Here’s an idea that would only occur to the Trump administration: What if, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, we came out with a plan to allow more mining of uranium in environmentally sensitive and publicly cherished areas that would also put vulnerable communities at risk of contamination? As improbable as it sounds, the White House Nuclear Fuel Working Group on Thursday released a plan that could increase uranium mining on federal lands and relax environmental safeguards while doing it.
Uranium mining is a stunningly dirty business that has already put some Navajo tribal lands off-limits for the foreseeable future and contaminated important drinking water aquifers out West, leaving them unusable for ranching, farming, or drinking water. Polluted drinking water is a problem no matter where it happens but it’s particularly dangerous in areas where water is a scarce and precious resource. And it’s those arid Western states—from Wyoming to Arizona—that stand to lose the most if the Trump administration goes forward with its plan.
In addition to the fact that demand for uranium has been falling, U.S. uranium tends to be poor in quality. This too has led to a drop in U.S. mining. After reaching a modern high of 4,912,000 pounds in 2014, uranium producers in the United States (which, by the way, are mostly Candian companies) only dug up 721,000 pounds in 2018. Even so, the Trump administration, always eager to help polluters, has vowed to come up with ways to help revive the fortunes of uranium miners, including easing the environmental safeguards on this practice.
That could lead to more mines in Wyoming, Nebraska, or Utah and may also even help resurrect plans for a uranium mine near one of our most treasured natural landmarks, the Grand Canyon. A 20-year ban on new uranium mines around the Grand Canyon was instituted in 2012, but again, the Trump administration is bending to industry’s demands.
The most bizarre part of the White House’s plan is that we don’t need new uranium mines. The “nuclear renaissance” promised years ago never materialized, and the uranium required to fuel existing reactors is available from friendly suppliers like Canada. In the unlikely event that those supplies dry up, the International Atomic Energy Agency maintains a uranium bank from which the United States can draw.
But none of this satisfies Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who applauded the White House working group’s recommendation. “The coronavirus pandemic has clearly demonstrated why America should not rely on other nations to supply critical materials,” Barasso said. “That includes uranium.” (Actually, it doesn’t, under the government’s own technical definition for critical minerals.)
We humbly suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated a need for investments in scientific research and public health. But when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.