Uranium Mining's Toxic Legacy: Why the U.S. Risks Repeating Mistakes
By Stephanie Malin
Companies such as Energy Fuels, Inc. have played well-publicized roles in lobbying the Trump administration to reduce federal protection for public lands with uranium deposits. The Defense Department's Nuclear Posture Review calls for new weapons production to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which could spur new domestic uranium mining. And the Interior Department is advocating more domestic uranium production, along with other materials identified as "critical minerals."
What would expanded uranium mining in the U.S. mean at the local level? I have studied the legacies of past uranium mining and milling in Western states for over a decade. My book examines dilemmas faced by uranium communities caught between harmful legacies of previous mining booms and the potential promise of new economic development.
These people and places are invisible to most Americans, but they helped make the U.S. an economic and military superpower. In my view, we owe it to them to learn from past mistakes and make more informed and sustainable decisions about possibly renewing uranium production than our nation made in the past.
National Energy Education Development Project, CC BY-ND
Mining Regulations Have Failed to Protect Public Health
Today most of the uranium that powers U.S. nuclear reactors is imported. But many communities still suffer impacts of uranium mining and milling that occurred for decades to fuel the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race. These include environmental contamination, toxic spills, abandoned mines, under-addressed cancer and disease clusters and illnesses that citizens link to uranium exposure despite federal denials.
As World War II phased into the Cold War, U.S. officials rapidly increased uranium production from the 1940s to the 1960s. Regulations were minimal to nonexistent and largely unenforced, even though the U.S. Public Health Service knew that exposure to uranium had caused potentially fatal health effects in Europe, and was monitoring uranium miners and millers for health problems.
Today the industry is subject to regulations that address worker health and safety, environmental protection, treatment of contaminated sites and other considerations. But these regulations lack uniformity, and enforcement responsibilities are spread across multiple agencies.
This creates significant regulatory gaps, which are worsened by a federalist approach to regulation. In the 1970s the newly created Nuclear Regulatory Commission initiated an Agreement States program, under which states take over regulating many aspects of uranium and nuclear production and waste storage. To qualify, state programs must be "adequate to protect public health and safety and compatible with the NRC's regulatory program."
The Orphan uranium mine on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon operated from 1956-1969 and is now a radioactive waste site. Alan Levine, CC BY
Today 37 states have joined this program and two more are applying. Many Agreement States struggle to enforce regulations because of underfunded budgets, lack of staff and anti-regulatory cultures. These problems can lead to piecemeal enforcement and reliance on corporate self-regulation.
For example, budget cuts in Colorado have forced the state to rely frequently on energy companies to monitor their own compliance with regulations. In Utah, the White Mesa Mill—our nation's only currently operating uranium mill—has a record of persistent problems related to permitting, water contamination and environmental health, as well as tribal sacred lands and artifacts.
Neglected Nuclear Legacies
Uranium still affects the environment and human health in the West, but its impacts remain woefully under-addressed. Some of the poorest, most isolated and ethnically marginalized communities in the nation are bearing the brunt of these legacies.
There are approximately 4,000 abandoned uranium mines in Western states. At least 500 are located on land controlled by the Navajo Nation. Diné (Navajo) people have suffered some of the worst consequences of U.S. uranium production, including cancer clusters and water contamination.
A 2015 study found that about 85 percent of Diné homes are still contaminated with uranium, and that tribe members living near uranium mines have more uranium in their bones than 95 percent of the U.S. population. Unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump's decision to reduce the Bears Ears National Monument has reinvigorated discussion over ongoing impacts of uranium contamination across tribal and public land.
Despite legislation such as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990, people who lived near uranium production or contamination sites often became forgotten casualties of the Cold War. For instance, Monticello, Utah, hosted a federally owned uranium mill from 1942 to 1960. Portions of the town were even built from tailings left over from uranium milling, which we now know were radioactive. This created two Superfund sites that were not fully remediated until the late 1990s.
Monticello residents have dealt with cancer clusters, increased rates of birth defects and other health abnormalities for decades. Although the community has sought federal recognition and compensation since 1993, its requests have been largely ignored.
Today tensions over water access and its use for uranium mining are creating conflict between regional tribes and corporate water users around the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Native residents, such as the Havasupai, have had to defend their water rights and fear losing access to this vital resource.
Uranium Production Is a Boom-and-Bust Industry
Like any economic activity based on commodities, uranium production is volatile and unstable. The industry has a history of boom-bust cycles. Communities that depend on it can be whipsawed by rapid growth followed by destabilizing population losses.
The first U.S. uranium boom occurred during the early Cold War and ended in the 1960s due to oversupply, triggering a bust. A second boom began later in the decade when the federal government authorized private commercial investment in nuclear power. But the Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1985) disasters ended this second boom.
