As a proven, safe, and reliable technology, nuclear energy accounts for about 20% of energy produced in the United States and 50% of our nation’s carbon-free electricity. Yet today, some of the most vocal “carbon-free” advocates remain opposed to nuclear energy, despite its impressive track record of delivering clean energy that doesn’t rely on the wind to blow or the sun to shine.

Uranium mines, which provide the fuel for nuclear power, were plentiful in the American Southwest until the late 20th century. Once most American uranium mines closed due to heavy regulation, we began exporting uranium mining and production to Russia and Kazakhstan, among other countries with lower environmental standards.

But recently, Congress passed a bipartisan bill banning Russian uranium imports — which is good news for those who want to expand uranium mining in the U.S. at sites such as the Pinyon Plain Mine, which began operation in January in Arizona after decades of regulatory battles. The mine’s ore is processed at the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah.

Unfortunately, Pinyon Plain is still battling environmental groups that have substantially delayed projects like these through intense litigation. They’ve claimed the mine is too close to the Grand Canyon and that it poses serious threats to the people and environment nearby. They are pressuring Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs to close the mine even though Hobbs has called it “probably the most regulated mine in the entire country.”

As a 26-year-old environmentalist who supports nuclear energy but also cares deeply for our country’s majestic public lands and the Grand Canyon, I wanted to see the truth firsthand. Knowing the demand for uranium and nuclear energy will increase in the coming years, and spark debate about additional mines similar to Pinyon Plain, I agreed to tour the mine a few weeks ago. I’ll admit that I was initially a bit hesitant because of some of the fear-mongering things I’d heard from the environmental community I’m a part of.

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Driving up to the mine on a warm June afternoon, I was struck by what a small area the mine occupies. The mine sits in a natural clearing of trees in the Kaibab National Forest, occupying a 17-acre plot of land. I wondered how this blip on a map could hold enough energy to power the state of Arizona for a full year with carbon-free energy, as the mine’s owner, Energy Fuels, claims.

After a safety briefing, two of the 35 miners who work at Pinyon Plain accompanied me on an elevator descending 1,400 feet below the surface. (That’s roughly equivalent to the height of the Empire State Building.) Once underground, I saw how information about the mine shared by some environmental groups was wildly exaggerated or, in some cases, flat-out wrong. What I saw was an operation that had countless measures in place to protect the safety of those working there and to prevent harm to the surrounding environment.

Underground, I spoke with many of the miners, who were immensely proud to provide clean energy for the country and ensure its production in and for America. I learned the truth about uranium’s radioactivity: that a lifelong uranium miner is exposed to less radiation than an airline pilot, and I even held uranium in my hand. I saw how the mine’s natural geological protections have been supplemented with carefully crafted technological systems to prevent any opportunity for water contamination.

But most of all, I was struck by how small-scale an operation it was, especially when compared to the immense size of the Grand Canyon, which itself is a 40-minute drive from the mine.


Overall, I was impressed with the commitment to safety and the environmental protections in place throughout the site. As a passionate outdoorsman who wants the Grand Canyon and other national landscapes to be protected, I also felt a growing frustration with the innuendo and scare tactics used by activist organizations to spread fear about this mine and nuclear energy. The people who spread fear about this mine and other similar projects have substantially delayed countless similar projects — and unintentionally represent one of the biggest barriers to the production of clean energy in the United States.

As we seek the right mix of energy to meet demand and reduce carbon emissions, expanding mining in places like the Pinyon Plain Mine is a critical step. We need more uranium mines in America, not fewer. Creating domestically produced uranium and ensuring that clean nuclear energy can power millions of homes is a good thing. And in a world of trade-offs for every energy source we use, uranium mines like Pinyon Plain provide an example of a trade-off America should accept — every time.

Spending an afternoon 1,400 feet underground isn’t everyone’s idea of an ideal afternoon, but seeing how U.S. companies are rising to the challenge of filling the growing demand for clean energy was inspiring. For those of us who want to build a brighter, cleaner and more prosperous future, we need to look beyond the scare tactics and embrace the countless tools available to us in our work to preserve our environment, address climate change and create a prosperous future. The Pinyon Plain Mine can help us get there.

Benji Backer, a Deseret contributing writer, is the author of “The Conservative Environmentalist: Common-Sense Solutions for a Sustainable Future.” He is also the executive chairman and founder of the American Conservation Coalition, the largest right-of-center environmental organization in the country.

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