(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a four part series on the Uranium Industry in southeast Utah. Last week, the history and legacy of the boom years of the 1950’s and 1960’s (locally) were examined. In subsequent weeks what is happening in San Juan County and the world currently will be examined and then we will explore the economic juggernaut uranium appears to be for the future of this area.)
I stated in last week’s installment that if ever southeast Utah had tied itself to a dazzling economic star, uranium may be it. San Juan County sits squarely in the middle of a worldwide renaissance.
Ore trucks rumble through our small communities from every direction each day. They haul tons of ore to the only federally licensed uranium reduction mill in the U. S. at White Mesa, six miles south of Blanding.
This visible daily occurrence is simply the tip of the iceburg in what is happening across the Colorado Plateau in the uranium industry. New mines are opening regularly. At least two new mills are scheduled to be licensed and operating before the end of this decade. The price of uranium continues to set new records.
Nationwide attention is being focused on this area with full-page newspaper ads appearing in national publications touting the uranium investments available in southeast Utah. Large blocks of claims are being bought and sold and most of us are not even aware of it.
These aspects of the new boom will be examined in detail in subsequent weeks. This week we will examine what has created this boom.
There are presently 103 operating nuclear power plants in the United States. These plants generate 20 percent of the electricity used in the nation and they do it for much less per kilowatt hour than their fossil-fuel cousins. They were all built prior to the Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania in 1970. Actually, no one was killed at Three Mile Island.
Very little radiation escaped, but opponents to nuclear power, who viewed nuclear power generation as the evil stepchild of the atomic bomb, used the incident as a “what-might-have-happened-event” and effectively shut down power plant construction nation wide.
The Chernoble meltdown in Russia in 1982 was a debacle. Such a disaster could not happen in the U. S. because the reactors used here are completely different than the early ones built by the Soviets.
Nevertheless, Chernoble was great ammunition for the anti-nuclear forces worldwide and effectively sealed the coffin for the next two decades on further development in the United States and most of the rest of the industrialized world.
France and Japan had no alternative fuels. They continued with their nuclear programs out of necessity. Today both countries get about 80 percent of their electrical generation from the atom. They are also the world leaders in the construction and sale of new nuclear reactors. Nuclear technology and hardware is France’s single largest export.
The global warming fears of recent years have turned all eyes on the “culprits” causing the problem, i.e. fossil fueled power plants. Coal-fired and other fossil fuel power plants pour more carbon-dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other single source, including all the world’s automobiles.
In many nations, including the U.S., there is now almost as much sentiment against building new coal burning power plants as there used to be for building nuclear plants. Fifty percent of all the power generation in the America is currently generated by coal burning plants.
Much attention has been focused recently on renewable sources of energy such as wind, water and solar. Let’s take a thimble’s eye look at each:
Solar: Productive only when the sun shines. Takes large tracts of land for large projects. Cost per megawatt still far above fossil or nuclear. Could not compete without tax credits and other subsidies.
Wind: Productive only when the wind blows. Takes huge tracts of land. Some towers are now 650 feet high and are considered unsightly and noisy by locals and environmentalists. Cost per megawatt similar to solar.
Water: While power generation from water behind dams is the cheapest, cleanest source of power, most of the desirable dam sites in this country have already been developed. From an environmental standpoint, it would be almost impossible to get support for large-scale dam construction in this county.
Wind and solar together create less than three percent of current U.S. power generation. Hydro-electric dams generate more than wind and solar, but still less than 10 percent of total production.
Now let’s compare the two principle power generation sources currently feeding the U. S. power grid:
1000 Megawatt Coal Plant: Requires a ton of coal per minute to keep this size plant running at full capacity. Each ton of burned coal puts up to three tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
America now burns one billion tons of coal a year---up from 500 million in 1976. Coal alone produces 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases and 20 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.
1000 Megawatt Nuclear Reactor: Every two years a flatbed truck pulls up to the reactor to deliver fuel rods. These rods are mildly radioactive and can be handled with gloves. When inserted into the reactor core the rods will last for six years. One third of the rods are replaced every two years.
The spent rods are taken to a storage pool in a containment structure on site for storage. As long as they are in at least three feet of water they emit no radiation whatsoever. They can remain there indefinitely. There is no air, water or ground pollution. The only emission from a nuclear generation plant is steam from the water cooling towers.
There is the problem of the eventual disposal of the highly radioactive spent fuel rods.
The French have developed technology wherein they are able to reprocess spent fuel rods which provides yet more fuel and greatly decreases the danger and need to store them in expensive underground repositories such as the one being built at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. This new technology has contributed to the overall desirability of nuclear power generation.
In the political battles of this election year, Republicans and Democrats agree on two things: 1.) greenhouse gas emissions must be curtailed; and 2.) the United States must become energy independent as soon as possible.
Looking at the relative benefits between fossil fuel power generation and nuclear power generation in the light of these two critical national goals, the future of the uranium industry look brighter than it ever has.
The new national energy policy signed into law last year, government leadership, the liberal left, converted anti-nuclear activists, and clear thinking Americans in ever growing numbers are bedfellows in a coalition which advocates the resurgence of large scale nuclear power generation.
And where do San Juan County and the Colorado Plateau fit into this change of attitude toward nuclear power generation
Next week we will examine the exciting things happening locally and internationally in the third installment of this series. Stay tuned. firstname.lastname@example.org .