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Clean Energy

High Plains Sentinel of Wright, Wyoming

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Energy production is the life blood of Campbell County, but with the Clean Power Plant Act and the war on coal that might be changing; or is it? When thinking about the energy industry many residents of Wyoming automatically think of coal, but that is not the only source of energy in the area. Over the last 60 years or so, nuclear power has been gaining strength in the energy industry and now accounts for approximately 20% of the nation's energy. Nuclear energy starts off as uranium, and Campbell County has three licensed uranium recovery facilities (a.k.a. uranium mines), which are located over by Pumpkin Buttes off Highway 50 between Gillette and Wright.

The three uranium recovery facilities are all listed as ISR facilities, which refers to how the uranium is extracted from the earth. ISR stands for In-Situ Recovery Mining. Basically what this means is that they pump water mixed with a sodium-bicarbonate (baking soda) through the area with the uranium in it. This oxidizes the uranium within the sandstone, making it dissolve easier into liquid. Pumping stations circulate the liquid, bringing the uranium laced liquid back to the main facility where the uranium is then filtered out. The water is then recycled back through the whole process again. Please keep in mind that this is a simplified version of the process. The ISR mining method is one of the most preferred methods to use when extracting uranium because it is low-cost and leaves a very small environmental footprint when they are done with the area. Do keep in mind that the uranium recovery facilities are required by law to restore the lands when done, much like the coal mines.

Once the uranium has been filtered out of the water, it is sent to a treatment facility so it can be filtered and dried. This concentrated, dry uranium is typically known as yellowcake, as it is bright yellow in color. Most nuclear power plants require that the uranium be enriched. An enrichment plant will change it from uranium oxide (yellowcake) to a gaseous uranium hexafluoride using a centripetal process (thousands of spinning vertical tubes). There is a lot more involved in this highly technical process than has been listed, however due to the highly technical language used when describing this process, the explanation of this process has been severely condensed. It is then converted to uranium dioxide powder and pressed into pellets. The pellets are then put into tubes and the tubes are combined to make fuel assemblies, which the nuclear power plants can then use to generate electricity.

The United States has 104 nuclear power plants, generating about 20% of the nation's needed electricity. With the restrictions of the Clean Power Plan and coal in general, the U.S. Department of Energy projects that about 1/5 of the coal burning power plants will shut down by 2018 while energy consumption will mostly likely increase by 30% by 2040. Because of these projections, 5 new nuclear power plants are in the works, with plans of being in operation within the next ten years.

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Original Publication Date: November 5, 2015

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