Call it the piety of policy-makers - the solemn injunction that information should inform sound policy. This week offers a lesson where information is the enemy, and policy is predicated on a willful need not-to-know. The policy in question: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's decision to impose a 20 year ban on mining in a million-acre buffer area around Grand Canyon National Park - itself, at 1.2 million acres, the 4th largest national park in the lower 48 states. The ostensible reason: concerns that proposed uranium mining could jeopardize water quality. But little in the public record of policy studies suggests a risk to water quality sufficient to ring the park with a million-acre mine-free zone.
Judging from environmental activist circles, one suspects that the calculus, if one can call it that, is far simpler: It's a case of unilateral nuclear disarmament, applied to the energy sector. Nuclear power is bad; nuclear power plants require uranium; stop uranium mining and you will stop nuclear power. End of story.
Unfortunately, that's just where things get interesting. The world, not stopping at our water's edge, is a big place, where other countries actually mine the uranium beneath their territory. And the U.S., with its 104 nuclear plants providing some 20 percent of all U.S. energy, needs uranium fuel from somewhere. Today, the U.S. imports 90 percent of the uranium it uses each year, much of it from Russia (whose leaders threaten to point nuclear missiles at our NATO allies, share nuclear know-how with Iran, block sanctions against Syria and claim Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is leader of a secret anti-Putin Russian cabal) and Kazakhstan (squeezed between Russia and China in the battle for regional hegemony). In the best case, these nations are uncertain sources of supply; in the worst case, U.S. dependence gives these countries leverage to use against us.
As for the fact that the million-acre buffer surrounding Grand Canyon National Park - according to U.S. Geological Survey studies - may be home to nearly half of the United States' uranium resources, well, call that an inconvenient truth. The anti-nuclear know-nothings just don't want to hear about it.
Nor are the resources fenced off by this new ban limited to uranium. The U.S. Government's own data - there's that word again - indicates that the million-plus acres being put under the ban contain 'moderate to high potential for metallic minerals and high potential for uranium and common variety minerals.' The Interior Department is quite specific, listing 'antimony, arsenic, cobalt, copper, gold, iron, lead, magnesium, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, uranium, vanadium and zinc.' For half of these metals, the U.S. is presently import-dependent for 50 to 100 percent of our annual usage.
Would mining these metals be economical? We don't know. But the inexorable forces of global demand and uncertainty of supply are pressing us to find out. Indeed, that would seem to be the trigger for the new ban: the point is to remove these areas from examination so that we remain in a permanent state of not-knowing - enjoined from applying future geo-technological advances in mining that would allow more economic and environmentally less-invasive techniques.