Uranium prices soared once again from 2007 to 2010. But the 2011 tsunami and meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant sent prices plummeting once again as nations looked for alternatives to nuclear power.
U.S. uranium production, 1949-2011
Companies like Energy Fuels maintain—especially in public meetings with uranium communities—that new production will lead to sustained economic growth. This message is powerful stuff. It boosts support, sometimes in the very communities that have suffered most from past practices.
But I have interviewed Westerners who worry that as production methods become more technologically advanced and mechanized, energy companies may increasingly rely on bringing in out-of-town workers with technical and engineering degrees rather than hiring locals—as has happened in the coal industry. And the core tensions of boom-bust economic volatility and instability persist.
Uranium production advocates contend that new "environmentally friendly" mills and current federal regulations will adequately protect public health and the environment. Yet they offer little evidence to counter White Mesa Mill's poor record.
In my view, there is little evidence that new uranium production would be more reliably regulated or economically stable today than in the past. Instead, I expect that the industry will continue to privatize profits as the public absorbs and subsidizes its risks.
Grand Canyon Uranium Mining Ban Upheld by Appeals Court https://t.co/xGAISxeWIG @greenpeaceusa @foe_us @EnvAm— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1513202714.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Julia Conley
A new campaign unveiled this weekend by the nonprofit organization Fossil Free Media aims to expand on the goals of the fossil fuel divestment movement, cutting into oil and gas companies' profit margins through their public relations and ad campaigns.
<div id="1dcf1" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d5e39a5a3812bc2589ba8aa0563756e0"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1330177734799208465" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">PR and ad companies' work for the fossil fuel industry is pushing the planet past the breaking point.… https://t.co/wOuDBM26ne</div> — Clean Creatives (@Clean Creatives)<a href="https://twitter.com/cleancreatives/statuses/1330177734799208465">1605974060.0</a></blockquote></div>
<div id="21b90" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bdc23e69ff18075b4fb5df6d4939b9f5"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1330205383848288257" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Porter Novelli isn't some small shop: they've got offices and clients in 60 countries and are part of @Omnicom, the… https://t.co/iw0BCmrdzx</div> — Jamie Henn (@Jamie Henn)<a href="https://twitter.com/jamieclimate/statuses/1330205383848288257">1605980652.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"It's a BIG deal that they're dropping fossil fuel clients—let's make sure it's the drop that starts a flood," wrote Henn. </p>
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By Jason Farley
COVID-19 has disrupted our daily lives, and it is poised to completely disrupt the holiday season. As people make holiday plans and think about ways to reduce the risks to their loved ones, a strategy is essential.
Are masks really necessary at family gatherings?<p>If you're gathering with friends and family who don't live in your home, yes. Just because you're with people you know doesn't mean you're safe from the coronavirus. Infection rates are <a href="https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/new-cases-50-states" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">higher now than they have ever been</a> in the U.S., and <a href="https://youtu.be/ehdgceGzQxs" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">small gatherings have been a source</a> of viral spread. All it takes is one infected person who doesn't know they have the coronavirus to infect others.</p><p>Remember, people can be <a href="https://medical.mit.edu/covid-19-updates/2020/07/how-long-symptom-onset-person-contagious" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">contagious two to three days</a> before symptoms show – that's one thing that makes this virus so hard to stop. And it's why, even if you feel fine, you should wear a mask.</p><p>The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that when both people are wearing masks, the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/masking-science-sars-cov2.html" target="_blank">likelihood of infection is low</a>.</p>
Who am I protecting when I wear a mask?<p>In a word: everyone. The coronavirus <a href="https://theconversation.com/aerosols-are-a-bigger-coronavirus-threat-than-who-guidelines-suggest-heres-what-you-need-to-know-142233" target="_blank">spreads through respiratory droplets</a> that you send out into the air when you talk, sing or even just breathe. The tiniest of these droplets can float on air currents for long periods.</p><p>Face masks stop many of those droplets, reducing the amount of virus in the air. That lowers your chances of getting infected, and it also lowers the chances that you'll infect someone else.</p><p><a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/masking-science-sars-cov2.html" target="_blank">Studies of people who had prolonged exposure</a> to others with COVID-19 have demonstrated how masks can reduce the chance of the virus spreading. In general, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/masking-science-sars-cov2.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">well-fitted cloth masks</a> made up of multiple layers can stop most large droplets and at least half of the tiny ones. Plastic <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.10.05.20207241" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">face shields</a> alone are far less effective. <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/08/13/cdc-mask-guidance-masks-valves/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Face masks with valves or vents</a> might be good for construction work, but they don't stop the wearer from breathing out virus into the air.</p>
