Half Life: America’s Last Uranium Mill, a new short film from the Grand Canyon Trust, highlights how the White Mesa Uranium Mill in Utah could contaminate the drinking water supply for much of southeastern Utah and northern Arizona.
The White Mesa mill is a part of the uranium mining and nuclear cycle that few know about, explains Anne Mariah Tapp, energy program director at the Grand Canyon Trust. “There are people across North America that have been affected by the nuclear industry and uranium industry, and aren’t aware of the mill’s role in their story, or the mill at all,” she says.
White Mesa is in southeastern Utah, a few miles from where many in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe live. It sits above the Navajo Aquifer, which contains more than 400 million acre-feet of water.
It’s the only remaining conventional processing mill in the nation. It turns uranium-containing ore into yellowcake, the concentrated uranium powder used in the fuel rods of nuclear power plants. And it extracts small amounts of uranium from “alternate feed” — radioactive industrial and military waste products.
But as the Grand Canyon Trust points out, the mill derives most of its income from fees paid to store the hazardous substances that remain after the uranium is extracted.
The process works kind of like a radioactive version of money-laundering: The waste trucked in to the mill from all across the nation cannot legally be dumped into storage at White Mesa. But once the uranium is removed, voilà! — the hazardous substances that remain can be stored onsite.
And it isn’t the processing and reclamation practices that have groups like the Grand Canyon Trust concerned.
It’s the storage system.
“Because the material that’s sent to White Mesa is run through the mill for the quote-unquote practice of extracting uranium, [plant] operators don’t have to deal with sending it to a permanent hazardous uranium disposal site,” Tapp explains.
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As the film shows, the older waste-disposal ponds are lined with a thin layer of PVC with questionable integrity. Energy Fuels Inc., the Canadian company that operates White Mesa, contends that the impoundments are secure and that it has sufficient monitoring systems in place to detect leakage.
“The leak-detection system is based on testing the groundwater” for toxins, Tapp counters, adding that the mill can’t know that heavy metals and radioactive material have leaked until they’ve already contaminated the water.
“There is some evidence that the [aquifer below the plant] is contaminated, but what’s in dispute is the cause of the contamination,” she says. “A lot of independent experts who have looked at it have issued reports that definitely indicate that they’re concerned with similarities between stuff in the impoundments and what’s in the water.”