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Uranium Bailout Bill

If Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico has his way, at least $30 million of your tax money will be funding construction, operation and cleanup of new uranium solution mines — even those proposed for sites in Navajo communities in northwestern New Mexico.

Domenici's proposed Nuclear Energy Electricity Supply Assurance Act (S.472) not only seeks to resurrect the nuclear power industry, but also would rescue the moribund domestic uranium industry through direct taxpayer subsidies.

A provision in the bill would appropriate $10 million to the Department of Energy (DOE) for each of three years beginning in 2002 for "cooperative, cost-shared, agreements between the Department and the domestic uranium mining industry to identify, test, and develop improved in-situ leaching mining technologies . . ." and "funding for competitively selected demonstration projects with the domestic uranium mining industry relating to enhanced production . . ., restoration of well fields, and decommissioning and decontamination activities."

This money could be used to bail out a few small, financially strapped companies that are conducting or proposing to conduct uranium in situ leach (ISL) mining, such as Uranium Resources, Inc. (URI), of Dallas, and its New Mexico subsidiary, Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI). It laid off much of its work force in 1999, threatened bankruptcy several times, has not been audited for two successive years, and URI's stock is presently being traded for less than 10 cents a share. HRI proposes to construct and operate ISL mines at four sites in the Navajo communities of Church Rock and Crownpoint, and has received a uranium ISL mining license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). That license is the subject of an ongoing administrative litigation brought by NMELC on behalf of two clients, Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) and SRIC. (See related story.)

Domenici's bill pulls no punches in its intent to make the federal government a direct partner in the production of nuclear fuel. This policy is reminiscent of the early days of the nuclear industry between 1949 and 1971, when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to NRC, promoted development of nuclear energy and facilitated uranium mining, especially in the Four Corners Area, through its statutory position as the sole buyer of "special nuclear material", or uranium.

The legislation finds, for instance, that "to ensure the long-term reliability of supplies of nuclear fuel, the United States must ensure that the domestic uranium mining, conversion, and enrichment service industries remain viable." The bill bars DOE from selling any of its stock of surplus uranium through 2006, and then limits how much it can sell thereafter. By barring government sales of its uranium inventory, the bill artificially creates a stronger market for private, domestic uranium mines. This provision turns free-market economics on its head.

It also appears to contravene three important nuclear policies backed by Republicans and Democrats alike during the 1990s: The phased selling of the government's surplus uranium stockpile, the privatization of American uranium enrichment capacity through the U.S. Enrichment Corporation, and the importation of highly enriched, weapons-grade Russian uranium for "downblending" into commercial reactor fuel — a cornerstone of the U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policies.

For further information on S.472 and its uranium provisions, visit the SRIC website at www.sric.org/Uranium.

— Chris Shuey and Geoffrey H. Fettus, NMELC

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"Federal policy…has been to assure that "waste management problems shall not be deferred to other generations," and many environmental groups have shared the same view. Geological burial - at first glance anyway - looks like an ideal way to accomplish that since, after all, it "removes" the wastes from the environment and solves the problem once and for all. But in many ways entombment does just the opposite. It deliberately poisons a portion of the natural world for an endless stretch of time and in doing so it not only leaves future generations with thousands of tons of the most dangerous rubbish imaginable on their hands but makes it as difficult as the state of our technology permits for them to deal with it. We cannot promise our children - never mind those who will follow hundreds or thousands of years hence - that they will be safe from the wastes. And so long as that is so, we are not taking the problem out of their hands so much as we are taking the solution out of their hands."
Kai Erikson in
"Out of Sight, Out of Our Minds"
The New York Times Magazine
March 6, 1994.

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