A Corpus Christi-based company is heeding Washington’s call to expand the nation’s clean energy resources.
Uranium Energy Corporation continues to expand its footprint in South Texas. The company announced in January that it is restarting delineation drilling operations at its Burke Hollow site, which is located in Bee County 3 miles south of Woodsboro off U.S. Highway 77. The project area, in which UEC plans to drill at least 30 exploration and delineation holes, is within a 19,335-acre property.
Unlike when South Texas uranium exploration began in the 1970s, uranium mines are no longer large, open pits. Instead, said UEC’s Executive Vice President Scott Melbye, in situ recovery is the order of the day. In situ, which is the Latin word for “on site” or “in position,” involves removing the uranium from the ground while leaving the host rock and other minerals in place.
“We’re able to return the land back to the landowner,” he said. “In five years, it doesn’t even look like we were there.”
This is done via drilling small holes, similar to those dug in the hydraulic fracturing process used to obtain oil and natural gas.
“Our operations look more like oil and natural gas operations than anything else,” Melbye said.
Because much of the South Texas uranium belt overlaps the Eagle Ford Shale play, he said UEC is able to review oil and gas drilling logs to see what gamma signatures were reported. These signatures are indications of uranium deposits.
“The environmental and social aspects of mining today are so strong,” Melbye said. “When we’re done drilling, we plug the wells and we try to disrupt as little of the surface as possible.”
But unlike fracking, uranium mining happens in the sandstone layer at a much shallower depth, he said, roughly 300-600 feet below the surface. Once the hole is dug, a water-based solution containing sodium bicarbonate – referred to as a lixiviant – is pumped into the bore.
“Hydrocarbon gases percolate up, and cause uranium gases to flow out of the solution and form these deposits,” Melbye said.
The uranium resins that rise from the well bore are then transported to UEC’s processing plant in Hobson, which is 3 miles south of Falls City off U.S. 181, where yellowcake – also called urania – is extracted. This concentrated uranium powder is then shipped to another plant in Illinois, he said, where it is converted to a gas and enriched to Uranium-235. That isotope is then used to produce fuel rods and fuel pellets used to generate electricity in nuclear power plants.
“We are a non-carbon-energy emitting source of energy,” Melbye said. “It falls in line with the previous president’s all-of-the-above strategy and the current administration’s carbon-free energy plans.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there were 56 commercially operating nuclear power plants, with 94 nuclear reactors, in 28 states as of Oct. 31, 2020.
The Nuclear Energy Institute lists Texas as being home to just two plants, each having two reactors, in Bay City and Glen Rose. These plants, according to NEI, provide the state with 31 percent of its carbon-free electricity, generating 41 million megawatt hours of electricity each year. This is enough to power 2.9 million households.
However, NEI states that nuclear power accounts for just 8.6 percent of Texas’ electrical generation mix as of 2020. Natural gas, at 53.4 percent, still leads the way, followed by coal at 19.1 percent. But wind is now at 17.5 percent while myriad other sources account for 1.5 percent.
As a fuel that is both clean and practical, nuclear energy has helped to reduce greenhouse emissions in other countries. Melbye said that France and Sweden, where a majority of the electricity comes from nuclear power, those countries “are almost carbon free today.”
In addition to producing green energy because of its environmental benefits, UEC’s uranium exploration in South Texas also will produce green in the form of jobs. Melbye said that once uranium prices increase to create an optimal environment for drilling, Burke Hollow will need drilling companies, engineers, experts in groundwater and chemistry and more.
In addition to Burke Hollow, other South Texas sites at which UEC hopes to resume progress are:
• Salvo, located 6 miles west of Skidmore off Farm-to-Market Road 797
• Goliad, located 13.5 north of Goliad off U.S. 77A
• Longhorn, located 5 miles southwest of George West off U.S. 59
• Palangana, located 5 miles north of Benavides off F.M. 1396.
“Please keep in mind that our only active site for new drilling and development right now is Burke Hollow,” Melbye said.
Palangana and Hobson are existing operations, but they currently are on standby until either uranium prices improve and/or the U.S. Department of Energy’s strategic uranium reserve is established and supportive of resumed operations.