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Energy
Yellow Fever

Nuclear energy, long controversial, is gaining ground as a clean alternative to burning fossil fuels—even among some environmentalists. Yet although nuclear reactors don’t emit greenhouse gases, the industry does have a dirty side besides spent fuel: toxic waste from uranium mining. Heaps of radioactive debris from abandoned Cold War mining operations still litter the West, and critics fear a new uranium boom could harm waterways and wildlife.

As recently as 2002, U.S. uranium mining was dormant, stalled by a glut on the world market. Then utilities began worrying about depleting their stockpiles and started buying uranium, driving the cost of the toxic heavy metal from $10 to as high as $138 per pound in 2007. The high prices spurred thousands of new mining claims in western states, among them more than 1,100 within five miles of Grand Canyon National Park.

Steve Martin, the park’s superintendent, has criticized the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for approving new claims without undertaking environmental-impact studies. “We’re still cleaning up an old mine on the Grand Canyon rim, and there are concerns that it’s polluted water sources,” he says of the Orphan Mine, which closed in 1972. “This is habitat for a lot of important species, like mountain lions, condors, and spotted owls. Why let mining go ahead before we’ve assessed possible effects?”

The park itself is off-limits, and the Havasupai, Navajo, and Hopi tribes have barred new claims on their nearby lands. But companies have staked thousands of claims, totaling about a million acres, in three sectors still open for prospecting: the Kaibab National Forest’s Tusayan Ranger District and two BLM tracts north of the canyon.

Many uranium deposits sit in vertical column-shaped formations, and mining companies say they need just a few acres to extract the ore. But it may still be risky. “Once you dig up uranium it can dissolve and move through groundwater to seeps and springs that feed the Grand Canyon,” says Roger Clark, Grand Canyon Trust’s air and energy program director.

The trust and other groups have sued repeatedly to block new claims around the canyon, with mixed results. Then, last June, the U.S. House Resources Committee invoked an obscure legal provision to temporarily suspend mining in the three tracts, citing environmental concerns.

Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the measure’s author, plans to introduce a bill this year to permanently protect the open sectors. He’s also looking to reform the 1872 General Mining Law, which gives mining higher priority on most public lands than other uses and doesn’t consider environmental impacts. In the meantime, the depressed economy could give lands near the Grand Canyon a reprieve, says Thomas Neff, a nuclear industry expert at MIT. “A lot of companies, especially small ones, won’t be able to get any cash for new operations now.”

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