Saturday, January 12, 2008

Tall tales of two uranium mines in Colorado

Powertech takes heat in Ft. Collins;
Energy Fuels gets a go ahead in Mesa

Here are two tales from the same state, but given their differences, you'd wonder if indeed they both really did take place in Colorado or in two separate space time dimensions. The people of Ft. Collins, CO, think they live in a "green city." If the city council there is any indication of the truth of that belief, then their recent action indicates a proposed uranium mine at Nunn, CO, northeast of the city is in for a rough ride. By comparison over on the western slope of Colorado the county commissioners in Mesa County approved a new uranium mine after striking a deal on the operation of ore trucking operations.

Powertech's Colorado ISR mine

Powertech Uranium (TSE:PWE) plans to mine uranium on 5,760 acres over a 15 square mile area. The firm says “Centennial Project" has the potential for approximately 9.5 million pounds of uranium. At $90/lb, the current price, the project is worth $855 million. The firm is in the permitting stage and plans to start operations in 2010. The area of the proposed mine is sparsely populated and outside of the bands of irrigated agriculture that surround Ft. Collins.

In December the Ft. Collins city council went on record opposing the proposed uranium mine. The City Council resolution was adopted 6-0 without a formal hearing. Ft. Collins City Councilwoman Lisa Poppaw, who sponsored the resolution against the mine, told the Greeley Tribune her measure was designed to send a clear message that uranium mining is not welcome in northeastern Colorado.

"In Fort Collins, we do high-tech and quality-of-life," she said. "We don't do uranium mining right next to our town."

What's unusual about the resolution is that the mine isn't located in Larimer County. It is located in nearby Weld County so the Ft. Collins City Council isn't the government body making the decision about the mine's permits. Even the Weld County commissioners have limited powers. The State of Colorado has the key regulatory role. However, public angst over the mine has gone far beyond the bounds of the normal permitting process.

Anti-nuclear activists have hit the Internet with a variety of web pages most of them brimming with vitriolic criticism of the proposed mine. They may have hit a nerve or two. Powertech's first project manager for the mine, Lane Douglas, quit in November apparently in frustration over the public reaction to the project. Powertech said in a press release he will continue as a consultant to the project. It hired the former general manager of a Wyoming coal mine to replace Douglas. Powertech also hired an environmental geologist and opened offices in Wellington, CO, near the planned mine site, and in a Denver suburb to house the rest of their staff.

The Denver Post reported the proposed uranium mining near Fort Collins is attracting yet more opposition, including federal and state lawmakers and the Colorado Medical Society. The group's board of directors unanimously agreed in November to support the Larimer County Medical Society in opposing the Powertech uranium operation.

"We just felt it was a bad thing for the citizens of our county, given the contamination risks to our health," said Dr. Cory Carroll, a medical-society board member and president of the Larimer County Medical Society.

The Colorado medical organization's stance was a disappointment to officials at Powertech, but, Pete Webb, a spokesman for Powertech, said it is at least a year away from applying for the necessary permits needed before mining can begin. Webb emphasized that Powertech's operations will be safe and environmentally sound. James Bonner, VP for Exploration at Powertech, told the Greeley Tribune, "We're being very careful. We're proving the science before we get in and we will continually prove that science after we're there."

Bonner met with local business leaders in Greeley where he told the Kiwanis Club the firm is collecting environmental data including groundwater flows. He also noted the mine will create an additional 100 jobs with an average salary of $65,000/year and send $2 million a year in severance taxes to the State of Colorado over the expected 12-15 year life of the mine.

In December Powertech went on the offensive against some of the more knee-jerk opponents of its proposed ISR operation in northern Colorado with full page advertisements in three of the region’s newspapers. It’s message is that it will be a responsible steward of the environment. Powertech also published a copy of its letter to the Ft. Collins, CO, city council which voted earlier this year, without a public hearing, to oppose the uranium mine.

Powertech spokesperson Richard Blubaugh wrote that the action was “premature and unwarranted.” He said the council’s actions were based on “erroneous assumptions about uranium mining.”

Richard Clement, Powertech CEO, said he was surprised by the opposition which he said has “mischaracterized” the proposed operation. Clement pointed out the mine will inject $300 million into the local economy over the next ten years.

The controversy may spill over into the Colorado State Legislative session this winter. Two northern Colorado legislators said they plan to review current laws to make sure they are adequate to permit uranium mines. They made their announcement in a media event on the steps of the State Capitol surrounded by cheering supporters.

Weld County Commissioners, who will hold a hearing on the proposed mine in early February, have not taken a position on it. According to a report in the Northern Colorado Business Review, Weld County will have a voice in whether Powertech gets its permit to mine uranium, but county commission chairman David Long said the county can't arbitrarily prohibit mining no matter how much public opposition forms to the project.

"There's a perception by the public that we could make it so burdensome that it can't be done," he said. "But that would be a taking of a development right."

Long said public opposition will not be the deciding factor in granting or rejecting any application. What county commissioners will focus most on, he said, is that "an applicant meets the code and the operation doesn't violate the health, safety and welfare of the county."

