It is hard to imagine, staring out into the expanse of the Great Divide Basin, how events in Russia could shape the future of the Lost Creek uranium mine.
The closest town, Bairoil (pop. 106), is some 30 miles of bumpy dirt road away. The Wind River Mountains to the west and Green Mountain to the east offer the only break on the horizon, an otherwise unabated sea of rolling sagebrush. And the sole inhabitants, besides the bands of roving wild horses, are the Lost Creek miners themselves, though to call them miners is slightly disingenuous. Lost Creek is more oil field than it is mine, and those that work here are far more likely to tap a keyboard than wield a pickax.
But as unlikely as it may seem, this isolated facility in south-central Wyoming is inextricably linked to the land of Catherine the Great, Lenin and, more recently, Vladimir Putin.
Lost Creek began production in June. On Dec. 3 the mine made its first shipment of yellowcake uranium to a conversion facility in Illinois. A few weeks prior, on the other end of the globe, the final shipment of weapons-grade uranium was packed into a shipping container in St. Petersburg and sent via boat to Baltimore. Once in the United States it was scheduled to be blended into fuel for the country’s fleet of 104 nuclear power plants.
The timing of the two events was no coincidence.
“There were people with the foresight to see that the uranium market would be undersupplied significantly,” said Ur-Energy CEO Wayne Heili one recent afternoon, as he steered his car down the road and over washboards toward Lost Creek.
Heili was speaking about the founding of Ur-Energy, the Casper-based company that owns and operates the mine. The firm was formed by Canadian investors in 2004, a time when uranium prices were skyrocketing. The group also had their eye on the end of the Russian exchange program.
As Heili put it, “They saw an opportunity.”
Ten percent of all U.S. electricity has come from Russian nuclear weapons over the past two decades. During that time, the Russians shipped 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium to the U.S. under an exchange program negotiated by the two countries. Some 20,000 Russian nuclear weapons were disarmed in the process, providing fuel for roughly half of America’s nuclear power generation.
This year is the exchange’s last. Russia declined to extend the program, creating a shortage in the world’s supply of uranium. The program had provided balance to the international market, said Rob Chang, an analyst at the Toronto-based investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald.
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