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Licensed to mill: Uranium facility moves a step closer to production

Production could begin in the summer of 2012 at a Western Colorado uranium mill that’s received a state license to process up to 500 tons of ore a day.

If constructed as planned, the Piñon Ridge mill about 12 miles west of Naturita in Montrose County, would be the first new facility of its kind in the United States  in 30 years.

By one estimate, the new mill will create a total of 1,100 direct and indirect jobs in a region suffering from stubbornly high unemployment rates. And that has business people excited about the possibilities.

“It’s going to be big for this area and it’s going to bring some vitality back,” said Reed Mitchell, a Grand Junction real estate broker and developer who sold the property where the mill will be built.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) approved the radioactive materials license for Energy Fuels Resource Corp. The company also owns two fully permitted uranium mines near the mill site that would serve as the primary source of most of the uranium and vanadium ore.

“Energy Fuels has demonstrated it can build and operate the mill in a manner that is protective of both human health and the environment,” said Steve Tarlton, manager of the CDPHE radiation program.

The ruling followed a 14-month application review process that included eight public meetings, the consideration of hundreds of letters and e-mails and more than 400 technical questions posed to Energy Fuels. The ruling requires an $11 million bond for decommissioning the mill and a nearly $830,000 fund to provide for the long-term care of workers.

Steve Antony, president and chief executive officer of Energy Fuels, said the license approval constituted the most significant hurdle to building the mill.

“With this major accomplishment, the company now has a clear pathway to new conventional uranium production in the U.S. and we will be shifting our focus to project financing, product sales and long-term strategic relationships with potential uranium buyers,” Antony stated in a new release.

Energy Fuels has 60 days to review the ruling and decide whether or not to request a formal hearing. If no hearing is requested, the ruling becomes final. There’s also a possibility, though, the ruling could face legal challenges.

George Glasier, a Naturita Rancher who founded Energy Fuels and still serves as a consultant and stockholder, long has worked to promote uranium mining and processing in the region, including a mill in Blanding, Utah, the only fully operational conventional uranium mill in the U.S.

Glasier said the Piñon Ridge mill is needed to keep pace with increased demand for nuclear energy production in the United States and abroad, including emerging markets in China and India. “It’s fairly clear there’s going to be additional demand from around the world.”

It’s estimated the Piñon Ridge mill will produce about 850,000 pounds of “yellowcake,” which is further processed for fuel in nuclear power plants. That’s  equivalent to the annual fuel requirement to produce 2,000 megawatts of power, enough to supply a city about 1.5 times the population of Denver. The mill also will produce vanadium pentoxide, a material used in steel making and high-capacity batteries.

While the proposed mill has drawn fire from some opponents for the potential environmental effects of processing radioactive materials, Glasier said the operations of uranium mills have changed. “The technology has changed so dramatically.”

The Piñon Ridge mill will feature automated processing that limits exposure to hazardous materials, he said. Moreover, tailings will be stored underground in lined disposal cells.

If Energy Fuels proceeds as planned, construction on the mill is scheduled to start later this year. Production could begin in the summer of 2012.

The mill would employ a staff of 85 who would receive annual wages of $40,000 to $70,000. The mill would create an additional 230 jobs in mining, transportation and support services.

Glasier said by one estimate, the mill would create a total of 1,100 direct and indirect jobs in Western Colorado.

Mitchell said that prospect offers good news in an area still feeling the effects of an economic downturn. “This is so positive for our community.”

Mitchell said he hopes to develop a subdivision on property near the mill that will provide housing to mill workers and miners.

Phil Castle is editor of the Grand Valley Business Times, a twice-monthly business journal published in Grand Junction. Castle brings to his duties nearly 30 years of experience in editorial management positions with Western Colorado newspapers. In addition, his free-lance work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor's degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University.
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