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Mining revival: a uranium boom for a wary West

Seven mines are open so far in five Western states, including one in Utah.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2007

Moab, Utah

Perched on a towering cliff above the town of Moab, the former mansion of a uranium prospector looks down on 130 acres of hazardous uranium waste piled on the banks of the Colorado River. Long after the industry went bust in the early 1990s, uranium still casts similar silhouettes of fortune and fallout across the mountains and mesas of the West.

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Now, after two decades of dormancy, the uranium industry is roaring back to life thanks to a 14-fold spike in prices since 2002.

Canadian firms are snatching up old US mines with names like Pandora, Cyclone, and Whirlwind. Seven mines are open so far in five Western states, including one in Utah. Locals are scouring tattered topographical maps and driving across the wilderness; they staked 32,000 claims last year alone. And former geologists and miners are now sought-after consultants.

This boom, however, returns to a more wary West, one more reliant on tourism and less innocent about the potential pitfalls of uranium. Regulations are more stringent now, but activists say history argues against complacency.

"There are concerns because in the past the regulators let the industry get away with murder," says Sarah Fields, chair of the nuclear waste committee of the Sierra Club's Glen Canyon group in southeastern Utah. "The efforts should be put in cleaning up the old sites."

Origins of uranium boom

The nuclear arms race spurred the first uranium boom in the 1950s. Nuclear energy kept it going through the '70s. But by the early '90s, new nuclear plant construction fizzled in the US and uranium recycled from decommissioned Soviet warheads flooded the market. Prices fell so low that the industry only hung on in places like Canada, where the ore was high grade.

As late as 2002, the spot price for uranium was just below $10 per pound; now it's $138.

Supply is down due to problems at a Canadian mine and the drying up of the Russian legacy material. Meanwhile, demand is rising – 31 nuclear plants are under construction, mostly in Russia, India, and China. Interest in nuclear energy has rekindled in developed nations, too, as fossil fuels fall further from grace.

The uranium prices are helping to open up mines. The Pandora mine in Utah, less than 40 miles south of Moab, reopened in 2006. Two mines in Colorado and Nebraska also reopened in 2006 after being closed for years. Texas saw two new mines open in 2004.

The increased demand is also luring back prospectors, the dreamers and schemers who first put Moab on the map long before the first mountain biker circuited the Slickrock Trail.

"They are draping all over the countertops looking at different maps," says Susan Shoemaker, who works part time at the visitor's center. "You can tell they are looking for something different than mountain biking trails."

Anyone can stake a mineral rights claim on public lands and pay $125 a year to hold it. Congress may soon revise this system, dating back to 1872, to require payment of royalties to the government.

Stakeholders are hoping to collect royalties or get bought out by big companies. This month, Trigon Uranium Corp of British Columbia struck a royalty agreement with the owners of 73 mining claims in Utah. Other Canadian firms like Denison Mines of Toronto and SXR Uranium One of Vancouver are buying out US mining companies and reopening their long-shuttered facilities.

But it's a slow process to bring the industry back from zero.