Late Friday night, President Donald Trump rejected recommendations from the Commerce Department that would have boosted the U.S. uranium mining industry in Utah and beyond, but he moved to create a working group to review the domestic nuclear fuel supply chain within 90 days.
Energy Fuels Inc. and Ur-Energy Inc., two Colorado-based companies that initiated the Commerce Department report, hoped Trump would require nuclear power plants to source 25% of their uranium from domestic mines. Even before the official announcement was made by the White House Friday, both companies saw their stock prices fall precipitously.
Energy Fuels Inc. ended down 36.5% for the day and Ur-Energy Inc., 34%.
Twenty-six members of Congress, including Utah Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart, signed a letter to Trump on Friday urging him to support the quotas.
"The U.S. has become too dependent on foreign powers for these essential components of our economy and defense,” the lawmakers stated.
U.S. nuclear power plants provide roughly 20% of the electricity in the U.S., but the vast majority of uranium fuels used in power generation are imported from Canada, Australia, Russia and Kazakhstan.
Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy filed a request with the Commerce Department in early 2018 under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, a provision that authorizes such quotas on the basis of national security.
The Commerce Department studied the proposal for nearly a year before Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross provided the White House a report on April 14, which recommended implementing quotas.
The memo signed by Trump on Friday stated the president did not concur with Ross’ finding that “uranium imports threaten to impair the national security of the United States as defined under section 232.”
Trump did, however, agree that impacts of the nuclear fuels supply chain on national security warrant further review. The order assigns a number of cabnet members including Interior Secratary a United States Nuclear Fuel Working Group, which will have 90 days to “develop recommendations for reviving and expanding domestic nuclear fuel production.”
The quota proposal drew criticism from environmental groups, who point to massive uranium-related cleanup operations dating back decades that are still underway across the Western United States.
On the Navajo Nation alone, there are over 500 abandoned uranium mines that have yet to see any significant remediation, including mines near homes and public buildings. Elsewhere billions of dollars have been spent cleaning up contaminated sites, such as at the massive Atlas tailings pile near Moab on the banks of the Colorado River.
Amber Reimondo, energy program director of the Grand Canyon Trust, said the quota request would have likely led to new mining activity around Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah and near Grand Canyon National Park.
“It’s a good thing the quotas were opposed," Reimondo said, “but the news that there will be a working group is something we’ll be keeping a close eye on.”
She added that the quota petition “underscores the need for a permanent mining ban around the Grand Canyon.”
The quotas were also opposed by the nuclear power industry, which the Trump administration has been working to support. Last year, the Nuclear Energy Institute commissioned a white paper that analyzed potential impacts of requiring power plants to buy American uranium. The report concluded the quotas would drive up the cost of nuclear power, and possibly force some nuclear power plants out of business. Fuel costs for nuclear plants would shoot up by at least $500 million and as much as $800 million, according to the report, increasing the cost of electricity by up to $1 per megawatt hour.
In a July 3 statement, Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy disputed those claims, calling them “outrageous.”
U.S. companies aren’t producing enough uranium to power a single reactor, Mark Chalmers, chief executive officer of Energy Fuels, told Bloomberg, adding that prices would need to more than double to make it profitable to boost production.
“We have essentially surrendered the entire fuel cycle to China and Russia,” John Cash, vice president for regulatory affairs at Ur-Energy, told Bloomberg.
Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountains Office, said the “lobbyist-led effort to drag us back 50 years” to a boomtime for uranium has never made sense.
“New uranium mining on cherished public lands in Bears Ears National Monument and around the Grand Canyon would be the essence of stupidity. … We need to keep that toxic chapter closed for communities in the Southwest.”
Some residents of southeast Utah hoped the petition would stimulate the local mining economy, which was a significant economic driver in the 1950s and 60s.
Even with the price of uranium low, Energy Fuels employs around 60 people at its White Mesa Mill, located between Blanding and the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in southeast Utah. It’s the only conventional uranium mill still operating in the country, and one of the largest private contributors to San Juan County coffers.
The White Mesa Mill is also the site of yearly protests held by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, whose members fear the aging mill could contaminate groundwater and air resources.
In addition to the mill, Energy Fuels maintains several idled mines, including Utah’s Daneros and La Sal complex mines, which the Bureau of Land Management has greenlighted for substantial expansion. The company has a stake in about 300 additional uranium claims on public lands that President Trump removed from Bears Ears National Monument, after Energy Fuels lobbyists requested the Interior Department to make adjustments to the monument’s boundaries in 2017.
This story will be updated.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune.