New boom may be much different than the first

by Bill Boyle

We may be on the brink of another uranium boom in southeast Utah, but this one will likely be much different than the first one.

On July 6, 1952, when Charlie Steen discovered a rich vein of uranium ore in Lisbon Valley, the down-on-his-luck geologist went from dirt-poor to unimaginably rich.

Steen's success inspired others, who realized the tremendous wealth that the uranium ore held. The boom brought significant equity riches to the area.

Steen was so wealthy, so quickly, that he was able to leverage his ore holdings into a uranium empire. He was the chief force behind the construction of a massive uranium processing mill in Moab. He owned not only the ore, but also key portions of the entire enriching process, from drilling and mining, to transportation, to milling and beyond.

You have to look to California to see similar phenomena. The creation of instant wealth in San Juan County in 1952 is similar to the Gold Rush of 1949 or the Silicon Valley Rush of the late 1990s.

The contrasts to our apparent boom of 2007 are stark. Instead of offering unimaginable riches overnight, the current boom is requiring the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars before seeing the return of the first dollar of profit. Significant expenses are affiliated with securing ore reserves, stockpiling ore, upgrading processing plants, and securing licensure.

The companies making these investments, and their equity owners, are far from southeastern Utah. In fact, the major players are Canadian companies. So while the boom may mean significant contracts for miners and secure employment for mill workers and ore transporters, the mind boggling wealth which marked the 1950s uranium boom will likely pass by San Juan County residents.

There are those who say that there were no casualties from the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island in March, 1979. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While the radiation exposure for workers at the facility were approximately equivalent to one-sixth of a standard chest X-ray, there were significant casualties far from the Pennsylvania power plant. The key casualty of the Three Mile Island disaster was the entire uranium industry in the Four Corners area.

The much more dangerous disaster at Chernobyl, Ukraine in April, 1986 apparently sealed the fate of the industry. It has taken more than 28 years for the uranium industry to reach its current level of recovery.

Now, 28 years after Three Mile Island and 21 years after Chernobyl, the threat of high oil prices and terrorized oil fields, a suddenly sympathetic environmental community, and the specter of global warming has created a situation where the industry may be able to recover.

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