Entrepreneur says he holds the secret to Utah’s uranium renaissance

Prospector George Glasier says his ore-processing methods would be profitable even with low prices for radioactive fuel used in nuclear power.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A bottle of containing uranium ore. A new uranium mill maybe coming to Utah under a proposal unveiled this week.

Longtime uranium entrepreneur George Glasier is back in business with a fresh proposal to develop a mine and mill in Utah’s Emery County. The projects would use new and efficient technologies for extracting ore from the ground and separating out the uranium and vanadium — systems that rely on water rather than the hazardous chemicals used in conventional processes.

But environmental activists are doubtful Glasier will secure necessary permits anytime soon, if ever.

A founder of Energy Fuels Inc., Glacier acquired some of that company’s properties to start a Canada-based company called Western Uranium & Vanadium Corp. in 2014.

In a news release issued Monday, Western unveiled its latest plans, saying it acquired land for the proposed mill with the support of state and local officials and initiated permitting processes. This mill would also be capable of processing cobalt, a critical element that is used in electric vehicles.

“We’ve got probably the best uranium-vanadium properties in Colorado and Utah,” Glasier said in a phone interview Tuesday. He has purchased private land in the Green River Industrial Park to site the mill, which would process ore from the Colorado mines he controls. Western also plans to develop a new mine on federal claims several miles west of Green River.

“We studied sites for a year and found the very best site because it has the infrastructure right on the highway,” Glasier said. “It’s got water that’s going to be supplied by the town of Green River. And it’s got power very close to it — and support of the locals.”

He believes he can have the mine and mill operational as soon as late 2025. In Garfield County, meanwhile, a Canadian company called Anfield Energy recently unveiled its own plans for reviving the old mill in Shootaring Canyon, which it acquired in 2015. That mill closed in 1983 after only six months in operation.

Also back in the 1980s, Glasier helped build Energy Fuels’ processing plant outside White Mesa, currently the nation’s only operating uranium mill. He served as Energy Fuels president and CEO from 2006 to 2011 before forming Western in 2014 as a publicly traded company based in Toronto.

The company operates out of Nucla, Colo., where it currently operates the Sunday Mine complex, a network of five uranium mines in Big Gypsum Valley just across the Utah state line.

While still at the head of Energy Fuels, Glasier proposed a mill in Colorado’s Paradox Valley at a site called Pinion Ridge, which divided the community and was ultimately shot down by regulators, according to Jennifer Thurston, an activist with Information Network for Responsible Mining who has long contested Glasier’s uranium proposals in Colorado.

She said the latest proposal looks like a reprise of Pinion Ridge.

“Green River is an odd location,” she said. “It does look and feel a little bit like the Pinion Ridge proposal almost 15 years ago. Many of the same elements that were in place at that time are in place again. Often with uranium, you see things repeat in speculation cycles. And that’s happening again.”

Her group, meanwhile, has convinced state regulators to revoke the permit for one of the Sunday mines, known as Topaz, and to order its reclamation, citing Colorado law requiring mines to be retired after 10 years with no production.

The U.S. uranium industry for years has been hamstrung by low commodity prices and a lack of processing facilities. Consequently, the U.S. nuclear power sector sources only about 10% of its uranium fuel domestically. But companies like Anfield and Western are banking on a revival in nuclear energy as utilities move away from fossil fuels to emission-free energy sources.

Uranium currently is selling for $50 a pound, which is less than what it costs to produce the commodity from most U.S. mines. But Glacier said he believes the milling process he is pioneering can turn a profit at current prices.

While Western has no plans to mine cobalt and none is currently produced in Utah, Glasier said he has received queries from various prosectors interested in processing cobalt ore at the mill now proposed for Green River.

“If you look at the mineral maps of Utah, there’s a lot of cobalt occurrences. I don’t know how good they are,” he said. “But people have come to us and said, ‘If you’re going to build the processing plant, would you consider putting in a cobalt circuit?’ And we said, ‘Sure, we will design that into the circuit.’ …. It won’t cost that much more. The front end of a processing plant is about the same for whatever metal you’re recovering.”

But uranium would be the main attraction at the Green River mill, where Glasier wants to showcase a new process for separating uranium oxides from ore that he says would outperform the existing mill at White Mesa.

“This mill is going to be far more technologically advanced,” Glasier said. “It’ll be a far lower production cost because of the technology that we own.”

The operation would use a process called ablation, or “kinetic separation,” where the ore is concentrated as it’s mined, so far less ore has to be processed in the mill, according to Glasier.

“It’s a technology that takes any kind of secondary mineral deposit, where the mineral coats the sand,” he said. “That’s the case with virtually all of the uranium-vanadium deposits in Utah and Colorado.”

The idea is to subject the ore to water applied under intense pressure.

“It’s basically driving these sand grains at high velocity against each other. It blows off that coating of the mineral and then we simply screen off that clean sand that doesn’t have any mineral in it,” he said. “It’s a patented process, but it’s very simple.”

This process would increase uranium concentrations by a factor of eight in the ore that would then be hauled to the mill, while the rest is returned to the mine.

“So for every seven tons you bring from the mine only one ton goes through the chemical process of the mill to purify the uranium and vanadium,” Glasier said. “That’s why environmentally it’s so much better. When you add chemicals to this, that’s when you come up with mill tailings that are toxic and you have to dispose of them in certain types of ways.”

It sounds good on paper, but Thurston suspects Western will run into regulatory hurdles that could substantially increase its processing costs. The proposed process would generate two waste streams, one at the mine and one at the mill, both of which would likely be classified as tailings under the Atomic Energy Act, she said.

“Uranium tailings have to be disposed of in a very sophisticated impoundment. That’s where our opposition has come in. It’s not about the technology. It’s good for them to innovate and there are benefits if they do it properly,” Thurston said. “What we have been concerned about is the creation of two new waste streams for which they are asking a complete blanket exemption from regulation. That’s not OK. They’d have to get a license.”