Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant and Rural Western Communities – The Unexpected Connection

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.

America’s Great Outdoors

“The function of protecting and developing health must rank even above that of restoring it when it is impaired.” Hippocrates

At a White House ceremony on February 16, President Obama released America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations. The report is one outcome of the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. Over the past year more than 10,000 people participated in over 50 listening sessions held around the country. More than 105,000 comments were received. Twenty-one sessions were held specifically to hear from young people. In his remarks the President commented on the need to “break free from the routine and reconnect with the world around us … to make it easier for families to spend time outside no matter where they live … and to make it easier to access public lands.”

The AGO Report recommends establishing a new Conservation Service Corps to engage young people in stewardship, conservation, and recreation, and calls for fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the source of funding for federal land acquisition and state grant programs. The President called these efforts steps to help spur the economy. He said, “They create jobs by putting more Americans back to work in tourism and recreation. They help inspire a new generation of scientists to learn how the world works. They help Americans stay healthier by making it easier to spend time outside. And they’ll help carry forth our legacy as a people who don’t just make decisions based on short-term gains of any one group but on what’s best for the entire nation in the long run.”

Federal agencies provide recreational opportunities and facilities on more than 635 million acres of public land, host over a billion visits each year (USDA report on Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2002) and provide a wide range of opportunities to connect to the outdoors. The Report calls on all Americans “to share in the responsibility to conserve, restore, and provide better access to our lands and waters in order to leave a healthy, vibrant outdoor legacy for generations yet to come.” Not only will these efforts leave a legacy for future generations but they also will provide important benefits today.

Between 1991 and 2001 obesity increased 75 percent among adults and today more than one in three adults, over 72 million people, are medically obese and are more likely to suffer from or develop type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Childhood obesity has tripled in the last generation and today, one in five young people between the ages of 6 and 19 is obese. If the current trend continues one in three Americans who was born in 2000 will develop diabetes. The World Health Organization predicts that diabetes will rise 50 percent in the next decade, with diabetes deaths doubling in the next ten years (WHO, 2010).

The cost of healthcare is nearly 17% of our total economic output and is projected to rise to 20% by the end of this year. Healthcare experts tell us that 70% of the total cost – $2.7 trillion in 2009 – is lifestyle induced with over $150 billion a year spent on obesity-related illnesses. We also know that children are spending only half as much time outdoors as their parents did. Our public lands can play a role in reversing this trend.  “Studies show that access to the outdoors can help reverse the obesity epidemic . . . ,  reduce stress and anxiety, promote learning and personal growth, and foster mental and physical health” (AGO 2011).

The AGO Report calls for engaging young people in its implementation. In addition to the Conservation Service Corps, the AGO Report calls for improved capacity for recruiting, training, and managing volunteers and volunteer programs “to create a new generation of citizen stewards and mentors.” The Report calls for community-based efforts to increase access to outdoor recreation and a campaign to “cultivate stewardship and appreciation of America’s natural, cultural, and historic resources through innovative awareness-raising partnership initiatives and through education” to make the outdoors relevant and exciting and to “advance awareness and understanding of the benefits of nature.”

The AGO Report also calls for managing public land for long-term health and resilience in light of climate change, empowering local communities to work together to establish recreation opportunities and to restore and connect with their rich water-based natural resources, and supporting restoration and conservation of rivers, bays, coasts, lakes, and estuaries for recreation, healthy fisheries, and wildlife habitat.

I encourage you to access and read the complete report and identify ways you can help implement the Report’s recommendations. America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations can be downloaded at www.doi.gov/AmericasGreatOutdoors.