Mention nuclear energy in New Mexico, and many of us get a cold shiver. Despite all the claims that nuclear energy is clean and safe, what it means to New Mexico is a long history of dirty – very dirty -- uranium mining and processing and the cancer that it brings.
So the thought of the federal government subsidizing the development of hundreds of mini-reactors to stimulate a new American nuclear industry that could generate thousands of portable nuclear power plants for export around the world, and use in our own backyard, has unnerving reverberations here.
Nuclear reactors use processed uranium, or its byproducts, to produce power. And New Mexico is a major player in uranium mining and milling in America, second only to Wyoming for its cache of what the Navajo call Leetso, the Yellow Monster.
The mining and milling of the great uranium deposits in the Grants Mineral Belt west of Albuquerque made it one of the largest uranium ore producing areas in the U.S. Not only did extraction have a large role to play in cold war mega-bomb production and nuclear fuel development, it turned Grants into a boom town off and on from the 50’s to the 80’s until busted prices hit the industry.
For miners and mill operators, and their families, from the Navajo Nation, and Laguna and Acoma Pueblos, uranium prosperity never made them rich, and has had what is now considered to a Chernobyl affect. Joe Shirley, the President of the Navajo Nation, went so far as to call it an act of “genocide.” It’s a classic example of what writer and environmental thinker Rob Nixon calls the “slow violence” of toxicity and economic manipulation, or dumping on the poor.
The magnitude of the health catastrophe in Native American uranium workers, and people who live close to the hundreds, if not thousands, of tailing piles that plague the reservations with cancer and related heavy-metal diseases is seen in the more than $1.7 billion paid to uranium workers, their families, and down winders from atmospheric nuclear tests by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990. And it’s estimated that less than ten percent of eligible uranium workers have filed for compensation under the1990 Act so far.
Nuclear power can be considered neither clean nor safe when we realize the unconscionable possibilities of slow violence on the lives of those who mine and mill uranium or live with the toxic aftereffects of its extraction. Poisoning whole populations, and causing the unimaginable suffering of long sickness and tragic death, must always be recognized as a wholly repugnant and morally unsupportable cost of nuclear power and nuclear arms.
We won’t know for a while if the idea of mini or modular reactors are a technological fad, a way for companies to get government subsidies, in lieu of solar and wind energy getting the support they need, or the beginning of a massive new proliferation of small nuclear power plants around the world, in this country and possibly in your neighborhood. If we’re spending millions to develop them, we can be sure the French, the British, the Russians, Israelis, the Japanese and Chinese are thinking about it too.
The world at the moment is overstocked with usable uranium, some 100 years-worth at current rates of usage. Should small underground, self-contained reactors start popping up, who knows how much uranium they might need, or where it will be most profitable to mine and mill it. Estimates, however, suggest that each reactor could need to be refueled with fresh nuclear material every seven to ten years.
A company founded in New Mexico, Gen4 Energy, formerly Hyperion Power Generation, is developing small reactors, as is the giant Babcock and Wilcox corporation, one of the operators of Los Alamos National Laboratories.
Modular reactors could power small community electrical systems, or be the energy source for expensive desalinization plants. Desalinization is a rapidly growing industry in a drought stricken world. Each desalinization plant requires its own power source. Natural gas is used throughout the Middle East. Small, modular reactors would also be competitive in a marketplace which still undervalues solar and window power potential.
Even when mining companies, which are often owned by oil and gas companies, switch from surface mining to what’s known as “in situ leaching” of uranium from aquifers, the process is fraught with dangers to water purity. Though no one likes to admit it, there is practically no way to return contaminated water to its original potable condition without using the reverse osmosis technology of desalinization. In situ leaching injects chemical substances in to ground water to loosen uranium deposits from grains of sand, along with other heavy metals. Just that act alone, endangers the water supply for human use.
In New Mexico and the Four Corners Region with their vast amounts of potential solar and wind generated power, uranium mining and using mini reactors amount to nothing better than a lethal farce. Just look at New Mexico’s mining history, which torments Navajos, Acomas and Lagunas with terrible cancers and other diseases decades after the last mines and mills shut down, and you’ll never feel optimistic about nuclear power again, if you ever have.