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Here’s what a Utah uranium mine is like today

The drive for clean energy is driving uranium prices back up and leading mines to reopen — with modern safety practices. Opponents remain skeptical.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Miners in the La Sal mine on Monday, April 29, 2024. Today, uranium mining is undergoing a renaissance on the Colorado Plateau. Scientists, the industry and regulators say that they now know how to mine uranium with far less harm to people and the environment.

In southwestern Colorado, 85-year-old Jim Fisher copes with the lung illness that’s a legacy of his years underground, mining uranium in Utah.

He’s a member of the generation of workers who mined, milled or transported the radioactive rock during the Cold War to meet demand from a U.S. government intent on developing nuclear weapons to keep up with Russia. Along with an apology for the cancers and lung diseases they later developed, the U.S. has paid more than $2.6 billion in compensation to them and others exposed to radiation from nuclear weapons testing.

Today, uranium mining is undergoing a renaissance on the Colorado Plateau. And Fisher’s son, Race, descends hundreds of feet beneath the La Sal Mountains to work in the same mine his father managed in the 1960s.

This time, the industry promises and the Fishers believe, it will be different.

The Biden administration set a goal to have the country’s electricity fully provided by clean power by 2035. Targets like this one are driving a renewed focus on developing nuclear energy domestically, and are driving higher prices for uranium, the metal most widely used as fuel for nuclear fission.

Since the mines now reopening in Utah and across the Southwest shuttered, researchers, politicians, local communities and environmentalists have come to more deeply understand the impacts of burning fossil fuels. Combusting coal, oil and gas traps heat in the atmosphere, warming the earth, causing stronger storms, longer droughts and sea level rise.

Advocates of nuclear power see it as a vital alternative. And scientists, the industry and regulators say that they now know how to mine uranium with far less harm to people and the environment.

Mines monitor groundwater for radiation. Regulators require extensive ventilation systems that push clean air into mines and pull hazardous gases out. In higher-grade uranium mines, workers routinely wear personal dosimeters that measure their exposure to radiation.

“From when my dad started mining until now,” Race Fisher said, “it’s a night-and-day difference.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Race Fisher in the La Sal mine.

The industry can be pressed to continue to improve safety and reduce its impacts, but rejecting domestic uranium mining or nuclear energy altogether isn’t smart, said Isabel Barton, associate professor at the University of Arizona Department of Mining and Geological Engineering.

“If we shut down our mines here because of understandable concerns about the legacy from the last time around,” Barton said, “that demand [for energy] isn’t going to go away.”

”People aren’t going to say, ‘All right, in order to minimize the demand for this type of energy that I oppose, I’m going to shut off the electricity to my house for one month a year,” she said. “We’re going to keep wanting the electricity.”

Still, many environmentalists say that it’s unnecessary to mine uranium on the Colorado Plateau, one of the world’s most sensitive, arid landscapes, when the U.S. can continue to import higher-grade uranium from allies like Australia and Canada.

And the region’s tribes largely oppose uranium development — not convinced that these changes should allay their fears that history is repeating itself.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Descending into the uranium mine. Clean energy targets are driving higher prices for uranium, the metal most widely used as fuel for nuclear fission.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Suspended yellow tubes snake across the rock overhead, delivering clean air from above.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) An ore deposit that contains uranium.

What’s changed for miners?

Beneath the La Sal Mountains and a sagebrush plain, the uranium mine where Race Fisher works unfurls underground like an ant farm. The extraction here is called “gopher hole” mining — the basics of which haven’t changed much since his father’s time.

Miners still go deep underground, using drills and Geiger counters to identify pockets of uranium ore. They then detonate explosives to break up the rock and trucks haul ore up to the surface.

The mines in La Sal — owned by Energy Fuels Resources Inc., headquartered in Denver — follow uranium deposits along ancient riverbeds, which run like ribbons under the ground.

Hunting them down, Race Fisher said, “is real thrilling. We’re chasing the leads and the colors …[the ore] will pinch down pretty thin and then it will balloon back up, pinch down, balloon up. You just got to follow it.”

