Global Green USA begins Energy Futures Series with Seminar on Environmental Impacts of Uranium Mining

Washington, DC (March 31, 2011) – On Wednesday afternoon, March 30, 2011 Global Green USA’s Security and Sustainability Program began a seminar series, “Energy Futures: Nuclear Power, Global Warming, and Nonproliferation” with a seminar titled “The Environmental Impact of Uranium Mining.”  This seminar examined the impacts of the beginning of the nuclear fuel cycle -- uranium mining. 

The roundtable included presentations from three experts in the field: Lauren Pagel of Earthworks, Geoffrey Fettus of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Loren Setlow, formerly of the Environmental Protection Agency. Two of Global Green USA’s staff, Marina Voronova-Abrams and Caitlin Doughty, also spoke. 

Lauren Pagel, Policy Director for Earthworks, opened the discussion with an overview of uranium mining in the United States. The major states that participate in uranium mining are in the four corners region of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. The presentation emphasized that the Navajo have been disproportionately burdened with the negative impacts associated with uranium mining.  These impacts include contaminated water, destruction of sacred land, and increased cancer rates as a result of exposure to elevated concentrations of radioisotopes.  (Event speakers from left: Paul Walker, Geoffrey Fettus, Loren Setlow, and Lauren Pagel).

In his presentation, Geoffrey Fettus, Senior Project Attorney for the Nuclear Program at NRDC, spoke about national uranium mining regulations.  He explained that there are very limited federal uranium mine reclamation standards to address water contamination or cleanup of waste rock.  The states and federal departments including the Bureau of Land Management and Environmental Protection Agency set standards for different aspects of conventional uranium mining such as radiation and water. Conventional uranium mining includes open pit mines as well as underground mining. Currently, there are no regulation standards for in-situ leach mining.

Loren Setlow, a retired EPA employee who worked on these issues for 14 years, went into further detail on the intricacies of uranium mining regulation.  The parties that can be involved include: Interior Department agencies, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Forest Service, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and state governments. Agency involvement is determined by land ownership: either State, Federal or mixed. Understandably, regulation of the uranium mines is an extremely complicated and slow process.  This is also true of uranium mine reclamation which is divided between different agencies depending on land ownership.

To give a broader international perspective, Caitlin Doughty presented about the countries that are involved in major uranium mining including Canada, Australia, and Namibia.  These countries mine much larger deposits of uranium than the United States but have similar problems with regulation.  Marina Voronova-Abrams discussed how uranium tailings in Central Asia have caused serious environmental contamination and public health problems. 

It was clear from these presentations that uranium mining contaminates the environment and is a hazard to people’s health and thus it is difficult to declare nuclear power as a clean source of energy.  The upcoming 2011 seminars will focus on the rest of the nuclear fuel cycle from uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel production, and finally spent fuel storage and the reprocessing of fuel rods.  In addition, Global Green USA will explore the economics and terrorist risks of nuclear power.  Throughout these topics, we will consider the implications for global warming and for nuclear proliferation.  For more information on these events visit: www.globalgreen.org/events/wmd/.