In the boom years, things were different. There was a sense of patriotism in the air as prospectors fanned out across remote corners of the Colorado Plateau in search of uranium. They didn’t worry about the price of ore then. The Atomic Energy Commission had set up uranium-buying stations throughout the Southwest. The government snapped up the ore and poured it into a nuclear weapons program. By the mid-1960s, the U.S. had built about 30,000 nuclear warheads.
“We had more than enough for all the bombs that anybody could ever think of making. That was the beginning of the end of the government purchase,” said Paul Robinson of the Southwest Research and Information Center.
So the government shuttered its buying stations. The price of uranium was set by the international market.
“By ’71 uranium was a wholly commercial commodity. No more government purchase,” Robinson said.
Uranium mining has shifted from small-time prospectors to multinational companies, and for a time, these companies thought that nuclear power plants would support the price of ore. But the nuclear power bonanza never materialized.
U.S. companies have struggled in this market.
“Really, really, the downfall of nuclear power is cost,” said Sharon Squassoni, a researcher who studies nuclear nonproliferation at the George Washington University.
The Cold War carried a legacy of environmental damage, particularly on the Navajo Nation, where workers were paid minimum wage or less. And they were not told about the risks of uranium exposure. Today there are more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on the reservation.
Mining practices have changed since then, and a number of protections have been put in place. Safety and environmental concerns might force countries to be more cautious about nuclear power, but they haven’t really changed the demand for uranium — the driving factor is still cost.
“Nuclear power is just not a cheap way to boil water,” Squassoni said.
A little more than a decade ago the price of uranium rose, which led to a flurry of claims on the Arizona Strip — thousands of them. In 2011, Congressman Raul Grijalva testified in Congressional hearings that hundreds of those claims were owned by a Russian company. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called for a 20-year halt to new mines in the Grand Canyon area. The price dropped again, and it hasn’t gone up. The number of claims on the Strip is now hundreds, not thousands.
“There’s a glut on the market, and that glut is not going to go away for a while.”
There aren’t many companies producing uranium in the U.S. today. One of them, Energy Fuels Inc., is a Canadian-based firm with claims in Arizona. Curtis Moore, a spokesman for Energy Fuels, says that the push for clean energy will eventually lead to higher demand for uranium.
“It’s not there yet but it’s definitely getting better, and I think that there’s countries around the world that are definitely embracing nuclear power because of concerns about climate change and global warming,” Moore said.
He said one reason that prices are low is that the international market is not a level playing field.
“You have countries like Russia and China out there subsidizing their industries,” Moore said.
Since 2008, the industry has spent nearly $3 million dollars on lobbyists, and in 2018, it petitioned the federal government for relief. Ordinarily, that might be a tough sell, but this was during the Trump administration. Tucked into last year’s budget was a $75 million dollar fund to buy uranium.
“The government guarantees you that they will buy it from you. So for them it’s an incentive,” Grijalva said.
Grijalva has introduced legislation to stop uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.
“Less than 1 % of the uranium deposits in this nation are in and around the Grand Canyon,” he said. “It’s not worth the risk. But yet, they have this slush fund that guarantees them, that they’re going to get paid, regardless of whether the uranium is needed or not.”
Conservationists say uranium mining should be halted on the Arizona Strip. One big reason is the concern that it might lead to elevated uranium levels in groundwater. Because in northern Arizona, wells and springs are the only source of water available.
The Grand Canyon was chiseled by water, but most of the time it’s bone dry. The geology is a series of side canyons where water pools and slips underground, only to reappear in springs and creeks. The region is also rich in uranium; the Arizona Strip, just north of the park, once had thousands of mining claims. There are still some claims in the area, but conservationists think more research should be done before those claims are developed.
“These systems are very complex and very difficult to predict how they’re going to respond,” said Fred Tillman, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS has been tracking uranium levels in the region’s water. Because uranium is a naturally occurring element in the region, the agency first wanted to get a baseline reading on wells and springs in the area.
“So that sort of helps us understand that you can have some elevated uranium concentrations in groundwater that are probably not at all related to mining impacts,” Tillman said. “I mean, there’s uranium in the geology up there. That’s why there are mines.”
The studies are important because high levels of uranium have been linked to cancer, and the region is entirely dependent on groundwater. That includes the Navajo, Havasupai and Walapai tribes. It includes nearby communities and millions of tourists who visit the Grand Canyon each year.
In 2012, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered a 20-year halt to uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region. Congressman Raul Grijalva has introduced a bill to make the ban permanent, which has passed the U.S. House and is now in the Senate. Grijalva says that not only is the risk to groundwater too great, the mines are a bad deal for the taxpayer.
“The other thing is that mining pays no royalties, not at all to the taxpayer,” Grijalva said. “So it’s a double win for them. They can extract what they want, the vast majority for exportation outside the country, and the taxpayer receives, from its public lands and waters, not one penny back.”
But the ban only applies to new mines. That means existing claims can be developed. One such claim is located about 13 miles from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. It’s owned by Energy Fuels Inc., and it used to be called the Canyon Mine, but the company changed the name to the Pinyon Plain Mine for public relations reasons. Curtis Moore, a spokesman for the company, disputes the claim the mine might affect groundwater.
“There’s no chance we’re going to impact groundwater,” Moore said. “I mean we would not be allowed to proceed with that mine if there was any reasonable chance that any springs or seeps or anything inside the Grand Canyon would be impacted.”
But Amber Reimondo, of the Grand Canyon Trust, says that new research shows that mining that close to the park could have an impact on groundwater.
“The Grand Canyon region is a very complex groundwater environment. The geology is very fractured. And so it’s very difficult to predict where contaminated groundwater from one location will flow to.”
Hydrologists have learned more in recent years about how groundwater moves in the region. Some studies have traced snowmelt on the North Rim to springs at the bottom of the Canyon.
“Groundwater travels,” Reimondo said. “And we know for sure that groundwater can travel at least up to 20 miles horizontally just based on one of the studies that was done on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.”
Mining also consumes a lot of water. In 2016, Energy Fuels struck an aquifer while working on the Pinyon Plain Mine. The company has had to pump the water and dispose of it ever since.
“In the 1980s when they were trying to get permits they were telling the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality like, we’re not going to hit water, if we do hit water it’ll just be a little bit,” Reimondo said. “Here we are in 2021 and they’ve taken on over 40 million gallons of groundwater in that mine shaft in the last five years.”
Conservationists say the mine should be shut down, but the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality recently said it intends to issue a new Aquifer Protection Permit to Energy Fuels. The Geological Survey has stayed out of the controversy. It wants to do more research before it issues an opinion. But about a year ago the USGS published a paper that acknowledged that potential impacts of mining are unclear, and that existing policies may not be enough to protect water supplies.