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.


Call for Abstracts – Climate Change

The Western Rural Development Center is soliciting articles for its June 2011 issue of Rural Connections. The topic for this issue will be challenges and opportunities facing the rural West relative to climate change and climate change policies.

Abstracts Due: Friday, March 4, 2011

Click here for the details.

The EPA says, “The extent of climate change effects, and whether these effects prove harmful or beneficial, will vary by region, over time, and with the ability of different societal and environmental systems to adapt to or cope with the change.”[i] The Center is interested in understanding challenges and opportunities facing the West’s rural communities as they relate to climate change. Furthermore, the Center wants to share this information with its stakeholders to increase awareness of the region’s activities and to build the capacity of Extension and communities by providing them with relevant and timely information.

The WRDC is not interested in arguments for or against climate change, rather the WRDC is interested in sharing with its stakeholders the research and community and economic development activities that are underway in the region to address currently changing climates and how these changes are bringing economic opportunities and/or challenges to the West’s rural communities.

The topic of challenges and opportunities facing the Rural West as they relate to climate change and climate change policy is broad in scope and allows for submissions from a wide range of sub-topics including but not limited to the following topics listed in no particular order of priority:

  • Climate change policies and how they are impacting business/job growth in the West
  • Impacts of Climate Change on Agricultural Production
  • Impacts of Climate Change on Natural Resources
  • Impacts of Climate Change on National Security
  • Innovations in Climate Change Technologies Manufactured in Rural Communities

Click here to read and download the complete Call for Abstracts.

[i] US Environmental Protection Agency.  Climate Change – Health and Environmental Effects.  Retrieved February 3, 2011, from http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/effects/index.html

Energy Regulations and Rural Communities

As I currently live, eat, and breathe this thing called a dissertation, you seem to be regularly subjected to thoughts and tangents about it as well.  I appreciate you indulging me, particularly because so many of you have some very real stake in rural communities and their social, economic, and environmental well-being and development.   I view this blog, in part, as a unique opportunity to share my experiences with you and, if luck allows, learn from your own stories and histories in the field and academy.

This includes your experiences with perceptions of regulations and their social repercussions in the rural West.  Yes, I uttered that dreaded word – regulations.  This word has endless connotations, the tone of which typically depends upon one’s political persuasion, occupation, or even the region of the country in which one lives.  Out West, with our many public lands and extraction-based industries, it seems the word can inspire more ambivalence than in other regions.  At least, I find this to be the case in the area of Colorado where I’m conducting my research – Montrose County, in southwestern Colorado.  As many of you know, this part of the state is famous for its unparalleled vistas, rugged terrain, and isolated pockets of people often eeking out a living.  Many times, people in these Western communities weather boom-and-bust economies based on coal, natural gas, or other natural resources and, in bust times, must use their ingenuity and tight-knit relationships with others to make a living from month to month.  This appears to be the case particularly over the last couple years, as the rest of the nation suffers under the weight of a seemingly permanent economic recession.  In these communities, I’m finding that when it comes to uranium mining and milling, there emerge a couple distinct narratives regarding related regulations and, importantly, affiliated technologies.

Specifically, as I talk to area residents, there have emerged two distinct groups emerge, with drastically different worldviews.   One camp – mainly in the communities immediately surrounding the proposed uranium mill site – supports the mill’s construction, has fierce faith in the mill’s ability to create jobs and reinvigorate local economies, AND has abundant faith in regulations and the enforcement capabilities of Energy Fuels, Inc. and various state agencies.  The other ‘camp’ – found mainly in communities further away from the proposed mill site in former mining towns-turned tourist meccas like Telluride – oppose the mill’s construction, contest its job-creating abilities, and voice deep skepticism about health, safety, and environmental regulations and their enforcement.

I imagine that many of you have seen similar divisiveness emerge in rural communities in which you’ve worked, studied and perhaps in which you’ve lived.   I find myself selfishly hoping that you have been as perplexed and divided yourselves as I have been in attempting to analyze the social and other outcomes of these two worldviews colliding.  As a “good researcher,” I strive to genuinely see and experience both worldviews as I work to understand these two camps and what their positions may mean for land-use and energy policy.  The first camp argues that the mill’s corporate owners will need to fulfill their health and safety obligations as they will be under intense public scrutiny, and will have elite technology with which to accomplish this task.  I can see the legitimacy of this argument.  Equally compelling, however, the second camp points to high-profile extraction cases in which regulations and self-monitoring seem to have failed – with the recent BP Deep Horizon oil spill the most frequently-mentioned case.

What have your experiences have been in the field, particularly if you’ve worked in rural communities enmeshed in extraction- or natural resource-based economies?  Where states are charged with overseeing most regulations – as is the case with Colorado, an Agreement State, and uranium and nuclear commodity regulations – I wonder if we see different outcomes or public perceptions than we do in states where federal agencies retain that ultimate role.  I also wonder if we find that this varies with type of ownership of such industries, whether they are public or private.  What have your experiences been?  What are your observations of on-the-ground regulatory enforcement?

