Funny (or in this case, tragic) how the timing of certain events seems to coincide to bring an issue into perspective. In today's Arizona Republic, there was an article on the tripling in the price of Uranium over the past few years and the crippling legacy of past Uranium mining on the Navajo reservation.
FLAGSTAFF - The price of uranium has tripled in the past two years, bringing with it the possibility of another uranium rush in Arizona, the state with the richest deposits of the ore and, along with New Mexico, the worst legacy associated with its mining.
Last year, 700 mining claims were filed and 100 test holes were bored into the wild, remote high desert in northern Arizona...
Secondary supplies of uranium on the world market have virtually dried up, and China, India and Japan are clamoring for uranium for their burgeoning domestic nuclear-power industries. Uranium now fetches $36 a pound on the spot market. Four years ago, it was going for just over $7 a pound.
But not everyone is happy about the search for new mine sites. Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., stirred to action by the memory of how dangerous uranium mining can be, issued an executive order in November banning negotiations with uranium companies or uranium exploration on the three-state Navajo Nation, which was engulfed by a public health tragedy after the first wave of uranium mining began on its reservation in the 1950s. Dozens of premature deaths of Navajo miners and passed-on genetic defects have been attributed to uranium exposure.
"You look around the reservation and see so many elderly people who are crippled and can barely breathe," said Robert Stewart Sr.of Tuba City, a Navajo who worked for fiveyears in a mine in the mid- to late 1950s."This pretty much devastated much of a generation."
Joe Shirley is one of a vanishing brand of true leaders-- those who are willing to turn away the big bucks because the health and wellbeing of the people who they lead is more important. Of course, Mr. Shirley's authority ends at the borders of the reservation and as the article makes clear, the focus will now shift to lands just to the west of it. Uranium is dangerous. Whether in getting it out of the ground, processing it, using it in reactors, using it in 'depleted Uranium' shells, or figuring out which patch of earth to dispose of it in after use, it is just not a safe material to be around. Period.
But Uranium mines aren't the only dangerous endeavors associated with our continual thirst for energy. Today, we are watching the continuing drama unfolding in West Virginia, where an explosion ripped through a coal mine, with thirteen men missing at this hour. Three years ago, we watched and witnessed a true miracle when nine men were hauled out of the ground after another coal mining accident in Pennsylvania. We can only pray tonight for the safety and safe rescue of the thirteen men who may be trapped as far as a mile into a coal mine and 260 feet under ground in West Virginia. And we well know that coal produces pollution, although with modern technology, the level of pollutants produced by burning coal has been reduced to a fraction of what it once was. A fraction, however, is not zero, and coal pollution continues to be a problem. Further, new standards set by the Bush administration under the double-speak 'Clear skies act,' actually increased the allowable levels for a number of pollutants produced by burning coal.
Some years ago, I went to school at a school with a premier department of Petroleum Engineering, and met a number of men who had worked as a 'rough-necks' in oilfields. Several of them were missing fingers, and they told me quite a bit about the hazards involved in getting oil out of the ground. And oil produces a lot of the same pollutants as coal burning-- these fossil fuels together are responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming.
Now, I will say that there is no such thing as a completely safe energy source. And since as a society, we aren't willing to go without modern energy and live in the early colonial lifestyle that the development of the steam engine swept away, we accept that there will be some danger associated with obtaining it. We should always work to make mines, oil rigs and power stations as safe as possible both for those who work there and those who live nearby (as I do, with a coal fired electric plant less than two miles from my house, and employing a lot of my neighbors), but realistically there will always be some level of danger involved.
But, as today's headlines should make clear, shouldn't we do more in terms of energy conservation? Not only because it makes good financial sense for individuals, nations and the world, in fact everyone except energy execs, but in the long run conservation-- reducing the demand for energy by means of increased efficiency and less waste, will save lives. There won't be as much need for mines, so less mines and ergo less accidents or mining related diseases. Asking people to go get fuels for energy that will be used well is one thing, but asking them to get more of it just to cover the energy that is wasted is something else entirely.