Reviving uranium mining at the Grand Canyon

15 January 2018 (Last Updated January 10th, 2018 14:57)

Proposals to rip up a moratorium preventing uranium mining around the Grand Canyon have received sharp criticism and bullish support in almost equal measures. But, as always, the devil is in the detail, so how far does the current moratorium go and what is being proposed in its stead? Dr Gareth Evans finds out.

Reviving uranium mining at the Grand Canyon
View over the Grand Canyon; uranium is not mined in the UNESCO World Heritage Site itself, but lands around the Canyon may be made open again for new claims to be staked. Credit: Courtesy of Christine Lorraine Mankowski

Take one of the world’s largest and most iconic geological features, add the spectre of nuclear power, the threat of environmental ruin, and then lay it at the door of the US’s arguably most controversial President and you have a story that is guaranteed to grab attention.

When the US Forestry Service released a report in early November 2017 which recommended revising the current halt on new uranium claims around the Grand Canyon, the news was portrayed in some quarters as little short of cataclysmic. Trump, it seemed, was about to reverse the ban on mining, strip the UNESCO World Heritage Site of its protection and once again allow uranium to be reaped from the Canyon’s floor.

Except that, as the region’s uranium miners are quick to make clear, no excavation was to take place in the Grand Canyon itself, and an important distinction must be drawn over the precise scope of the ‘moratorium’ that the previous administration had put in place.

Withdrawal and review of federal land protection

In January 2012, Ken Salazar, Interior Secretary to then President Obama, announced the 20-year “withdrawal” of federal lands from new mineral location, in a move that activists campaigning hard for a mining moratorium in the region saw as a major victory.

However, as always in the mining industry, nothing is set in stone. Although around a million acres of government land in the Grand Canyon watershed fell under the umbrella, the intention was not to prohibit mining or even the establishment of new mines; it was a moratorium on any new claims.

As the Department of the Interior’s statement at the time made clear, the aim was to allow an adequate period for monitoring to take place, to aid and inform decisions about future land use in the area, “while allowing currently approved mining operations to continue, as well as new operations on valid existing mining claims”.

During the withdrawal period, the statement noted that up to 11 uranium mines, including four that were already approved, could still be developed, based on their valid pre-existing rights.

Roll on to the end of March 2017 and President Trump issued an executive order for federal agencies to launch an “immediate review of all agency actions that potentially burden the safe, efficient development of domestic energy resources”.

As a result of that process, the Forestry Service released its report in November and raised the possibility that lands around the Grand Canyon could be reopened for exploration and development. This sparked some big questions for miners and environmentalists alike and, arguably, none more fundamental than what are the chances of actually finding any large new uranium deposits?

Large new uranium finds?

“By global commercial mining standards, all ten of the mines that have operated since the late-70s are very small,” says Curtis Moore, VP marketing & corporate development at Energy Fuels Resources (USA). They involve mining breccia pipes – vertical cylinder deposits ranging from 50ft to 300ft in diameter and 1,500ft to 2,500ft in height. Within these deposits, there are smaller zones of high-grade mineralisation that are mined from vertical production shafts.

“These small underground mines typically sit on only 15 acres of land, with a headframe, a hoist, a production shaft, one or two ventilation shafts, an evaporation pond and a maintenance building. That’s it – these are about as small and low-impact as commercial mines get,” Moore explains.

Clearly, that rules out any big new finds in the physical sense, but Moore believes that, if by large you mean economical, then there is a fairly good chance of new deposits being found, as these breccia pipes have historically hosted the highest-grade uranium resources in the US. Around a dozen or so within the withdrawal area have already been identified as likely to contain uranium in economic quantities.

The chance of finding new deposits

These deposits were originally formed as underground collapse structures hundreds of millions of years ago, long pre-dating the Grand Canyon itself. In the past, breccia pipes were mainly discovered by analysing the circular surface expressions left where the voids that formed in the underlying rock had collapsed in on themselves – often all the way up to the surface. Finding and analysing these circles in the landscape led to the first discovery of breccia pipes.

However, pipes do not always collapse to the surface, which opens up what many believe is the very likely prospect of significant numbers of currently unknown deposits giving no indications above ground. They can, and some have been, discovered via other exploration methods but since 2012 the federal land withdrawal has obviously prevented this from happening, leaving the possibility of hundreds of prospective targets to be drilled and, potentially, new and economical deposits to be found.

Heritage site not industrial zone

Nevertheless, as Moore points out, only a small number of these targets are likely to result in a new mine development, as there are many breccia pipes with either very low-grade mineralisation, or none at all.

“In my opinion, if the withdrawal was lifted and uranium prices recovered, we might see one or two of these small mines operating at any moment in time,” he says. With not many known economic deposits in the area currently, and given the rigorous process required to permit a new mine, he certainly does not envisage the area around the Grand Canyon suddenly transforming into an industrial zone with dozens of small uranium mines. “I simply doubt the federal government would allow this to happen – we wouldn’t want to see it happen,” he adds.

There are, of course, others who are entirely opposed to the prospect of any uranium mines in the region. “Some places are too precious to mine. The Grand Canyon is one of them,” wrote Amber Reimondo, energy programme director for the Grand Canyon Trust on its website, and called on the Forestry Service to “reconsider its recommendation to review the common-sense mining ban”.

Leaving aside the apparent conflation of the withdrawal with a total moratorium, and the somewhat vague description of the actual area affected, a large number of Americans undeniably share the broad thrust of Reimondo’s sentiment. They point to the horrors of previous virtually unregulated uranium mining operations in the region of 50 years ago or more, which certainly caused environmental and health issues. Today’s laws and protections are immeasurably stricter, but for some the damage is already done. Any talk of new mining activity in this treasured landscape is bound to invite controversy and protest.

Strategic mineral value

There is, however, a strategic side to the issue. According to the Uranium Producers of America, US uranium production peaked in 1980 at about 44 million pounds; by 2013 that had fallen to just 4.6 million pounds, which represents less than 10% of the demand to fuel the current commercial reactors.

The association believes that the inevitable consequent dependency on foreign uranium leaves the US vulnerable, but despite having the world’s fourth-largest uranium resource, US reserves are highly price-dependent. At $50 per pound, US Energy Information Administration estimates put U3O8 (triuranium octoxide) reserves at 539 million pounds; that rises to more than 1.2 billion pounds when the price per pound doubles to $100.

So, if this is to be the end of the 20-year withdrawal, given the possibility of new finds in the region and their strategic value to nuclear America on the one hand, and the assured environmental fire-storm it will undoubtedly provoke on the other, will we see a spate of new mining licences given the green light?

In the end, it will probably all come down to the bottom line, and price.