Wyoming uranium has uncertain future


By Julianne Couch, 3-18-2011

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean from our position in the Rocky Mountain West, an earthquake and tsunami have triggered a catastrophe in Japan that officials say is the worst event in that country since World War II. In the last week, it has been impossible to miss seeing images of black water flashing lava-like onto the coast, taking villages out to sea and returning fishing boats and human bodies and sundry detritus back to shore in a stingy trickle.

Hard to believe any images could seem worse. But among the most chilling images from these recent days are of smoke billowing from a nuclear plant along Japan’s coast, and helicopters trying to dump sea water on overheating nuclear reactors.

Japanese officials are describing as a “nuclear emergency” the so far partial meltdowns or threat of same to up to four nuclear reactors at the plant. When the earthquake knocked out electrical power, operators were not able to pump water into the reactor to cool the fuel. Now workers are struggling valiantly to set up a new transmission line to the plant, but several reactors are now permanently disabled. On the news show comparisons to the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents abound. So far the score is: Three Mile Island not as bad, Chernobyl worse.

Nuclear power isn’t a prevalent form of energy in our water-parched West. But these plants are common in the Midwest and East, with 104 reactors currently in operation around the contiguous U.S.

With safety technology much improved since the days of Three Mile Island, not to mention Chernobyl, Americans were starting to get more comfortable with nuclear energy giving us electrical power. The nuclear power industry has launched an effective P.R. campaign by billing itself as a “green” source of energy. And it is true that creating nuclear power through fission doesn’t actually burn anything, so releases no greenhouse gasses. But as we’re witnessing now, when things go wrong, it can be very bad.

At last count the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects to review 21 combined commercial and operating license applications for approximately 30 reactors in new power plants over the next few years. Whether the Japan disaster affects those plans remains to be seen. While none of these plants will be in Wyoming, some of the fuel to operate them will originate here – the front end of the process.

The Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) says that during part or all of 2009, there were 18 U.S. mines that produced uranium to be processed into uranium concentrate. The EIA says that Wyoming and New Mexico, combined, have anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of the nation’s estimated uranium reserves. The anticipated licensure of new plants will provide a market for that product. That means that in Wyoming and other places in the West, developers are ready to restart the old mines and develop new ones.

One old uranium mine in Wyoming is near Jeffrey City, which, if not a ghost town, is at least mighty sickly.

The town began in the early 1930s as family homestead known as Home on the Range. Once the idea for mining uranium came about, the town was renamed for Dr. Charles W. Jeffrey, one of the biggest boosters of mining the local product.

In 1957, Jeffrey City was reborn as a company town of the Western Nuclear Company. Eventually it bustled with a store, a new K-12 school with a huge gymnasium and pool, two gas stations and four bars. The thing about uranium is that there isn’t much need for it without nuclear power plants or nuclear bombs. When the uranium industry went bust in the 1980s, it took 95 percent of Jeffrey City with it.

The Sheep Mountain Mine just outside of town is being redeveloped by Titan Uranium USA Inc. It’s completed a preliminary feasibility study and plan to begin operation by 2014. The company expects the mine to provide 200 jobs. Some of those workers might even reanimate Jeffrey City.

In February 2009, the University of Wyoming surveyed 935 state residents by telephone, 60 percent of whom said they supported the idea of in-situ uranium mining in Wyoming. That’s what would be used at Sheep Mountain Mine. The strongest supporters were those who described themselves as being “knowledgeable” about how the process works.

One technique of removing uranium is to dig a pit in the ground and extract it, the way surface coal mining is done. That works in locations where uranium is found in ore, which then must be crushed to extract the uranium. But another process known as in-situ, or in place mining, is being used in some areas. It can only work in places where uranium is located in permeable rock confined in non-permeable rock, like at Sheep Mountain Mine.

The Wyoming Mining Association cheerfully describes in-situ mining as a “noninvasive, environmentally friendly mining process involving minimal surface disturbance which extracts uranium from porous sandstone aquifers by reversing the natural processes which deposited the uranium.”

Uranium mining companies need to obtain permits from both the Wyoming DEQ and from the NRC before beginning work. Some people have complained that this dual process slows things down too much. Others think it is going too fast, already.

Various environmental and landowner organizations are speaking out with varying points of contention about the mining. They voice concerns about water use and whether the mining companies can be trusted to self-regulate. The EPA and the state are currently debating whether the method of reinjecting used water back into the non-drinking water aquifer it came from is adequate, or whether it should be treated first.

A uranium and industrial metals specialist at the Wyoming State Geological survey, Bob Gregory, said he believes that the in-situ process is safe “both environmentally and for the workers at the mine and processing plant. Most of the uranium bearing fluids are kept within various tanks, vessels and pipes, and so workers’ exposure is kept to a minimum,” he said. “They are also checked regularly to monitor their exposure to radiation and have a good track record of safety for their employees. It’s also quite safe environmentally, from my understanding,” he continued. “Monitor wells are required to ensure that injected water stays where it is intended to stay within and around the ore body.”

Gregory also spoke to the manner in which water is used for the in-situ process. “They use water already in the rock formation containing the uranium ore body,” Gregory said. “They pump some to the surface, treat it with oxidizers such as oxygen, carbon dioxide and bicarbonate, typically, and then reinject the same aquifer water again.” Gregory explained that the aquifer isn’t a drinking water source “due to the water chemistry and processes that led to the accumulation of the ore body in the first place.”

A flurry of permit requests from uranium developers have been made to the Wyoming DEQ, and some fear the paperwork load itself will make DEQ less available for monitoring the actual mining. But with Wyoming sitting on much of the largest supply of uranium in the country, and the rising price of that uranium attracting more developers, the state is planning to increase DEQ’s workforce. After all, 20 percent of electrical power in the United States comes from nuclear power plants, according to the EIA, but the vast majority of uranium is currently imported from other nations. Australia is home to more than 30 percent of known recoverable uranium reserves. The U.S. has about 4 percent.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) says that uranium is one of the most abundant minerals on earth, with enough to last at least another 100 years, at present consumption levels. With more efficient nuclear reactors in power plants, they say, the supply could last 2,500 years.

Whether that is good news for Wyoming, Japan and the rest of the world depends on where you are standing.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Originally posted at NewWest.net

Julianne Couch is the author of the forthcoming energy travelogue Earth Wind & Sky: A Power Tour. One of her stops was to the Cooper Nuclear Station in Nebraska, where she saw a used fuel pool the way it was supposed to look: full of water.

Wyoming uranium mine map courtesy Flickr user Sky Truth.

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