Poised to reshape our energy policy, the west’s rural communities often, and again, become the stage on which land-use, environmental and economic justice battles are fought.  What this means in terms of energy policy, rural community well-being, and related social movements remains to be seen, of course.  But we find ourselves in a unique position, as scholars and practitioners of rural development, to begin recording this energy transition.  I invite you to share your experiences of community-level social movements, response to regulations, or other land-use issues.

Steph: Surveys, Surveys, and More Surveys

In the weeks since we were last in touch, surveys have taken over my life. As I mentioned in my last post, I am currently completing my dissertation in environmental sociology. The last phase of large-scale data collection involves surveying residents in four communities surrounding the first proposed uranium mill in the U.S. in 25 years, sited in the Paradox Valley of southwestern Colorado. All of my favorite topics in one project: energy issues, social justice, and good, old-fashioned social science research. In this phase of data collection, I’ve learned just how complex the process of thorough surveying can be. I have also realized how necessary and grounding it is to get into the communities in which we distribute questionnaires, particularly for those of us involved in researching rural issues.

Over the last several months, my to-do list has looked something like this: create survey instrument. Give it to major professor for review – and re-create survey instrument. Submit instrument to IRB for approval – and re-create survey instrument again. Compile sampling frames. Print surveys, labels, envelopes. Buy hundreds of dollars in postage. Stuff hundreds of envelopes. Rejoice at returned, completed surveys.

Many of us know these are the basic steps of conducting a survey. Listed out, they appear tidy, as if they can be checked off a grand surveying to-do list. But this, my friends, is a deceptive sort of tidiness. That said, I operated under this assumption of neatly-penned to-do lists until I just couldn’t lie to myself any longer. I quickly learned just how messy it is to write questions that are both engaging to the potential respondent and informative for the social scientist. I learned how challenging it is to create an organization that flows, to anticipate how people may process information, and to write accessible questions about inaccessible sociological theories. I learned that acquiring addresses for rural residents presents unique barriers, requiring persistence and ingenuity. Above all, I learned the frustrations of the overlooked typo. The seemingly innocuous typo that ends up in the key question, of course; the one that wakes you up at 5:30 a.m. and eventually compels you to persuade your patient husband into spending hours of time with a staple remover and White-Out.

For me, however, the ultimate lesson of this decidedly messy, unpredictable, and exciting process is the importance of getting on the ground in the communities we research, survey, observe. Before constructing my survey instrument, I visited communities potentially impacted by the proposed uranium mill. I found it immensely valuable to observe daily life in communities where residents largely support the mill’s construction versus lifestyles in towns where residents largely oppose the mill.

On my first visit, I ate at the main local diner, drank a beer at one of the local bars, and tried to strike up conversation with anyone who looked my way. Not only did this allow me to meet some friendly people, it let me learn what mattered to community members, how they perceived the controversial permitting decisions, and what it might be like to live – and try to make a living – in one of the most remote pockets of the continental U.S.

The knowledge I gathered through casual encounters such as these led to tens of interviews with people and, eventually, a survey instrument to which people responded. Given the rurality of the communities I’m studying, it turns out that my physical presence and conversations with residents made my survey instrument much more salient and real to many of them, so I’ve been told, people who have grown skeptical of surveys, state institutions, and academics. Instead of an anonymous surveyor, they had a face and perhaps a conversation to put with the questionnaire that arrived in the mail. This connection, I learned, may be more valuable than many of the methodological tools we learn as social scientists. In an era of plummeting response rates, I’m realizing that a little field work can go a long way in creating connections to communities we study, laying foundations for social exchange – even on a tight, graduate student budget.

Stephanie Malin is a PhD candidate in Environmental Sociology at Utah State University. You can read her musings about life as a doctoral student here each month.

Meet Steph: A PhD Candidate in Environmental Sociology

I have successfully avoided the blogging world for some time, until now that is.  It seemed as if all my fellow English majors from back in college had undertaken their own blogs, some of them overseeing multiple endeavors. In the meantime, I’d focused on writing of another sort – academic writing.  As a PhD candidate in Environmental Sociology at Utah State University, I write with regularity.  However, the end product is usually more of the papers-and-journal-articles variety – interesting (I hope) but also prone to, well, jargon and a certain amount of abstraction.  Now, at the generous invitation of the Western Rural Development Center, I’m able to join the blogging world and, for a little while every month, escape the world of specialized writing.  I hope you’ll join me!

I would like to think I’ve been invited to write this blog because Betsy, the WRDC’s creative heart, sees in me some grand writing talent.  More realistically, though, it’s because I’ve been a WRDC graduate intern/groupie for nearly half a decade (yikes!), spending many a summer day in the basement of the WRDC’s cute little office building.

This year marks the beginning of my fifth as a Graduate Intern for the WRDC.  Back when I was a wide-eyed, first-year Masters student, then-Director John C. Allen was kind enough to give me summer funding.  A few years later, I have done everything from interviewing green entrepreneurs, to answering phones and making copies, to compiling an enormous database of demographic information on every county in the West.

