SIKESTON -- Testing for uranium in Mississippi County has begun.
John Gustavson, a geologist and chemical engineer and founder of Water Research and Development in Boulder, Colo., recently announced the start of his company's test program in the county.
The presence of uranium in Mississippi County's water was first noted in 1978 when the National Uranium Resource Evaluation program did testing with water wells across the nation -- a program Gustavson participated in.
"The old testing yielded unusual results in Mississippi County which are of sufficient interest to be re-examined with the goal of exploring if commercial deposits of uranium might exist," Gustavson said. "In addition to verifying the old findings of elevated uranium in the water our testing will also include the many new wells drilled since then and on a denser pattern."
"All my life I've been involved in exploration -- finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," he said. "I ran a consulting company, built it up from scratch, ran it for about 25-30 years. I worked all over the world consulting for the exploration and development of oil, natural gas and many other minerals -- gold, copper, lead, silver and even minerals like sand and gravel. Our speciality was valuation: determining what something is worth."
Gustavson sold the company and "retired." His passion for seeking out resources was something he couldn't quite put behind him, however.
"In 2004, I was successful in finding a giant gas deposit in Hungary," he said. "In March of this year ExxonMobil came into the picture as partners and are now testing and developing this giant natural gas deposit in Hungary."
Gustavson said uranium is "one way we can get independence from Middle East oil. It would be used in clean nuclear power plants generating electricity." He prefers nuclear power for electricity "rather than from burning coal as that adds to the Greenhouse Effect and global warming."
Gustavson said he is looking at several areas that, because of earthquake faults, are likely to have uranium deposits.
"I'm also looking at South Carolina and Kansas," he said. "Uranium is not rare, but it comes from the molten magma inside the earth." Faults are places where uranium is brought close enough to the surface via ash and lava flows to be accessible.
Gustavson said Mississippi County has the same sort of conditions that are known uranium deposits being mined in south Texas have. "It's close enough to the surface that it might be economical to recover," he said.
The cost for exploratory wells ranges from $25,000 to $100,000 "because of the difference of depths," Gustavson said.
Here 100-foot wells suffice while wells further south may need to be 10 times as deep.
Gustavson and investors are so confident he will find viable uranium deposits here they are planning to spend $1 million on exploration over the next 12 months and another $4 million in the year following that.
There is one hitch that could force them to seek uranium elsewhere, he said. "We've had great difficulty having farmers sign up with us," Gustavson said. "In order to obtain reliable scientific results, we need to sign up a large number of landowners for this one-year initial test program."
The plan is to start with about 30 wells on a north-south axis. "About half of those will follow an almost straight line from Bird's Point following the setback levee down to St. John's Bayou," Gustavson said. He has already obtained permission from the St. John's Drainage and Levee Board and the District 3 Levee Board.
Following this, wells are needed to the east and west.
"The moment we have discovered and mapped out a deposit, we could be in production within two years," Gustavson said.
The uranium recovery operation would take 30-40 years, he estimated.
Even during the recovery phase, farmers who sign mineral leases are able to farm their land.
"Fortunately we are not mining in the old sense," Gustavson said. "It very important that it's done in such as way that it is not disturbing the farming."
Recovery would be accomplished by injecting water into the uranium deposits and forcing it back up recovery wells. The water then would be filtered to recover the uranium. "There is very little radioactivity associated with this process because the uranium is very, very diluted," Gustavson said.
The result is "yellowcake" uranium which would be sold in Paducah, Ky., where it would be further processed.
Far from being a hazard, the county would actually benefit.
"We are going to leave the groundwater safer because we will have removed about 60 percent of the uranium," Gustavson said. Tests have been showing uranium traces that are at the maximum allowed for federal safe drinking water standards, he noted.
"We are testing not only for uranium but other elements that lower water quality," Gustavson. "For us these are pathfinders for finding uranium."
Water Research and Development has successfully negotiated some easements and mineral leases but more are needed. Landowners who have questions and their attorneys are encouraged to seek advice from those at existing uranium recovery operations in other states.
Gustavson said that unlike his natural gas discovery, "I plan to develop this on my own and remain in control over the next 5-10 years. That is very important for the local farmers -- they know who will be calling the shots and if I promise them something, those promises will be kept."