Presidential order could boost uranium production

The Trump administration is considering an order that would require domestic power generators to receive 25% of the uranium they use for nuclear energy to get it from domestic sources.

The White House decision is expected in the next few weeks, and could have a noted ripple effect for Utah’s uranium mining industry, an industry that has been largely idle due to the lack of economic demand and competition from overseas producers.

U.S. nuclear power plants get most of their uranium fuel from foreign sources such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and China, even though there are ample reserves of it in the Colorado Plateau.

Two U.S. producers have asked the Trump administration to impose a quota, and the president has until July 15 to do so, according to a recent story in the Salt Lake Tribune. Amber Reimondo, energy program director of the Grand Canyon Trust told the Tribune, “It would give U.S. uranium miners their own safe space in the market so they’re no longer competing in the global saturated uranium market. They now have this private part of the market that’s all for themselves, which means their prices are going to go up because nuclear power reactors and the U.S. government utilities have no choice but to buy from them.”

Energy Fuels, which operates the White Mesa uranium mill near Blanding, has been an important supplier for nuclear power plants and U.S. defense and national security. Energy Fuels CEO Paul Goranson said,

“This year, our once robust industry is expected to provide less than 1% of the uranium our country’s nuclear power plants need to generate 20% of U.S. electricity. By acting to protect the domestic uranium mining industry, President Trump can help ensure the infrastructure in Utah, including Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill, which employs 60 local workers and is the last operating uranium mill in the U.S., continues to support these important needs.”

His firm maintains several idled mines, including Utah’s Daneros and La Sal complex mines. The Bureau of Land Management has given initial approvals for substantial expansion of the mining areas, and Energy Fuels has a stake in about 300 uranium claims on public lands that Trump removed from Bears Ears National Monument.

At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, uranium mining and processing were largely unregulated, and the federal government failed to disclose the risks of exposure, the Tribune story explained, calling it a “toxic legacy” for miners and their families. There are hundreds of unreclaimed mines in San Juan, Grand and Emery counties.

Through the years, the government paid out billions compensating people sickened by uranium exposure. Billions more have been spent cleaning up contaminated sites, such as the huge Atlas tailings pile near Moab on the banks of the Colorado River, the Tribune story said.

“People think of the toxicity of nuclear power as being the end product of nuclear waste as stored at nuclear power plants, but, in fact, the entire uranium fuel chain has toxicities to some communities,” said Scott Williams, executive director of HEAL Utah. “Mining has had toxicities to primarily the Native [American] populations in southeastern Utah and the Four Corners area. That’s an issue of environmental justice because it’s disproportionately visited on people of color.”

Energy Fuels, which operates the nation’s only uranium mill near the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa, joined Ur-Energy last year in filing a petition under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act. This provision authorizes such quotas on the basis of national security.

The Commerce Department studied the proposal for nearly a year. On April 15, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross provided the White House a report on the department’s “investigation into the effects of imports of uranium on the national security,” triggering a 90-day time frame for a decision.

The Commerce Department has declined to release the report or divulge its recommendations, which are considered public by law, while they remain under consideration by Trump’s team. A department spokesman said it would be released after the president announces a decision, according to the Tribune.

Trump’s controversial tariffs on imported aluminum and steel arose through the same Section 232 process now being used by uranium producers.

As was the case with those tariffs, which boosted the price of steel and aluminum for U.S. businesses, the uranium-quota petition pits producers against another domestic industry that relies on its products: nuclear power generators.

A white paper commissioned by the Nuclear Energy Institute predicted that a requirement to source a quarter of its fuel needs from domestic sources would drive up prices. Those costs would undermine the industry’s viability, it cautioned, and be passed along to consumers.

Maria Korsnick, institute’s president and CEO, acknowledged, “A strong, competitive fuel supply chain is critical to our nation’s leadership in nuclear energy” but argued a quota was the wrong way to reverse a slide in domestic uranium production.

“U.S. nuclear plants contract with a worldwide network of suppliers to guarantee energy security and reduce the risk of fuel disruptions. We applaud steps to strengthen the U.S. commercial nuclear industry and lift barriers on U.S. uranium suppliers,” Korsnick said. “However, these solutions should not be at the expense of U.S. nuclear power companies already under severe economic stress. We are eager for the public release of the Department of Commerce’s report and remain committed to working with the [Trump] administration to explore solutions that would protect both fuel suppliers and fuel users,” she told the Tribune.

The institute’s report concluded a quota could speed the retirements of many nuclear plants, costing jobs and raising utility rates. Fuel costs for nuclear plants would shoot up by at least $500 million and as much as $800 million, increasing the cost of electricity by up to $1 per megawatt hour.

In a related development, the Trump administration added uranium to a list of 35 “critical minerals” over the objections of House Democrats who say the special designation is reserved for nonfuel minerals. Earlier this month, the White House released a plan for increasing access and speeding development of these minerals, many of which are mined on the West’s public lands.

“Uranium mining often carries with it environmental and human health impacts that stretch well beyond the life of a company; we are still dealing with over 15,000 abandoned uranium mines in the western United States,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., wrote in a letter to Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy CEOs. “Decisions regarding new uranium mines need to be based on the national and public interest, not the financial interests of individual companies.”

As head of the House Natural Resources Committee, Grijalva sent the letter last February demanding documents as part of an investigation into Trump’s actions boosting the uranium industry.