(Casper Star Tribune, December 15) – There is no giant hole in the ground. No tunnels. No nothing, really, that one would typically associate with a mine. And yet this is the Lost Creek uranium mine, the $100 million facility Ur-Energy opened earlier this year.
The miners, as Steven Hatten likes to call them, aren’t really miners in the traditional sense. They don’t wear hardhats equipped with searchlights. They don’t use pickaxes or backhoes or any other sort of traditional mining implements. They aren’t even people.
Hatten’s miners are a series of pipes packed into a small metal shed in the middle of the Great Divide Basin.
“This is the mine,” says Hatten, Ur-Energy vice president of operations, looking at the pipes, a large grin on his face.
The pipes in the shed here are a critical part of the mine’s operations. Over the next year they are expected to bring 1 million pounds of uranium to the surface.
Each cylinder is connected to an injection well, and through each well a mixture of water, baking soda and oxygen is pumped into the ground. Underground, the concoction will mix with the uranium that lines the rock ore, causing it to dissolve.
The rock here is sandstone. Over the centuries rainwater traveled down through the strata, where it dissolved uranium in the granite and volcanic ash. The uranium migrated through the underground rock layers until it met a block. In the way a tree that has fallen across a creek collects all the debris in the water, the uranium piled up against the block. Eventually the oxygen in the water dissipated, causing the uranium to concentrate and become a solid.
When the miners at Lost Creek inject oxygen, sodium bicarbonate (that’s the baking soda) and water into the ground, they make the uranium soluble once again. It is then pumped to the surface through a production well. The uranium density here is relatively low at about 40 parts per million.
“We’re reversing nature’s process,” explains Ur-Energy CEO Wayne Heili.
Once at the surface, water and uranium are pumped into what is essentially a giant water-treatment facility. The watery uranium mixture is first sent through a bed of resin beads. These beads work like a water softener.
Just as that softener removes magnesium and calcium from the water, the resin beads remove uranium from water. The uranium is cleaned from the beads and then dried. The drying enriches the product. The yellowcake that is shipped from Lost Creek is about 88.5 percent uranium. And as long as you don’t eat, drink it or inhale it, yellowcake isn’t much of a danger. The radiation it emits is not strong enough to penetrate the skin.
Once dried, the yellowcake is shipped to a conversion facility in Illinois, where it is blended into the fuel for nuclear power plants.