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Radioactive Revival in New Mexico | The Nation

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Radioactive Revival in New Mexico

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JANNA BROWER

About the Author

Shelley Smithson
Shelley Smithson, a freelance writer in Urbana, Illionis, teaches journalism at the University of Illinois.

Research support for this article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
 

Mitchell Capitan points to a flock of sheep grazing in the shadow of a sandstone mesa. The sheep belong to Capitan's family, along with a few head of cattle and twelve quarter horses standing in a corral near his mother-in-law's house in Crownpoint, New Mexico.

"All of this area," Capitan says, gesturing to the valley of sage and shrub brush below, "there's a lot of uranium underneath there. That's what they're after."

Capitan and his Navajo neighbors are battling a license granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to Hydro Resources Inc. (HRI)--a subsidiary of a Texas company, Uranium Resources--one of several firms that have laid claim to the minerals beneath thousands of acres on and around the lands of the Navajo Nation and three American Indian pueblos in northwestern New Mexico. A group called the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining is suing the NRC to block mining in Crownpoint and another Navajo community. A panel of federal judges in Denver heard the case in May 2008 but has yet to issue a ruling.

A resurgence of interest in building nuclear power plants, touted as a nonpolluting alternative to carbon-fueled plants, has sparked a uranium rush. Since 2007 the NRC has received seventeen license applications for twenty-six new reactors, causing a flurry of applications for uranium mining permits across the Four Corners region, where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet. In February Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the Energy Department would expedite the approval process for $18.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for utilities that are building nuclear plants. The guarantees, along with other Bush-era incentives, are meant to spur construction of new plants.

The anticipated rise in demand for uranium has led the industry back to the very places it deserted three decades ago when it abandoned hundreds of mines, seven polluted uranium mills, billions of gallons of contaminated groundwater and mountains of radioactive waste. Congress is only now beginning to press agencies to clean up the mess, an undertaking that could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Plenty of people in this economically distressed corner of New Mexico are thrilled about the 8,000 new jobs and $1 billion in economic benefits the uranium industry promises. They point to claims made by industry lobbyists in a concerted PR campaign that new technology will make mining safer and that cast doubt on the connection between uranium mining and the illnesses that plague people who worked in mines and mills or lived near them.

Many others, especially American Indians like Capitan, remain unconvinced. They are afraid the companies will leave behind another trail of environmental destruction, illness and death like that of thirty years ago.

Sitting in his wood-paneled office in Window Rock, Arizona, Navajo Nation president Joe Shirley Jr., a tall, thin man with silver hair and a fierce opposition to uranium mining, declares, "I don't believe there is any safe technology that can be used to mine uranium. Many of my people died because of mining of uranium ore here on Navajo land. Back at that time, the US government did not apprise my people of the dangers that are inherent with the mining of uranium ore. And as a result, a lot of people came down with cancer." Shirley has watched several family members suffer from uranium-related illnesses. "It is devastating. It has wrecked the lives of our families," he says.

He rejects the idea that mining is needed because it will bring jobs to the Navajo Nation, where the unemployment rate is around 50 percent. "How much is a life worth?" he says.

"If you can show me the cure for the cancer that is caused by the uranium ore, I might have second thoughts about it," he says. Until then, the tribe will continue to fight the state and federal agencies that grant permits to uranium companies despite the opposition of American Indian communities.

Starting in 1942, much of the uranium used for atomic bombs being built in Los Alamos was mined in northwestern New Mexico. Between 1950 and 1979, the region yielded more yellowcake than any other place in the United States. Hundreds of uranium mines and seven mills--many of them on or near Indian land--stocked the government's cold war atomic arsenal and, eventually, the nation's nuclear power plants.

Though the region has always been poor, locals remember the uranium era as a prosperous time. People ate lunch at the Uranium Cafe in Grants, listened to country music on KMIN (pronounced K-mine) and built houses with scrap materials from the mines. On weekends Indian uranium workers and their families drove from the reservations to the border towns of Grants, Gallup and Farmington to shop.

But in 1979, everything changed. Public outcry over the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island plus construction cost overruns dealt the uranium industry a deathblow in a few short years. For thirty years no new nuclear plants were ordered in the United States. The nation's 104 nuclear reactors bought cheap surplus uranium from government stockpiles and later from dismantled Soviet-era nuclear warheads.

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