NOAH ADAMS, Host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Noah Adams.
Now a visit you might not want to make in person. We're going to the country's largest uranium mine. One hundred million pounds of ore are waiting to be milled into radioactive yellow cake that is fuel for nuclear power plants. These days uranium is a hot commodity, but this mine is dormant.
NPR's Ted Robbins takes us there.
TED ROBBINS: Now, here's a comforting sign posted on the approach to the Mount Taylor Uranium Mine. Any area within the facility may contain radioactive material. The mine itself is under the remote, rugged, pinion-dotted foothills north of Grants, New Mexico. As we walk into the main mine building, manager Joe Lister assures me it has one best safety records in the country.
Mr. JOE LISTER (Manager, Mount Taylor Mine): This is where our administration building, our mine office, warehousing, purchasing, geology, engineering, human resources, environmental compliance, all take place in this building.
ROBBINS: But it's empty.
Mr. LISTER: Feels very empty.
ROBBINS: It's been empty since 1990, when the bottom sell-out of the uranium market and mining became unprofitable. Before that, more than 400 people worked here. Lister has been keeping an eye on things almost alone for the last 17 years.
Mr. LISTER: We'll walk the walk with the miner today and I'll show how he came to work.
ROBBINS: Through the guardhouse into the changing room, where miners traded street clothes for boots and hard hats and down a long tunnel.
Mr. LISTER: This is our main shaft, we go down. This actually is the deepest tunnel. It goes down 3,340 feet; it's 14 feet in diameter.
ROBBINS: What's it like to be stand - I know you do it a lot, probably, but what's it like to be standing here nobody?
Mr. LISTER: It's - it's eerie because one of these things that most miners remember about their career is the camaraderie, the - working with somebody in situations that sometimes were hazardous. And so you build a bond with him that's, that goes on forever. Much like Bob calling me.
(Soundbite of answering machine)
Mr. BOB MEDINA (Mine Worker): Joe Lister - Bob Medina. I'm in Grants.
ROBBINS: Every day Lister says he gets calls like this one from former co-workers like Bob Medina looking for work.
Mr. BOB MEDINA (Mine Worker): I just though I'd give you a call, see how everything's going.
ROBBINS: They stay in touch because Rio Grande Resources, which owns the Mount Taylor mine, wants to start it up again. That's because uranium prices have shot up from less than $10 a pound to as high as $137 a pound. Now that decades of stockpiles are gone, countries rich in uranium - Russia, Australia, Canada - are busy supplying it to countries like China and India, which are busy building new nuclear power plants.
And to the U.S., which has three percent of the world's uranium reserves but consumes almost 30 percent of the world's supply. Tapping the domestic reserves is not easy though, even if it is once again profitable. In the U.S., uranium is regulated by both the federal government and the states. Because of unsafe practices in the past, the regulations are numerous and tight. And because there has been little activity for decades, the regulators have retired.
Mr. PATRICK DONNELLY (Mining Industry): And now you're seeing a new generation of scientists and bureaucrats and what have you dealing with these permits and licenses, and these people are inexperienced.
ROBBINS: That's Patrick Donnelly, a uranium industry analyst with Salman Brothers in Toronto.
Mr. DONNELLY: Also, they're probably going to be a lot more careful, a lot more rigorous in the (unintelligible) process. No one wants to make a mistake.
ROBBINS: Which bring us to another big hurdle. Ask mine manager Joe Lister why more mines aren't open in the U.S. and he turns the question around.
Mr. LISTER: Ted, when we say uranium, when we say nuclear, what are your first thoughts? What was the first think you think of? Do you think atomic bomb? Do you think Three Mile Island? Most people do.
ROBBINS: Even though there have been no reported nuclear power plant incidents that threaten public safety since Three Mile Island 29 years ago. There is an issue of what to do with spent fuel, but with petroleum prices soaring and carbon emitting coal plants under scrutiny, Patrick Donnelly says mines will open.
Mr. DONNELLY: Yes, you will see a uranium mine industry renaissance in the U.S. Are you gonna see it this year? A little bit. Next year, maybe a little bit more.
ROBBINS: I'd like to see that in my working career.
Mr. DONNELLY: How old are you?
ROBBINS: I'm 58. But I think that, I think it will, I think it's going to happen.
Judging by the demand and the price of uranium, it looks likely. There's just too much need for energy and too much money to be made providing it.
Ted Robbins, NPR News.