Most uranium producers have waited years for final clearance to begin extracting the fuel source from Wyoming ground.
They may have missed a mini-boom.
Prices for the commodity shot up to just over $130 per pound in 2007, leading many to believe in a nuclear renaissance. But few had permission to mine in Wyoming, and instead began the process of obtaining local, state and federal permits.
As of June, several of them finally have that permission or expect to get it this year. But whether they’ll use it is up to them.
Some have already started mining uranium from new sources.
Cameco Resources — which has been producing from the Smith Ranch-Highland mine in Converse County for decades — opened a new facility southwest of Gillette in early May.
The North Butte mine, which will produce about 700,000 pounds per year for processing at Smith Ranch-Highland, will also provide full-time jobs for about 54 Cameco employees and contractors.
“A lot of work went into this,” company president Paul Goranson told a group of lawmakers and project supporters at a company reception in May. “Our big goal is to not only do business in Wyoming, but to be part of the community.”
Ur-Energy, meanwhile, was on the precipice of first production at press time.
As of late June, operations at the Lost Creek facility north of Rawlins were mere weeks from beginning. Company spokesman Rich Boberg said Lost Creek would see its first production sometime in July.
“Things are going full-steam ahead,” he said.
Ur-Energy has filled the 55-person staff for the facility, which has risen from the ground in the Great Divide Basin since receiving final permission from the federal Bureau of Land Management in October.
Boberg said Lost Creek — Ur-Energy’s first Wyoming project — will help the company establish itself as a significant producer.
“This is something very rewarding for everyone involved,” he said. “We’re going to be able to start earning some revenue and become a viable, profitable company.”
At least two other projects won’t begin producing uranium this summer, but either have or could attain final permission to do so in 2013.
Uranerz Energy Corp.’s Nichols Ranch mine — which straddles Johnson and Campbell counties near Edgerton — has all the permissions it needs. The company hopes to start production there by November.
Nichols Ranch will produce between 600,000 and 800,000 pounds of uranium every year at first, with permitted production reaching up to 2 million pounds. Between 40 and 50 people will work on-site.
Glenda Thomas is the company’s general manager for production. She said the company has waited impatiently for Nichols Ranch to become operational.
“I’m incredibly excited,” she said in late June. “A lot of people have put in a lot of hard work and effort to get our permitting done and get construction to where it is today.”
“To actually be making uranium is very, very exciting to all of us, including my four kids.”
Strata Energy’s Lance project northeast of Gillette is likely to receive its final permit this year.
According to Melissa Butcher, a spokeswoman for the facility, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing the company’s plans and should finalize an environmental study in November. That could mean final permission to mine by December, with construction and production next year.
“We have the state Department of Environmental Quality’s permit to mine in place,” she said. “We’re just waiting on that last piece.”
Receiving final permission to begin the construction and operation of a uranium mine, given the government’s stringent and usually lengthy permitting processes, is often seen as a green light for producers. But at least one Wyoming company, despite having permission, won’t immediately develop its project.
Uranium One won’t built its Moore Ranch mine — now fully permitted — until at least 2017.
Despite being ready to build, the company cites several reasons for putting off the Moore Ranch site. Among them — the uranium spot price dipped below $40 per pound in June.
The company is also in the process of permitting Ludeman Ranch, a project northeast of Glenrock that has more product on site. That means a longer project life and more uranium per year.
“The economics are such that Ludeman would be a better place to build a new mine in the lower-price environment,” Donna Wichers, senior vice president of Uranium One Americas, said. “It’s just a matter of economics, and Ludeman is looking to be more economic than Moore Ranch.”
The company in June announced a plan to stop new wellfield exploration at its Willow Creek mine, northeast of Edgerton, cutting 26 total positions from Willow Creek and a Casper office.
Wichers said when the market improves, the company’s first priority will be to restore those operations. Uranium One would then begin building Ludeman — likely in 2016 — with Moore Ranch expected to follow a year later.
It’s not ideal to hold a permitted project in the wings, but Wichers said Uranium One looks at it as a bonus.
“That gives a company a good feeling” to have a project ready for construction, she said. “We have a real advantage here.”