General Atomics, the San Diego manufacturer of the Predator attack drone, has recently come under fire in Colorado, where its wholly owned company the Cotter Corporation operates a uranium mill. The facility produces yellowcake, a concentrated powder suitable for nuclear fuel and weapons. The mill has operated on and off since 1958, with the most recent operations concluding in 2006. Since then, the company claims to have spent $10 million to $15 million on cleanup efforts, but in 2008, Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment issued a notice of violation to Cotter, claiming the company had contaminated local groundwater.
General Atomics is privately held by Linden and Neal Blue of Del Mar. The brothers are originally from Colorado. After graduating from Yale, they tried their hand at banana farming in Nicaragua, commercial real estate development in Denver, ranching throughout the Midwest, local politics (Linden was elected and served a term on Denver’s city council), and eventually oil and gas mining. In 1986, they acquired control of San Diego–based General Atomics, a company originally created as a division of General Dynamics in 1955 for the purpose of researching peaceful uses of atomic power. In 1991 the brothers acquired and merged into their operation a floundering drone company, taking its product as the basis for the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. Linden said at the time that his interest in developing the Predator was largely linked to a desire to help friends in Nicaragua battle Sandinista communist forces.
In addition to the Cotter Corporation, General Atomics is affiliated with at least four other companies — based in Texas, Australia, and Germany — that mine, mill, or otherwise engage in the uranium business. The Texas-based company owns the largest-known uranium deposit in the United States, Mt. Taylor mine in New Mexico.
At the Cotter mill, in Cañon City, ore is crushed and ground, then subjected to leaching chemicals. The extracted uranium, the yellowcake, is usually brown or black — its name derives from the color and texture produced by early milling methods. Uranium typically makes up about 1 percent of the ore. What’s left after milling are the leaching chemicals and the radioactive tailings, which Cotter kept for decades in a tailings pond on its 2600-acre site, covered with water to contain radioactive dust.
Years before General Atomics bought the Cotter Corporation, seepage from the tailings pond contaminated the groundwater of a semirural neighborhood about a mile and a half from the mill. In 1984, the mill and the plume of contaminated groundwater were designated a Superfund site. The company built a new tailings pond with a lining to prevent leakage.
However, in 2007, a new leak was detected, and in July 2008, the state of Colorado told Cotter to fix the problem. A radioactive plume was under the nearby Shadow Hills Golf Course and was spreading toward Cañon City and the Arkansas River.
In the 26 years since the Cotter mill and the plume were designated a Superfund site, Cotter still hasn’t cleaned up the contamination. When Cotter officials announced plans in 2009 to reopen the mill in order to process ore from the New Mexico mine, Cañon City’s state representatives took action. In February they introduced House Bill 1348, which requires uranium mills and mines wishing to expand operations in the state to remediate violations before proceeding. The bill also requires operators to submit an annual status report to owners of wells within one mile of groundwater contamination, and it strengthens bonding requirements to make sure that operators can clean up contamination.
Clean up your old mess before you make a new one — sounds fair enough, right? Not in the eyes of the industry. In response to the proposed legislation, Cotter said it would force the company to abandon its plans to reopen the Cañon City mill.
That Cotter thinks compliance would be so costly speaks volumes, especially given the current political climate surrounding nuclear power. President Obama is a fan of what he calls “clean nuclear” technology, saying in this year’s State of the Union address that we need to build “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”
He’s put taxpayers’ money where his mouth is too. Despite a history of cost overruns in American nuclear plant construction, Obama guaranteed Georgia Power an $8 billion loan to construct two new reactors at an existing facility in Burke, Georgia.
SoCal Edison, majority stakeholder in the San Onofre nuclear plant at the northern end of San Diego County, has announced no plans to expand or extend the life of its facility, currently slated to go offline in 2022. But several other projects are in the works around the country, and Obama’s 2011 budget calls for doubling the amount of nuclear loan guarantees to $36 billion.
Worldwide there are 53 new plants under construction, 142 approved and waiting for construction to begin, and 327 more in the planning stages. The U.S. is a significant uranium exporter. Average uranium prices have risen from $7.92 per pound in 2001 to around $40.75 today. Despite the coming increase in demand for nuclear fuel, Cotter said that the cost to clean up the damage the company has caused could render its operation infeasible.
In late April, Colorado’s legislature passed HB 1348, and last week the bill was signed into law. Asked whether the mill will reopen to process the New Mexico ore, Cotter vice president John Hamrick “declined Tuesday to comment on whether that project is indeed dead,” the Denver Post reported on June 9, 2010.
But Colorado activist Sharyn Cunningham believes the contamination can be cleaned up and the mill reopened. According to an April 29, 2010 story in the Pueblo Chieftain, “Cunningham said she’s confident that Cotter’s parent company, General Atomics, has the means to conduct the necessary cleanup.”