Uranium in our mountain?
Even though the price of uranium has dropped from a high of $133 per pound in 2007 to $45 today, mining companies continue to file new claims and to resurrect old ones. With 32 new nuclear reactors under construction worldwide and many more proposed, producers are betting on an increasing value. Companies actively pursue claims in southwestern Colorado, New Mexico and the Navajo Reservation. Uranium has not yet attained the value of gold, but the frenetic search for ore bodies resembles that of the 1950s, when Aspen was evaluated for uranium production.The Colorado towns Uravan and Nucla experienced mining booms a half century ago. Closer to Aspen, uranium and vanadium were produced and processed in Rifle. Eventually, mine tailings caused premature deaths and illnesses in western Colorado. Concerns arose about how to manage spent fuel. The accident at Three Mile Island signaled further flaws in the industry. By 1980 uranium production in America slowed to a trickle, although Colorado produces about a quarter million pounds a year, mostly from four southwestern mines.The United States Atomic Energy Commission paid for a study of Aspens Smuggler Mine in 1953. Specimens gathered and analyzed by the Bureau of Mines while searching for silver several years before had shown some radioactivity. Uranium is often associated with galena, sphalerite, pyrite, chalcopyrite and silver, all of which were present in the Smuggler. The Herron Brothers still operated the upper levels of the mine, which provided easy access for the commission. Using radiometric reconnaissance, the survey team found elevated levels inside the Smuggler, around the Durant mine, and in Lenado. Only the area inside the Smuggler showed sufficient readings to warrant study. By examining the mines geology, the team narrowed their search further and collected extensive samples for laboratory examination. High levels of radiation were found in Aspens prettiest silver ore, a combination of pink feldspar and native silver. Such ore yielded the highest silver content during the Smugglers halcyon days of production, but by 1953 there was little left to mine. There is no way of knowing how many pounds of uranium were extracted along with silver ore, nor what happened to the uranium content after ore was killed and smelted. One area of the Smuggler showed commercial uranium potential. It is located in the Kassick stope, a large vertical cavern where ore had previously been extracted, branching off of the Number 2 Tunnel, (the tunnel you can still see from town) about 600 feet from the entrance. A study of exposed rock indicated an estimated 240-ton ore body containing 0.14 percent uranium. The study recommended core drilling to confirm these estimates.Sufficient mineral content did not necessarily promise profit. The ore had to be shipped to Salt Lake City for processing. Shipping costs plus and a penalty for high lime content would have reduced profit. However, extraction would have been easy and economical because the infrastructure was in place. Mining such a small ore body would have consumed only about two weeks work for even the small Herron Brothers operation. The core drilling was postponed, however, so there was no verification of the value of the ore body.That uranium ore still rests in Smuggler Mountain. Finding a new vein of silver at $50 an ounce is likely more profitable than mining uranium at $50 a pound, especially for a small ore body. Maybe in another half century the worlds uranium reserves will have dwindled and a way to dispose of the accumulated 60,000 tons of reactor waste will be instituted. Then it might make sense to dig up uranium instead of burying it. In that case someone may want 240 tons of uranium ore. After all, it isnt going anywhere.
Tim Willoughbys family story parallels Aspens. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.Yore Aspen is a regular feature of the Aspen Times Weekly.
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