Uranium plans move forward as residents worry about water contamination; company promises clean power source.
By Ann Depperschmidt
September 16, 2007
NUNN — Robin Davis first heard about the plans almost a year ago, before she knew much about uranium mining.
“I thought, ‘Surely our government will protect us,’” she said. “‘Surely there are regulations in place.’”
But then she started researching the uranium mining process. And what she found worried her and her husband so much, they considered selling their 80-acre ranch west of Nunn.
“But our ethics would not allow us to sell to another family,” Davis said.
About a year ago, Canadian-based Powertech Uranium Corp. bought 5,760 acres of uranium mineral rights — 9 square miles that includes the Davises’ ranch — between the towns of Wellington and Nunn northeast of Fort Collins. The plan, called the Centennial Project, is expected to produce more than 4,750 tons of uranium to help fuel the increasing demand for nuclear power worldwide.
Company officials say if all the uranium is mined from the Centennial Project site, it would be enough fuel to serve the residential power needs of a city the size of Fort Collins for 150 years — with no carbon emissions.
“One pellet of uranium on the tip of your finger is equivalent to a ton of coal,” said Richard Blubaugh, Powertech vice president of health, safety and environmental resources. “It really does make good sense.”
But Davis wasn’t convinced.
So the 4-H leader, animal lover and renewable-energy advocate decided to fight what she worried would become a radioactive nightmare on her land and in the community’s water supplies.
“After I did my research, I said, ‘Oh, we can’t let this happen,’” Davis said.
The growing Demand for Uranium
In the early 1980s, the price of uranium fell because of a struggling nuclear power industry, forcing uranium mines to shut down or scale back production.
But memories of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are starting to fade, and regulators are promising an improved, reliable, safe nuclear power industry that won’t contribute to global warming.
Now people are starting to see nuclear power in an eco-friendly light.
Nuclear power plants already supply 16 percent of the world’s electricity, and experts with the World Nuclear Association expect that number to continue to grow as people become increasingly concerned about carbon emissions and global warming.
Nuclear power plants, after all, do not produce carbon emissions. The same can’t be said about coal-fired plants, which provide the majority of power in the United States.
All that demand is causing the price of uranium to soar.
According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the price of uranium increased almost fivefold in four years, from $9.70 per pound in January 2002 to $45.75 per pound in June 2006.
Now companies are trying to cash in.
Powertech, a two-year-old company, plans to mine uranium in South Dakota and Colorado and is in the exploratory stage of two Wyoming projects. The South Dakota project has also been met with resistance — two environmental groups have taken Powertech to court over its permit to drill exploration holes.
The United States receives about 20 percent of its electricity from 104 nuclear power plants that consume about 55 million pounds of uranium each year, according to Powertech. But less than 6 percent of that necessary uranium fuel is actually mined in the United States.
The rest is produced in foreign markets. Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan produce more than half of the world’s supply of uranium, whereas the United States produces about 4 percent, according to the World Nuclear Association.
A New Mining Method
Increasingly, mining companies, including Powertech, are choosing to extract uranium using a more modern, easier-on-the-land method called in-situ leaching.
With conventional mining, workers remove rock from the ground, break it up and treat it to remove the uranium.
But with in-situ leaching, crews can remove the uranium with far less ground disturbance. In-situ leaching involves pumping treated water into the uranium-laced deposits, which dissolves the mineral so the uranium can be pumped to the surface. The solution is then shipped to a processing plant to remove the uranium from the water. From there, the water is cleaned and returned to the area.
But opponents say that’s the problem: Pumping water back into the ground may contaminate water supplies with radioactive waste and loosen other minerals that may taint the water.
None of the other 20-plus active uranium mines in Colorado extracts uranium with the in-situ leaching process, said Ron Cattany, director of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.
Most uranium mines with active permits are in Montrose and San Miguel counties on the Western Slope, and all active ones are in compliance with their permits, Cattany said.
Though there are no in-situ mines in the state, Cattany said Powertech would have to go through a rigorous permitting process to ensure its mines are safe and will not contaminate water supplies.
“At this point, we feel pretty confident in the regulatory structure that’s in place,” Cattany said.
But if there’s a slip-up, the effects would carry far past Wellington and Nunn, opponents say. People throughout the Front Range rely on farmers and ranchers in the area to provide them with food grown with the underground water supply near the proposed mine.
“We get our food supply from out here, where they want to mine,” Davis said. “It’s pretty frightening. But where do we go?”
Opponents point to contamination problems from former uranium mines used to build bombs during the Cold War — some of which are now Superfund sites.
Blubaugh, Powertech’s environmental manager, said in-situ leaching has a 30-year history in Texas and Wyoming and has proved to be a safe and less disturbing way to mine uranium.
Blubaugh said he would “absolutely” live near the in-situ leaching site and added that he used to live near a conventional uranium mine in Utah.
The process is safe, and enough regulatory agencies are monitoring the project to make sure it remains that way, he said.
“We can’t operate until the regulatory agencies say we can,” Blubaugh said. “And that provides a level of insurance.”
The Energy Source of the Future?
Nuclear power’s resurgence has, in part, been because of its clean-burning nature.
But opponents of the uranium mine say the country needs to put more science and more money into renewable energy — wind, hydro, even unique ideas such as harvesting energy from algae — before completely signing on to nuclear power.
Though nuclear is clean-burning, there are still problems with waste disposal. And it takes fossil fuels to mine the uranium, process it and transport it to nuclear power facilities.
“Northern Colorado has become very well known for renewable energy sources,” said Davis, who uses biodiesel in her Dodge truck and Bobcat tractor. “Nuclear is not renewable.”
She has been so passionate in her opposition to the Centennial Project that she helped start a group called Coloradoans Against Resource Destruction, started a Web site and has invited scientists, professionals and other experts to speak about uranium mining at community meetings that have attracted hundreds of residents.
Group members also have helped host meetings with political parties, real estate agents and other community leaders. They have asked Weld County to adopt a resolution disallowing uranium mining and have approached the governor for help.
One of Davis’ neighbors made sunshine-yellow signs that now dot the landscape around Wellington and Nunn (a few have popped up in Loveland) to raise awareness of the project. Davis thought of the slogan for the opposition: “Watch Nunn Glow,” a spinoff of the town’s trademark water tower that says “Watch Nunn Grow.”
“We even asked the mayor if we could put a banner over ‘Grow’ and change it to ‘Glow,’” Davis said. “But he didn’t think that would be a good idea.”
The opposition is passionate, concerned and very vocal.
“This is a very educated community,” Davis said. “And you have a lot of educated people who also are concerned about the environment. I don’t think Powertech had accounted for that.”
The company’s environmental manager said he was surprised at the outcry from the community.
“For a population that touts itself as being green and educated, nuclear power is really a good thing,” Blubaugh said.
If all goes as planned, Blubaugh said the company plans to begin extracting uranium in 2010.
But Davis hopes the project never gets that far.
“We can stop this with enough people voicing their opinions,” Davis said. “There are enough reasons why it shouldn’t happen.”