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US signs off on Wyoming uranium mine expansion

March 19, 2019

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The U.S. government approved plans Tuesday to expand a Wyoming uranium mine while it considers a proposed new mine by the same developer not far away.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will allow Littleton, Colorado-based Ur-Energy to more than double the surface area of its Lost Creek Mine while tapping deeper deposits underlying the sagebrush country of south-central Wyoming.

The BLM is meanwhile considering the company’s plans for a new mine in Shirley Basin about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Lost Creek. The BLM is taking initial comments from the public on that proposal until Monday.

Wyoming produces more uranium than any other state. It all comes out of the ground by way of in-situ mining, a process that uses wells rather than pits or mine shafts to reach the nuclear fuel.

Wyoming has six operational in-situ uranium mines, including associated mining facilities. Lost Creek, which began production in 2013, is among the newest and will encompass as much as 15 square miles (38 square kilometers) once expanded.

The Shirley Basin Mine would be built at a conventional, surface-pit uranium mining site that operated from the 1960s to the 1990s.

“There is a remnant ore body that’s still there and it’s relatively shallow and good grade,” said John Cash, Ur-Energy vice president of regulatory affairs.

The mine isn’t profitable at current prices but could be if President Donald Trump’s administration follows through on a proposal to impose tariffs or quotas on uranium imports, Cash said.

Global uranium prices topped $130 a pound of uranium concentrate in 2007 but hit a decline made worse by the 2011 Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan. Prices are up somewhat from a year or two ago but at $28 still well below their peak.

Some investors are bullish nonetheless about nuclear energy and the uranium market amid global demand for cleaner, low-carbon energy sources. Projects such as Lost Creek are fundamental to the U.S. energy portfolio, Assistant Interior Secretary for Lands and Minerals Joseph Balash said in a BLM release.

“We see their benefits multiplying as this administration empowers communities to maximize the potential of our natural resources,” Balash said.

John Rader of the Wyoming Outdoor Council said the BLM should have done a better job protecting sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird, from habitat loss and noise at Lost Creek but hopefully will do so at Shirley Basin.

At in-situ uranium mines, a series of injection wells pump a water solution underground. The solution dissolves uranium out of rock before it is pumped back to the surface through a network of recovery wells.

The solution is processed into a uranium concentrate which is then processed further into fuel for nuclear power plants.

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