- The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice by Stephanie A. Malin
By Stephanie A. Malin. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015.
Pp. 238. Paperback $29.95.
Whether nuclear power is sustainable energy is one of the most contentious debates among environmentalists. Sociologist Stephanie A. Malin weighs in on this debate in The Price of Nuclear Power, arguing, "For nuclear power to be genuinely sustainable, communities that supply uranium . . . should not be used as national sacrifice zones" (p. 149). Based on fieldwork in the uranium communities of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, Malin argues that the isolated and poor towns where uranium is processed have indeed been sacrificed for nuclear power. Rhetoric about a nuclear renaissance, Malin contends, does not account for poverty and pollution in the uranium processing towns.
Like historians such as Gabrielle Hecht, Malin demonstrates how nuclear power's high-modern technologies are grounded in the poisonous dirt and dust of uranium processing. Malin is a sociologist, however, and her scholarly interventions are aimed at environmental justice literature rather than nuclear histories.
The Price of Nuclear Power first lays out Malin's major theoretical frameworks, including environmental justice, neoliberalism, spatial violence, and social sustainability. Chapter two briefly traces the history of uranium mining and processing on the Colorado Plateau, sketching capsule histories of each town she investigates, and describing the origins of public health concerns surrounding uranium production in the 1960s. In chapter three, Malin focuses on the small town of Monticello, Utah, which was home to a government-run uranium mill between 1942 and 1960. While the mill ran, residents took patriotic pride in their contributions to the Cold War and bragged that they made "a greater contribution to the scientific world than any other spot in the universe" (p. 61). Yet tailings stored at the mill were radioactive, and Monticello now has two superfund sites. Starting in the 1990s, community members grew alarmed by high rates of cancer, and public health activists lobbied for better health care and radiation monitoring. Thus, Monticello represents a "site of resistance" to further uranium development. Yet the story is complicated because some Monticello residents ambivalently support new uranium processing based on the belief that private uranium companies will be better regulated than the government-run facility.
Chapters four and five examine the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill as an example of how "sites of acceptance" to uranium processing are created. The Piñon Ridge mill is supported by local residents who believe it will bring high-wage jobs to the depressed town. Residents describe their [End Page 644] desire to keep young people from leaving after college and revive the towns' once-vibrant Main Streets.
Chapter six turns to the regulation of uranium mills. Regulation has devolved from the federal to the state level in recent decades, leaving the underfunded Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to monitor and regulate uranium operations. In practice, they rely heavily on corporate self-monitoring. Malin finds many of the regulators are ambivalent about their efficacy but see few other options. Locals who support the mill, however, have little doubt that new regulations will be effective. In the conclusion, Malin makes an impassioned argument for a turn to decentralized, "soft path" energy solutions rather than continuing the nuclear renaissance. She highlights a recently constructed community solar power installation in the area as evidence that this shift is feasible.
The Price of Nuclear Power powerfully documents how isolation and poverty drive residents to support uranium milling despite its health risks. The voices of all sides of the complex debate ring out from Malin's surveys and interviews. But historians of technology may be frustrated to find little analysis of technology in the book. The processes of uranium milling—which are the heart of the debate—remain a black box. This was a missed opportunity because belief that new uranium milling technologies will pollute less is central to arguments in favor of a new mill. Yet without detailed analysis of how milling technology changed over time, it is hard to assess such claims.