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Is Utah’s uranium industry the key to a green energy future or a radioactive threat?

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Mesa white • In a white tent erected in a parking lot next to the rust-streaked metal towers of America’s last conventional uranium plant, investors, miners, engineers and executives were dizzying for the future.

For years, the White Mesa plant just south of Blanding “was hanging by a thread, literally,” said Mark Chalmers, CEO of Energy Fuels, the company that has owned and operated the plant for years. a decade. But that is starting to change this year.

Earlier in the summer, the plant processed its first shipment of radioactive monazite sands from a mine in Georgia and successfully produced rare earth carbonite as well as its feedstock: uranium yellowcake. The carbonite was exported to a factory in Estonia, a country in Eastern Europe, to separate many rare earth elements, which are used in batteries, magnets, weapons and computers.

And when the White Mesa plant recently opened to more than 100 people for the third open house in the facility’s 40-year history, the spot price of uranium had just passed a high of nine. years, opening the possibility of a profitable uranium. mining at the company’s idle mines in the southwest – if the trend continues.

Chalmers and other Energy Fuels executives see these developments as a potential boon to the beleaguered national mining industry. Politicians and government officials on both sides of the aisle conveyed messages of support for the rally, including an Energy Department official in the Biden administration.

(Courtesy of Energy Fuels) The White Mesa plant near Blanding was built in 1980 and still uses much of the original equipment. The facility deals with uranium, vanadium and rare earths. September 16, 2021.

“Nuclear power, together with other clean energy sources, is the only way to meet our ambitious goals of reducing our carbon emissions by 50% by the end of the decade,” Kathryn Huff , Acting Assistant Secretary of the Office of Nuclear. Energy, said at the open house, noting that nuclear power provides the majority of non-fossil fuel energy in the United States.

Rep. John Curtis and Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, all Republicans from Utah, also pre-recorded video messages for the event, citing domestic competition with China – the world’s largest producer of rare earth elements. – and applauding Energy Fuels’ efforts to bring portions of the rare earth supply chain to the United States

Uranium leaders want to “change the narrative”

“We are rebranding San Juan County as the hub of green energy, clean energy for Utah and possibly the world,” Chalmers said while outlining the plans for the facility, including including the expansion of rare earth processing capacities and the possible construction of a plant capable of separating rare earth carbonite on site instead of exporting it to Estonia.

But environmental groups and the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, which owns reserve land four miles south of the plant, have long advocated for the plant to be closed permanently. Rejecting the idea that uranium production is clean, they see the potential expansion of the facility’s operations as a threat to environmental safety and public health in the region.

The uranium boom in the mid-20th century briefly made San Juan County – which today has Utah’s highest poverty rate – one of the wealthiest counties in the state. But it has also left a high rate of cancers in Monticello, contaminated groundwater near old factory sites, hundreds of abandoned mines and homes built with radioactive material on the Navajo Nation.

“There are people who say, ‘The factory is great,’ Chalmers said, ‘and others say,’ It’s a black hole, a dirty industry. We need to change this narrative in a positive way.

Evidence of the company’s new public relations campaign was fully exposed at the open house, which featured presentations touting experimental methods that can use radioactive isotopes in targeted cancer treatments. A plant manager spoke about the safety precautions in place for workers at the facility, which he said exposes them to less annual radiation than airline pilots.

Energy Fuels has also expanded its philanthropic initiatives, hosting a training program for high school students from the neighboring Navajo Nation at the plant. The company also announced the launch of a new charitable foundation to support communities in the region.

Although the White Mesa plant was built to higher safety standards than the first waves of uranium production in the region, when dust from the factories regularly blew on homes and businesses in factory towns Like Moab, Monticello and Mexican Hat, Scott Clow, the environmental programs director of Ute Mountain Ute, is concerned that Energy Fuels’ forays into rare earth production have been allowed without further authorization.

“This is not the same facility that was licensed in 1980,” Clow said. “It’s a different matter; it’s a different process. They change what they do, and there’s no additional EA [required by federal or state regulators] to have a different installation. We are very concerned about this.

Clow’s department is monitoring increasing levels of contaminants in the groundwater beneath the plant, which Energy Fuels says are the result of the natural oxidation of minerals in the bedrock. The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has drilled monitoring wells on Bureau of Land Management property around the perimeter of the facility and is conducting their own testing and analysis in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Recently retired plant worker Harold Roberts, who gave a presentation on plant containment basins, admitted that an evaporation cell next to the plant was installed in 1981 and is still used. It’s covered with a single layer of plastic which, according to former factory workers, ages and tends to crack. The company said there was no evidence that any of the cells were leaking, adding that it was monitoring the site’s air and groundwater and was in compliance with all federal and state environmental regulations.

The facility’s new tailings containment cells are triple-walled and have more advanced leak detection systems, but the tribe is concerned about the impacts of these cells on air quality. Clow said photographs from a recent flyby of the facility show that one of the containment basins, Cell 4B, lacked a liquid cover that helps mitigate emissions of radon, a radioactive gas that, according to the EPA, is the second leading cause. lung cancer in the United States

The EPA was aware of the problem in 2017, Clow said, but took no action against the plant. He hopes the new EPA leadership under President Joe Biden will reconsider allowing the White Mesa Mill to process low-level radioactive material from federal Superfund sites until the cell is completely covered.

“This is, from our point of view,” said Clow, “a pretty egregious violation.”

Curtis Moore, vice president of marketing and corporate development for Energy Fuels, said the objection was not new.

“The EPA and Utah [Department of Environmental Quality] are well aware of the complaints from the Utes and activist groups, ”Moore said,“ and they concluded that there was no concern about the amount of water cover on cell 4B. “

From “alternative food” to rare earth elements

During a tour of the plant’s operations, guests were shown incoming shipments of ‘alternative feed’, radioactive material from around the world that is often classified as low-level radioactive waste and is processed at the plant. to extract uranium.

Energy Fuels recently obtained a permit from Utah to import 2,000 barrels of uranium material that has been stored in the same Estonian rare metal plant that will process the rare earth carbonate from White Mesa. European environmental regulations have made it difficult to dispose or recycle the material on this continent, and environmental groups have rallied around the proposal to import the drums into San Juan County.

“We’ve taken a lot of heat about it,” Chalmers said, “and there’s a certain point where you sit there, you go, ‘It’s not worth it.’ We’re not saying we’re not going to do it in the future, but there are some battles that aren’t worth fighting. ”

Piles of discovered uranium ore are stored near the plant, waiting to be fed into the crusher and processed in a series of tanks containing sulfuric acid, sodium chlorate, ammonia and d ‘other chemicals used to separate uranium. The same system, most of which was installed in the late 1970s or early 1980s, has been modified to process monazite sands containing rare earths on a smaller scale as well.

Some of the ore was hauled from an abandoned uranium mine in northern New Mexico near the Navajo Nation, and Chalmers would like to expand the plant’s mine reclamation program. This effort has been challenged by some critics of the plant who see environmental justice issues in shipping radioactive materials from the Navajo Nation to the gates of Ute Mountain Ute lands in White Mesa.

Without having accepted alternative foods at the plant over the past decade, Chalmers said, “the facility would probably have been refurbished and wouldn’t be here.” But now it’s targeting more traditional sources of revenue, and Energy Fuels aims to produce more than half of America’s demand for rare earths in the years to come.

“People ask me what keeps me awake at night,” Chalmers said. “I say: excitement.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for the Salt Lake Tribune. Your matching donation to our RFA grant helps her continue to write stories like this; please consider making a tax deductible donation of any amount today by clicking here.