Overview of Domestic Uranium Production
Uranium was first found in the United States in the form of pitchblende, now known as Uraninite, in the Wood gold mine at Central City, Colorado in 1871. Since then, uranium has been found in various other mineral deposits in 21 states. The three states with the largest known uranium ore reserves are Wyoming, New Mexico, and Colorado, respectively. Uranium was originally mined to produce radium used to make luminescent dials for watches and aviation instrumentation since 1898 and was largely a byproduct form vanadium mining.
Figure 1: Navajo miners near Cove, Arizona in 1952
Uranium’s boom came in the 1950’s with the advent of the nuclear age and the development of the atomic bomb. From 1953 to 1980, the US was the world’s leading producer of uranium with 1980 being the most productive year of mining, producing 21,850 tons of U3O8 (uranium oxide). The United States’ government was the largest purchaser of uranium mined in the US due to the Manhattan Project during the arms race of the Cold War which artificially inflated the price of uranium during that time. The spot price for uranium oxide (yellow cake) hit its high between 1980 and 1981 at just under $40/pound ($127.22 when adjusted for inflation). With a sharp downturn from 1981 through 1990, the price of uranium oxide hovered around $10/pound, with an all time low of $7.92/pound in 2001. The United States began to transition from a net-producer to a net-purchaser starting in the 1990’s with the lowest domestic production of 858 tons in 2003.
Figure 2: Uranium Purchased Imports, 1949-2011
Part of the transition of the United States being a net-importer of uranium is that domestic uranium ore is more difficult to access and is of a lesser quality, when compared to the large deposits found in Australia, Kazakhstan, and Canada, respectively. The United States only produced 9% of the uranium consumed in domestic reactors in 2011, of which the Department of Energy reported 90% came from domestic in-situ mining operations due to their relatively inexpensive process when compared to open pit mining. Domestic production is largely dependent on the price of uranium oxide. At $100/pound, the United States would rank 6th worldwide, with an estimated 613,500 tons in reserve (not counting uranium as a byproduct from land reclamation and phosphate mining).
Figure 3: Average Price Domestic Uranium Purchases
With the United States being the worlds largest producer of Uranium for much of the 20th century, and the decline of domestic production over the last two decades, there are vast amounts of untapped and underutilized recourses nationwide. In fact, there are more than 15,000 abandoned sites with uranium occurrence, according to a study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency. With the ever-increasing push towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear fuel will be critical to energy independence and stability. Increasing interest in nuclear power generation domestically and worldwide, demand will eventually follow interest, and with increased demand, prices will continue to rise. The possibilities of reclaiming environmentally damaged land, extracting marketable uranium from 20th century waste, and putting American miners back to work, the future of uranium mining is as bright as its rich and storied past.