The Paradox of Uranium Development: A Polanyian Analysis of Social Movements Surrounding the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill

Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Sociology, Social Work, and Anthropology

Committee Chair(s)

Peggy Petrzelka


Peggy Petrzelka


John C. Allen


Christy Glass


Claudia Radel


Jennifer Peeples


Renewal of nuclear energy development has been proposed as one viable solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and impacts of climate change. This discussion became concrete as the first uranium mill proposed since the end of the Cold War, the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, received state permits in January 2011 to process uranium in southwest Colorado’s Paradox Valley. Though environmental contamination from previous uranium activity caused one local community to be bulldozed to the ground, local support for renewed uranium activity emerges among local residents in communities like Nucla, Naturita, and Bedrock, Colorado. Regionally, however, a coalition of organized, oppositionbased grassroots groups fights the decision to permit the mill. Combined, these events allow social scientists a natural laboratory through which to view social repercussions of nuclear energy development.

In this dissertation, I use a Polanyian theoretical framework to analyze social, political-economic, and environmental contexts of social movements surrounding PR Mill. My overarching research problem is: How might Polanyian double movement theory be applied to and made empirically testable within the social and environmental context of uranium development? I intended this analysis to inform energy policy debates regarding renewable energy. In Chapter 1, I found various forms of social dislocation lead to two divergent social movement outcomes. Economic social dislocation led to strong mill support among most local residents, according to archival, in-depth interview, and survey data. On the other hand, residents in regional communities experienced two other types of social dislocation – another kind of economic dislocation, related to concern over boombust economies, and environmental health dislocations related to uranium exposure, creating conditions for a regional movement in opposition to PR Mill. In Chapter 2, I focus on regulations and find that two divergent social movements – a support movement locally and a countermovement against the mill regionally – emerge also as a result of strong faith in regulations, regulators, and Energy Fuels countered by marked distrust in regulations, regulators, and Energy Fuels, respectively. In Chapter 3, I advance Polanyi’s double movement theory by comparing different emergent social movements surrounding uranium, showing that historically different circumstances surrounding uranium can help create conditions for divergent social movements.

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