Even with past fluctuations, experts are optimistic about the uranium industry's future in Wyoming
Uranium mining and exploration has long been a part of Wyoming's mining landscape, dating back to the 1950s. Over the succeeding decades, the industry has gone through several boom-and-bust cycles.
One of the most notable examples of these cycles occurred in the 1970s and 80s and created Jeffrey City, a boomtown turned near ghost town located approximately 60 miles southeast of Lander in Fremont County. At its peak, Jeffrey City had a population of over 4,000 people and hosted numerous churches, bars, hotels, and a school that had several hundred students. By the early 1980s, with regulatory changes in the uranium market and a general turn away from nuclear power, the market busted, and by 1986 more than 95 percent of the town’s residents had left.
The current uranium market, both in Wyoming and nationwide, remains generally depressed. This is primarily due to cheaper uranium that is produced in countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan, and China. Despite this, there is optimism that the uranium industry in the U.S. will rebound in the near future.
"Going into 2022, and this is someone who's got 37 years of experience in the uranium and nuclear energy industry, I've never been more optimistic about the prospects for nuclear energy and also what that means for uranium mining and the supply and demand of uranium," said Scott Melbye, Executive Vice President of Uranium Energy Corp., and President of the Uranium Producers of America.
As countries around the world look to move away from fossil fuels, nuclear power has come up as a carbon-free alternative. Uranium is used in nuclear power plants as a fuel to generate nuclear fission, which releases heat. This thermal energy is then captured to make steam that turns turbines and generates electricity.
"As we address the climate change issues, nuclear has become a much more attractive option, and so with a little help from the federal government, we're hoping to see a little uptick and start producing again," said Travis Deti, Executive Director of the Wyoming Mining Association.
Uranium played such an integral role in the state that it formed the beginnings of the Association.
"We got our start on uranium back in the 1950s," he said. "Uranium was kind of our big industry [and] going into the 1970s prior to Three Mile Island, we were mining probably close to 7 million pounds a year."
Uranium mining has changed over the years and all of Wyoming's uranium mines are now in-situ operations as opposed to open-pit mining. In-situ operations often resemble oil and gas wells.
"Our mines are basically well fields," Deti said. "It's pumped out of the ground with a solution and then the solution is taken to a processing facility where the yellow cake uranium is removed from the solution, and that's pretty much how we mine it. It's very environmentally friendly; there’s not a lot of earth turning."
With the recent acquisition of the assets of Uranium One Americas a few months ago, Uranium Energy Corp. (UEC) has taken ownership of facilities in the state that can allow for the processing of uranium. This includes the Reno Creek facility near Wright in Campbell County.
"Can we get back to the 1980s levels [when] the U.S. was the global producer in uranium at over 40 million pounds produced per year?" Melbye asked. "That might be a stretch. But there's no reason why U.S. mines throughout the western United States can’t be producing 10 or 20 million pounds a year [and] contributing to the global nuclear energy industry," he said.
Wyoming will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the acquisition going forward, but not the only one.
"I think Wyoming will stand to regain its leading position in uranium production going forward and I think all that's going to take is a little bit [of] improvement in uranium price," Melbye said. "We're now in the $40-$50 per pound price range for uranium concentrates [but to be economical] we need about $50 a pound certainly as a minimum or higher. I'm pretty confident we’re going to get back into that price range where we see uranium development again in the United States."
He said an improvement in the industry will also help locally.
"That’s great for local economies in Wyoming [and] employment. We're going to need to staff up and get employees in the trades in chemistry, engineering, mining, drilling," Melbye said.
Melbye expects 8 to 12 new mines will be required to meet uranium demand, even with top-producing countries like Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Canada. He hopes that the U.S., and Wyoming specifically, will be home to at least some of them, though he said permitting and licensing are usually multi-year endeavors.
"The last mine we licensed and permitted in Wyoming took six, almost seven years," he said. "You really have to look to operations that are either on standby or are fully permitted and licensed and able to move forward rather quickly, which in our terms could be six months to two years."
Even after permits and licenses are issued, Melbye said it could take several additional years before operations can actually begin producing.
Uranium mining sites are currently located in several parts of Wyoming, including in the Great Divide and Powder River Basins. Strata Energy has uranium operations north of Moorcroft in Crook County. Cameco also has sites in Northeast Wyoming. UEC's sites are primarily clustered in Campbell, Johnson, Converse, and Sweetwater counties.
The growing worldwide interest in nuclear power is being reflected in the number of sites that are under construction or have been built in the past several years.
"We see the 59 large reactors that have come online around the world in the last eight years [and] 51 more under construction—we're back to a level of uranium consumption that is higher than prior to Fukushima and we see it firsthand in the state of Wyoming," Melbye said. "We're seeing the first wave now of these small modular and advanced reactors like the natrium reactor going in at Kemmerer —[it's] really exciting."
Despite the hope that Wyoming-produced uranium can supply a nuclear power facility like the one slated to be constructed near Kemmerer, there remain challenges that must be overcome for that to happen.
"The Small Modular Reactors and the advanced reactor like TerraPower's unit require a slightly different fuel type, which requires higher enriched uranium," Melbye said. "We don’t presently have the ability to enrich uranium to a level required for that reactor, so I think you've seen a lot of attention by our congressional delegation in Wyoming to really ensuring that the fuel cycle in these advanced reactors can be domestic."
Despite the level of historic mining, the Western U.S. still has significant uranium deposits. Melbye thinks the Cowboy State could help satisfy the demand for uranium.
Deti said the uranium industry would also help the economy throughout the state through taxes, which include severance, property, and sales taxes.
"The industry pays county ad valorem taxes on production which would be paid either monthly or, if the total is under $35,000, annually," he said. "Additionally, they would pay state severance taxes on a sliding scale based on the current price of uranium."
Melbye believes that an uptick in the industry could have the state possibly hosting several operations.
"Could there be five or six mines operating across Wyoming? That's entirely likely going forward," he said.