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Uranium industry may make a comeback because of increased demand

DICKINSON - Uranium mining, once common in southwestern North Dakota, may make a comeback in the near future as a result of increased demand for the radioactive material.

Formation Resources Inc. out of Bismarck recently applied for a permit for exploration in southeastern Billings County and north central Slope County.

The application, which is the first for uranium exploration since 1980, is currently pending, but Ed Murphy, state geologist for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, said the application will most likely not be the last.

"I don't anticipate having that many active (permits) at one time, in the 70s we had probably a dozen or so active permits," Murphy said. "But I wouldn't be surprised to see two or three active in a given year."

Once a permit is issued by the Department of Mineral Resources it is good for one year of exploration and then the company must reapply.

Increased demand for uranium has driven the price up to its current value of $136 per pound. For several decades, because of stockpiles and limited use, the mineral was valued at around $10.

"What has happened now is that the stockpile of uranium that was available from the previous mining and the recycling of nuclear warheads has almost been used up," Murphy said. "The price of uranium in the last couple years has really jumped."

Uranium's most common civilian use is fuel for nuclear power plants. Nuclear power, once an increasingly popular form of energy in the 70s, fell out of favor in 1979, when a partial meltdown at Three-Mile Island plant in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, released radioactive material into the environment surrounding the plant.

The incident played a part in nuclear power being deemed unsafe and several planned plants were never built.

Murphy said now that climate change has become a serious issue, the discussion of clean forms of energy has become more intense and nuclear power has been considered as an alternative.

"Right now there isn't enough uranium being mined worldwide to supply the current and in construction nuclear power plants," Murphy said. "Due to the climate change issues, people have started to consider nuclear power again because the plants don't release carbon dioxide."

Along with the application received by the Department of Mineral Resources, California-based Prospect Uranium Inc. reportedly leased more than 1,000 acres of land in Slope County for exploration.

Murphy said he had heard about the lease, but no application for exploration had been filed with his office.

Historically, the uranium mining that has taken place in North Dakota has been in Stark, Billings and Slope counties, and Murphy said those areas will be the areas most likely targeted in the future.

"I know that in the past uranium mining had been done and the way it was done, it wasn't good," director of the North Dakota State Department of Health's division of waste management, Scott Radig said. "There was little to no regulations and it was big pits and when they were done they just left."

Radig stated because of the way things were done in the past they are actively pursuing new regulations in regards to uranium mining.

Those regulations are currently being discussed at public meetings like one held in Belfield in March.

The new regulations deal with in stitu leach (ISL) mining of uranium, which utilizes oxygenated water to remove uranium from the rocks that contain it.

"Obviously we want to protect human health and the environment and we want it to be done in a way that will eliminate or minimize those risks," chief of the environmental health section at the North Dakota Department of Health, Dave Glatt said. "I think there is going to be uranium mining in the state. We learned from the activities that were conducted in the 1960s on the wrong way to do things."

A public hearing on the new regulations is scheduled for the Department of Mineral Resources conference room in Bismarck on May 27 at 9 a.m.