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Colorado Town Divided Over Uranium Mine
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Colorado Town Divided Over Uranium Mine

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Colorado Town Divided Over Uranium Mine

Colorado Town Divided Over Uranium Mine
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The White House is pushing nuclear energy, but is fighting a huge perception problem — especially when it comes to mining the uranium needed to fuel the power plants. Just getting the uranium out of the ground to fuel nuclear reactors is creating a battle in Colorado.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Obama has been a big backer of the financial overhaul. He also says he wants to see major changes in the U.S. approach to energy. For the president, part of that future hinges on nuclear power. But nuclear power remains controversial. Just getting the uranium out of the ground to fuel nuclear reactors is creating a battle in Colorado.

Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC takes us to the site of a massive proposed uranium mine north of Denver.

KIRK SIEGLER: Powertech CEO Richard Clement says we're at the cusp of a nuclear power renaissance. There's just one thing standing in the way - us.

Mr. RICHARD CLEMENT (CEO, Powertech): People have a misunderstanding about uranium and nuclear power in general. People conceive of uranium being a major radioactive substance where that if you just become associated with it you're going to be irradiated and killed.

SIEGLER: Clement says this is perpetuated in the movies and TV.

Take this clip from the show "24."

(Soundbite of TV show "24")

Unidentified Actor #1: I hear there are materials for sale. Expensive materials - dangerous ones.

Unidentified Actor #2: Talk straight. What materials?

Unidentified Actor #1: Nuclear rods, highly enriched uranium.

SIEGLER: Those nuclear rods were headed for a power plant but were intercepted by a terrorist who then dies from exposure to uranium.

Mr. CLEMENT: Makes for good TV.

SIEGLER: But Clement says that physically can't happen. Nuclear fuel does release tiny little particles called alphas. But he says they can't penetrate air beyond 12 inches around them. This sounds comforting, since we are driving on a dirt road atop a uranium deposit of more than nine million pounds.

Now Powertech wants to deploy an increasingly popular process called in situ to recover it. A fire hose would be injected a couple hundred feet below us to break up the uranium and pump it back to the surface.

Mr. CLEMENT: People just don't understand what we're trying to accomplish here, and really it's a very non-invasive type development.

SIEGLER: Now just a couple of miles away from the proposed uranium mine is the small town of Nunn, Colorado. I'm standing here in the center of town underneath a huge water tower. And on that water tower are the words, Watch Nunn Grow.

Ms. ROBIN DAVIS: And then we got to thinking about the water tower in Nunn, and so we said, well, we don't want to watch Nunn glow. And that's how we actually came up with our bumper stickers. We did a "hell no, we won't glow" bumper sticker also.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGLER: Robin Davis likes to evoke images of earlier battles waged against nuclear power when fighting Powertech's proposal.

Ms. DAVIS: I know that the industry says, oh, you're creating a fear factor. Well, you know, the reality is that it is scary to think about having things in your water. And if people can latch onto, you know, hell no, we won't glow, we don't want to watch Nunn glow, it's about marketing really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGLER: Davis is actually more worried about groundwater contamination than she is radiation. And history is on her side. During the last uranium mining boom in the 1970s, open pit mining sickened workers and poisonous byproducts like arsenic polluted some rivers and drinking water supplies across the West.

Professor K.K. DUVIVIER (Environmental Law, University of Denver): Undoubtedly, I think that any uranium mine right now has a problem because of some of the past record.

SIEGLER: K.K. Duvivier is a retired geologist who teaches environmental law at the University of Denver. She says companies around the U.S. are beginning to show that new technologies will allow uranium to be mined safely with a minimal footprint.

And make no mistake, nuclear power advocates like Richard Clement are mobilizing their PR machines.

Mr. CLEMENT: We're doing mining in the cleanest, most environmentally sound method that can be done.

SIEGLER: And that's a priority for Colorado. Powertech's project has been delayed as the state rewrites regulations to protect groundwater from toxic runoff. Because Colorado has a sizeable chunk of the country's uranium deposits, they're trying to make sure that President Obama's push for clean green energy is done right.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler.

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