Native tribe near the U.S. uranium mill hopes to find out if it's a health risk The Utah mill has long concerned a tribal community next door. They hope a new health study will answer their questions. "A lot of our people mysteriously started getting sick," a tribal member says.
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A U.S. uranium mill is near this tribe. A study may reveal if it poses a health risk

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The demand is building for carbon-free, climate-friendly energy. And because nuclear energy is increasingly in demand, America's only operating uranium mill is getting busier. But an Indigenous community nearby is worried about health impacts because regulators say the mill is violating air quality rules. From member station KSJD, Lucas Brady Woods reports.

LUCAS BRADY WOODS, BYLINE: On a dirt road cutting through the sandstone canyon country of southeast Utah, Michael Badback points out Bears Ears National Monument in the distance, a sacred site for the region's Indigenous people.

MICHAEL BADBACK: Look at the beauty in the rocks, in the formations of the hills. It's pure out here.

WOODS: Badback, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, lives nearby. Across the road, the White Mesa uranium mill produces fuel for nuclear reactors. A barbed wire fence here is fixed with signs that say, caution, radioactive materials.

BADBACK: We don't know the health issues of what comes along with this stuff. A lot of our people mysteriously started getting sick. And kids and other adults started to have asthma like they never had before.

WOODS: Definitively linking health conditions to environmental contamination is notoriously difficult. Energy Fuels resources, the company that owns and operates the mill, says there's nothing to worry about. Energy Fuels' Vice President Curtis Moore.

CURTIS MOORE: You will see very big fluctuations in naturally occurring elements. That's what we're seeing right now.

WOODS: Moore says the mill takes precautions. Radioactive waste is stored in specially designed cells that are covered with water to keep radiation from escaping into the air. But for at least two years, material in one 40-acre cell at the mill has been above water. In December, the EPA told Energy Fuels they need to cover it. Moore says the company is filling the pond. But...

MOORE: It'll take several months because we can only pull so much water out of our wells at a certain rate.

WOODS: Moore says the uncovered waste poses no danger and that filling up the pond during the ongoing drought is a waste of water. Scott Clow, environmental director for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, disagrees.

SCOTT CLOW: At the end of the day, the Clean Air Act says that that thing should have liquid on it.

WOODS: The EPA says the waste cell could be emitting up to 10 times more radiation than if it were under water. And Clow says the tribe is worried about water contamination, too. The Grand Canyon Trust, an advocacy group, says samples from the aquifer below the mill have concerning levels of acidity and contaminants like chloroform.

CLOW: It's clearly not natural. Those are orders of magnitude higher than what we would find in there naturally.

WOODS: Energy Fuels says the contamination is naturally occurring and not significant enough to impact people's health. State regulators agree and have loosened rules, allowing Energy Fuels to store increasingly radioactive waste onsite, including waste imported from overseas. Clow and members of the tribe he works for want more information.

CLOW: I am aware that there have been increased levels of cancer. We don't have any evidence tying that to the mill at this point, but we have our concerns.

WOODS: The tribe is launching a study to look for evidence. In June, the EPA gave them a grant to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on that. Results are expected in 2025. Michael Badback and other Ute Mountain Utes who live at White Mesa would be happier if the mill wasn't there at all.

BADBACK: This is still virgin land. And we want it to remain that way. That's how our ancestors used to walk on this land. And we want to walk on it like that and leave the legacy up to our grandchildren.

WOODS: But demand for fuel for U.S. nuclear power plants is growing. And Energy Fuels recently got a key permit for a uranium mine nearby in Arizona.

For NPR News, I'm Lucas Brady Woods.

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