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.

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2 thoughts on “Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant and Rural Western Communities – The Unexpected Connection

  1. Steph what are Nucla and Naturita’s other viable options for economic development? Are they amenity-driven communities or have they always relied on natural resource extractive industries?

  2. A great job of connecting the dots half a world appart in Stephanie’s blog. As the world warms (no matter what the deniers are trying to ‘sell’) it is amazing that we intelligent (and remarkably human centric) people still are pulled around by the nose by the fossil fuel industry. The nuclear power industry would like to do the same but haven’t quite pulled it off. Not that their ‘glowing’ big business lobby isn’t trying mightily to tap dance around the disaster at Fukushima. Thankfully, it’s going to be a hard sell, even in America.

    It’s amazing to me why the energy sources our government pumps the most money into produce air, water and soil pollutants that literally harm the health of this planet and its inhabitants. We’ve all heard these environmental complaints, warnings and pleas for decades. And, it factually (yes, I mean science, the world that makes the deniers cringe) becomes ever more accurate every year, yet we don’t change our ways. Good advertising, good fear tactics, good rejection of green jobs over existing fossil fuel jobs by the industry folks and the sad old complacency of the populace keep the inertia headed in the wrong way. We’ve had a modern technological world for perhaps 100 to 150 years. Besides dirty fossil fuels, we have created a “clean” energy source (green washing lives) that creates some waste byproducts that will be harmful, if not lethal, for tens of thousands of years. And, we have this arrogant view that we can control it. (Are you buying that?)

    Now let’s see, we can guarantee the safe storage of plutonium and cesium and the rest for thousands of years? Really? We’ve only been a country for 235 years. I wonder what odds those Wall Street and hedge fund wizards would give if the bet were that the nuclear waste created would be perfectly safe 10,000 years from now (if we could all somehow live that long). While greed certainly captivates their lot, they wouldn’t touch that bet with any odds, it’s so preposterous. But on we Homo sapiens plod, creating an ever dirtier and dangerous planet. I wonder how big business will view their ROI (return on investment) fifty – seventy five years from now? It won’t be good, but no matter, the senior management amoral scoundrels will have made off with billions far beyond the reach of the rest of us who mindlessly paved their streets in gold. But hope springs eternal. Maybe we’ll hear the clarion call soon to heal this planet and its residents and live sustainably and peacefully. Maybe.

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