Energy Fuels Whirlwind Mine

An entirely different set of events with an clear outcome is the experience for another uranium miner on Colorado's western slope. Despite some public controversy, and a four hour long public hearing, the Mesa County Commissioners on Dec 18th unanimously approved a conditional use permit for an underground uranium mine five miles south of Gateway, CO. Gateway is on the Colorado-Utah border about 220 miles west of Denver and 35 miles southwest of Grand Junction.

Energy Fuels Resources (TSE:EFR), which will develop and operate the Whirlwind Mine, said initially it will mine up to 200 tons of ore per day. The ore will be trucked to the Blanding, Utah, mill. The firm agreed to limit the number of truckloads of ore carried on county roads each day.

Energy Fuels Resources also said it will build its own mill in Pinion Ridge in western Colorado. In a recent presentation to the Northwest Mining Association Convention, Energy Fuels Vice President-Corporate Marketing, Gary R. Steele, said the rapid development of the PiƱion Ridge Mill site can be attributed to licensing authority of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), instead of a federal nuclear regulatory commission.

Steele said Energy Fuels is confident of mill start up in 2010. Located in Montrose County, Colorado, the 1,000 ton-per-day mill will have both uranium and vanadium recovery circuits. It is located on 880 acres or private land owned by Energy Fuels, which Steele estimated is large enough for more than 30 years of tailings disposal. The estimated resource at the mine is 657,000 pounds of uranium and 2.17 million pounds of vanadium.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Texas rivals China for size of new nuclear build

Nothing is small in Texas

The nuclear revival, or renaissance, or whatever you want to call it, is lighting up in two places globally - China, and Texas. While they have almost nothing in common in terms of economics or politics, what they do share is a major shift in energy strategy.

Massive investments are taking place in both places in new nuclear power plants. China plans to spend $50 billion on new nuclear power plants. The combined value of eight new nuclear power plants on the boards in Texas could be as much as $24-36 billion rivaling China's effort which in the past 12 months has inked deals for eight new nuclear power plants.

Bloomberg wire service reports that over the next decade Texas may become the nation's biggest builder of nuclear generating plants. Four firms have proposed a total of eight reactors and two have already been included in a combined operating license application to the NRC. The situation in Texas is interesting because nuclear energy is being promoted there by Patrick Moore, the 60-year old former founder of Greenpeace.

"Public opinion has clearly shifted," Moore said in an interview with a wire service reporter. Moore, who is a paid spokesperson for the nuclear industry-funded Clean & Safe Energy Coalition, argues that nuclear energy is a cleaner alternative to coal-fired power plants which produce CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Despite getting some flack from his former environmental colleagues, Moore says, "the stigma of nuclear energy in North America has largely dissipated."

Even former Vice-President Al Gore, who shredded federal nuclear energy R&D funds while in office under the Clinton Administration, now says, through a staffer, that he is "not reflexively anti-nuclear." According to a email sent to Bloomberg by Gore's staff, the climate change activist, and now Nobel Prize winner, still has "reservations about spent fuel and nonproliferation issues."

In Texas there are four utilities which are pursuing new nuclear energy projects. The most advanced is NRG Energy which last September filed a COL application with the NRC as the nation's "first mover" for two new reactors at its South Texas Plant. Energy Future Holdings and Exelon are also developing their nuclear energy plans. Further out, a new utility in Amarillo says it too will seek to develop a nuclear power plant.

Energy Future Holdings is a Dallas-based energy-holding company formed when private equity firms Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and TPG Inc., formerly Texas Pacific Group, completed their $32 billion buyout of TXU Corp. in October. The firm canceled eight coal-fired power plants and is now developing plans for nuclear power plants. This week Exelon Corp. CFO John F. Young, 51, resigned to become the new CEO of Energy Future Holdings Corp., which is one of the biggest power generators in Texas. See this previous blog post for more details on the company's plans to build new reactors.

Exelon picks GE design for new nuke

Exelon Corp. the nation's biggest reactor operator, announced in November that it will use the new boiling water reactor developed jointly by GE and Hitachi. Exelon is evaluating sites in Matagorda and Victoria counties in Texas for the new plant. It says it plans to submit a COL to the NRC by the end of 2008.

Exelon already has 12 GE BWR reactors so it has some experience with the design. According to a company press release, Tom O'Neill, Exelon's VP for New Plant Development, said the company picked the GE-Hitachi design for its new safety design features and "smaller environmental footprint."

Panhandle reactor project still at fledgling stage

A nuclear reactor project proposed for the Amarillo, TX, region is being developed by George Chapman, a Texas cattle rancher who has teamed up with Constellation Energy group of Baltimore, MD. For now the project is being run out of Chapman's home. A reporter for Bloomberg noted that it is the only nuclear reactor project in the nation with a bird feeder at the front door. Chapman was reluctant to share his plans with the press, but said he was making progress. He said, "I don't like to talk about what I'm doing until I do it, but this one is really going to open some eyeballs."