Today in Wyoming history, a contract was signed for construction of the first uranium processing mill in Wyoming (1956). Here is a history of the uranium industry in Wyoming reprinted from the Wyoming State Archives Blue Book (Volume 5).
Uranium was first discovered in Wyoming on Silver Cliff at Lusk in
1918. Some deposits were noted in the Red Desert in 1936, but it
became an important product following World War II with its use in
nuclear weapons. Uranium deposits in the Black Hills in Crook County
were noted in 1949. Two years later, in the autumn of 1951, famed USGS
geologist J. David Love found the first commercially viable uranium deposit in Pumpkin Buttes, southern Campbell County.
Searching for uranium with Geiger counters became a weekend
activity for central Wyoming residents. On September 13, 1953, Neil
McNeice and his wife Maxine were hunting antelope and doing some
prospecting some 50 miles east of Riverton in the Gas Hills. McNeice
had worked for the Sinclair Oil Company, starting in 1928, but quit the
firm in the fall of 1947 to open his own machine shop in Riverton. Their
discovery appeared to be significant and, by the end of September, they
filed for uranium mining claims on the site. Within a month after his filing, some 140 other claims had been made. By the end of the following
year (1954), some 7,000 claims had been fi led.
McNeice called his claim and uranium mining company “Lucky Mc.”
The first load of ore from the Lucky Mc was shipped out on September
24, 1954, one year and 11 days from the initial discovery. Phelps Dodge
opened the state’s first underground uranium mine on Green Mountain
near Crooks Gap in January 1956.
Rawlins restaurant owner Bob Adams recognized the potential
profits to be made in mining uranium. In 1955, he organized the Lost
Creek Oil and Uranium Company and began exploring for uranium in
southeastern Fremont County. Aft er gaining contracts to sell uranium
to the only authorized purchaser, the US Atomic Energy Commission,
Adams’ firm borrowed $5 million and built a processing mill. The first
processing mill in the Gas Hills opened in 1960 and a mill in the Shirley
Basin followed in 1962.
In 1957, Lost Creek was renamed Western Nuclear and construction of a new town began near the road stop of “Hole-on-the-Range” in
southeastern Fremont County. Named Jeffrey City in honor of Western
Nuclear investor Dr. C.W. Jeffrey of Rawlins, the new town housed its
first residents in April 1957. By that time, a Utah-based uranium company also established claims nearby.
Significant industry growth did not occur until after the Arab oil
embargo in 1974 caused utilities to turn to nuclear generation. By 1977, 284
the two companies, Pathfinder and Western Nuclear, employed 800
workers with an annual payroll of $13 million. By 1979, the estimated
population of Jeffrey City was 4,500 and the price of uranium yellowcake
reached a historic high of $43 per pound.
The mines furnished fuel for the numerous nuclear power plants
constructed around the country and in March of that year, the Three Mile
Island nuclear accident occurred in Pennsylvania. The accident caused
power companies to reconsider the safety of nuclear power. Soon, production slowed throughout the industry. Within two years, the industry
was in collapse. Mines and mills throughout Wyoming closed over the
next few years. Between 1980 and 1984, some 5,000 jobs in the industry
in Wyoming were lost.
Finally, in 1992, the last of the mines in Wyoming closed. Three years
later, two mines began production, both north of Douglas in Converse
County. Prices for yellowcake slowly rose from $7 per pound in 1995 to
$10 per ton four years later. In 2008, the only uranium facility operating
in Wyoming was the Highland Ranch project near Douglas.
By Year, in Pounds
*Source: Wyoming State Mine Inspector, Annual Reports