Interior Debates Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon The nuclear emergency in Japan has prompted closer scrutiny of nuclear power around the globe. Yet, it has not slowed interest in mining uranium near the Grand Canyon, where there are some of the richest deposits in the country.
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Interior Debates Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon

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Interior Debates Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon

Interior Debates Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon

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The Interior Department is deciding whether to allow uranium mining near the Grand Canyon. The federal government owns land that appears to be rich with uranium deposits. Many people want to dig for it, ranging from big mining companies to individual prospectors. Daniel Kraker reports from our member station KNAU.

DANIEL KRAKER: Greg Yount hikes quickly across a rocky forest of juniper and pinon pines about 15 miles south of the Grand Canyon. He's taking me to one of his uranium claims.

Mr. GREG YOUNT: So here's my claim marker.

KRAKER: Yount pulls his claim, just a piece of paper, out of a plastic tube stuck in the ground.

Mr. YOUNT: Nice and fresh, too, look at that.

KRAKER: Yount isn't a big mining company CEO. He's a self-described treasure hunter from the little northern Arizona town of Chino Valley. So how does a retired mechanical engineer stake three uranium claims?

Mr. YOUNT: Google Earth was the big equalizer for a small guy.

KRAKER: Prior to that he would've had to pay a lot of money for aerial photography. Instead, Yount spent six months researching what to look for, pinpointed what he thought were some good targets, and then walked the ground, looking for signs of uranium.

(Soundbite of hammering)

He splits open a chunk of limestone. The rock is streaked reddish-orange.

Mr. YOUNT: This is actually going to be radioactive, and you can see that it's got all this iron mineralization in it. This also has quite a bit of uranium in it.

KRAKER: So you're basically kind of piecing together various clues then, huh?

Mr. YOUNT: Yeah, it's a little mystery to figure out.

KRAKER: And Yount thinks he solved it. He spent $30,000 on sophisticated geological tests to confirm there's uranium under his claim. But he won't know whether he can make money on it until he drills a test hole. And now he can't do that, because the government has called a timeout on any further exploration while it weighs potential environmental effects.

Soundbite of protesters chanting)

Group: No uranium mining, protect the Grand Canyon.

KRAKER: Protestors marched outside a recent public hearing on the issue in Flagstaff. They're concerned about increased truck traffic and impact on wildlife. But mainly they're scared that uranium from new mines could potentially leach into groundwater. Northern Arizona University hydrologist Abe Springer says if that happens, it would be impossible to clean up.

Dr. ABE SPRINGER (Hydrologist, Northern Arizona University): It's too deep, it's too inaccessible. So if it got to the aquifers, it's there until it discharges over thousands of years, and it stays hazardous that whole period of time.

KRAKER: Springer's concerned the government's environmental analysis does not consider a worst-case scenario, like a flash flood that could sweep uranium into aquifers.

Mr. TAYLOR MCKINNON (Public Lands Campaign Director, Center for Biological Diversity): The question that arises is how do we proceed in the face of uncertainty?

KRAKER: Taylor McKinnon is with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity.

Mr. MCKINNON: Do we err on the side of caution and not risk irretrievable harm to the Grand Canyon? Or do we err on the side of hubris and assume that we can do it safely?

KRAKER: Mining companies argue they can do it safely. Ron Hochstein is CEO of Denison Mines, which runs the only uranium mine currently operating near the Grand Canyon. He says he's fighting the ghosts of the industry past.

Mr. RON HOCHSTEIN (President and CEO, Denison Mines): All the modern mining that's been done shown that there's very little potential impact at all to any of the regional aquifers or to the groundwater in the area.

KRAKER: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will have the final say. The uranium reserves around the Grand Canyon are some of the richest in the country. But the Canyon's also one of the most precious natural jewels anywhere.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker.

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