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Uranium: from the ground to yellow cake
by Christina Rowland
Apr 14, 2012 | 2864 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Harry Anthony, chief operating officer for Uranium Energy Corp. puts a hand in a drum full of yellow cake uranium. He says the product is dangerous to ingest but not to touch.
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HOBSON – Uranium has been present in South Texas for decades. It is naturally occurring and was here far before the ways to extract it were ever even thought of. Today, it is making a slow comeback.

Harry Anthony, chief operating officer for Uranium Energy Corp. (UEC), calls South Texas the western capital of in-situ mining.

UEC has both in-situ mining operations and a processing plant right here in South Texas. The processing plant is located in Hobson, near Karnes City.

Once the uranium is removed from the company’s in-situ mine in Palangana, Duval County, it goes through an ion exchange process and is placed on tiny resin beads for transport by truck to the UEC processing plant in Hobson.

The state-of-the-art plant is only one of two in the state of Texas. The other operates in Brooks County.

The plant is run by Greg Kroll, site superintendent, who has worked with uranium since he started at the Hobson Facility in 1979, when he was still in high school. He left the facility in 1996 to explore other options but was asked to return in 2006.

According to Matt Welch, UEC spokesperson, Everest Uranium originally permitted and constructed the processing facility in 1978. It has changed hands several time since then.

“They (Everest Uranium) owned the processing facility until 2006, when it was sold to Standard Uranium, who in turn promptly sold it to Energy Metals Corporation (2006),” he said. “Energy Metals began the rehabilitation in 2007, at which time Uranium One purchased Energy Metals and completed the upgrade to the facility. At the end of 2009, UEC acquired all of Uranium One’s assets in Texas, including the Hobson facility.”

The facility was reopened for production by UEC in January 2011 after additional upgrades and renovations.

Doug Winters, senior chemist, was told UEC “wanted a first-class laboratory,” and that is what the company now has. The lab is used to test different samples of uranium as it makes its way from the resin beads to final yellow cake product.

The lab also analyzes water samples. Winters said if anything unusual ever shows up in a test, the staff takes another sample.

“Most errors turn out to be sampling errors,” Winters said.

His pride and joy in the lab is an ICP-mass spectrometer.

“It can measure from very high to very low concentrations of uranium,” he said.

Down the hall in the simple, metal building located on the plant site is an operations room. The room contains a desk full of computers that can manage all of the outside activities on the pad site remotely. It also allows for staff to monitor ongoing operations.

Outside the building is where the actual change takes place... from a material on a resin bead to yellow cake uranium.

The beads come to the plant in a truck and are unloaded, and uranium particles are cleaned from the beads and stored in a solution. The beads are loaded back in the truck and taken back to the mining site, where they can be reloaded again and again. The uranium taken off the beads is stored in a liquid that is mostly water. The pH levels are adjusted, and the fluid is pumped from one holding fluid tank through a series of other tanks, each tank having a higher concentration of uranium and less water than the tank it was in before. After the storage tanks, the material moves into the filter press, where the solids are taken out and fresh water is run over the uranium. At this point, the uranium is in a wet form, then it is transported to the dryer, where it is thoroughly dried and packed in drums for shipment. The completed product is a fine material, almost like flour, that is yellow in color.

It is packed into 55-gallon drums. With uranium being one of the heaviest elements, the drums can weigh up to 1,000 pounds each. The current market value on uranium is about $51 a pound, and each of the barrels is worth approximately $45,000 on the open market.

“Currently, the Hobson Facility is permitted to process 1,000,000 pounds a year,” Welch said. “Approximately 250,000 pounds/year from Palangana is anticipated each year. That amount will increase as more production areas come online.”

The facility will have the ability to expand if production levels rise as the company hopes.

“Hobson has the physical capacity to process up to 2 million pounds as presently configured,” Welch said. “With some minor investment in additional vacuum dryer and filtration equipment, the facility can easily double this level of production.”

UEC considers Hobson to be the hub of the company’s Texas operations.

“The company’s business plan is a hub and spoke model,” Welch said. “The Hobson Processing Plant is the hub, and our production areas (Palangana now, Goliad soon and Bee County in the future) are the spokes. The plan is to acquire, permit and mine up to six different projects and provide up to 3 million pounds a year to the U.S. market.”

The company is doing exploratory drilling in other South Texas counties including Bee, Karnes, Goliad and Live Oak.

The United States currently imports more uranium than it produces, and UEC hopes that, by increasing domestic production, that can change.
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