An Aug. 7 article about a boom in uranium mining incorrectly said that Nucla, Colo., took its name from its role in nuclear physics. The name was created by settlers who built the town as a nucleus for scattered farms and ranches. (Published 8/16/2005)
The uranium for the world's first atomic bombs was gouged out of the soaring red cliffs here on the Uncompahgre Plateau, and for decades uranium mining was the economic base for the rugged canyon country along the Colorado-Utah border. But then the arms race slowed, and public fears made civilian nuclear power plants unpalatable.
"After Three Mile Island in '79, the price of uranium fell to near nothing," recalls Clifford Chiles, whose family has been mining here for decades. "The mines closed. We had our boom, and then we got our bust."
The first years of the 21st century, though, have brought a new uranium boom -- a huge surge in global demand. The skyrocketing costs of fossil fuels, plus concerns about global warming, have prompted electric utilities around the world to move rapidly toward nuclear generating plants. And those plants run on uranium.
"The price of uranium has just about tripled since 2003," said Energy Department analyst Ed Cotter. "The analysts all seem to agree that it's going to keep going up and up as the world moves more and more to nuclear power plants. And this time, the market is global."
At the end of 2004, the International Atomic Energy Agency says, 440 power reactors were in operation around the world, the most ever. An additional 26 are under construction, and more than 100 are on the drawing board, with China, India and other developing economies strongly committed to nuclear power.
In the United States, where 104 nuclear plants produce 20 percent of the nation's electricity, atomic power stations have been politically taboo for decades. President Bush is pushing for a sharp increase in atomic generating capacity, but the lack of a permanent disposal site for nuclear waste has slowed domestic development.
The world's shift to atomic-powered electricity stems partly from the rising costs of the oil, natural gas and coal used to drive the turbines of a conventional power plant. Further, nations committed to the Kyoto accord on global warming -- the United States has not ratified the treaty, but more than 150 countries have -- are required to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that form when fossil fuels are burned. A properly functioning nuclear plant emits nothing into the air but water.
The result is a global swing away from coal, gas and oil and toward nuclear fuel. That has created a chasm between supply and demand. The Energy Department says world uranium consumption is greater than 180 million tons a year, while the mining industry is turning out only 90 million to 100 million tons.
The end of the Cold War provided a temporary supply of fuel in the form of uranium that was removed from nuclear weapons in the disarmament process. But that source is used up now and utilities' stockpiles are dwindling, analysts say.
Soaring demand with restricted supply is the classic formula for a seller's market, and the major uranium-producing nations -- Canada, Australia, Russia and the United States -- are all moving to reactivate mines that were closed after the uranium bust of the 1980s.
The point has not been lost on the veteran miners who live on the hardscrabble high desert country where southern Colorado and Utah meet.
This region, a scattered collection of dusty villages separated by endless stretches of two-lane mountain roads, is known to geologists as the Uravan Mineral Belt. Both uranium and another industrial mineral, vanadium, are found in the red cliffs that tower 1,000 feet above the valley of the San Miguel River.
Even before it supplied the Manhattan Project and the World War II bombs, the Uravan played a key role in nuclear history. Nobel Laureate Marie Curie came to Colorado to collect radium for her pioneering experiments. When this town was incorporated in 1904, it proudly took the name "Nucla" to reflect its role in the new science of nuclear physics. During the boom years, Nucla had a Uranium Cafe and a movie theater called the Uranium Drive In.
In an area where people track the spot price of uranium the way Washingtonians track the president's approval rating, the global boom has sparked considerable interest. This year, county clerks say, thousands of mining claims have been staked -- a procedure that still involves driving four stakes into the ground to mark the corners of the plot. More than a dozen abandoned uranium mines have been reopened, and long-closed mills in Utah and Colorado are once again grinding the miners' rocks into the powder form called "yellowcake" that utilities use.
"There could be hundreds of mines operating around here in a year or two," says Ernie Anderson, a veteran mining industry geologist. Anderson says he first "went underground" to mine uranium in the boom years after World War II. Although his age is "way north of 70," Anderson says, he has recently staked claims in 10 areas he judges to be uranium-rich.
Like many miners, Chiles complains that regulatory and environmental restrictions make uranium mining a much tougher business than it used to be. "If President Bush could push a button and get rid of the red tape, that would be the best thing to happen to this industry," Chiles says. Still, he and his brothers have staked more than 50 mining claims in recent months, he says.
And yet, the miners of the Uravan region display a clear ambivalence to the prospect of new boom in their old mines. "The problem with a boom is, you get a bust on the backside," Chiles says, reflecting a common viewpoint. "Yeah, you make money if everything goes okay. But if it ends, that puts a lot of hurting on people."
One thing the locals are not worried about is the potential health or environmental risk from mining radioactive fuel. "There is nobody here who is anti-uranium," said Roger Culver, editor of the San Miguel Basin Forum, Nucla's newspaper.
The more serious question for Nucla and the neighboring towns is whether they are being lulled into one more cycle of boom and bust. "All the global indicators tell us that uranium demand and prices are going to keep rising steadily," says Cotter, the Energy Department analyst. "And that's what we're telling our miners. But of course, they've heard it all before."