Wyoming - the Uranium State?


They’re calling it a “uranium renaissance.”  Wyoming is prepping itself for what is slated to be another boom in uranium mining for the fourth time in 60 years.

Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain West are all too familiar with energy boom and bust cycles. Just ask all the people who lost jobs in the oil bust of the '80s, or in Wyoming’s Cold War-fueled uranium boom and subsequent bust of the ‘50s. 

Nuclear power accounts for about 20 percent of the power generated by the United States.  But this figure is likely to increase - with the green movement, coal-fired power plants aren't as popular as they used to be.  Across the United States, 21 new nuclear power plants have been proposed.  Worldwide, there are 53 nuclear power plants being built right now, with many, many more in the works.  Even Nevada, who held strong to the “we don’t have a nuclear plant so we we’re not taking your nuclear waste,” argument against the Yucca Mountain storage facility, is considering going nuclear.  Overall, the World Nuclear Association estimates a 78 percent increase in uranium demand over the next 20 years.

This is where Wyoming comes in.Right now there is only one uranium mine in Wyoming - Cameco’s Smith-Ranch Highland mine. That mine produces half of the uranium mined in the United States today.  But with increasing demand for uranium, that one mine in Wyoming could soon turn into 15, and start another uranium boom in Wyoming.

Wyoming could become a huge player in worldwide uranium production.  Famed geologist Ray E. Harris believed that Wyoming could have some of the largest uranium deposits in the world. There is a lot to mine in Converse County, which is good news for nuclear energy producers, but it may not be the best news for the environment.

Wyoming allows only in-situ uranium mining, not open pit. Currently, Wyoming only operates in-situ uranium mines; all open pit mines are not in operation and most are being reclaimed. In-situ mining is touted as more environmentally friendly than its open pit counterpart, the Gillette News-Record explains:

In-situ leaching, sometimes referred to as in-situ recovery or solution mining, involves pumping water with sodium carbonate (a white powdery compound used to make baking soda, glass and detergents) into the ground, which dissolves the uranium out of the sandstone. The leaching solution is then sucked back to the surface along with the uranium. Consequently there is little surface disturbance and no waste rock generated.

Although most believe this method is better than the open pit mining method, environmentally speaking, it isn’t exactly "aces."  For example, Converse County Wyoming, the home of the Smith-Ranch Highland mine, has suffered from tainted water due to uranium operations. And in-situ mines in Texas were never able to restore water used for mining to its original quality, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports.

If uranium mining expands, wildlife impacts will likely accompany this expansion. The sage grouse in particular has been decimated by energy development in the west, as HCN has documented.

Right now, the future of uranium mining in Wyoming is anyone’s guess. But I do know one thing: It’ll be interesting to see if uranium mining takes off and sticks around in the Cowboy State.  A boom in uranium could have many results: jobs in a bum economy and, if done right, greener energy, or the state could see yet another energy bust and a Superfund site-dotted environment.  If history tells us anything though, uranium development in Wyoming is highly volatile - sometimes it's flush, most other times it's bust.

But then again, I think most would agree that if nuclear energy can be done right, then Wyoming's nuclear renaissance might be a hand of cards worth betting on.