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Having lagged for decades, Wyoming’s uranium industry may see a big boost due to the war in Ukraine

Crow Butte Mining, a subsidiary of Cameco, drills for uranium at the Wohlers Ranch on the Niobrara River near Marsland, Neb.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Flicker via CC BY 2.0
Crow Butte Mining, a subsidiary of Cameco, drills for uranium at the Wohlers Ranch on the Niobrara River near Marsland, Neb.

Wyoming’suraniumindustry used to be one of the largest in the country, employing thousands of workers in the sector in its heyday. But a collapse of the domestic market and imports from other countries have generally left the state’s industry in a decades-long lull.

However, that depressed period may be coming to an end according to industry experts.

“We have natural resources in the United States [and] we have [them] in Wyoming,” said Scott Melbye, Executive Vice President ofUranium Energy Corp. (UEC). “And six other states, [in] the western U.S. [have] probably a billion pounds of known and likely reserves and resources of uranium.”

Melbye said the U.S. led the world in uranium production in the 1980s. Wyoming was one of the top producing states, which created boomtowns such as Jeffrey City, that were centered on uranium. And while he expressed optimism earlier this year regarding the future of the state’s uranium industry, the outlook is just that much more promising asRussia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, he said.

“Given Wyoming's history with uranium mining, and its geological endowment of uranium in [the] Great Divide, in the Powder River Basin, up north of Gillette in the northeastern part of the state, we have resources that are ready to be developed,” he explained. “We have mines that are in standby that are fully permitted, licensed, and on standby that many of the Wyoming companies are taking steps already to prepare them for restart.”

U.S. nuclear plants obtain the uranium they use from foreign exports. The majority of this uranium comes from Russia and central Asian countries, which played a major role in depressing the domestic industry due to their lower cost exports. And even though the central Asian countries are not involved in the Ukrainian invasion, Melbye said that their exports could be harmed due to their close ties to Russia.

“A full 58 percent of our uranium used in our nuclear power plants in the U.S. that can provide 20 percent of our electricity came from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan,” Melbye said. “And that vulnerability is really coming to light now with the potential for sanctions on Russian uranium. That has the potential to catch Kazakh [and] Uzbek uranium given that they really work in that realm, or that sphere of influence that the Russians have in Central Asia. We’re going to have to replace those supplies that we lose from Russia.”

There are several factors that are coming together to potentially jumpstart the uranium industry again. U.S. Sen. John Barrasso recentlyintroduced a bill that would ban the importation of Russian uranium to the U.S.

UEC is hiring in the anticipation of a production uptick and other companies not already involved in Wyoming’s industry are exploring the opportunities under current market conditions.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.

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