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CASPER - Officials at the University of Wyoming's School of Energy Resources want to start a uranium research center.

Mark Northam, director of the school, said starting the research center would require filling four new positions and also use existing university faculty in science, engineering and economics. He said the center would cost about $1.2 million a year to operate after it os running.

"The '80s were not good for uranium expertise on campus," Northam told legislators in Casper this month. "It's time for us to get back into the game."

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing dozens of uranium mining projects, most of them proposed in Wyoming. The projects would use an in situ mining process in which uranium is dissolved from the surrounding ore underground and then pumped to the surface for processing.

Wyoming is the largest producer of uranium in the country. The Smith-Highland Ranch mine, north of Glenrock, is the only one in operation in the state and produces about 2 million pounds of yellow cake annually.

Northam said the uranium research center could educate engineers and geochemists for the industry and also help to improve uranium recovery.

Leaching solutions currently used in in situ mining dissolve other heavy metals that have to be cleaned up later in the uranium recovery process. Northam said researchers could refine additives that would specifically dissolve uranium.

The industry could also use a method of early detection for heavy metals outside the production zone to protect groundwater.

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Northam said there's currently a lag between gathering samples from monitoring wells and getting results back from a lab. He said research to develop sensors to detect heavy metals would benefit the industry and the public.

It's already too late to recruit candidates in time to fill new positions for next fall's semester, Northam said.

"Like most things in the School of Energy, I wished we'd started five years ago," said Northam. "But I don't see new mining of uranium in this state in the next three years."

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