Colo. town at heart of uranium debate |

Colo. town at heart of uranium debate

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times
"Uranium Drive-In," a documentary about the contentious debate over a uranium mine proposed in Naturita, is showing at the Wheeler Opera House tonight.
ReelThing Films/Courtesy photo |

A uranium mill would supply much-needed jobs to the struggling town of Naturita, but is the economic boost worth the environmental and human-health risks associated with unearthing the toxic element?

It’s the central question in Suzan Beraza’s documentary, “Uranium Drive-In,” which is showing at the Wheeler Opera House tonight. Beraza — who directed “Bag It,” a documentary that in part spurred Aspen’s plastic-bag ban — said she went into the project assuming that the uranium mill was a bad idea. But after spending two years in Naturita, she grew to understand why the residents so desperately wanted to see the mill built.

“My husband can’t wait. He wants to get back to work,” resident Ayngel Overson says in the film. “It’s not exactly what you want for your kids or your husbands, but if that’s what we have to do to stay here, that’s what we’ll do. We’re not in love with uranium, but it’s all we’ve got.”

According to Overson, 1,200 people are looking for work in Naturita, where Energy Fuels Inc. hopes to build the first American uranium mill in 30 years. What stands in the corporation’s way is not the residents of Naturita but Sheep Mountain Alliance, an environmental group from Telluride, where Beraza lives. For five years, the group’s lawsuits stall the project.

Jennifer Thurston, one of the environmentalists leading the fight, explains to Overson that she saw her own town, Telluride, ravaged by mining.

“Don’t sell your community short for an industry that’s never treated you right.” Thurston says in the film.

One tomato farmer in Naturita regards Thurston and her alliance as “tree huggers” who drive to the uranium protests in luxury cars. He says he is beyond frustrated that decision-making in his town has been hijacked by the environmentalists. Naturita Mayor Tami Lowrance says she can’t sleep some nights because she doesn’t know how to help her community, “where mothers aren’t able to put food on the table.”

Viewers also hear from a double-amputee who worked in a uranium mill during a catastrophic accident. Covered in pure uranium, his skin turned the color of a school bus, and he lost both legs below the knee.

“Had I known what I was getting into, I wouldn’t have worked there,” he says.

Beraza also details the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, where a series of explosions caused anywhere from 4,000 to 200,000 cancer-related deaths, depending on the source. There’s also mention of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, as well as the long-term health effects associated with uranium.

Running for 70 minutes, the film gives voice to both sides of the issue without attempting to provide a solution. While Beraza says she is not a nuclear-energy convert, she does admit that it “may need to be part of our energy future if we expect to dramatically reduce our planet’s carbon emissions.”

“Several world-renowned scientists, who were formerly anti-nuclear, have revealed to me that they see no way for our survival without nuclear energy,” Beraza wrote in a statement about the film. “They were very clear in their stance that renewable energy can never fulfill all of our energy needs. That does give one pause.”

As part of the Wheeler’s Monday Docs series, the show begins at 7:30 p.m., followed by a Q-and-A with the director. Tickets are $10.

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