Nuclear reaction to global power: a uranium price spike spurs mining in the Four Corners region.

Author:Patterson, Amelia

Inspecting his equipment at the mouth of the Pandora Mine on the southern slopes of the La Sal Mountains, Jick Taylor is double checking everything while he waits for the final approval from the Mining Safety and Health Administration to begin mining for uranium.

It is late November, and in the three months it has taken to fully permit the southeastern Utah mine, the price for uranium has gone up from $48 a pound in August of 2006 to more than $63 a pound. By late April, the price has risen to $113 a pound.

Uranium prices have soared in recent months due to a worldwide 80-million-pound production deficit of uranium used for nuclear reactors. For the last three decades, uranium supplies to fuel nuclear reactors have been filled with stockpiled uranium and reprocessed nuclear weapons left over from the Cold War. As energy demands continue to grow around the world, most notably in China and India, the demand for nuclear power has grown.

Growing concern over climate change also has increased the appeal for nuclear power as an alternative energy source that doesn't produce greenhouse gases associated with global warming.

In 2006, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, 30 new nuclear plants were under construction to add to the already 435 plants worldwide. In the United States, 27 nuclear power plants are planned along with a $1.5 billion uranium enrichment plant in New Mexico.

If the uranium market holds steady, Taylor, in his early 30s, would be part of a new wave of uranium miners learning the trade. Uranium mining in this part of the country has been dead for nearly 20 years, and few miners remain in the region to teach the next generation.

Uranium mines in the Colorado Plateau are now back in business with prices that support the cost and overhead of mining low-grade ore, which hasn't been profitable for more than 20 years. The bulk of the uranium mining district in the U.S. is in the heart of the Four Corners region and concentrated in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah.

Communities in this region have boomed and busted at the whim of uranium prices in the past, and this latest boom may be no different. Uravan, Nucla and Naturita, on the western edge of Colorado, have all felt the glory of booms and the devastation of busts. Uravan, a former Union Carbide company town, is completely leveled now, save one historic building, and is part of a Department of Energy reclamation site.

The center of the current uranium boom straddles the Colorado-Utah border and contains several active mines and the only operating uranium mill in the country. The area covers about 9,000 square miles in four counties in Colorado, including Mesa, Montrose, San Miguel and...

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