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An uptick in uranium mining could benefit proposed Kemmerer nuclear plant

The White Mesa uranium mill is located in Blanding, Utah, near the uranium mines of the Four Corners region of the United States.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
/
Flickr Creative Commons
The White Mesa uranium mill is located in Blanding, Utah, near the uranium mines of the Four Corners region of the United States.

Uranium mining is picking up in the United States – this comes after years of very little production – and it could help a first of its kind nuclear power plant project in southwest Wyoming.

Uranium mining in the U.S. peaked in the early 80s, largely fueling the country’s nuclear power plants. But over the years, the country stopped much of its mining and chose to import it from other countries, like Russia.

“Russia had been flooding the market and had been driving down prices to below market levels,” said Jeff Navin, director of external affairs for TerraPower.

TerraPower is the company co-founded by billionaire Bill Gates that is building a new, more efficient nuclear plant near Kemmerer, Wyoming.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the nuclear industry turned its back on Russia, causing countries to scramble to find uranium to fuel these types of plants. TerraPower even delayed their project by two years. But, domestic mining is now picking up.

“We are now seeing the price get to a point where it makes sense to put miners back to work in places like Wyoming,” said Navin.

In the third quarter of 2023, the only uranium production in the U.S. was happening in Wyoming. However, three mines recently began operations in Utah and Arizona, with plans for additional projects in Colorado and more in Wyoming.

TerraPower entered into an MOU with Uranium Energy Corpin late 2023. The uranium mining company has restarted operations in the Powder River Basin, including the Christensen Ranch. The hope is this uranium can be used for the new plant near Kemmerer.

“The uranium will come out of the ground from Wyoming but it'll take a little trip around the country before it comes back to us in the form of a fabricated fuel rod that we can put into the reactor and use to generate power,” Navin said.

For all uranium used in nuclear reactors it has to be enriched at facilities either in New Mexico or Ohio. However, how much it’s enriched is where things differ for TerraPower. In conventional nuclear reactors, they use uranium enriched a little below five percent, but TerraPower’s will need a little less than 20 percent enrichment.

“It ends up allowing you to more efficiently use the uranium that you have in your reactor, and then you end up with less waste at the back end of your process,” Navin said. “It’s a way to increase the efficiency of the reactor, and that ends up making it more economical for us as well.”

After the yellowcake is enriched, it’s then shipped to a facility in North Carolina where it’s fabricated into fuel rods – basically the form it needs to be in to fuel a nuclear reactor. Then, in TerraPower’s case, it will be shipped back to Kemmerer and put to use.

The Kemmerer plant is slated to be up and running by 2030.

Some environmental groups have concerns regarding uranium mining due to concerns about radiation exposure and contamination of groundwater, especially on tribal lands, including the Wind River Reservation.

Editor's Note: This copy has been updated on 2/7/24 to reflect that TerraPower entered into an MOU, rather than a partnership, with Uranium Energy Corp.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.

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