UEC’s uranium production facility in Hobson, north of Karnes City in Karnes County, is scheduled to become fully operational in the fourth quarter of this year.
Uranium was first discovered in this area in 1954 by explorers looking for oil and gas using low-level radiometrics. The uranium was put into mills and outcropped at that time.
However, the industry in this area had been inactive for several years until UEC acquired and updated the facility, which is now state-of-the-art.
“We’re very proud of this new facility,” said land tenure and exploration specialist Brad Moore. “It’s probably the most modern, high-tech facility in the United States.”
At this facility, uranium will be brought in on resin mined from satellite locations all over South Texas. The resin will then be washed, separating the uranium, and the uranium will be dried until it forms a powder called yellowcake. The yellowcake will be sold and sent to utility companies to be generated into electricity there.
The process is environmentally conscious. The clean water extracted from the drying process will be recycled to wash the next batch of resin.
The plant will send the contaminated water to a disposal facility a short distance away, where it will be injected into an already contaminated well 6,000-8,000 feet deep.
The actual mining will take place at Palangana also beginning in the fourth quarter of 2010. Another satellite facility is planned for Goliad but will not be open for at least a year, as UEC first must win a contested case hearing to gain approval. Mining is also planned for Nichols Ranch in Karnes County.
UEC also has numerous land lease holdings in Bee County. They have planned explorations for these but have not yet decided when those will take place.
Harry Anthony, UEC chief operating officer, stressed that uranium is a carbon-free, clean energy source that could help the U.S. decrease its dependence on foreign energy sources.
“The U.S. uses more uranium than any other country, but we import most of it,” Anthony said.
Currently, 104 out of the world’s 446 nuclear power plants are American, but other countries exploring nuclear power are significantly ahead of the U.S. in securing the uranium needed for future reactors that have already been planned.
Anthony also stated that an increased nuclear power industry could benefit South Texas in other ways.
“It will create clean fuel, economic generation through new jobs, and a good tax base,” he said. “It’s a good, clean industry.”
In fact, according to Anthony, Hobson could produce up to 2.5 million pounds of uranium each year, which is 60 percent of current domestic production.
But what about that infamous radiation? Senior chemist Doug Winters doesn’t think regional residents need to be worried about that.
“Uranium is not more dangerous than other heavy metals,” said Winters, “until it’s later enriched with radioactive isotopes.”
That process is done by individual utility companies, not the Hobson facility. In fact, the radiation threat there is very low, as the yellowcake doesn’t penetrate the skin.
According to Bob Underdown, vice president of production, the risk at Hobson is toxicity. That means that it is dangerous to ingest or inhale the uranium, just like it would be dangerous to eat or breathe in lead or arsenic.
Underdown added that the industry is very highly regulated. The plant is equipped with air filters on its outer edges to detect uranium particles in the air that could potentially harm nearby residents. The reading is usually at or close to zero.
In addition, the workers wear radiation badges that are measured every quarter. Underdown said that the results are usually significantly less than the amount of a chest X-ray. Elevated readings occur typically only when a badge has been left next to a sample for an extended period of time.
In addition to this check, showering on site after work, completing physical safety education and wearing respirators and coveralls, employees are also required to undergo urine tests periodically to check for traces of uranium. These are also usually very low.
“I had one guy who got a high hit,” said Underdown. “So we asked him what he was doing. He said he wasn’t doing anything. It happened again, so we had someone follow him around, and it turned out he had candy in his pocket.”
Eating near the samples is strictly prohibited because uranium particles can land on the food, as in this case. Something like this is usually the only reason traces might be found in an employee’s urine sample.
With the nation’s energy needs projected to increase by 50 percent in the next 20 years, the U.S. will have to add 50 nuclear power plants just to maintain its current contribution to electricity generation.
UEC speculates that with uranium mining and the addition of more reactors – many of which have already been planned – Texas could be the biggest nuclear state in the country.
For more information, visit UEC’s website at uraniumenergy.com.
Sarah Taylor is a news reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at sarah@mySouTex.com.