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Interim Watch: Uranium Industry Makes Big Pitch to Resume NM Mining Operations

By Charlotte Chinana

As state officials look for ways to stimulate New Mexico’s economy and create more jobs, supporters of efforts to restart uranium mining operations in the state were handed a stage to make their pitch to legislators at this week’s meeting of the Economic and Rural Development Interim Committee in Grants.

And according to a panel devoted to the subject, prospects for the industry couldn’t be rosier as their key following talking points did attest:

  • New Mexico’s uranium reserves are among the richest in the nation – 2nd only to Wyoming;
  • The nuclear energy industry’s safety record is the “Best of any industry in the history of the world;” and
  • “The future is fairly optimistic for uranium (mining) in New Mexico”

New Mexico’s uranium rich reserves

According to the industry speakers, New Mexico has one of the richest uranium deposits in the United States, which “creates a lucrative opportunity to resume mining operations,” projected to “create thousands of jobs.”

“The world demand for uranium would double if the proposed nuclear reactors are built,” said Barbara Brazil, Deputy Secretary of the state’s Economic Development Department. According to estimates from the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are currently 440 operational reactors in the world – 104 of which are located across the United States.

“The U.S. consumes 20% of the world’s energy,” added John Bemis, Secretary-designee of the Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department. “This is the world as we know it today…everybody needs to remember that we need uranium to fuel those nuclear plants.”

Not addressed in any detail were a couple of none too rosy “economic opportunity caveats”:

  • Industry estimates that the state’s uranium reserves will be worth approximately $31 billion dollars are based on economic assumptions that the price per pound of uranium would hold steady at $90 to $100 per pound over a 30 year period. However, a more likely scenario is that the price will fluctuate.  The laws of supply and demand can be a pesky critters. For example, in 2000 the price per pound of uranium was $6 – and as of July 25 of this year, the uranium price per pound was $51.50.
  • Metal mining in the state doesn’t have the best track record in terms of economic stability. According to a 2008 report prepared for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, the state has been through many copper mining boom and bust cycles, as well as one previous uranium boom and bust cycle (circa 1948 – early 1980s).

Also, another hardly insignificant issue touched on with regard to NM’s uranium reserves was the potential jurisdictional issues that can arise. Some of “the state’s” uranium deposits are located on Indigenous lands.

Representative Patricia Lundstrom (D – Gallup) mentioned how the Church Rock mine site is no longer a tribal trust, and how she recently held a town hall meeting with residents who were “split right down the middle” on the issue of uranium mining.

In March of 2010, the Federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling upholding the mining license of Hydro Resources, Inc. — the company seeking to restart mining operations in the Church Rock area. This is a significant fact insofar as the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining on its lands in 2005.

“There’s so much history there…(there are) sins of the past – and we have an obligation to deal with that,” said Secretary-designate Bemis. He then went on say that explaining safety measures and procedures would be good, and that the state ought to “try to engage” tribal constituents, so that “they understand” why uranium mining is good for the community.

Industry boosterism goes off the rails

One of the most startling aspects of the presentation was appeared to be a willful obliviousness to increasing world-wide concerns about nuclear safety — and the impact such concerns might have on market demand.  As one Powerpoint slide trumpeted:

Nuclear energy industry’s safety record = “Best of any industry in the history of the world.”

According to handouts and talking points provided by several panelists, the operational risks associated with mining/milling “have been addressed” – via employee and environmental safety standards that weren’t in place during the first round of uranium production in the state (i.e. operations occurring from 1948 – 2000).  

“There’s a difference in the way we regulate mines today,” said Bemis. According to a handout from his department, such regulatory standards related to worker safety, include things like:

  • Keeping records of worker exposures, requiring radiation badges, and ventilating underground mines (as opposed to relying on canaries – presumably); and
  • Requiring employees to leave clothing items at the mine sites (instead of having employees take contaminated gear home to be handled and washed by loved ones), etc.

Other improvements related to environmental safety standards were highlighted by Bemis and industry-supportive legislators:  in the past, there weren’t always requirements for mining companies to perform reclamation, nor were there requirements to protect ground and surface water.

“The (uranium) industry is still living with a black eye,” said Senator David Ulibarri (D – Grants), referring to “all the bad things that happened years ago.”

As for constituents who have concerns about the area’s “legacy” contamination, Ulibarri added, “I don’t blame them. But we gotta separate old from new; (the) new industry has more regulations.”

One of biggest legacy disasters in the area/world occurred in 1979, at the Church Rock site, when a uranium mill tailings disposal pond breached its dam, spilling more than 90 million gallons of liquid, and 1100 tons of solid radioactive mill waste into the Rio Puerco.

Ulibarri also mentioned the “several building permits that weren’t acted on,” because “we had an administration that wasn’t business friendly;” he also stressed that we need to educate the public: “This wouldn’t happen with the new industry. We have regulations that they didn’t (have) in the past.”

