Uranium — the raw material for nuclear power and nuclear weapons — is having a moment in the spotlight.
Companies such as Energy Fuels, Inc. have played well-publicized rolesin lobbying the Trump administration to reduce federal protection for public lands with uranium deposits. The Defense Department’s Nuclear Posture Review calls for new weapons production to expand the US nuclear arsenal, which could spur new domestic uranium mining. And the Interior Department is advocating more domestic uranium production, along with other materials identified as “critical minerals.”
What would expanded uranium mining in the US mean at the local level? I have studied the legacies of past uranium mining and milling in Western states for over a decade. My book examines dilemmas faced by uranium communities caught between harmful legacies of previous mining booms and the potential promise of new economic development.
These people and places are invisible to most Americans, but they helped make the United States an economic and military superpower. In my view, we owe it to them to learn from past mistakes and make more informed and sustainable decisions about possibly renewing uranium production than our nation made in the past.
Mining Regulations Have Failed to Protect Public Health
Today most of the uranium that powers US nuclear reactors is imported. But many communities still suffer impacts of uranium miningand milling that occurred for decades to fuel the US-Soviet nuclear arms race. These include environmental contamination, toxic spills, abandoned mines, under-addressed cancer and disease clusters and illnesses that citizens link to uranium exposure despite federal denials.
As World War II phased into the Cold War, US officials rapidly increased uranium production from the 1940s to the 1960s. Regulations were minimal to nonexistent and largely unenforced, even though the US Public Health Service knew that…