PENDLEY: Massive land lockup threatens nuclear future

Salazar exceeded his authority in banning uranium mining on 1 million acres

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President Obama’s commitment to “all of the above” energy development apparently does not include nuclear power in light of a January order issued by Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar. The edict locks up 1 million acres of federal land in northwestern Arizona that holds the nation’s highest-grade uranium ore. That is according to lawsuits filed in a federal district court in Arizona by two mining groups - the Northwest Mining Association of Spokane, Wash., and the National Mining Association of Washington, D.C., allied with the Nuclear Energy Institute - challenging the legality and the constitutionality of the order.

The Arizona Strip, which lies north of the Colorado River in northern Arizona, is bordered to the south by the northern rim of Grand Canyon National Park. In the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984, Congress designated 250,000 acres of federal land on or near the Arizona Strip as wilderness and released 600,000 acres of land in the same area for multiple use, including uranium mining, as a result of a historic compromise among environmental groups, uranium mining interests, the livestock industry and others. It was that compromise that permitted exploration for domestic sources of uranium. In fact, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, lands withdrawn by Mr. Salazar’s order contain uranium that, if mined to capacity, would generate sufficient electricity to power Los Angeles for 154 years.

Researchers say the United States must develop domestic sources of uranium in the face of higher prices and increased global demand. America is more than 90 percent dependent on foreign sources of uranium to fuel the 104 nuclear reactors that provide power for 1 in 5 American homes and businesses. A major source of U.S. imports is uranium from dismantled Russian warheads; however, the agreement under which the U.S. purchases that uranium expires in 2013.

There is a global supply shortfall of about 40 million pounds of uranium per year that comes from existing stockpiles. With nuclear power generation around the world projected to increase substantially - even after Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactor disaster - these shortfalls will increase and stockpiles will dwindle. There are 435 nuclear reactors operating worldwide, but, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, there are 65 reactors under construction and 491 reactors planned or proposed around the world. The World Nuclear Association estimates there will be 602 to 1,350 reactors in the world by 2030, an increase of 38 percent to 210 percent. Therefore, worldwide competition for uranium will increase dramatically.

Nonetheless, environmental groups consistently attack efforts to develop domestic sources of uranium. For example, at the national level, leasing of uranium lands by the U.S. Department of Energy was halted by a lawsuit by environmental groups demanding more study. At the state level, a permit issued by Colorado for a uranium mill in economically hard-pressed Montrose County is under attack by environmental groups. In 2009, Mr. Salazar joined in the assault by proposing to withdraw the million acres in Arizona to “protect the Grand Canyon watershed.” After environmental studies found no significant risk of environmental harm, Mr. Salazar issued an “emergency” withdrawal order in June last year.

According to the lawsuit, Mr. Salazar’s order violates the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The lawsuit contends that the land policy and management act gives Congress authority to veto withdrawals of federal lands made by the secretary that exceed 5,000 acres.

If America is to have a nuclear energy future, a federal court, perhaps the Supreme Court of the United States, will have to issue the order opening the door to that future.

William Perry Pendley is president of Mountain States Legal Foundation.

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