As nuclear power gains steam, uranium mining and its impacts may grow in the Mountain West
Behind a glass case at the Riverton Museum in central Wyoming sits an unassuming silver metal box with black dials on it. The electronic instrument is a Geiger counter first used by a local couple in the 1950s. One day, they used this very device to discover uranium in this part of Wyoming, a district known as the Gas Hills.
“They went out to go antelope hunting and have a picnic lunch," said local historian and museum curator Zachary Larson. "It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and they had the Geiger counter with them, and in one specific outgrowth of rock, the needle just went off the charts.”
This discovery started a boom in Wyoming that employed thousands of people and lasted into the early '80s. During that era, there were also active mines in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. At one point, the U.S. produced more uranium than anywhere else in the world.
“It was grueling, hard work, obviously, but you could make a lot of money,” Larson said.
But almost as quickly as the industry grew, it went bust. A scare at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania helped spark an anti-nuclear movement in the U.S., and demand began to plummet. Since then, American uranium mining has dropped. The industry employs just a few hundred people and production reached near all-time lows in 2021.
But that cycle may be turning around. Wayne Heili, CEO of Peninsula Energy, thinks “the world is looking at nuclear in a new light.”
Peninsula Energy runs a mine in northeast Wyoming and plans to ramp up production by mid-year. Since January 2020, the spot price of uranium has more than doubled, which is making some previously idle facilities in the Cowboy State economical again. Heili said they’re ramping up hiring and looking to maintain operations long-term.
“In fact, we have made sales commitments out for the next decade to the year 2033,” he said. “We know that once we start producing, we have a home for that uranium and that home should provide us an appropriate economic return for our investment and efforts.”
Other uranium mining companies in Wyoming also plan to restart or expand operations, and miners are exploring more sites around the Southwest, including in New Mexico and Utah. Heili said part of why markets are so friendly is that the federal government wants to secure more domestic uranium to help power the energy transition.
Currently, the U.S. imports about 95 percent of its uranium, mostly from Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia and Russia. The current war in Ukraine has pushed some politicians to try to ban Russian uranium imports. The Biden administration is also spending billions to preserve nuclear power plants.
“Energy security is national security,” said Monica Regalbuto, who heads a nuclear fuel cycle strategy initiative at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. “Market confidence can be improved by the government doing some initial investments.”
About half the carbon-free energy produced domestically comes from nuclear power. Multiple utility companies in the West also want to build small-scale nuclear reactors. One project supported by Bill Gates in southwest Wyoming has the small town of Kemmerer preparing for an influx of new workers.
“As the needs of the country grow in terms of energy – and also to support our climate goals – we need to produce more clean electricity, and the way to do that is to use nuclear power,” Regalbuto said.
The public may be warming up to that idea. One survey shows 55 percent of people now support nuclear energy, the highest level in a decade. But environmental advocates say communities, especially those in the West that could be near mining activity, need to pump the brakes.
“All of this is just a repeat of the past, and we're just kind of on this endless hype and speculation loop that goes on with uranium mining,” said Jennifer Thurston, executive director of the Information Network for Responsible Mining. “There's just so many concerns with nuclear power.”
Thurston said the industry is still not properly regulated and environmental health issues like radiation exposure and water contamination persist. She said tribal nations have been especially harmed by historic and existing operations, and thousands of abandoned mining sites remain contaminated. Controversy over a temporary nuclear waste dump in New Mexico foreshadows the potential issues at future disposal sites.
“I don't know how you solve all of those problems and get right with nuclear power,” Thurston said. “So I wouldn't say that we take a position specifically on opposing all uranium mining. But I haven't seen a good proposal yet.”
For its part, Peninsula Energy does a different kind of mining than traditional open-pit digging. It uses less disruptive in-situ extraction, which involves injecting a solution into an ore-bearing aquifer and pumping uranium out of the ground. This process has still led to spills in Wyoming, but CEO Wayne Heili said he’s committed to mitigating the environmental impacts.
“I moved here over 25 years ago and I don’t want to leave because I love this state,” he said. "I mine uranium, and I'm going make sure that the impacts of that mining don't change a thing about the state.”
In that sense, Peninsula Energy's Wyoming operations will help determine whether the country continues to look at nuclear energy in a new light.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.