Near Grand Canyon, weighing risks and rewards of uranium mining

Flagstaff, AZ – Greg Yount hikes quickly across a rocky forest of juniper and pinon pines about 15 miles south of the Grand Canyon. He's taking me to one of his uranium claims.

"So here's my claim marker," he says, pulling a piece of paper out of a plastic tube stuck in the ground.

Yount isn't a big mining company CEO. He's a self-described treasure hunter from the little town of Chino Valley. So how does a retired mechanical engineer stake 3 uranium claims?

"Google Earth was the big equalizer for a small guy," he explains.

Prior to that he would have had to pay a lot of money for aerial photography. Instead Yount spent six months researching what to look for, pinpointed what he thought were some good targets, and then walked the ground, looking for signs of uranium.

He splits open a chunk of limestone with a small hammer. The rock is streaked reddish-orange.

"This is actually going to be radioactive, and you can see that it has all this iron mineralization in it this also has quite a bit of uranium in it "

He also found other clues on the ground indicating there might be uranium here. He found old claim markers and a test pit a company dug in the 1980s.

"It's a little mystery to figure out," he says.

And Yount thinks he solved it. He spent 30 thousand dollars on sophisticated geological tests to confirm there's uranium under his claim. But he won't know whether he can make money on it until he drills a test hole. And now he can't do that, because the government has called a timeout on any further exploration while it weighs potential environmental effects.

Environmentalists and some scientists are concerned about increased truck traffic and impact on wildlife. But mainly they're scared that uranium from new mines could potentially leach into groundwater. Northern Arizona University hydrologist Abe Springer says if that happens, it would be impossible to clean up.

"It's too deep, it's too inaccessible," he says, "so if it got to the aquifers, it's there until it discharges over thousands of years, and it stays hazardous that whole period of time."

Springer's concerned the government's environmental analysis does not consider a worst-case scenario, like a flash flood that could sweep uranium into aquifers. The government admits it's really tough to predict what could happen more than a thousand feed underground.

"The question that arises is how do we proceed in the face of uncertainty?" asks
Taylor McKinnon, with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity. "Do we err on the side of caution, and not risk irretrievable harm to the Grand Canyon? Or do we err on the side of hubris, and assume we can do it safely."

Mining companies argue they can do it safely. Ron Hochstein is CEO of Denison Mines, which runs the only uranium mine currently operating near the Grand Canyon. He says he's fighting the ghosts of the industry past.

"All the modern mining that's been done," he argues, "showed that there's very little potential impact at all to any regional aquifers or groundwater in the area."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will have the final say. The uranium reserves around the Grand Canyon are some of the richest in the country. But the Canyon's also one of the most precious natural jewels anywhere.