Nuclear-power officials vow to mine uranium 'the right way'
DENVER — Uranium-mining leaders and federal regulators poised to fuel a resurgent nuclear power industry vowed to do a better job of protecting the environment in the future, but drew a group of protester nonetheless.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials meeting in Denver on Wednesday indicated they're expecting applications for uranium projects at 25 sites by 2013, along with applications to establish 28 new nuclear power plants.
The country now imports 95 percent of the uranium used at existing nuclear power plants, said Katie Sweeney, general counsel for the National Mining Association, which is running the conference in Denver. Foreign suppliers include Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan and Russia.
"Do we want to rely on ourselves, or do we want to rely on foreign sources?" Sweeney said. The smartest course, she said, is for domestic uranium producers to "do it right. Mine uranium the right way. It can be done."
Nuclear plants currently generate 20 percent of the electricity in the country. Growing concern over climate change has propelled new interest in nuclear energy, which produces no carbon dioxide. Proponents tout nuclear power as a clean alternative to coal-fired plants — an available method that could help reduce human impact on the atmosphere.
But outside the conference Wednesday, American Indian demonstrators with drums and signs demanded a halt to all new uranium mining on Navajo land, where federal regulators have permitted several projects.
"Our Navajo communities rely on the groundwater for everything. These new projects could contaminate the source of drinking water for 15,000 Navajo community members," said Nadine Padilla of the Multicultural Alliance for Safe Environments. "Our communities are still living with the legacy of contamination from past uranium mining."
Uranium companies and regulators "need to deal with the legacy of past contamination before we would even consider new mining," she said.
Federal regulators say their oversight is stricter now than during the Cold War.
The agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of uranium operations are structurally different from the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, the agency responsible for offshore oil drilling that now is being dismantled, NRC spokesman Dave McIntyre said. "We do not lease property. We do not profit from Recovery Act activities."
If more uranium is mined and processed, "there will certainly be a market for it — wherever it comes from," McIntyre said.
Federal regulators believe uranium can be mined and milled without hurting people and the environment, he said. "It's up to the industry to decide if they want to do it." he said. "I don't think industry ever likes the regulatory scheme 100 percent, but they have to live with it."