Curiously, in the industry boosters’ determination to portray current safety practices and requirements as having eliminated the dangers to public health and safety that existed back in the “bad old days”, they casually skated over an emerging policy contradiction. That is, what about the current administration’s desire to undo some of the so-called “regulatory red tape?” Somehow, that issue was not adequately addressed at the Grants meeting.

Was there any acknowledgment of recent catastrophic events enveloping the industry around the globe? Yes, but just barely, and then only to dismiss them.

Secretary-designate Bemis mentioned that he had “recently talked to some uranium producers” and the topic of the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant came up.

On March 11, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred near the northeast coast of Japan, triggering a massive tsunami that led to the failure of cooling systems at the Tokyo Electric Company’s nuclear power plant in Fukushima, which in resulted in the worst nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl accident of 1986.

While conceding that some countries are “backing off” from their nuclear power operations (like Japan, China, and Germany), Bemis saw hope for new markets in “some eastern European countries that are looking into nuclear energy” as they “try to become more independent from Russia.”

“I don’t think Fukushima is going to impact nuclear power in the long run,” opined Bemis.

He would later add that, “In terms of thinking about the Japanese, the thing to remember is that they’re using very old technology.”

This is an interesting statement, given the fact that the New York Times reported the following in May:

“Emergency vents that American officials have said would prevent devastating hydrogen explosions at nuclear plants in the United States were put to the test in Japan — and failed to work, according to experts and officials with the company that operates the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The failure of the vents calls into question the safety of similar nuclear power plants in the United States and Japan…Venting was critical to relieving pressure that was building up inside several reactors after the March 11 tsunami knocked out the plant’s crucial cooling systems. Without flowing water to cool the reactors’ cores, they had begun to dangerously overheat.

American officials had said early on that reactors in the United States would be safe from such disasters because they were equipped with new, stronger venting systems. But Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the plant, now says that Fukushima Daiichi had installed the same vents years ago. “

“The future is fairly optimistic for uranium (mining) in New Mexico.”

According Secretary-designate Bemis, the “biggest concerns” moving forward with future mining operations “will be water and financing.”

There are currently five companies in NM working to get permits to start mining operations in the next 2-4 years. “We’re anticipating getting a mining permit in 2012, with uranium production starting in 2015,” said Bemis.

Apparently unconcerned by questions about the nuclear industry’s recent safety record, Senator Mark Boitano (R–Albuquerque) instead focused in the “problem of over-regulation”:  “For those (of us) who believe in economic development, are there any state regulations  that would be considered burdensome” by the uranium industry?

Bemis said that, from his conversations with industry representatives, there doesn’t seem to be major complaints in terms of “burdensome rules and regulations,” adding that while it would definitely vary from company to company, for the most part, industry leaders “want to comply.”

Perhaps not hearing the answer he wanted, Boitano said that legislators have heard from the oil and gas industry, lenders, and other groups that there are “burdensome regulations” and that the “permitting process” is also an issue.

A representative from the mining industry was given a couple of minutes to say that his industry isn’t concerned with regulations, but they are concerned with the timing issue — a concern that things keep moving forward in a timely fashion.

Boitano asked Bemis another question:  “What are the barriers with regard to financing?”

Bemis cited the current state of the economy, and how it would affect a bank’s interest and/or ability to become a financial backer of a proposed mining project. Banks are taking a closer look at things and generally want to see a good business plan. “It’s going to take hundreds of millions of dollars to finance this stuff…we have to have a plan.”

As for issues related to water use and contamination, the public will have to wait for another time to hear more about that. Perhaps the state’s Water Trust Board will touch on these topics at their next meeting.

No public comment allowed

The Economic and Rural Development Interim Committee typically doesn’t allocate time for public comment, thus a public comment period was not included on the agenda. However, someone accidentally put out a “public comment sign up sheet” next to the “guest sign-in sheet”.  Constituents who showed up to voice their opinions and concerns were encouraged to “write the info down and give it to the (legislative) staff” – or – to go to the Redistricting meeting the following day “to do public comment.”

But before members of the committee were officially dismissed for the afternoon to take part in the “Mining Museum Tour” segment of the agenda, one woman in the audience briefly spoke up and politely suggested that, in the future, when discussing issues that impact a community, the interim committee should consider giving equal time to members of that affected community. She suggested that this would be a superior process to one devoted to having a one-sided discussion in which only representatives from the mining industry are well represented and allowed to give input — while community members are relegated to writing down their thoughts.


One thought on “Interim Watch: Uranium Industry Makes Big Pitch to Resume NM Mining Operations

  1. Dang. Well, as a concerned constituent, I guess I’ll “write down my thoughts” and “submit them for consideration,” via my ballot come Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. Thanks for the info.