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Weighing effects of atomic energy comeback in region

An ore chute at the Dirty Devil Mine in the southern region of the San Rafael Swell is one of many pieces of uranium mining history that remain in the Castle Valley area. Many mines were abandoned when the demand for uranium dropped in the early 1960's. Now there could be a resurgence of uranium mining all over the world as nations move toward building more nuclear power plants going away from oil.

Sun Advocate publisher

Many residents of southeastern Utah and the western United States may have considered the idea of mining uranium for nuclear power as a practice long past the point of reality.

But the nuclear power industry has been sitting just around the corner. The industry has been waiting for something to change - first for an increased demand and second for the public's perception and opinion of nuclear power to change.

It currently appears that a rapidly approaching nuclear perfect storm has appeared on the horizon.

The demand for and cost of oil, natural gas and carbon based resources and the fact that the country relies on foreign sources so strongly for the fuels along with global climate change concerns are making many Americans rethink nuclear power.

It appears the age of worrying about the Three Mile Island accident or the catastrophic Chernobyl incident seems to be fading from the people's minds.

Years of negative press and stories about nuclear power seem to be fading from the populace's attitudes, and there are some out there that are ready to gain from that change.

And that change will affect southeastern Utah, possibly in a major way.

Presently, the world has nearly 450 nuclear reactors that are generating electric power.

There are nearly three dozen reactors under construction and almost 350 nuclear facilities are proposed or on the way to starting the building phase.

At present, none of the plants are under construction are in the United States although there are a number of companies proposing 30 more reactors that remain in the planning stage.

At present, there are 104 active electric generating nuclear plants in the U.S. The facilities supply 20 percent of the electrical power for the country, while coal continues to provide nearly 50 percent.

At present, the country's reactors consume more than 50 million tons of nuclear material per year.

Weight wise, the nuclear consumption figure may be small when compared to the generation of power by coal.

But the majority of the coal fueling America's power plants is produced domestically, while a lot of the material running nuclear reactors comes from outside the country.

Some of the uranium supplies come from friendly countries like Canada, Australia and South Africa.

But some also come from areas that are as volatile and, at times, unfriendly to the U.S. as many of the countries supplying oil.

The U.S. contains around 4 percent of the known uranium supplies, but operates one-fourth of the reactors in the world.

Therefore, demand outstrips domestic supply.

Consequently, the concept of the U.S. becoming independent energy wise through the use of nuclear power currently seems as unlikely as the country not having to import oil.

The first major push for nuclear material came in the 1940s and 1950s when most of the nation's mines were located in the western U.S.

A good example of empires built and lost based on uranium was the story of Charlie Steen.

The poor prospector/geologist found uranium in southeastern Utah and became a multi-millionaire.

In the process, the development of the yellow cake reserves changed the town of Moab forever.

However, the largest known U.S. deposit of yellow cake is in southern Virginia. The uranium is located under a farm owned by the same family for 200 years.

Discovered 30 years ago, the Virginia uranium deposit is estimated to contain enough reserves to run all the electrical nuclear power plants operating in the U.S. for two years.

Although Virginia has nuclear power plants and a processing facility located within its boundaries, the state has a law against mining nuclear materials.

The law passed by Virginal legislators in 1982 was apparently a reaction to the Three Mile Island incident.

At present the state will not even let the owner of the property do a study to see if mining the material is viable.

Statistics show that the consumption of oil in the world may already have passed the ability of the planets oil fields to supply enough to meet demand.

While the supposition is still in doubt, primarily due to the complexity of oil production and consumption, nuclear experts indicate that the production of nuclear materials for power plants is already behind the eight ball.

Presently, the world produces about 108 million pounds of usable material for processing per year. But the world consumes 70 million more pounds than the amount of material produced annually.

The shortfall is made up by using nuclear material from decommissioned weapons the U.S. and Russia have agreed to release. But the joint agreement and the number of weapons being decommissioned are finite.

New sources of nuclear material need to be found and mined to keep up with the status quo, not to mention the growth that will take place in the future.

The nuclear industry is not sitting still. The mining of yellow cake in the eastern part of Utah mostly died out decades ago, primarily due to falling prices and decreasing demand.

Just as coal reserves economically unmineable three generations ago are being tapped for today's energy needs, the sources of nuclear energy still remain locked away in sandstone.

Energy companies have been holding onto many of the inactive claims and buying up others.

The question may be when the boom for mining nuclear material will resurface on a major scale.

Editors note: Today's story is the first in a two-part series on nuclear power, its potential growth and how that might affect eastern Utah. Information sources include the U.S. Department of Energy and Heritage Foundation.

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