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A bittersweet return to mining

Sam Eaton Nov 21, 2006

PHOTO GALLERY: Uranium boom

KAI RYSSDAL: Stephen mentioned wind, wave and solar power as possible alternatives to nuclear fusion. There’s another one, of course. Nuclear fission. People will disagree as to whether it’s truly renewable, but the fact is nuclear power’s become a lot more popular the past couple of years.

Rising oil prices and increased attention to global warming have made for a global nuclear revival. To go nuclear, though, you need some atoms to split. Uranium atoms, most of the time. Uranium prices are up 550 percent since 2002. And that’s fueling a resurgence of uranium mining in the American West. Sam Eaton reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk.

SAM EATON: To stand at the edge of a drill rig boring its way through 2,500 feet of rock in search of uranium is to relive a piece of U.S. history that hearkens back to the Cold War. Uranium was once king in this stretch of the Lisbon Valley near Moab, Utah. And geologist Richard Dorman hopes to reclaim the throne.

RICHARD DORMAN: We are primarily trying to find out where the most favorable areas are and we’ve been encouraged by some of our results, and so we’re continuing on.

Dorman’s company, Universal Uranium, is one of a handful of mining firms recombing the famed western uranium deposits. The red-rock hills on the Lisbon Valley’s westside made overnight millionaires out of lone speculators back in the ’50s. The resulting boom put Moab on the map as the uranium capital of the world.

DORMAN: And we’re looking at the eastern side as having the same potential.

If that potential is realized, Dorman says the find would mark a new era for this radioactive rock. The buzz is already making waves in nearby Moab.

JIMMY WALKER: My name is Jimmy Walker. I’m 78 years old. I was born and raised here. Been here all my life. Well, haven’t been here all my life, yet.

Walker is one of the few oldtimers who’ve lived here long enough to remember the fat days of past uranium booms when Moab was called the richest town in America.

WALKER: It was exciting because everybody that wanted to work could work and they made good money. Kids could graduate from high school here and go to work in the mine and make $20, $25, $30 an hour mining.

But for every boom there is a bust. Moab’s came in 1980 when the near meltdown at Three Mile Island sent the nuclear power industry into retreat and the price of uranium to all-time lows. Moab lost a third of its population overnight. And like so many other western mining towns, it turned to tourism as the new economic frontier.

DAVID SAKRISON: I think that the economy of the West is changing. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.

Moab Mayor David Sakrison.

SAKRISON: I mean, it’s gone from a mining town — much like, you know, Park City and Telluride and Aspen and Vail and those areas — to basically a tourist destination.

Mountain bikes and cameras have replaced the pick and shovel as the tool of choice. And because of that many here are wary of a return to the days when trucks of uranium ore barreled through town. Sarah Fields is a recent Moab transplant. She came for the area’s natural beauty. Fields says in today’s consolidated mining industry Moab would have little to gain from turning back the clock.

SARAH FIELDS: Large corporations will benefit. But the people in the community who live near the mills or have property near the mines, they’re not going to benefit from this at all.

Moab native Jimmy Walker doesn’t see it that way. He says global warming and the need for carbon-free sources of energy like nuclear power have changed the debate. Walker says the concerns of newcomers, however well-meaning, just don’t stack up against that.

WALKER: If your cause is just . . . And right now we’re going to go into a period where uranium development is a cause that is just, because if it’s going to save mankind — and I think it’s that serious — then maybe they’ll gradually catch on.

Even if they don’t, Walker says predictions that the price of uranium will go as high as a record $100 a pound from its current spot in the 60s could go a long way toward changing people’s minds.

In Moab, Utah, I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

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