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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Rising demand for uranium is driving up prices, and could reopen mines for the radioactive chemical in Utah's impoverished San Juan county.
Ron Hochstein, president of International Uranium Corp., said global demand for the ore is far outstripping its supply, and prices are higher than at any time during the past 20 years.
The company's White Mesa mill near Blanding already was scheduled to restart operations in March to process "alternate feed" material from California mining operations and place the remains in an onsite disposal cell, Hochstein said.
However, he said mining and processing the ore instead of leaching waste from other mines has become a more attractive venture, Hochstein said.
"It's looking like it could be quite a permanent 'up' market," he said. "We're seeing a tremendous mount of growth in nuclear power, particularly in Asia and India."
Hochstein spoke Friday during a meeting with the state's Division of Radiation Control Board to discuss remediation plans for a chloroform plume discovered five years ago at the White Mesa site. He said IUC would probably decide within the year whether it would resume mining and processing.
White Mesa and Cotter Corp. in Colorado are the only two uranium processing mills still operating in the United States. Hochstein said that puts the White Mesa mill five to seven years ahead of even such uranium-rich locations as Western Australia, which is closer to the vast Asian nuclear market but hasn't tapped its potential because of a state moratorium on uranium mining.
San Juan County Administrator Rick Bailey said the county backed the return of uranium mining.
The revenue "could help put a kid through school, provide the sort of things that in a small rural area are not taken for granted," he said.
Environmental activist Jason Groenewold, who attended the Radiation Control Board meeting, was surprised by Hochstein's statements. Considering the toll on public health Utah's mining history has taken, he said, "it just seems like bad ideas never die, but people who implement them do."
Hochstein said he expected protests from environmentalists over mining renewal.
Uranium mining boomed in Utah following World War II, when Charles Steen in 1952 struck a deep bed of nearly pure uraninite near Moab, the one-time "uranium capital of the world."
Steen's mill, bought by the Atlas Corp. in 1956 and operated until 1984, left 12 million tons of radioactive tailings next to the Colorado River. The federal Energy Department is studying how to relocate the mill tailings.
By 1970, the federal Atomic Energy Commission stopped buying uranium altogether, and the uranium-fueled economy of southeastern Utah collapsed. A brief resumption of the industry in the mid-1970s died quickly.
Hundreds of miners in the Four Corners area died of lung cancer after working in the unregulated mines.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)