What do Vladimir Putin, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have in common? Yes, all are oligarchs, but locally the trio is also responsible for re-starting uranium extraction in Wyoming. Putin’s war in Ukraine, plus Gates and Buffet pushing the Natrium nuclear power station in Kemmerer, are resurrecting demand for domestic uranium. We cannot influence the decisions they make, but Wyomingites can influence how a uranium boom plays out here.
The Powder River Basin is the focus of coming uranium mining in Wyoming, where the Uranium Energy Corporation, which has its corporate offices in Texas, has purchased the Wyoming holdings from Russia’s atomic energy corporation, Rosatom, which operated in the U.S. as “Uranium One Americas.”
The uranium is extracted by “in situ leaching/removal” mining. Operators inject alkaline or acidified water down wells drilled in a ring around a central well to the level of the uranium-containing stratum. Uranium dissolves into this treated water and the central well pumps out the uranium-bearing solution. Pipes deliver the solution to towers where most of the uranium is stripped onto resin and transported to a central processing facility. The leftover solution is piped to lined settling/evaporation ponds. Failures in drilling procedures, well casings, pipelines and settling ponds/liners are the usual sources of contamination from uranium, industrial fluids, radium 226/228 and other toxic metals associated with the ore body.
No company wants spills to happen. They are expensive! We don’t know the Russians’ contamination record while they were operating in the basin because it’s nearly impossible to access inspection or spill reports in Wyoming. UEC’s record in Texas, meanwhile, do not turn up reports of spills.
So, how do we deal with the impacts of uranium mining in Wyoming?
In 2018 the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality assumed responsibility for monitoring and regulating Wyoming’s uranium industry, previously overseen by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That’s good news because DEQ is a local outfit, small enough to be influenced by Wyoming citizens’ concerns. It’s bad news because DEQ is susceptible to pressure from the very industries it is meant to monitor. After all, the extraction industries largely fund state government here. Unlike the NRC, DEQ now notifies operators of upcoming inspections, and spill reports can’t be accessed online. Even Texas has available online reports from its Commission on Environmental Quality that can be easily searched via the World Information Service on Energy uranium project. Simple, free, transparent.
Uranium mining will soon resume in Wyoming. Contamination will occur, despite sincere efforts by industry. Reclamation will be difficult and expensive. There’s no changing any of that. But the following policy improvements can help us avoid the worst impacts, and we need them before mining resumes:
- Ear-mark funding for DEQ to review and update protections and instigate frequent, unannounced inspections
- Make information from spill and inspection reports accessible online via the DEQ website or WISE Uranium
- Require the reporting and mapping of spills, identifying the location and extent of contamination for future reclamation
- Levy major fines when spills are not reported properly or if best practices are not employed
- Require sufficient bonding, paid up front by the operators, for reclamation and restoration of the mining site as well as ground and surface waters to their pre-mining condition. Bonds must be evaluated periodically to verify adequacy
- Require baseline and periodic testing of existing water wells in the vicinity for uranium and other toxic, trace minerals found in the ore body plus chemicals used in the ISR process.
- Drill monitor wells downstream in strata above and below the uranium ore body to monitor for excursions, with results included in inspection reports.
The mining company expects to make money. We expect them to follow best practices in preventing spills and planning for reclamation. Wyoming’s DEQ must ensure that uranium company profits are not made at our expense.
CORRECTION: This opinion piece has been updated to correct, clarify and attribute information about UEC’s operations in Texas; to correct a statement about the company’s country of origin; and to remove an unverified statement about the company incurring a fine. The original piece included incorrect information regarding the company’s record of operations and spills in Texas. According to a company spokesman, “in UEC’s 12 years of operation in Texas, we have had zero reportable spills.” -Ed.