned uranium corporation, ARMZ, to take over another resources firm. However, that deal has been halted by ARMZ. Last week, the price of uranium also fell from about US$66 to US$55. If prices for it fall below US$40, uranium becomes much less profitable to mine and process, even for experienced outfits like Energy Fuels in southwestern Colorado.
It remains to be seen if this market change is temporary, or if the Fukushima Daiichi disaster will have the same sort of impact on construction of nuclear-related facilities as did Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. As rural Westerners in communities like those around the proposed PR Mill watch and pray for Japanese well-being and safety, I wonder if they also think a little of their own futures and well-being. It may be that the fate of Fukushima Daiichi helps decide the fate of rural uranium communities where recession has been reality since the early 1980s.