Congressional Republicans tried to open the Grand Canyon to uranium mining last year, and everyone and their mother revolted. It was such a hideously unpopular idea that Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar ceremoniously signed a moratorium on all further mining in or around the celebrated national landmark. Key words: all “further” mining—his agreement grandfathered in ongoing mining projects, and left shuttered or undeveloped mines that had previously been approved the right to resume digging.
And so we get what we have here today—one uranium mine that’s still operating right on the rim of the Grand Canyon, and 11 more that could resume operations shortly.
Jessica Goad explains the situation over at Climate Progress: “Although Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar set one million acres off-limits to mineral extraction this past January, that decision applied only to new mining claims, not those already in existence. There are approximately 3,500 mining claims that may be valid — potentially resulting in up to 11 uranium mines near the Grand Canyon.” And, adding further alarm, “these new mines are moving forward under environmental studies and plans of operation last approved in the 1980s.”
Savvy companies, among them a particularly ambitious one called Energy Fuels Incorporated, spotted the loophole and bought up the idle mines from the American companies that they hadn’t developed or had abandoned. And despite the symbolic moratorium, they’ll legally be able to start strip mining one of the most beloved American tourist destinations for uranium that they’re probably going to sell to China.
See, while demand for uranium has pretty much been stable through the fallout of the Fukushima crisis—a fact that’s a little weird in and of itself—China is about to start bringing uranium-hungry nuke plants online in a big way. And Energy Fuels Inc.‘s own documents project that rise will lead to an increased demand for uranium. From the company’s Management’s Discussion & Analysis:
“The spot uranium price per lb. of U3O8 was $52.00 at February 24, 2012, no change from the price per lb. at September 30, 2011. While uranium prices have stabilized since the earthquake in Japan which caused severe damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plants, most forecasts continue to predict long-term upward trending uranium market prices as China, India, Russia and other nations with expansive nuclear plant construction programs begin to bring new plants on-line.
As a result of the positive market forecast, the Company's goal is to have fully-integrated production capability by 2013-2015."
That refers to its entire portfolio of projects, which includes a new uranium mill in Colorado. As for the “long-term upward trending uranium” prices abroad, that’s pretty much thanks to China. Sure, Russia and India have some nuke plants coming online—so does the U.S., South Korea, and Canada—but there’s little doubt that China will be driving demand. Just look at this graph from the World Nuclear Association, and weep:
In coming years, half of the world’s new nuclear power plants will be built in China. So, as with coal, American companies are looking to export uranium to the power-thirsty giant. Even if it means blasting away at the Grand Canyon to do it.