The global Cold War sparked the first uranium rush on Navajo land in the 1950s - and now a superheated global economy has threatened a third.
Nuclear industry management has discredited the idea that a uranium ''rush'' is on, noting that even as the per-pound price of uranium has climbed to $35 from just over $7 four years ago, the industry's wages and insurance costs are still much higher now than at the crest of the second national scramble for uranium, in the late 1970s. A highly placed uranium executive, quoted in a January Arizona Republic article, said the current intense activity - the newspaper reported that in 2005 alone, 700 mining claims have been filed and 100 test holes bored in the high desert of Arizona, the country's most uranium-rich state - won't qualify as a uranium rush by historical standards until prices reach $50 a pound.
On what they will call it when prices reach $500 a pound, no word. But one industry analyst, quoted on the Internet at www.stockinterview.com, states that it could happen. China, India and Japan are all competing for uranium as they count on nuclear fuel to power their so-far successful commitment to explosive economic growth on the Western model.
New generation of nuclear power plants
Considering its status as the planet's leading economic power, the United States is poorly positioned to compete for uranium. It hasn't added to its 103 nuclear plants since 1978, and uranium mining has been stagnant since a wave of bankruptcies closed out the second uranium rush in the 1980s.
Altogether, that means that as the United States prepares to establish a new generation of nuclear power plants, futures contracts will be signed for uranium supplies that are both scarce and in high demand, guaranteeing the kind of competition that has driven prices for other energy resources off the chart in recent years. Uranium, of course, is the heavy metal at the heart of nuclear power; one pound of uranium ''yellowcake'' produces the energy equivalent of many, many tons of coal - as many as 15 train car loads of coal, according to the U.S. Geological Survey as cited in the Arizona Republic.
And worthy of note here: That none of this information is the stuff of standard headlines should lead no one to conclude it's not happening as described. The headline seen around the world from President Bush's recent State of the Union address, after all, was that America has an oil addiction. By comparison, one of the remark's main intents - to prepare the ground policy-wise and grow public acceptance for a new chapter in U.S. nuclear power - passed almost unnoticed.
But the Navajo have been on notice for a long time. With extensive lands in the leading uranium states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the nation is at the epicenter of the current uranium scramble. Mindful of the health and environmental devastations visited on tribal members by the previous waves of uranium mining, the nation last year enacted the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act, banning uranium mining throughout its territories. More recently, President Joe Shirley Jr. issued an executive order forbidding conversation between tribal employees and energy industry representatives on the subject of uranium exploration.
Opposition will not soften
But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has since dismissed arguments against a uranium mining project based on water quality and groundwater contamination, setting the table for mining the richest uranium vein in the nation on lands that border Navajo territory. Under the recent NRC ruling on a uranium mining application, such mining may also proceed on Navajo allotted land. Because groundwater flows obey no imposed borders, this is cause for continuing concern in a nation whose many victims of uranium exposure (cancer and kidney damage are the leading afflictions) have never been compensated and continue to suffer, according to community opinion, grass-roots activists and many observers within the environmental and health care communities.
In an interview that accompanied the Arizona Republic article in January, Shirley expressed confidence that Navajo opposition to uranium mining will not soften no matter how high uranium prices climb, and notwithstanding the many Navajo members unemployed by the closure of Black Mesa coal mine. (The announced cause of the closure was the cost of meeting environmental standards.) ''We're hurting for revenues, yes; we're hurting for jobs, but we're not going to get into something that has killed us and will continue to kill us,'' said Shirley.
Shirley and the nation have a history of commitment on the issue. In 2003, about midway through the long, complex and embattled legislative process that ultimately passed a national energy reform law, Shirley campaigned on Capitol Hill against a then-provision ''that invites uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.'' Part of the campaign was to distribute a book, ''If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans,'' among lawmakers and the media.