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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.

Social Anthropology and Rural Economic Development

By Ed Meyer

For more than three decades, I’ve made a conscious effort to stay far away from the divisive diatribes so typical of arguments regarding public lands and the environment. When I’ve been ambushed in a meeting and forced to listen to the well-practiced public lands rhetoric repeated for the thousandth time, an image comes to my mind. It’s an image of the Dugum Dani warriors from the New Guinea highlands that I recall from the University Utah where I was studying social anthropology.

Keep in mind that I was taking anthropology classes thirty years ago so my memories are blurred by time, but here’s how I remember films I watched back when you still had to wind film onto projectors. It seemed like the women did all the work in the Dugum Dani villages. They raised sweet potatoes and tended pigs while the men got ready to go to “war”.  Since the men didn’t wear anything except a “koteka” (look it up for yourself at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koteka because I’m not going there), preparations seemed to most involve a lot of chest thumping and a little face painting. However, in the late morning or early afternoon, the men would go to a canyon where they yelled at men from another tribe and shot arrows that never seemed to hit anything. The technical term for this is “ritual small-scale warfare and here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

Ritual small-scale warfare between rival villages is integral to traditional Dani culture, with much time spent preparing weapons, engaging in both mock and real battle, and treating any resulting injuries. Typically the emphasis in battle is to insult the enemy and wound or kill token victims, as opposed to capturing territory or property or vanquishing the enemy village.

If you are interested in learning more about the Dugum Dani, you may want to visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dugum_Dani.  As an aside, the ritual battles I saw in college in 1972 have become much more serious as the primate Dugum Dani have come in contact with the outside world and now are being sold high powered rifles.

I’ve certainly circumnavigated around my point which is that pretty much everyone embroiled in the battle over public lands remind me of the Dugum Dani warriors mocking one another, insulting the “enemy”, rattling arrows and firing ineffective volleys at one another.  To me it has always seemed so wasteful and counterproductive. So I chose another route that focused directly on trying to help people at the community level.

(Pictured: Abraham Maslow)

But now I’m retired and want to propose something that was not politically appropriate when I was a state employee. Before I make my proposal, I want to go back to my anthropology training and dredge up from my ancient lessons the theories of a guy named Abraham Maslow. He proposed something now known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation (I expect all of you sociology students are groaning about now). Mr. Maslow was a pretty boring guy so let me summarize how his concept relates to rural America and the public lands debacle.

Maslow said that people need to take care of a whole host of needs before they will focus on an area he called “self actualization”. In terms of rural America, you have to make sure you provide food and shelter for yourself and your family before you will be willing to consider more lofty goals like protecting the environment. So when you are forced to give up a job in a sawmill or a mine that pays a family-sustaining wage in exchange for turning bed sheets in a motel, you won’t be receptive to ideas like protecting wilderness areas. If you want be really bored, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs.

So here, based on Maslow, is my idea and my challenge to the environmental community. Rural people will never embrace protection of the environment and tying up public lands until they have family sustaining jobs. So you can fight them until hell freezes over. You can keep filing lawsuits draining your budgets and those of people living in rural America or you can invest in an alternative strategy. If you don’t want rural people to continue their efforts to obtain family sustaining, natural resource-based jobs, then you need to find a way to substitute environmentally sensitive jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage.

Think about it. Thousands of companies professing to be environmentally conscious are contributing to environmental movements. What if instead of doing this they invested in rural communities adjacent to public lands by providing “clean jobs”.  What this would entail is a willingness to sustain a loss for a few years as the new rural employees are trained and gain experience. In some cases, there might even be an ongoing loss since many rural communities are isolated, but the growth of information-based jobs should counterbalance the cost of isolation. It is my experience that, once a rural person’s family needs are addressed, they are more willing to consider environmental partnership to address mutual needs.

Of course, this isn’t likely to happen. Environmental organizations don’t sustain themselves by solving environmental problems. Rather, it’s in their interests to sustain problems for generations if possible.  But prove me wrong. If you have an idea about an environmentally clean company who wants to provide jobs next to sensitive public lands, call me in Kanab. My name is Ed Meyer and my number is in the phone book. Next month I’ll let you know how many calls I’ve received.