The Czech government would probably have closed the state-owned Rozna mine in 2004 if it had not been for the around 1,000 jobs at stake in the small towns and villages nestled in the hills of this relatively undeveloped south-east corner of the country.

But last week, industry minister Martin Riman rejected a 640-million koruna (22.5-million euro) bid by Australian uranium mining company Uran Limited for a 50 percent stake in exploitation of current and future uranium reserves.

And he held out the prospect of a new lease of life for the mine if research uncovers fresh reserves of the now coveted resource.

"Uran's bid is interesting but we can mine and survey for reserves on our own," the minister announced.

The Rozna mine has seen its fortunes improve as the price for uranium, used to feed nuclear reactors, soars on concerns about global warming and the cost and security of fossil fuel supplies, such as coal and oil.

The price hit record highs in February after an eightfold increase over the last three years. It had barely budged during the previous decade.

As a result, Rozna's previously loss-making annual production of around 300 tonnes of uranium now turns a profit. "There is about 0.25 percent of uranium in every tonne extracted compared with about 0.10 percent for similar operations in India. It is a very respectable quality," boasted chief engineer Petr Kriz.

He admits conditions below ground for the 115 miners - the rest of the workforce are support staff and employed in processing and cleaning operations - appear primitive.

Wire netting and rusting corrugated iron panels and air ducts cover the network of tunnels of the 24-floor complex. Engineers cut timber supports at the cramped faces where small teams of miners will work with the aid of hammer drills and a mechanical claw to pull rocks towards waiting wagons.

The Australian company claimed modernisation could boost production and profits at Rozna but Kriz argued: "There is not much space, it is difficult to use other methods."

The mine was opened in 1958 not for profit, but as part of the Cold War uranium mining boom when communist Czechoslovakia was one of the main suppliers of the Soviet military-industrial complex.

It was one of half a dozen major uranium mines dotted across the country which sent 96,600 tonnes of uranium, currently valued at more than 470 billion koruna (16.7 billion euros), to the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1989.

"At today's prices we can clearly realise what a fortune was sent by socialist Czechoslovakia almost free of charge to the Soviet Union," Riman commented