Can I reuse a mask and when should I replace it?<p>Reusable masks should be kept clean and dry. We're moving into cold and flu season, and noses get drippy. A rule of thumb: Anytime a mask is wet to the point that you can discern the wetness, it's time for a new one if it's disposable, or it's time to clean your reusable mask.</p><p>Wetness allows viruses to more easily move through paper or fabric because it allows the threads to move and may reduce the electrostatic charge in the masks that add extra protection with some fabrics.</p><p>In general, you can use a mask that stays clean and dry for about a week before you need to wash or discard it.</p>
How should I clean a cloth mask?<p>Washing your mask is like washing your clothes. You know when it is time.</p><p>In general, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-to-wash-cloth-face-coverings.html" target="_blank">cleaning your mask weekly</a> should be sufficient. If odors develop before then, it's a good idea to wash it sooner. Odor generally means bacterial buildup.</p><p>Cleaning your mask by hand with soap and water is your best option. Using a general detergent on a gentle cycle in the washing machine is also fine, but that may increase the risk of damage, depending on the quality of the material. COVID-19 is not a hardy virus. Any soap or detergent should work fine. There's no need for special chemicals, bleach or harsh soaps.</p><p>Be careful to remove any inserts before washing. Inserted filters are generally not washable.</p><p>Air drying masks works best. Remember, masks should be completely dry before use. So be sure to have a replacement mask handy while the one you just washed dries.</p><p>Sunlight is always a great source of heat to dry your mask. Also, sunlight has ultraviolet radiation, which has been shown to <a href="http://doi.org/10.1111/php.13293" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eliminate coronavirus</a> and is also known to have antibacterial properties.</p>
Can I wear the mask below my nose?<p>Wearing your mask below your nose is, frankly, ridiculous.</p><p>Think about it. If you are breathing through your nose and only covering your mouth, you are effectively eliminating the point of the mask. Properly wearing a mask requires covering both your nose and mouth at all times.</p><p>Studies show that wearing a proper cloth mask or surgical mask while exercising <a href="http://doi.org/10.1513/AnnalsATS.202008-990CME" target="_blank">doesn't affect the flow of oxygen</a> or carbon dioxide in any detectable way. So, unless you have serious heart and lung problems, that isn't an excuse.</p>
How do I safely remove my mask if I’m going to eat or drink?<p>When you <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-to-wash-cloth-face-coverings.html" target="_blank">take your mask off</a>, remove it carefully by the straps without touching anything else and put it somewhere safe, like wrapped in paper in a purse, bag or pocket. Then wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. When you put it back on, wash your hands again.</p>
So, how can I have a safe holiday gathering?<p>The safest way to celebrate this year is to do so with members only within your household. The <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">CDC is now stressing that point</a>, as well. If you do celebrate with friends and relatives from outside your household, you need an action plan to reduce the risk of exposure.</p><p>Here are five recommendations:</p><ul><li>Limit the number of people – fewer people means fewer opportunities for exposure, and you'll have more room to spread out.</li><li>Require masks when not eating or drinking.</li><li>Use physical distancing when eating. Try to seat people <a href="https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m3223" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least 6 feet apart</a>. Eat outside if you can.</li><li>Consider being tested for COVID-19 before traveling or gathering. It's not a guarantee, but it can help flag illnesses. Remember to self-isolate between the test and the event.</li><li>Be prepared to self-isolate for 14 days after traveling or participating in any event that involves people from outside your home.</li></ul><p>[<em>Research into coronavirus and other news from science</em> <a href="https://theconversation.com/us/newsletters/science-editors-picks-71/?utm_source=TCUS&utm_medium=inline-link&utm_campaign=newsletter-text&utm_content=science-corona-research" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Subscribe to The Conversation's new science newsletter</a>.]</p><p><em>The map has been updated with New Hampshire announcing a mask mandate effective Nov. 20.</em></p><p><em>Jason Farley is a professor, infectious disease-trained epidemiologist and nurse practitioner at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.<br></em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Jason Farley, PhD, MPH, ANP-BC, FAAN receives funding from the National Institutes of Health on the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics for COVID-19 and Becton Dickinson for studies on SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-face-masks-belong-at-your-thanksgiving-gathering-7-things-you-need-to-know-about-wearing-them-150130" target="_blank">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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Despite being a well-known port of call on the Caribbean cruise circuit, the City of Key West voted to ban large cruise ships from visiting and to restrict foot traffic from vessels. Supporters and opponents disagreed about the safety, environmental and economic merits of the proposals.
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By Tara Lohan
How much of U.S. energy demand could be met by renewable sources?
According to a new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the answer is an easy 100%.
Graphic: ILSR, Energy Self-Reliant States 2020