Many are Optimistic That Wyoming’s Uranium Industry Will Grow

Jun 15, 2012

Intro:    For the last several years a number of companies and politicians have expressed interest in getting more actively involved in Wyoming’s Uranium industry.  Currently a task force of lawmakers is studying nuclear energy production and companies are testing the waters before they jump into the marketplace.  The upside is that Wyoming has a lot of Uranium, the downside is cost and regulations.  Wyoming Public Radio’s Bob Beck has more.

Bob Beck:  Here’s a quick history lesson.  Wyoming has been active in Uranium since the 1950’s, but the golden age was the late 1970’s when the industry was booming.  State Senator Eli Bebout and his brother got into the industry then and for awhile it was great.

Eli Bebout:   There was a lot of activity, a lot of mines were up and running, Uranium was being produced and so we got involved in the drilling business back then, primarily in the Gas Hills and the Red Desert area.  So we got started then and of course in 1980 there was 3-mile Island and it just fell off the edge of the cliff.

Beck:  3 mile Island was a Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania that suffered a mishap in 1979 that led to the release of radioactive gasses that both changed the way that industry was regulated and more importantly….made the public more skeptical about Nuclear Power.  

Tex Taylor is a University of Wyoming Agriculture Economist who has also studied the viability of the Uranium industry.  Taylor notes that Wyoming has more Uranium than anywhere in the country, but interest in that Uranium eventually faded.

Tex Taylor:   At its peak in 1980 we were producing about 12 million pounds there were nine mines and 53-hundred workers.  And then things like 3-mile Island happened in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, which really chilled the market for Uranium.  Places like Jeffrey City essentially dried up.

Beck:  Taylor says the industry has slowly come back, but instead of 12 million pounds, Wyoming is producing about two million.  However a number of companies are looking at getting back into the market and while studying the issue for Wyoming’s largest producer Cameco, Taylor concluded that the future could be bright.

Taylor:  Probably not going to be a huge mammoth boom sort of thing, but I think there’s potential long run…you know if you could mine 440 million tons of that stuff over some point in time, that would be significant employment, significant labor income, significant tax revenue.  

Beck:  Cameco’s Ken Vaughn says they have plans to double their production.  They hope to do this by adding  three satellite facilities to their existing Smith Ranch-Highland mine near Douglas, which is the largest Uranium operation in the United States.

Ken Vaughn:  These three satellites will be in Campbell County, Converse County and one in the Gas Hills area right on the Natrona-Fremont County line.  The first one to come into production will be North Butte.  That will allow us to double our production.  This is just an exciting time for our company and the employees that will be working for us. 

Beck:  But there are challenges for those companies that aren’t as established.  State Senator Eli Bebout says because of contamination issues in the past, state and federal permitting is now quite burdensome.  He says companies can spend as much on permits as they do on getting a Uranium operation up and running.  Bebout adds that there are long delays in permitting too.  Glen Catchpole of Uranerz Energy Corporation in Casper admits that it’s frustrating and can make it difficult for companies in Wyoming to be able to compete with companies in other countries that don’t face similar challenges.

Glen Catchpole:  When we have to compete we like to think about a level playing field that we are all playing by the same requirements environmentally, so it’s tough out there.

Catchpole that upfront costs mean that the price has to be right for companies to jump full bore into Uranium production. 

Beck:  Bebout fears some of these companies might find it easier to leave the state and country, so as the chairman of the Senate Minerals and Economic Development committee he is looking at Wyoming legislation that could reduce some permitting hurdles.  Laramie Senator Chris Rothfuss is on a task force studying ways to enhance Wyoming’s standing in the Nuclear energy field.  He says he supports part of Bebout’s argument.

Chris Rothfuss:  There are some people who want it to be easier, I am not one of those people.  But quicker?  Certainly.  3 years, 4 years, 5 years for a permit?  I don’t think that’s good for anyone.”

Beck:  Rothfuss believes both the Uranium and Nuclear energy industry can be done safely.  If it can be done safely and economically he will support it.  But both of those components need to be present.  Nobody we talked to believes there will be another Uranium boom, but all agree that it can be an important and long term piece of Wyoming’s economy.  For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Bob Beck.