Miners’ headlights illuminate those colors underground. Suspended yellow tubes snake across the rock overhead, delivering clean air from the world above and sucking out stale air. Miners wear hearing protection to muffle the deafening drone of that ventilation, which wasn’t required or as sophisticated decades ago.

Uranium miners risk breathing in radioactive gases, like radon, which naturally forms as uranium breaks down, as well as dust and diesel exhaust — all known to cause cancer. In past decades, drilled holes would allow oxygen into the mines, but there was no system to pull dangerous gases out.

“This is something that was only partly understood in the mid-20th century,” Barton said. Effective ventilation neutralizes the main hazards to Colorado Plateau miners, she said, who are extracting lower-grade and less radioactive uranium.

As for the region’s uranium ore itself, Barton said, “a bunch of my uranium samples are sitting right over there in my office and have been for a couple of years now. It really is mostly just a rock.”

Moore said that all of Energy Fuels’ employees who work closely with uranium wear dosimeters. Due to the less radioactive ore in the La Sal mine, Race Fisher and his coworkers weren’t wearing them on a recent workday, and he said they generally don’t. “Concentrations in the mine are so low that they wouldn’t be picking up on that,” he said.

Uranium miners in Jim Fisher’s time often smoked cigarettes at work, exacerbating their risk of lung cancer when they inhaled radon and uranium dust. Today, Energy Fuels does not permit miners to smoke in their mines.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Miner Todd Eldredge in the La Sal mine.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bill Hemphill and Todd Eldredge.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bill Hemphill with a respirator around his neck.

“Most of our workers receive radiation doses that are actually 75% below occupational limits, and far below any levels where adverse health impacts could be observed by scientists,” said Curtis Moore, the company’s senior vice president of marketing and corporate development.

“While radon gas poses a concern no matter where it’s found, we actively monitor and mitigate exposure,” Moore said, “making our mine sites safer than some rooms in many Utahns’ homes.”

Radon densities are typically measured in becquerels per cubic meter — which counts how many radon particles decay per second. The median home in Utah has a concentration of 100 becquerels per cubic meter — double the national average — based on tests tracked by the Utah Department of Health. The World Health Organization recommends reducing radon in a home over the 100 becquerel mark, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends taking action at 148.

Underground mines are required to develop ventilation plans that are evaluated on an annual basis by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, under the U.S. Department of Labor.

Uranium mining still carries a risk, as miners are still exposed to radioactive gases and carcinogens.

“Regulations are not perfect at preventing potential harm,” said Amber Reimondo, energy director for the environmental nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust. “We have to be careful about assuming that because a regulation is there or that it exists that there’s nothing to worry about.”

Congress has been divided over whether to continue to pay for the poor health of past uranium workers. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, passed in 1990 and expanded in 2000, offers miners and others in the industry between 1942 and 1971 a one-time payment of $100,000 if they have a qualifying illness. But that law expired Friday.

What’s changed for the environment?

As former miners continue to face cancers and other illnesses, there also are lingering environmental impacts from uranium mining — such as groundwater contamination and depletion on the parched Colorado Plateau.

Uranium decays into radium, a radionuclide that cannot be destroyed or degraded. Removing radionuclides from groundwater is costly and difficult.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that over 500 abandoned uranium mine claims from the 1940s to 1980s remain on the Navajo Nation today. Federal and tribal agencies in 2008 found 29 unregulated water sources on the Navajo Nation that exceeded the EPA’s drinking water standards for uranium and other radionuclides, a result of past uranium activity.

(SMH | AP) Signs along the Rio Puerco warn residents in three languages to avoid the water in Church Rock, N.M. in 1979.

The industry asserts that this is another past hazard that can be mitigated with new protections.

Today, mining companies are required to test groundwater for contamination using monitoring wells. The EPA and the U.S Nuclear Regulatory Commission set and enforce water protection standards for uranium mining.

Moore said that Energy Fuels complies with those monitoring standards and that the company removes the mined uranium-bearing ore from sites before the metal can leech into groundwater.

“All metal mining has inherent hazards and risks to human health, safety and the environment that must be addressed. Uranium mining is no different, and the hazards are well-known and easily mitigated,” Moore said. “Today, uranium mining is a relatively low-risk activity.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The mining industry asserts that past hazards that can be mitigated with new protections.

