Tribune Editorial: Let Utah’s uranium dreams decay

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) In this 2010 photo, a white line along the face of the Oljato Mesa in Monument Valley marks the Skyline uranium mine and its rubble piles that contaminate the land with radiation, just a few hundred feet from where Navajo residents have lived since the 1950's.

Ready for another uranium boom?

News that the Trump Administration may require the U.S. nuclear industry to use at least 25% American uranium is raising prospects and suspicions in southern Utah.

The reason given for this change is that it’s a matter of national security. The United States currently imports about 95% of uranium used in its nuclear power plants — including from Russia and China. A halt or reduction in imports could leave the nation vulnerable, the argument goes.

That would be more convincing if uranium was rare. But it’s mined across the globe. No single nation can control the market or decide who gets supplied.

The real reason is a familiar one: propping up a domestic industry with protectionism. The price of uranium has been flat or falling in recent years, and U.S. companies have shut down production. The 25% requirement would instantly quadruple the demand for U.S. yellowcake.

If that happens, we could see new life in old mines and mills in southeastern Utah — including near Bears Ears National Monument.

We have been here before, and we should know what to expect. Once again, the benefits will be fleeting. And, once again, the price will be paid long after the reward is spent.

In the 1950s, Moab became known as “the uranium capital of the world,” a speculative boom that was followed by the inevitable bust in the 1960s as the fantasy of a nuclear future was replaced by reality. Utah’s uranium industry has had a few ups but mainly downs ever since.

Same for Utahns who have worked in the industry. Uranium is radioactive. It sends out particles and gamma rays in numbers that disrupt biological life. The stuff is poison, and miners have to dig it out of the ground before mill workers concentrate it to make it more useful, and more hazardous. The federal government has compensated thousands for earlier mistakes. Radioactive waste remains a hazard across southeastern Utah.

For those willing to live dangerously in the name of prosperity, the cash flow would be brief, if it flows at all.

This is a widely available commodity being propped up by one president who may not be around in two years. If an honest market is allowed to return for U.S. nuclear plants, we’ll be in bust times again.

Even in our carbon-conscious era when nuclear energy is getting a second look, the uranium game is still for gamblers. And the odds look worse in a region now known more for its splendor than its isotopes.

Fool us twice? Shame on us.

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