Fear of the Soviets during the Cold War fueled a uranium boom in the West. Thirty years later, the Soviets are contributing to the industry's collapse.
The Soviets have been exporting uranium to the United States in exchange for coveted U.S. currency. Mining leaders say the imports have depressed prices for U.S. uranium, to the point where the industry has all but died."Russia is so interested in dollars that they can sell uranium here for whatever they want to," said Bob Beverly, a retired executive of Umetco Minerals Corp. in Grand Junction. "It's free trade, not necessarily fair trade."
Umetco shut down its mining and milling operations in November, saying Soviet imports had driven the price so low it was impossible to make money mining uranium in the West.
In January, Energy Fuels Corp. of Denver, the last major uranium company still operating in the West, plans to close its last operations.
Uranium, the fuel used to power the nation's 112 nuclear reactors, brought $43.70 a pound 12 years ago but has fallen to $8.35 a pound this year. Mining executives don't expect much change because the Chinese, who also mine for uranium, have the same desire for Western currency as the Soviets do.
"They use mining practices we can't compete with," Beverly said. "What worries me is like oil, we're letting ourselves get dependent on foreign sources."
Most of the uranium mined in the United States comes from western Colorado and eastern Utah, as well Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona.
From 1949 through 1967, the Atomic Energy Commission bought most of the uranium, much for military use, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Domestic production increased from 400,000 pounds of uranium oxide in 1949 to 35 million pounds in 1960.
But as the AEC began to accumulate stockpiles, its purchases declined - and so did production. It fell to 21 million pounds in 1965.
The industry was lifted, however, in the 1970s, when nuclear plants began springing up and buying uranium for fuel. Production peaked at 44 million pounds in 1980.
But demand began to fall again. Plant cancellations and postponements, big stockpiles and foreign competition all weighed on the industry, which slowed production to 11 million pounds in 1985.
Production this year is estimated at 9.2 million pounds.
R.A. Van Horn, Umetco's director of operations, said there is no way to predict when, or even if, uranium mining will resume in the United States.
"In real dollar terms, the current uranium quote is the lowest ever recorded," he said. "It's a crying shame (to lay off workers) but the market just isn't there."
Van Horn said 4 million tons of uranium are expected from the Soviet Union this year, which will account for 10 percent of the fuel used domestically in nuclear plants. He said the U.S. producers have supplied about 25 percent of the fuel, while the rest comes from other foreign producers in Canada, Australia, China and Yugoslavia.