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Where the dust blows

January 16, 2013

Uranium mining New Mexico

It was in August of last year, 2012, that I found myself driving across the southwestern state of Colorado. I was surprised at what I found to be going on. On one side of the road, just out of a town called Grand Junction, was mile after mile of what looked like mining detritus. But this was nothing like the sort we sometimes saw in the UK in the wake of coal mining. This was altogether different, and huger. So huge, so expansive that I wondered  whether they were of volcanic rather than man made origin. A quick check on the internet revealed what I already suspected. The mountainous heaps of rubble resulted from uranium mining. And it’s not the best of dust to have blowing around your back garden.

My curiosity was keen at that time as a few days earlier I had written a chapter of my then about to be published book, SHADOW ON THE SUN and which with its new chapter featured some of the anguish currently going on in the Northwestern state of Washington. Although my book is a work of fiction it does borrow heavily from a great deal of fact. Part of this and about which I had been writing, is something called the ‘vitrification’ plant now nearing completion beside the Columbia River and on what used to be formerly known as the Hanford Indian Reservation site.

For their luck it fell to Washington state to be host to their country’s then nascent plutonium manufacturing activities during the second world war and for some considerable time afterwards. There was a war going on at the time so objections to its siting were muted. There were also rumours that the Nazi’s might be the first to crack the secrets of splitting the atom. If this had been true then the world as we know it today might have been a vastly different place.

American activities in Hanford began in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, the project that gave birth to the first atomic explosion in  in New Mexico’s Alamogordo desert, July 16th 1945. Washington State’s part in it all ended 45 years later in 1987 when the last of Hanford’s nine plutonium reactors was shut down. Unfortunately it was not to be without issue. Major of these was the  53 million US gallons of  high level radioactive waste it left behind together with an additional 25 million cubic feet of solid radioactive waste and 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater beneath the site. Although you won’t get Washington State’s ecology departments to say as much, there are signs that the once plentiful sockeye salmon that used to breed just below the nuclear site, are now on the wane. One report studying the toxic effects of decades of nuclear manufacture next to the river gave a reason why: radio nuclides leaking into the groundwater and then into the river.

The Hanford vitrification plant was built to head these dangers off at the pass. But it’s already $10billion over budget and ten years late. And it’s not expected to begin operation for another seven years! And if it does this will not be for want of dozens of activists (see countless Youtube video’s) trying to halt it on the grounds it is already unsafe. They argue it uses unsafe construction methods for many of the plant’s final key processes. This can only mean later danger they say.

Lurking behind the whole issue is an organisation with the bland and at first glance user friendly name of the Department of Energy. In earlier incarnations it used to be called The US Atomic Energy Commission. That was until the AEC fell out with Congress over incompetence. Nowadays the DoE has a budget probably only second to that of the US Department of Defence.

In the DoE’s earlier incarnation as the USAEC it once requisitioned huge areas of the country for atomic manufacture. Some, like the plutonium processing plant at Rocky Flats,  just outside Denver, were raided by the FBI and permanently shut down for utilising dangerous manufacturing procedures. Collectively these  resulted in plutonium laden dust being blown all over downtown Denver. The clean up continues.

But Denver was not alone. And neither is Washington State. There’s about three hundred others in the same company. And the DoE, as part of its relatively new tasks, has been given the objective of cleaning them all up. This is going to take decades and cost hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars.

This all brings me back to where I started: that detritus parked alongside Interstate 6 as it sweeps past Grand Junction. Thankfully, as one watches the wind blow the radioactive dust along the valley bottom largely populated by the Navajho Native American Indians, one can thank God the mines are now disused. Their decay was prompted by falling uranium prices which prompted cheaper imports from the likes of Australia.

But more recently prices have been on the increase and some companies have been wanting to re open their  long closed old sites. And so it would have been after they had first asked the Department of Energy for the OK as it was the DoE that owned the mining rights. They got that permission too. And so the bad old ways of the past, including further pollution of the Colorado River, mirroring what had long ago happened to the Columbia, would have been spurred into motion one more time. And people like me driving past on one Summer’s day would have been left to wonder why it was that the American’s never seem to learn.

There is an easy answer to this and it’s summed up in one word: money, just as it always is in America. Where ‘money’ is concerned all things are possible.

But this time around there has been a higher calling. It went by the name of a Federal Judge brought in by ‘the people’ who were worried about what it would further do to their state,  the same state where a guy called John Denver used to extoll its clean air virtues in song.

The judge, on the basis of what had happened in the past, reversed the mining companies permission. Until the next time.

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