Production began this month at the first new U.S. uranium recovery site to open in 30 years, after the NRC authorized Ur-Energy to begin operations at its Lost Creek site in central Wyoming. This milestone is important because of improvements in technology and environmental protection that make uranium recovery much safer than it was during the Cold War.
Uranium recovery is the first step in the complex process of turning uranium from raw, underground ore into fuel for nuclear reactors.
The NRC granted a license to Ur-Energy in 2011, but additional state and federal approvals were needed before uranium recovery could begin. The company received its final permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management last fall. Then NRC inspectors traveled to the site to certify the facility was ready. Once we were satisfied and gave our OK, Ur-Energy started extracting uranium.
The new facility uses the in situ recovery process to bring uranium out of the ground. While traditional mining is regulated by the states, the in situ process requires NRC approval because it changes the chemical form of the uranium. The process involves drilling wells into rock formations that contain uranium. Then a solution is injected to dissolve the uranium. The solution is usually a mix of water, oxygen, hydrogen peroxide and sodium bicarbonate (commonly known as baking soda). The uranium solution is pumped back out and into a processing plant. There, it is separated, concentrated and solidified into a powder known as “yellowcake.”
One of the most important features of an in situ recovery operation is the program for monitoring and restoring groundwater. Operators control the solution by pumping more out of the ground than is injected. They also monitor to confirm these controls are working. When the operations are complete, groundwater must be restored. The goal is to leave the groundwater as safe as it was before the operation began.
Cold War uranium operations did not have these controls and did not have to meet NRC regulatory requirements. Many of these “legacy” sites require extensive cleanup and monitoring. Improved regulations and controls are key to protecting public health and the environment.