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Uranium in the Grand Canyon: USGS Report Examines Impacts of Mining

At Stake: 1 Million Acres that Could Help Fuel a U.S. Nuclear Energy Revival

By Dave Levitan

Feb 24, 2010

The dramatic potential for a meltdown and the dilemma posed by spent fuel tend to dominate discussions of nuclear power’s drawbacks, making it easy to forget the front end of that equation: uranium mining.

The United States imports the bulk of its nuclear fuel, but there are large deposits of uranium, mostly in the western part of the country, that could be mined. A from the U.S. Geological Survey looks at one such parcel of land in the Grand Canyon watershed area. It that previous mining activity in the region has not resulted in serious contamination of soil or groundwater, but environmental groups and others are still trying to halt what they fear could become a huge upsurge in uranium mining activity.

The study focused on an area covering about 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon — including land within a few miles of the Colorado River — where the Department of the Interior enacted a land segregation order in July 2009. That order started a two-year period during which the DOI will assess the impacts of extracting the resource and will eventually decide whether or not to "withdraw" the land from consideration for mining under the Mining Law of 1872; that withdrawal would last 20 years.

, the air and energy program director at the environmental group Grand Canyon Trust, said that commercial interest in uranium mining swung in the last decade when the price of the fuel shot from around $5 per pound to over $100 until settling recently to just below $50.

“With that upsurge in price of milled uranium, the demand has gone up, and the number of claims around the Grand Canyon has surged,” he said. “More than 10,000 new claims were filed in the last five years.”

Uranium mining in the geologic formations known as that abound in the area around the Grand Canyon did occur during the 1980s but diminished as the prices dropped. Now, in spite of the thousands of new claims, only one mine in the area is currently operating. Clark said Grand Canyon Trust has filed a lawsuit attempting to block it because of a lack of a thorough environmental impact assessment, but for the moment, the mining is ongoing.

Huge Uranium Deposits

The USGS report found that within the almost 1 million acres of segregated land there is an estimated 163,000 tons of uranium oxide, from which yellowcake or enriched uranium can be extracted. This represents about 12 percent of the total amount in the northern Arizona area.

It's difficult to estimate how much of the total uranium in the country that would be, "because for the last 30 years, there has been no federal assessment of minable uranium,” said James Otton, one of the study's authors and the project chief with the USGS for the Uranium Resources and the Environment project.

The Energy Information Administration, part of the Department of Energy, that the total uranium oxide reserves that could be mined — outside of restricted areas — at a price of $50 per pound is 445,000 tons (or 890 million pounds), but Otton said they will most likely update that quantity in the near future. The Obama administration and members of Congress have started pushing for a nuclear power revival after years of little new nuclear activity.

The 104 nuclear reactors currently operating in the United States use between 25,000 and 27,500 tons of uranium oxide per year, Otton said. Previous federal protections have already cut off about 460,000 tons of uranium oxide from mining in the Grand Canyon region.

balanced article?

You utilize an anti-mining advocate and impartial government scientists. But where is the pro-mining NGO to counter Roger Clark's opinions? The reader who commented above (Gregory) makes some excellent points. It is important to have someone with a different perspective incorporated into the article so that the public can determine the most reasonable course of action. Regardless of what side of the issue you are on, it's never good to allow any one side to make their case without any balance.

USGS report

Thank you for a fairly balanced article on this issue. I will add that probably 99% or more of the mining claims will be extinguished due to lack of "discovery" in the segregated areas should a withdrawal occur. Discovery gives a property right to the mineral claimant and has legal criteria that must be met to establish this property claim or Discovery. In a withdrawal, it is the Governments intention to cancel these claims so that it does not have to pay for them should they really really not want mining to happen.

Very few of the mining claims can meet the discovery criteria. This is mainly due to the fact that the ore is deeply buried and that drilling must be done and a core sample with high grade uranium must be taken from depth. This "exposes" to the surface a valuable mineral and then a case for discovery can be made. Most breccia pipes are not core drilled, but rotary drilled and then radiologically logged to determine the uranium content. However, the radiological logging is not accepted for "discovery" purposes.

There maybe a very few breccia pipes in the withdrawal area that have been drilled and a core taken. Due to the very high cost of core drilling, it is not industry practice to do very much core drilling.

I take great issue with the statements made by many of the enviornmentalist that have taken on this issue in the Grand Canyon area. They have generally waged a misinformation campaign and pretty much been lying about most everything. They are generally anti-nuclear and it does not matter where the mining is being done, they will be against it.

Much has been said about the possibility of exploration and mining somehow contaminating the Colorado River, but the anti-nuks neglect to inform the public or consider that about 50,000 lbs of uranium gets washed into the Grand Canyon down stream of Glen Canyon dam each year from sediment loads from tributary rivers and drainages. This is uranium that occurs naturally in soils that is eroded and washed down into the G.C. Due to the controlled release of water from the dam, much of this uranium bearing sediment is situated in buildups in the side canyons at the banks of the Colorado River.

When the simulated floods are arranged downstream of Glen Canyon Dam ,these sediments get mobilzed in the River. Why does not the hundreds of thousand of pounds of uranium mobilized in these floodings contaminate the river?? Where is the uproar from the enviros now?? In fact, most enviromental groups support these man made floods in the Grand Canyon exactly to redistribute these uranium bearing sediments. The enviros are now in favor of contaminating the River!!!

OMG!!!! How can this be!!!

Prior to the dams for Lake Powel and Lake Mead, the Colorado river carried over 800,000 lbs of uranium in the sediments that went down the river EACH YEAR! Was the river contaminated then?? This is why the low grade ore that was swept into the Colorado River during a flood had no affect on the river, it was literally a drop in a big bucket. Most of the uranium bearing sediments that flowed through the Grand Canyon are stacking up behind Glen Canyon Dam.

The small amount that uranium exploration and mining "might" contribute to the Colorado river would be insignificant and is only a maybe at best and a small amount anyway when compared to what is naturally being washed into the Canyon and especially compared to when the Colorado was a free flowing river. .

The USGS report indicates that the higher uranium levels found in ground water is associated with the uranium ore bodies....does this really surprise anyone!!! Helloooo!! There is no evidence that mining of the ore body increases the uranium in the ground water more than is naturally occuring.

One last point, the Secretary of the Interior on his authority alone, segregated the area for withdrawal pendinding the G.C. EIS to determine if a 20 year withdrawal is to be done. However, that 20 year withdrawal will be by his signature alone and will not have the force of law. The next Republican President would likely terminate this withdrawal and open this area up to mining once again.

If the science that is being done indicates that uranium exploration and mining will have little affect on the Grand Canyon and enviorns, the Secretary of the Interior would only be catering to the anti-nuclear elements of envirnmental groups for a short term political calculation, one that will be reversed with the first Republican Administration. That's the reality. The Congress will not withdrawal these lands as long as there are two Republican Senators from Arizona in Congress.

Thank for the link to my website by the way!! "breccia pipes"

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