Back when I was in college, if you had told someone that you were studying nuclear engineering, you might as well have said that you were a puppy-eating necrophiliac who was interning for Josef Mengele. The movie The China Syndrome was released and generated (no pun intended) a tsunami of negative feelings about nuclear power. Then, two weeks after the movie came out, Three Mile Island happened.
A series of mechanical failures and human errors led to a LOCA (loss of coolant accident) and a partial meltdown of one of the reactor units at the Pennsylvania nuclear plant. It was worse that it should have been but not nearly as bad as it could have been. It permanently scarred the perception of nuclear power in the United States.
It was probably best that the vast majority of students at the UA didn’t know that there was a functioning nuclear reactor in the basement of the Engineering Building. It had been installed in the late 1950s and remained functional even after the school’s nuclear engineering program was disbanded in 1996. The reactor was finally shut down in 2010.
Three Mile Island was the universal bogeyman term for just a few years until it was forever supplanted by the much-worse Chernobyl. The Three Mile Island facility was poorly designed and had one of the dumbest flaws of all time—alarms for totally different mishaps all sounded the same.
Chernobyl, on the other hand, was a catastrophic failure on a huge number of levels. I highly recommend the book Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham, which deftly chronicles the corruption and shortcuts that went into the design and construction of the facility, the mismanagement and incompetence with which the plant was run, and the bludgeoning exercise of raw political might that, at first, tried to keep it a secret before quickly pivoting to singling out and punishing scapegoats. It’s a great book.
Still, despite all that, a third of a century later, nuclear power has not gone away. In fact, 20% of all electricity generated in the United States comes from nuclear power. There hasn’t been a major accident in the U.S. in 40 years and a new generation of nuclear reactors promises to be even safer and more efficient. Plus, and this is the thing that is going to spark some furious debates in coming years, nuclear power is one of the cleanest energy sources of all time. (Completely carbon-free, a nuclear plant is basically a giant steam engine that generates electricity by using super-heated water to turn giant turbines.)
It’s going to be an interesting debate because even the most cockeyed optimist must admit that we’re not going to meet any carbon-free goals using just wind, solar and geothermal. Nuclear is going to have to be part of that equation, at least in the short term. And right now, that (and ever-present politics) are leading to an issue that some see as even more pressing.
Just as the United States has a Strategic Oil Reserve, there is now a movement to establish a Strategic Uranium Reserve. As it happens, Russia has close to a monopoly on the enriched uranium needed to operate the reactors. That is why, when President Biden and his EU compatriots rattle their collective swords to shut off the flow of Russian oil and gas because of Ukraine, not a word has been said about the flow of enriched uranium.
Places like Hungary desperately need the fuel, as that country’s four reactors provide half of all of their electricity. In the Czech Republic, one-third of the electricity comes from nuclear energy. And it’s a good bet that the United States will need a large supply, as well.
Back during the Manhattan Project in World War II, almost all of the uranium that was being refined in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, came from uranium mines on or near the Navajo Reservation. Those mines continued to be dredged for another half-century until they were mostly played out.
Nowadays, the U.S. isn’t even in the Top 10 in terms of uranium deposits, but not to worry. Australia is number one and Canada is third. They’ve got the glowing rock and we’ve got the skrilla; it should be a no-brainer.
However, the Strategic Uranium Reserve concept, begun under the Trump Administration and currently being studied by the Department of Energy, has “America First” nonsense running through it. While it calls for a common-sense increase in uranium enrichment and stockpiling of uranium ore, it then veers into MAGA territory by insisting that the deferral government will be required to buy uranium “newly produced in the U.S. from deposits at an existing site.”
That means re-opening places like Pinyon Plain, a mine that sits about a half-hour drive from the Grand Canyon Village. It had been producing some of the highest-grade ore in the world until it was shut down when the worldwide uranium market crashed in the 1990s.
Now it’s getting ready to re-open and a coalition of Navajos, environmentalists, and hydrologists are gearing up to fight it. Knowing the patchwork make-up of the federal courts these days, it could go either way.
It’s a necessary mineral at a necessary time, but they want it to come from a completely unnecessary source. We’ll keep an eye on it.