Rendering of an AP1000 nuclear reactor.

Rendering of an AP1000 nuclear reactor.

U.S. Approves First Nuclear Plants Since 1978. Should Indian Country Be Worried?

By a vote of 4 to 1, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has given the go-ahead for the construction of two new nuclear reactors in Georgia. In December, the NRC approved a new reactor design, the AP1000, devised by Westinghouse Electric. Southern Company plans to build two AP1000s at its Vogtle site, near Augusta.

The last time the NRC approved construction of a new reactor was 1978, a year before a partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.

According to an AP report, Southern Company’s chairman and CEO Thomas A. Fanning hailed the NRC vote as “a monumental accomplishment for Southern Company, Georgia Power, our partners and the nuclear industry” and added that his firm was “committed to bringing these units online to deliver clean, safe and reliable energy to our customers.” But Allison Fisher, of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said that “It is inexplicable that we’ve chosen this moment in history to expand the use of a failed and dangerous technology.”

It has been less than a year since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, an event that turned public opinion in the United States against nuclear power. As reported in the New York Times, just 43% of Americans polled in March 2011 said they would approve of building new nuclear reactors for the generation of electricity. In 2008, with soaring gas prices and concern over global warming, 57% of those polled approved of building new nuclear plants. That was the highest number since the 69% approval of nuclear power in 1977, prior to the Three Mile Island disaster. (The all-time low for New York Times or CBS News opinion polling on nuclear power plants the 34% approval registered in 1986, after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.)

Most news reports—this one included—inevitably invoke the Three Mile Island disaster as the late-70s wake-up call regarding the danger of nuclear power. However, in much of Indian country, the Church Rock uranium mill spill is remembered just as vividly—as it should be, for in truth it was a larger accident. When the system of tailings ponds near Church Rock, New Mexico failed, more than 1,000 tons of radioactive waste was released into the Puerco River. Today, the Northeast Church Rock Mine is a designated Superfund site.

In the drama that is the history of America’s quest to power itself, Native Americans have been in almost every scene, but usually as background players. Whether it’s coal mining, uranium mining, or conventional oil drilling, or newsier issues like fracking, tar sands extraction, wind farms and solar power, you will find Indians living on land that has unexpected value, or Indian land doomed to be used with or without its stewards’ consent, or Indians who simply welcome a mine or well as a way to earn a living.

Arizona Rep. Raúl M. Grijalv, in an editorial for this site, explained the oft-repeated scenario as “big mining interests want to cash in on minerals under some ground they don’t own, and the rest of us are going to pay the price.”

With today’s announcement, the United States may be trying again for the “nuclear renaissance” that was supposed to happen but didn’t. There are currently 104 nuclear reactors in operation, and these two new Georgia reactors look to be the first of many additions. According to an AP report, the NRC will next consider the application filed by the SCANA Corp. to build two AP1000s at a plant in Jenkinsville, South Carolina. Applications to build AP1000 plants in Florida and North Carolina, and another in South Carolina, have also been filed. More reactors will mean more demand for uranium. But from where?

The Grand Canyon is protected from uranium mining, for now. But in a development that strikes some as mind-boggling, the New Mexico Environment Department has been working with mining company Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI), to permit leach mining of uranium on sites at Crownpoint and, yes, Church Rock. Although there is a ban on uranium mining on Navajo land, HRI’s sites are on private land in the so-called “checkerboard” area that adjoins the Navajo Nation. The fight against HRI has been going on since 1994.

On the same day that the NRC announced the approval of the two new plants, finance blogger Nathan Slaughter posted an article to titled “The World Has to Have this Resource… But There Simply Isn’t Enough of It.” In it, he lays out the case for investing in uranium, citing global energy trends and the impending completion of the “Megatons to Megawatts” plan, which harvests uranium for U.S. reactors from deactivated Russian nuclear warheads. He concludes that “We could see uranium prices soar to $100, $200, even $1,000 a pound. That’s a long way up from today’s $55.”

If just some of what Slaughter describes should come to pass, America could find itself just as addicted to domestic uranium as it has been to foreign oil.


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U.S. Approves First Nuclear Plants Since 1978. Should Indian Country Be Worried?