Gateway - Plans for 100 new nuclear power plants around the world have pushed the price of uranium skyward and set off a frenzy of exploration in western Colorado and Utah.
More than 18,000 new mining claims in the two states have been filed in the past year. The number of uranium companies snatching them up has jumped from 10 to more than 400 over the past couple of years. And since 2002, when the yellow-and-orange-tinged ore fell to $7 a pound, the price has climbed nearly 1,900 percent.
This area of the country holds a rare and valuable combination of uranium and vanadium - both processed from the same ore - and pieces are falling into place to turn exploration into a full-fledged mining boom.
"I think it's going to go big- time this time," said Terry Bunker, who has ridden out 40 years of ups and downs since he began, at 14, mining uranium with his father near Uravan.
Bunker once again has strapped on his miner's belt and is going into the dank depths of the Whirlwind Mine, where miners are shoring up a tunnel in anticipation of hauling out ore this year.
Nearly everything is in place to "go" - from the miners' dusting off jack-leg drills and Geiger counters to the $138-a-pound- and-still-climbing price for uranium, coupled with worldwide demand that outstrips supply by 80 million tons.
There are 440 nuclear power plants operating in the world, using much of the world's processed uranium. An additional 100 are expected to be built, increasing demand for the metal.
That push has the makings of a uranium boom on the order of the 1950s atomic delirium that swept across the Uravan Mineral Belt - one of the richest uranium deposits in the country - when Charlie Steen hit his mother lode and turned Moab into a hotbed of millionaires.
But out here, where Marie Curie once packed uranium out by mule and where the metal for the world's first atomic bomb was chipped out of rock walls, the feeling is more of a horse race before the starting bell.
"This is the slowest boom I've ever seen," joked longtime miner Johnny Dufur, whose family is sitting on 70 claims in southeastern Utah.
Dozens of companies are refurbishing old mines or drilling new ones in the Uravan belt, which curves across western Colorado and eastern Utah. At least three companies plan to reopen or start mills. One company is proposing to dissolve uranium with a soda-and-chemical mixture in the ground under the Eastern Plains. And the federal government is in the final review process to decide whether to reopen nearly 20,000 acres of previously reclaimed land in western Colorado to more mining.
The pace of actual production, however, is slowed by a number of factors.
Staking a claim can still involve driving four stakes in the ground to mark the corners of the 600-foot-by-1,500-foot plots. But permit requirements are much more complicated and time-consuming: It can take a year to get a permit. Environmental regulations are tougher. The cost of meeting these requirements has climbed high enough - as much as $100,000 for a small mine - that independent operators often can't afford to work their own mines.
Workers are hard to come by because many left for other areas when uranium bottomed out in the 1980s. Companies are advertising for experienced miners and mill workers as far away as West Virginia.
Richard Dorman, vice president of exploration for Universal Uranium Ltd. of Winnemucca, Nev., said knowledge also has been lost. Miners who knew where deposits were located are now gone. Records have been lost from companies that long ago went bust. He said he spends as much time around Moab mining for data as he does drilling for veins.
"Dusting off these operations and getting them back into working order is a challenge. It's going to take some time," said Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association.
One of the major holdups since uranium prices began skyrocketing in 2005 has been the lack of a mill to process the uranium into concentrate known as yellowcake.
Three of the four uranium mills in the country aren't operating. The 25-year-old White Mesa Mill, near Blanding, Utah, has been processing only uranium waste material but is undergoing $15 million in upgrades to process ore and is promising to put out a long-awaited order for ore this week.
"We can take as much as they can deliver. This should kick off some activity. It should be the beginning of a long-term revival," said Ron Hochstein, president and chief operating officer of Dennison Mines Corp., the Canadian company that owns the mill.
Energy Fuels Inc., the company that owns the Whirlwind and 22 other blocks of mining claims, is preparing to submit permit applications by year's end for another mill in the West End of Montrose County.
"We believe there is plenty of room for two mills," said George Glasier, president of Energy Fuels Resources, the Colorado subsidiary.
Another large Canadian company, SXR Uranium One, recently purchased a long- shuttered mill at Ticaboo, Utah, with an eye toward a reopening. The Cotter Corp.'s mill in Cañon City and a mill near Rawlins, Wyo., are still closed.
PowerTech Inc., a subsidiary of a Vancouver, British Columbia, company, is trying to get around the milling problem with plans to do in-ground leaching of uranium on some of the 5,700 acres to which the company has mineral rights in northeastern Colorado.
Canada's biggest uranium producers have been buying up claims, mines and mills, mostly in the Uravan belt because, unlike in Canada or anywhere else in the United States, the formation holds uranium and vanadium. Canada's uranium deposits are more concentrated with richer ore, but the steel-hardener vanadium adds an $8-a-pound bonus - up from $1.36 - to uranium.
A few small miners are taking a crack at that prize in spite of the difficulties and bringing back mines with fanciful names harkening back to boom times - Yellowbird, Pie Face, School Marm and Fairy King.
Mitch Shumway, whose family has been mining for four generations and has about 100 claims around Blanding, Utah, has been retrofitting old equipment and wading through the frustrating tangle of permitting.
Glasier said the rewards could be substantial. He estimates some of Energy Fuels' mines can bring in $800 to $900 worth of vanadium and uranium for every ton of mined material. He estimates if the Whirlwind operates for 20 years at today's prices, it could yield $1 billion in uranium and vanadium.
Uranium consultant Arden Larson said there's still plenty of uranium to go around, but it is not an easy ore to mine. Uranium veins are harder to follow and more scattered than those of some other minerals.
"There are 100 million to 200 million tons out there. Half of that hasn't been found yet," Larson said. "It's like the raisins in the pudding."
Not everyone is happy about uncovering those raisins.
The Navajo Nation has outlawed mining and milling on its vast reservation in Arizona and New Mexico. Citizens in Weld County have banded together to fight against PowerTech's plans to leach uranium from under their farm fields.
Conservation and environmental groups decry anticipated environmental damage and object to the fact that more mining and milling will create a new headache where toxic tailings from previous booms haven't been cleaned up.
"There is an absolute history of not cleaning up in this industry," said Cathy Kay of Western Colorado Congress.
But in the sparsely populated and barren expanses of western Montrose County and eastern Utah, uranium is synonymous with prosperity to those who have been chasing the big strike for generations and now feel the stirrings of another boom.
"I guess," Dufur said, "you can't ever quit dreamin'."