Uranium mining in San Juan may return
High prices promise big profits; 'bad ideas never die,' critics say
By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune
Surging uranium prices could prompt uranium mines to reopen as early as this year in San Juan County, boosting the fortunes of an impoverished area that is home to one of only two operating uranium mills in the nation, a mining executive said Friday.
Ron Hochstein, president of International Uranium Corp. (IUC), said the economics of uranium have changed from a buyer's to a seller's market, with global demand for the ore far outstripping its supply and prices higher than at any time during the past 20 years.
The company's White Mesa mill near Blanding already was scheduled to restart operations in March to process so-called "alternate feed" materials from California mining operations and place the remains in an on-site disposal cell, Hochstein said.
But now that the price of uranium has reached $27 per pound, and expected to reach $30 per pound by the end of the year, mining and processing the ore instead of leaching waste from other mines has become a more attractive venture, Hochstein said.
''It's looking like it could be quite a permanent 'up' market,'' he said. ''We're seeing a tremendous mount of growth in nuclear power, particularly in Asia and India.''
Hochstein, who made his comments during a meeting with the state's Division of Radiation Control Board to discuss remediation plans for a chloroform plume discovered five years ago at the White Mesa site, said he expected IUC to decide within the year whether it would resume uranium mining and processing.
Hochstein said that the global demand for uranium to power the plants already is nearly double the ore's production, and said he expected a revitalized uranium mining industry in the western United States could yield up to 2 million pounds of ore per year.
"We potentially see a real boom again in San Juan County for uranium mining," he said.
San Juan County Administrator Rick Bailey agreed. "We would support uranium mining returning," he said during a telephone interview. "We have watched that price pretty carefully, and are excited mining operations . . . could financially get back into business. A lot of old-time miners are still there, waiting for the right time."
Bailey noted that the county also awaits a copper mine and mill in Lisbon Valley, about 20 miles northeast of Monticello, which he said could bring 80 to 100 well-paying jobs. That would be proportional to 10,000 good jobs in Salt Lake County, he said.
Mining revenue "could help put a kid through school, provide the sort of things that in a small rural area are not taken for granted," Bailey said.
White Mesa mill and Cotter Corp. in Ca on City, Colo., are the only two uranium processing mills still operating in the United States. Hochstein said that puts the White Mesa mill five to seven years ahead of even such uranium-rich locations as Western Australia, which is closer to the vast Asian nuclear market but hasn't tapped its potential due to a state government moratorium on uranium mining.
Earlier this week, Bloomberg News reported that China will soon award an $8 billion contract to build four nuclear reactors as part of a plan to build 27 nuclear plants and boost its nuclear energy output fivefold by 2020. India plans to build 17 reactors, tripling its nuclear capacity by 2012. Also driving up the price of uranium is Russia's decision to reduce uranium exports to retain resources for the 25 new plants it wants to build by 2020.
Steve Erickson, an environmental activist who has been critical of IUC's plans to leach and store the lead-laden California mine waste, said uranium mining would be preferable to allowing the White Mesa mill to store toxic waste.
"It might turn out to be beneficial for San Juan County, though we're not crazy about more nuclear power plants," Erickson said.
Environmental activist Jason Groenewold, who attended the Radiation Control Board meeting, was surprised by Hochstein's statements. Considering the toll on public health Utah's mining history has taken, he said, "it just seems like bad ideas never die, but people who implement them do."
Hochstein said he expected Groenewold, who is spokesman for the anti-nuclear organization Healthy Alliance Utah, would with others protest plans to resume uranium mining. But he added that a lot has been learned over the past half-century about the negative effects of uranium mining, particularly how radon exposure can cause cancer.
Uranium mining boomed in Utah following World War II, when Charles Steen in 1952 struck a deep bed of nearly pure uraninite near Moab, the one-time "uranium capital of the world." Steen's mill, bought by the Atlas Corp. in 1956 and operated until 1984, left 12 million tons of radioactive tailings next to the Colorado River. The federal Energy Department is studying how to relocate the mill tailings.
By 1955, about 800 mines operated on the Colorado Plateau, but by 1962, the industry screeched to a halt. By 1970, the federal Atomic Energy Commission stopped buying uranium altogether, and the uranium-fueled economy of southeastern Utah collapsed. A brief resumption of the industry in the mid-1970s died quickly.
Hundreds of miners in the Four Corners area died of lung cancer after working in the unregulated mines, but it wasn't until 1989 that Congress first passed legislation to compensate radiation victims.
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