In 2012, then-President Barack Obama issued a 20-year ban on mining claims near the Grand Canyon. The move halted future uranium extraction projects in the region, a win for environmentalists and local tribes that had fought against the industry for years.
But some elected officials in Arizona and Utah disputed their claims of contamination risk, arguing that the ban would unnecessarily sacrifice jobs for overblown environmental concerns. With President Donald Trump swinging the pendulum toward economic development, opponents of the ban are asking the administration to lift it.
Their request and Trump’s reconsideration of nuclear policy in the West have stoked debate over how environmental concerns should be weighed against economic potential. That tension underlies discussions about everything from increasing nuclear testing to storing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, only 90 miles from Las Vegas. And it highlights the inescapable nature of the West’s nuclear legacy.
Nonprofit magazine High Country News put it this way in a recent story: “When you’re dealing with elements … that take billions of years to decay, the past is never really past.”
Andrew Kirk, a history professor at UNLV, studies the relationship between Western states and the federal government’s nuclear activities going back to the Manhattan Project. Kirk, who recently wrote “Doom Towns,” a graphic history on atomic testing, said that Westerners had often felt “conflicted” about nuclear activities, especially as people became more aware of the effects of radiation.
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