Saturday, October 27, 2012

Pinon Ridge

The uranium mill I mentioned in my last post is what will, if approved, be the Pinon Ridge Uranium Mill. Pinon Ridge is the focus of my Master's thesis, so I will try to keep my summary short since, as you probably figured out, I could spend all day and into the next talking about it. Pinon Ridge may still be in the future, but like with everything else nuclear in the American West, the past is important to understanding it too.

In 2007, Energy Fuels, a Canadian uranium mining and milling company bought a piece of property not far from the town of Naturita, Colorado in western Montrose County. During the early and mid 2000s, the price of uranium took an upswing as a renewed interest in nuclear power drove the price of uranium oxide to nearly $140 a pound - the highest it has ever been. Spurred on by the excellent business environment, Energy Fuels proposed that July to build Pinon Ridge and revitalize the uranium business in western Colorado.

Uranium Mill Tailings Sites (Department of Energy)
During the heyday of uranium extraction, many mills operated in the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Now, only one, the White Mesa Mill in Monticello, Utah, operates.

Earlier this year, Energy Fuels and another Canadian uranium company, Denison Mines, decided to merge their American operations under the Energy Fuels name. That new company now owns White Mesa, Pinon Ridge, and around 20% of the total uranium production in the United States. 

Here is a video report from the New York Times on Pinon Ridge from 2010. While George Glasier no longer runs Energy Fuels, his successor, Stephen Antony has also worked in the uranium industry for decades as well. He also happens to be a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines.

Uranium extraction is such a small business that even the people who are on opposite sides of the issue know each other on a first name basis.

That's where things get complicated.

Ideally, we (collectively) like to label things as right/wrong or good/evil. The problem with Pinon Ridge is there is no "evil corporate empire" or "bunch of environmental activists" to point the blame at. Nuclear history, and the way people interpret it, is the reason one person can call Pinon Ridge a symbol of hope and another a symbol of impending disaster.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Down at the Drive In (We Love the Drive In)

Yes, that is a mesa. More importantly, it's a mesa in western Colorado. For all the glitz and glamor of the ski resort towns like Vail, Aspen, and Steamboat Springs, I will take the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains any day of the week.

Maybe it is because the sheer size of everything is amplified by the dramatic landscapes. Or, maybe it has to do with the fact I was raised on more John Wayne movies than I care to mention...pilgrim.

Really though, it's because a lot of the interesting parts of nuclear history in Colorado happened on the Western Slope. Take this campaign by the town of Naturita, Colorado to restore their iconic Uranium Drive-In sign:

Now, Naturita completed that project, as planned, and had that barbeque (once again, as planned) two Sundays ago.

Refurbished Uranium Drive-In sign (Telluride Daily Planet)
For as long as uranium mining has existed in the United States, Naturita has been central to the business. But, as Tami Lowrance, the Mayor of Naturita said, things haven't been so easy on the community for the last few decades. Since the uranium industry collapsed during the early 1980s, Naturita and the rest of Montrose County, Colorado have been on an unemployment roller coaster.

Let me give you an idea of how bad it has been: since 1990 the unemployment rate has bounced from as low as 3.1% in May of 2007 to as high as 12.8% in March of 2010. In addition, since 1990 Naturita's population has shrunk from about 800 people to just around 550, even when Montrose County's population has doubled to around 41,000.

So you see, the Uranium Drive-In sign isn't just a cultural artifact, it is, like Tami says, a "monument to the hope of our future." That future includes not only uranium mining, but potentially the first uranium mill licensed in the United States since the White Mesa Mill in 1980.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Rocky Road

But the Colorado Rocky Mountain High.... I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky... The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabyeee...Rocky Mountain Highhh...In Coloradooo...ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGHH...HIGH IN COLORADO


I'm a bit of a car singer.

By the way, thanks for coming out here for this trip, it's going to be a ton of fun. Now I'm guessing by the huge amount of outdoors gear you guys packed that you plan to do a little bit of recreating here. That's cool, getting into the outdoors is almost a legal requirement in Colorado. Lucky for you, there happens to be a lot of open space for doing stuff here in the Denver area. Western Denver is full of lots of open spaces: parks, trails, musical venues, wildlife refuges set on the site of former nuclear weapons plants. What, you've never heard about Denver's nuclear past? Here, take a look at this:


Video and Images credit:

The Rocky Flats Cold War Museum

Friday, October 12, 2012

Go West, Nuclear Technology!