I know that working for the WRDC has enormously enriched my understanding of issues facing rural communities in the West.  I grew up in the Chicagoland area, where public lands don’t exist and one town flows into the next in a concrete maze.  While rural communities in the Midwest face many of the same issues as those in the West, the context is quite different, given the uniquely self-sufficient character and physical isolation of many western rural communities.  The WRDC provided me not only with employment but also with an opportunity to learn the ‘culture’ of the West and the issues of its rural communities.  Throughout this process, I have gotten a feel for our stakeholders and our mission at the WRDC, and I am excited for the opportunity to use this blog as a means to interact with all of you in a more relaxed fashion.

What will I focus on in the months to come?  As I mentioned above, I am a PhD student in the Sociology Department at Utah State University.  I completed my comprehensive exams last year, while also defending my dissertation proposal, and was lucky enough to receive a dissertation fellowship from the Rural Sociological Society.  Thus, I’ve been able to design and implement my own research project.  This means that I am currently in the throes of data collection and analysis, both a wonderfully enriching and incredibly frustrating process.

In a nutshell, I am examining political mobilization and general social impacts of the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill outside of Nucla and Naturita, Colorado, a very beautiful and remote area in southwestern Colorado.  The mill, in the permitting stages now, will be the first built since the end of the Cold War, and it has understandably elicited a wide range of responses in the region.

As our nation reshapes its energy portfolio and weathers a recession, this mill represents a potential expansion of domestic nuclear energy as well as a potential source of much-needed local employment.  Along the way, I have gotten to know many folks in the area, most friendly but some deservedly skeptical, and I look forward to sharing those experiences and others with you as this year progresses.

You may also hear the occasional ramblings of the hiker, biker, and snowshoe-er that lives inside me and absolutely adores the vast, inspiring landscapes of the West.  My husband and I try to camp and take road trips as often as we can, so we’ve enjoyed the wet coasts and espresso huts of Oregon and Washington, the tall peaks of Colorado, the clear rolling rivers and forested expanses of Montana and Idaho, California’s colorful hamlets and cities, and the enchanting desert landscapes of southern Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.  As a sociologist, I believe these travels make me a better student of rural life, and I hope to share snapshots of them with you in the months ahead.

On that note, I would love this blog to be interactive.  Dedicated Blog Reader, please let me know via comments here on the blog or via Facebook or even Twitter what you’d like to hear about – be it energy, camping, hiking, sociology, or what it’s like to be handed a chunk of uranium from a local you’re interviewing.  Enjoy the fall colors, and I will see you next month!

WRDC Board Members discuss Rural West

The WRDC’s Board of Directors are experts in their fields and share a passion and enthusiasm for advancing Rural America.
Watch their videos and hear them discussing some of the current challenges and opportunities facing the Rural West.

We encourage you to share these videos!

California Agriculture & Rural Communities
Dan Dooley, is the Senior VP of External Relations and the VP of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of California. Mr. Dooley also serves on the WRDC’s Board of Directors. Here Dooley discusses current issues facing California’s agricultural and rural communities. Watch now.

The Rural West
Sally Maggard, is the National Program Leader for Regional Development with the National Institute of Food Agriculture at the United States Department of Agriculture. Dr. Maggard also serves as a liaison to the WRDC. Here she shares her views on the issues facing the West’s rural communities. Watch now.

Western Research Innovating Rural West
Mike Harrington, is the Executive Director of the Western Association of Agricultural Experiment Station Directors. Dr. Harrington also serves on the WRDC’s Board of Directors. Here Harrington discusses the LGU research activities currently underway in the West to enhance the quality of life for the region’s inhabitants. Watch now.

Increased Population can Lead to Rural Opportunities
Sheldon Jones, is the Vice President of the Farm Foundation and a member of the WRDC’s Board of Directors. Here Jones discusses the challenges facing our growing world and the impacts this growth has on our agricultural communities. Watch now.

The West: Home of Optimism
Kent Briggs, is the Executive Director of the Council of State Governments-WEST, and a member of the Western Rural Development Center’s Board of Directors. Here Briggs shares his views on the issues facing the rural West. Watch now.

A conversation: The first of many

Hello Friends of the WRDC! We hope this blog provides you with interesting opinions on the happenings within our region comprising the 13-Western states, 4-Pacific territories. More importantly, we hope you will join the discussion by posting your comments, retweeting, etc.

Keep an eye out for our Call2Blog. Coming soon the Call2Blog is a cool opportunity for you to apply to be a WRDC blogger for 12 months (or longer if you, and we, and our readers decide we want to keep hearing from you).

Yep. You read right. We will be asking you to be our bloggers! Why? Because we want you to share your expertise and views on the issues facing the West’s rural communities.

And why not? After all, you’re out there doing the work (agriculture production, teaching, conducting research, implementing programs) so who better to discuss these issues like agriculture production, drought, land management, electricity transmission, poverty reduction, community asset mapping, sustainable development, biofuels, pest management, economic development, and well, you get the idea!

So you got something to say? Think you could say it meaningfully once a month for the next 12 months? Then when it’s time, apply to our Call2Blog!

In the meantime, head over to our website: http://wrdc.usu.edu