While manufacturing in the United States might not be the strong economic base it once was, the mining business could be another story over the next 20 years. And if the push for clean burning fuels persists, the uranium business in particular could be on the verge of another boom.
And should a proposed uranium and vanadium processing mill be constructed in the west end of Montrose County, Western Colorado could be a source of both raw and processed uranium and create high-paying jobs at the same time.
“The key is uranium is back,” said George Glasier, founder of Energy Fuels Resources, which has proposed the new mill for the Paradox Valley and gained state approval in January.
Glasier anticipates appeals from environmental organizations, but hopes construction can begin by the end of this year.
Glasier resigned from his senior management position with Energy Fuels Resources last year, but continues to act as a spokesman for the company. He discussed the proposed Montrose County mill during a briefing hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.
Just as depressed natural gas prices have curtailed natural gas extraction in the West, an increase in uranium prices could boost uranium mining and processing.
Uranium ore was going for about $43 a pound in the late 1970s before the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident in Pennsylvania led the U.S. to curtail plans to expand nuclear power. The change in philosophy, coupled by an increase in uranium supplies worldwide, helped drop the price to $7 a pound in a short time, Glasier said. But the price bounced back all the way to $140 a pound before dropping back to $40. The price as of late January stood at about $70 a pound. At that price, uranium miners and processors can make money, Glasier said.
And there’s no sign prices will drop anytime soon because increased demand seems a sure bet.
Even if the U.S. were to curtail use of uranium, countries such as China and Japan continue to expand their pursuit of nuclear power.
“China has an aggressive nuclear program,” Glasier said, adding that Japan stockpiles uranium and has enough to power its needs for the next decade. Russia also plans to build more nuclear plants.
Such countries impose less regulation to construct nuclear power plants, Glasier said. Consequently, it’s possible to announce and build a plant in China and Japan in less time than it takes to issue a permit to build a plant in the United States, he said.
“I suspect with the increased prices, that this won’t be the only mill,” he added.
The only domestic use for uranium is production of nuclear power, said Glasier. The country doesn’t need any more uranium for weapons. And concerns that uranium could be stolen to construct nuclear weapons in other countries are unfounded, Glasier said. That’s because a federal license is required to sell uranium.
Concerns about the safety of nuclear plants also are also overstated, he said. The Three Mile Island incident was restricted to the plant location because a containment building worked the way it was supposed to in response to an accident. “The industry has a very good safety record,” he said.
A subsequent accident at a nuclear plant near the Russian city of Chernobyl was worse because it didn’t include a containment building, Glasier said.
There seems to be no doubt about the economic boost uranium production would give Western Colorado. At full capacity, the mill in Montrose County would employ 85 workers, with 80 percent of the work force coming from the area. Counting such ancillary jobs as mine workers and truck drivers, the mill could generate 1,100 jobs, Glasier said.
Due to new technology at the mill, the operation won’t require the 200 people necessary to operate a mill near Blanding, Utah. Mill workers typically earn between $40,000 and $75,000 a year, Glasier said.
Because a small amount of uranium goes a long way in producing power, the processed ore is easier to store than other sources of energy.
For example, a uranium fuel pellet the size of a pencil eraser can produce the power of one ton of coal or 150 barrels of oil, Glasier said.
While a 55-gallon barrel of oil is valued at less than $100 in the current market, the same barrel filled with uranium would be worth $100,000.
While Glasier crunches the numbers and anticipates challenges to the mill permit, he’s also hopeful a new mill can begin producing processed uranium and vanadium by the end of 2012.