Reporters Viewing Shot Priscilla on Frenchman Flat

As you have probably guessed, I have a slight affinity for atomic history. Just a slight one. I swear I didn’t jump up and down like a kid when I got to go on a tour of the Nevada Test Site (now Nevada National Security Site). Sadly, I don’t have any pictures from that tour (they strip you of all non-essential electronics), but I did get to pick the brain of our tour guide, a talkative older gentleman who has lived in Las Vegas and worked at the “Site” since it first came into existence during the early 1950s. I strongly suggest bothering the old timers when you can, as the way they tell the story of nuclear technology in the American West is as valuable as the story itself. 

Still, why care about nuclear history? It's the past, right?

Nuclear history isn't a static subject; it lives, breathes, and gives identity and purpose to places throughout the American West. Some of these places (White Sands, Los Alamos, Nevada Test Site) are well known. But have you heard of Naturita? Grants? Jeffrey City? Monticello? Arco? Almost every state in the American West has a town (or two) with a long history of nuclear technology, and each tells a different part of the bigger story. 

Over the next few months, I want to take you on a digital "driving tour" of the American West and visit some of the major towns in nuclear history. So get your backpacking gear, pull out the cowboy hat, and brush up on what "Rocky Mountain Oysters" are because we're kicking this trip off in the Mile-High City of Denver, Colorado!

No, we aren’t going to hit the slopes. At least not yet.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Rock Steady

How does water connect permafrost in Siberia, an arid town in eastern Utah, and nuclear power?

Climate Change! (cue conspiracy movie music)

Now, before you start envisioning me as a David Duchovny-esque character, let me explain:

Way back in 2001, when I still had all the lyrics to Sting’s Nothing Like The Sun album committed to memory (yes, I had strange music tastes when I was younger), Three researchers with the University of Delaware’s Permafrost Research Group, Frederick Nelson, Oleg Anisimov, and Nikolay Shiklomanov, decided to compile a set of maps on permafrost and climate change. Permafrost is, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “permanently frozen ground." This ground, typically some distance below the surface has been frozen for potentially thousands of years. 

The distribution of permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere

Nations such as Russia have used permafrost ground as stable earth for building towns and industrial facilities in Eastern Siberia. In the United States, parts of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline system sit atop permafrost tundra. 

Trans-Alaska Pipeline

In recent decades, the permafrost in many northern locales has begun to melt. Melting permafrost is a serious problem for buildings, roads, etc. because of something earth scientists call subsidence. Think about subsidence like a sinkhole, but over a very large stretch of land. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has a great page on subsidence and examples of it in our everyday life. For the scientists in this study, the primary issue of concern was what will happen to the land on the coast and in the permafrost regions that are populated.

Subsidence Risk Map from Author's Paper

According to their model, subsidence could cause the coastline along the Arctic Circle to erode, the land underneath pipelines in Russia and Alaska to sink, and cause major damage to buildings and other infrastructure, such as Russia's Bilibino Nuclear Power Station - the northernmost nuclear power plant in the world.

Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant (from PNNL Website)

Here is where the Eastern Utah connection comes in.

Another major effect of temperature rise due to climate change is that water resources will become more scarce then they already are, especially for arid regions of the world. In the American West, water especially that of the Colorado River is already treated as liquid gold. To quote Frank Herbert, “Water is Life,” and people in the American West know it

The Green River in Eastern Utah

Along the Green River in Utah, a “energy infrastructure company” named Blue Castle Holdings is attempting to build the first ever commercial nuclear power plant in the state of Utah:

To accomplish this, Blue Castle needs a large amount of water to cool the non-radioactive systems in the power plant. Earlier this year, the state of Utah approved the necessary water rights to get the project on its way. Of the 4.4 million acre feet (only 1.4 trillion gallons) of water that flow through the Green River each year, Blue Castle says they only need around 53,000 acre feet to provide cooling to the proposed two-reactor, 3,000 Megawatt, power plant. Nonetheless, environmental and anti-nuclear groups in Utah oppose the project, citing that the state neither wants nor needs a nuclear energy plant that will draw precious water from a major tributary of the Colorado River.

One issue that neither side has brought up is how will climate change impact the availability of water to the power plant and communities downstream of it?  Water rights in the American West are, at best, complex, and the presence of a very large nuclear power plant will only complicate a decades old problem

Water Used By Thermoelectric (Coal, Nuclear, etc.) Power Plants Per Day

Supporters of nuclear energy present the technology as a “carbon-free” source of electricity that can help us meet our energy needs and combat climate change. However, the relationship between nuclear power and climate change is paradoxical: nuclear power plants today need lots of water to cool their power producing equipment, but this water is disappearing in arid climates such as Utah because of climate change.