Nuclear Disarmament in the Resource Wars

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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.

If it's ignorance we're after, this policy is perfect. Literally drilling-down for information is off limits. In its place: a policy of burying our head in the dirt.

For those who respond that this is the Grand Canyon we're taking about, a special case deserving a special carve-out, check out the Pew Trust's puckishly named Campaign for Responsible Mining, which lists the Grand Canyon as one of 10 national parks 'at risk' due to a 'claims-staking frenzy.' With the Grand Canyon as precedent, how many millions of acres of federal land will be fenced off from resource assessment and exploration – and at what cost?

Because the fact is, there are risks to not knowing. According to the 2010 Bureau of Land Management review - the very study compiled to support the Grand Canyon ban - we find this warning:

'Failure to develop uranium resources on the subject lands that have the potential of becoming part of the second most important uranium-producing region in the United States has far reaching economic implications, which are beyond the scope of this report. In the United States, strategic and critical minerals are those minerals which [sic] are necessary for vital military, industrial, and civilian uses during a national emergency but are not produced in sufficient quantities domestically. The shortfall in domestic production of these minerals is currently offset by imports, which may not be available in the case of national emergency.'

Secretary Salazar may forecast sunny skies for the next 20 years, but does that justify denying his successors the right to carry an umbrella?

Of course, nothing in politics is permanent. A future president or Congress responding to a future crisis will find the Constitutional room to reverse course. We will race then to remedy our deficient knowledge of our own resource riches and fast-track their development. One hopes the crisis of the moment will be kind enough to wait for us to respond.

But for now, we'll embark on a policy of willful blindness - one that closes off huge tracts of prospective land at a time when the race for resource access is becoming one of the defining facts of 21st Century geo-politics.

They say what you don't know can't hurt you. Thanks to the U.S. Department of Interior, one day we may just find out whether that's true.

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