Companies also make plans — and post bonds to support — the eventual closing of a modern mine. Utah law states that mined land must be reclaimed “to prevent conditions detrimental to the general safety and welfare of the citizens of the state and to provide for the subsequent use of the lands affected.”

The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining oversees bonding and reclamation requirements — including the remediation, or cleanup, of contamination or other damage — for when the uranium mine will no longer be in operation.

Energy Fuels estimates that it will cost $932,000 to eventually reclaim the La Sal Mines Complex, including demolishing the facility and restoring nearly 70 acres of disturbed land. That bond amount will be reevaluated in 2027.

Those requirements mean mining companies today focus on preventing environmental damage from the start, Barton said.

”It is axiomatic in mining that the ounce of prevention is worth many, many megatons of cure,” she said. ”What you find in mining today, which again, was not a thing back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, is a fierce dedication to preventing any kind of remediation from being necessary.”

Reimondo of the Grand Canyon Trust, like other environmental advocates, remains skeptical. “It’s one thing to make a mess and be able to clean it up,” said Reimondo. “It’s another to make a mess with something that is very difficult, if not impossible, to clean up.”

A 2011 report from the Revenue Watch Institute estimates that American Indian lands contain as much as 50% of the U.S.’s potential uranium reserves. Environmentalists and tribal communities have advocated for moratoriums on uranium mining throughout the Colorado Plateau in an effort to prevent potential hazards. These groups also lobby for national monument designations, which can come with bans on extraction.

“We’re still losing our loved ones,” said Tara Benally, a Diné resident of San Juan County, about the ramifications of the last uranium boom in Utah. “And to have [lawmakers] not see that and understand that is just completely inhumane.”

Importing vs. mining uranium in the U.S.

(Kendrick Brinson | The New York Times) Steam comes out of the Unit 3 cooling tower at the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Waynesboro, Ga., on Sept. 13, 2023.

Nuclear power accounted for nearly 19% of the electricity generated nationwide last year. Fossil fuels accounted for 60%, while renewable energy sources, like wind, hydropower and solar, provided 21%.

The vast majority of the uranium used in American nuclear reactors is imported. The U.S. is home to just 1% of the world’s available uranium resources, according to the World Nuclear Association; uranium is “more abundant and cheaper to produce in other countries,” the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports.

That argues for less domestic uranium development, Reimondo said.

“On the Colorado Plateau, I think the answer is that we don’t need to be doing it here,” Reimondo said. “It’s too arid, water is too precious and we don’t have anything to sacrifice.”

But relying solely on imported uranium puts national security — the priority behind the last uranium boom — at risk, the industry contends. In 2022, the U.S. purchased 48% of its uranium from Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan. Allies Canada and Australia made up 27% and 9%, respectively.

In May, the industry praised President Joe Biden’s move to ban on Russian uranium imports, which simultaneously unlocked $2.7 billion to expand domestic nuclear fuel production.

For Barton, who completed the dissertation for her doctorate on cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, national security isn’t the only concern. The U.S. has mining regulations and labor practices that other countries don’t, she points out.

“People are, in my experience, a little naive sometimes about the trade-offs involved in the modern lifestyle. There’s no free lunch,” she said.

”And pretending that there is actually does a lot of damage to the environment and society by pushing that cost onto people who, unlike your average American environmental activist, can’t really fight back,” Barton said.

“I’m a proponent of keeping mining where we can keep an eye on it,” she added.

Demands for energy around the world — and the corresponding emissions — are on track to increase through 2050, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, assuming no new laws or regulations.

Race Fisher — who has seven daughters, none of whom he said are interested in mining — has worked at the La Sal Mines sporadically since the 1980s. He left when uranium prices dropped, but he’s been back at the site since 1999. And from his point of view, environmentalists who value clean energy have finally caught up — in recognizing the value of his work.

“I like this type of mining. The area is awesome. You’re not going to find a better area than here with all there is to do. It’s just a good, clean mining job,” he said. “Uranium mining is probably the safest, best ground I’ve ever worked in.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Miners return to the surface at the La Sal mine on Monday, April 29, 2024.