Sunday, November 17, 2013

Steinken: A uranium mining proposal is larded with snake oil ...

Ken Steinken
Writers on the Range
Back to: News
November 8, 2013

I step into an elevator and push the button; the car descends the equivalent of 23 stories in 30 seconds. When survey team members and I step out, we enter Jewel Cave, the third-longest cave in the world.
Since 2005, I’ve helped to survey unmapped areas of this subterranean labyrinth on the edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills. The experience has taught me a lot about what lies beneath the earth’s surface.
Solid as a rock — that’s how most of us think of our planet. But my underground exploration has shown me that the earth is anything but solid. It’s almost impossible, for instance, to predict what a cave passage will or will not connect to deep underground.
That’s one reason the British Columbia-based Powertech Corp. proposal for an in-situ uranium mine in southwestern South Dakota is a bad idea. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of the mining process. In-situ is Latin for “in place,” so the uranium is “mined” where it is found, underground. Powertech plans to drill into the uranium-bearing rock, then pump in fluids that cause the uranium to bind with the liquid.
That liquid, composed mostly of water, moves through the pervious rock layer. Additional wells would be placed in the direction that the liquid is expected to travel, and the liquid, now carrying uranium, gets pumped out. The uranium is then extracted from the liquid and turned into yellowcake, which is later refined.
Exposure to radioactive uranium, of course, is not good for human health. Conventional mining leaves behind piles of radioactive waste rock. Open-pit mining stirs up radioactive dust, which can travel great distances in the wind.
Our planet’s current form is neither solid nor permanent. It’s in a constant state of flux. It is subject to internal and external forces. Groundwater and gravity team up to exploit and penetrate the tiniest crack or weakness in an “impenetrable” rock layer. The wells that Powertech drills will also connect previously separated layers of rock, providing a way for radioactive water to get where it’s not supposed to go. The history of in-situ uranium mines in Wyoming, Nebraska and Texas shows that this is exactly what happens.
The problem is that humans looking to turn a profit make ridiculous promises that distort or ignore science, history and common sense. Remember the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that British Petroleum claimed could not fail, or the West, Texas, fertilizer plant that couldn’t explode, or the earthquake-proof Fukushima nuclear power plant that continues to spew radioactivity today?
When dealing with the forces of nature, there are no 100 percent ironclad guarantees. Anyone who offers such rock-solid assurances is merely peddling snake oil and should not be trusted.
Ken Steinken is a contributor to Writers on the Range a service of High Country News ( He writes about nature and the environment in Rapid City, South Dakota.