When most people think of reasons to oppose nuclear energy, they think of the risk of catastrophic failure at the power plant and the lack of any long-term solution for the spent, highly radioactive waste produced by the power plant. What is often omitted are the legacies of mining and milling the uranium ore that feeds the power plants.
The legacy of uranium mining and milling pollution left in the Four Corners region is well-known but poorly understood.
Earlier this week, there was a reminder of the long-term costs associated with nuclear energy. A bankruptcy court found that Kerr-McGee (now fully owned by Anadarko Petroleum) acted fraudulently when it spun off its chemical and uranium components into a new company, Tronox. Kerr-McGee spun off Tronox in 2005, and very shortly after that, Anadarko bought Kerr-McGee. Anadarko had considered buying Kerr-McGee earlier, but only did so when it got rid of these environmental-legacy issues.
In 2009, Tronox filed for bankruptcy. As part of that bankruptcy, the court explored whether Kerr-McGee acted fraudulently by leaving Tronox with environmental legacies that effectively forced Tronox into bankruptcy.
The court found that: “Defendants cannot claim they merely ‘managed’ a liability. If Defendants’ conduct were simply management of legacy liabilities, all enterprises with substantial existing environmental liability would be encouraged to do exactly what Defendants did – manage the liabilities so as to leave them attached to a fraction of the assets unable to bear them.”
In short, Kerr-McGee, which mined and milled uranium on the Navajo Nation since 1952, dumped the cleanup costs onto a company that could not afford to pay them. It is not a new strategy.
As a result of the court ruling, Anadarko may have to pay between $5.1 billion to $14.1 billion to various creditors. The Navajo Nation, which was left with many mines and the Shiprock Mill site to clean up, could receive around $1 billion.
The lesson is not just that uranium mining and milling can leave huge long-term burdens on the communities it occurs in, but also that those that economically benefit may try to cut and run when the bills come due.
Unfortunately, BHP/Billiton, the huge mining conglomerate that has owned the Navajo Mine for the past 50 years, may get away with the exact same game. After profiting from excessively poor enforcement, including a nearly complete lack of proper evaluation of the legacy issues surrounding millions of tons of coal-ash waste buried in the mine, BHP is now selling the mine to the Navajo Nation. When the chickens come home to roost with these legacy costs, will the Navajo Nation be faced with cleaning up BHP’s mess by cutting basic services to its people and communities, or will the pollution be left to fester?
The saga of uranium mining and milling, and the attempts to get proper and needed cleanup, has lasted for decades. Perhaps Anadarko will be forced to pay. Likewise, perhaps, at some point in the future, BHP will be forced to pay fully for the cleanup at the Navajo Mine.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.