Wyoming is set to sign a deal Sept. 25 to take control of oversight of its own uranium production and begin regulatory authority in October.
The move to take over nuclear regulatory control from the federal government has been completed “ahead of schedule and ahead of budget,” said Kyle Wendtland, land quality division administrator for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.
Wyoming began the four-year process of becoming an agreement state in 2015, and the agency originally aimed to take control of nuclear permitting by 2019.
The DEQ announced the deal at a Monday meeting in Laramie of the Legislature’s Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee, which is expected to introduce legislation in the 2019 session to clarify the state’s responsibilities under the nuclear regulatory agreement.
As part of the agreement, the NRC will transfer 14 specific licenses for radioactive material to Wyoming’s jurisdiction.
Wyoming has the largest uranium reserves in the U.S. and open-pit mining once employed about 3,000 workers in Fremont County before the market collapsed in the early 1980s.
Uranium reserves in the Shirley Basin also have economic potential for Albany County. Ur-Energy, which controls the Shirley Basin mine sites, estimates that 6.3 million pounds of uranium ore could be extracted from the site.
If the price rose to $100 per pound, Wyoming would have roughly $40 billion worth of uranium reserves, according estimates by the federal government.
The pre-eminent extraction of uranium is now done through in-situ recovering, where hydraulic fracturing is used to draw uranium up through alkali leaching.
Because this process actually is considered milling instead of mining, oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is mandated, which leads to an uncoordinated permitting process between the NRC and the state government.
However, the NRC began allowing states in 2006 to become “agreement states,” whereby they add nuclear experts to their payrolls and take over regulatory oversight.
As part of the DEQ’s efforts, the agency hired a program manager, a nuclear engineer, hydrogeologist, a health engineer and several permitting engineers with nuclear backgrounds.
If the world uranium market recovers, Wyoming’s status as a regulating entity is expected to streamline permitting and bring uranium mines on-line much quicker to take advantage of high prices.
However, the demand for uranium has showed no signs of meeting the hopes of Wyoming officials in recent years.
House Majority Leader David Miller, R-Riverton, predicted in 2016 that uranium prices would rebound to $60 per pound within two years. As of Aug. 20, the market price for uranium sat at $26 per pound, $12 fewer than when Miller made his prediction.
Miller was CEO of uranium company Strathmore Minerals for more than a decade.
So far, the biggest hope for Wyoming’s uranium market is an investigation launched in July by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is studying whether the American reliance on uranium imports is a threat to national security.
The uranium production market in the U.S. now employs only about 500 workers and the nation produces just 5 percent of consumption demand.
Production in countries with less environmental rules has made domestic production uncompetitive and Russia has increased exports to advance its foreign policy goals. Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan now account for 30-40 percent of U.S. uranium imports, according to Paul Goranson, chief operating officer for Energy Fuels Inc.
The federal probe comes after a January complaint by Goranson’s company and Ur-Energy, which controls uranium mines in northwest Albany County and elsewhere in Wyoming.
Goranson said the investigation has a highly likelihood of resulting in uranium tariffs or quotas. His company is asking the U.S. to limit foreign uranium to account for no more than 75 percent of American consumption.
“We think we’ll see some remedy that will bring back some mining to the state of Wyoming,” he said.
Goranson told members of the Legislature’s Federal Resource Management Committee “time is of the essence” since recent U.S. military decisions mean an increased demand for uranium.
A glut of uranium on the international markets has existed since the 1970s and was expected to last until 2050. Goranson said policies from President Donald Trump — like more weapons testing and two new nuclear submarines — could drain that supply by 2040.
The Federal Resource Management Committee requested Wednesday for Goranson to draft a letter to the Department of Commerce that signals support for the investigation based on uranium’s importance to the state economy.
“Our LSO staff should be able to dumb (the letter) down enough so it sound like it’s coming from us,” said Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, who chairs the committee.