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Will uranium boom again in the Four Corners?

The Four Corners has a heritage of uranium production as long as the atomic era.

Uranium mines throughout the Dolores River Basin and across the Navajo Nation supplied much of the material that armed America’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and launched the nuclear power industry.

That era essentially ended by the 1980s, with a nation spooked by nuclear mishaps like the Three Mile Island power plant meltdown and by the skyrocketing cost of nuclear power plants.

Will a modern day convergence of the search for carbon-free electric sources and geopolitical constraints on uranium supplies reverse course for the nuclear industry, and cause a resurgence of uranium mining across the Four Corners?

Some boosters of nuclear energy cite the need for a carbon-free source to provide baseload electricity. Bill Gates of Microsoft fame is among these proponents, and is pouring millions into research for next generation modular nuclear reactors. His TerraPower company has landed on Kemmerer, Wyoming, as the location for this technology, taking advantage of electric infrastructure from a shuttered coal-fired power plant.

Stratospheric costs have bedeviled the nuclear power industry for decades. The only nuclear plant currently under construction in the United States has doubled in price to $30 billion and is years behind schedule.

Hence, Bill Gates and others seek a streamlined, modular approach that simplifies design and by repetition reduces unit costs such that nuclear-generated electricity might fall into the realm of economic competitiveness with other sources.

That’s the scenario that sustains dreams of the owners of long-dormant uranium mines across the Colorado Plateau. It’s the familiar drumbeat that if only, someday, uranium prices would double, then once again miners might revisit the heyday of the 1950s.

The war in Ukraine has spurred those dreams, with sanctions potentially eliminating Russian uranium from the American marketplace.

But uranium mining also left a dark legacy of cancer and pollution throughout many Navajo communities where men unwittingly took to the underground mines unaware of the dangers of increased exposure to radon gas and its radioactive decay products. Hundreds of abandoned uranium mines linger today across the Navajo Nation.

Now, the saga of uranium comes full circle with renewed interest on reopening mines in the Dolores River Basin, premised on the hoped-for boom in prices. The Bureau of Land Management is evaluating plans to prepare mines in Big Gypsum Valley for renewed uranium extraction. A collection called the Sunday Mines lines the valley’s south side, with waste piles familiar to many a Dolores River boater headed to the boat launch or campers at the BLM’s recreation site.

In Colorado, state law aims to preclude so-called zombie mines that stagger on indefinitely without production. Colorado requires mines to either get into production within a 10-year period, or move into reclamation. The Sunday Mines proposal for moving some dirt and conducting maintenance might only be intended to head off the 10-year deadline.

Nearby, the Department of Energy manages a couple dozen tracts of land that were once viewed as the most enticing sites for uranium across the entire Dolores River Basin, including several literally on the river’s bank near Slickrock. A loophole in proposed legislation for a Dolores River Canyon National Conservation Area leaves open the possibility for reopening those mines as well.

Uranium boosters have hung on for 40 years, endlessly hoping for the elusive spike in prices that might make the industry locally vibrant once again. Maybe Bill Gates will crack the code for economically competitive nuclear power, and combined with sanctions on Russian uranium, will create resurgent demand for uranium out of the Dolores basin.

Mark Pearson is executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.