Trump rejects import quotas on uranium, but creates group to find ways to boost domestic production

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) In this 2010 photo, a white line along the face of the Oljato Mesa in Monument Valley marks the Skyline uranium mine and its rubble piles that contaminate the land with radiation, just a few hundred feet from where Navajo residents have lived since the 1950s.

President Donald Trump rejected recommendations from the Department of Commerce late Friday that likely would have revived uranium mining in Utah and beyond, but the president also created a working group to review the country’s nuclear fuel supply chain over the next 90 days.

And Trump is asking the group to identify other ways to boost the domestic uranium industry.

Environmental groups and nuclear power providers applauded the administration’s decision to not accept Commerce department recommendations to require United States power plants to source up to 25% of their uranium from domestic mines.

“Quotas on uranium imports would have a crippling impact on the economic health of the U.S. nuclear fleet," said Maria Korsnick, president and CEO at the Nuclear Energy Institute. Korsnick added the industry trade association sees the formation of the working group as a better approach.

Two uranium companies wanted the Trump administration to require American nuclear power plants to use more domestically mined uranium. Energy Fuels Inc. and Ur-Energy Inc., with offices in the U.S. and Canada, filed a petition with the Commerce Department in early 2018, seeking to impose import quotas under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act.

Roughly 20% of electricity in the U.S. is generated by nuclear power, but over 92% of uranium fuel used in nuclear reactors is imported from abroad, largely from Canada, Australia, Russia and Kazakhstan.

The memo signed by Trump late Friday said the president did not concur with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ finding that uranium imports threaten to impair national security. In April, Ross gave the White House a report that concluded the quotas would benefit national security; details of the report have yet to be released.

Trump did, however, agree that the impact of the supply chain on national security warrants further review. The order assigns a number of cabinet members, including Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, to a United States Nuclear Fuel Working Group, which will have 90 days to “develop recommendations for reviving and expanding domestic nuclear fuel production.”

In a statement, Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels commended Trump for recognizing the “significant challenges facing the American uranium mining industry,” and said they are ready to support the working group.

The Grand Canyon Trust, which released a report opposing quotas earlier this year, expressed concern that the working group would move to circumvent environmental regulations, including in southeast Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument.

“Industry lobbied to cut Bears Ears’ boundaries, they petitioned for uranium quotas, and although this latest attempt failed, the president’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group could still recommend measures that make mining uranium at Bears Ears feasible," said Tim Peterson, cultural landscapes program director for the Grand Canyon Trust.

Energy Fuels employs approximately 60 people at the the country’s last conventional uranium mill, located near Bears Ears National Monument and the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in southeast Utah. The company also owns several idled mines near the monument and Grand Canyon National Park, the latter of which has drawn protests from the Havasupai Tribe in recent years.

Tommy Rock, a Diné (Navajo) researcher who has a doctorate in environmental science and studies the impact of uranium production on groundwater, said he was glad to see the quotas were denied. But he added he will be keeping an eye on the working group’s recommendations.

Rock said there are about 15,000 abandoned mines across the western United States from the last uranium boom that have yet to see any significant clean up.

“In the Four Corners, there was a lot of uranium mining and work, and a lot of those locations are on or near Indian Country,” Rock said.

“There is still an issue of lack of water infrastructure on Navajo Nation," he added, referring to the 40% of reservation households that lack running water, "so there are people that use unregulated water sources for human [and livestock] consumption,” including sources contaminated with uranium decades ago.

Sarah Fields, of the San Juan County-based group Uranium Watch, said she hopes the working group will accept public comment before issuing its report. She pointed to documents on sedar.com, which companies use to file public securities documents with Canadian authorities, that show Energy Fuels, Inc. was formed in Ontario and has its headquarters there. The site said Ur-Energy has its head office in Colorado and was formed in Canada.

“With only 90 days to assign staff to the group, hold meetings, and come up with some suggestions on how to keep foreign companies in the uranium business in the U.S., it’s not clear what they can agree on,” Fields said.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune.