Creation of new national uranium reserve could mean jobs in Utah, but is the environmental cost too high?

The creation of a taxpayer-funded reserve is supported by mining companies and opposed by environmental groups.

(Courtesy of Rep. John Curtis) Rep. John Curtis (right), R-Utah, shakes hands with an employee at Energy Fuels' White Mesa uranium mill in September 2019. Some $75 million for a reserve uranium was included in the massive spending bill passed by Congress this week.

Tucked into the massive $2.3 trillion spending bill that passed both houses of Congress late Monday is a $75 million provision that could provide a big boost to the domestic uranium industry, including in Utah.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which funds $900 billion in coronavirus relief and appropriates $1.4 trillion in government spending, also would create a U.S. uranium reserve that was recommended earlier this year by the Trump-appointed Nuclear Fuel Working Group.

But the outgoing president threatened to derail the entire package Tuesday night when he decried it as a wasteful “disgrace” that doesn’t really provide the pandemic relief promised.

Over 90% of uranium used in nuclear power plants in the United States is imported from abroad, and the working group originally recommended the appropriation of $150 million per year for 10 years to build up a supply of domestically mined uranium in order to protect national security interests.

The stockpile would be used to supply power plants and the nation’s nuclear-powered naval fleet. The passage of the legislation was immediately celebrated by uranium mining companies.

“Creation of a uranium reserve is truly a milestone for our industry,” said Mark Chalmers, president and CEO of Energy Fuels, which owns several idled uranium mines in San Juan County, Utah, and near Grand Canyon National Park as well as the country’s last fully permitted uranium mill near Blanding.

“Seventy-five million dollars will go a long way toward reviving and expanding the domestic production of nuclear fuel in 2021 and beyond,” Chalmers said, adding that the legislation will support jobs in Texas, Wyoming and Utah. “We look forward to working with the U.S. Department of Energy to make sure this funding is spent wisely to support existing infrastructure by purchasing uranium from existing, proven uranium facilities.”

But opponents of the plan have characterized the reserve as a bailout for foundering uranium companies, many of which are incorporated outside of the United States, and have suggested the reserve could have negative impacts on the groundwater and public health.

In February, a coalition of 18 environmental and Indigenous rights organizations — including the Grand Canyon Trust, Wilderness Society and Natural Resources Defense Council — sent a letter to a congressional subcommittee opposing the creation of a domestic uranium reserve, which the coalition said would endanger Indigenous communities and public lands around the Grand Canyon and Bears Ears National Monument in order to “line the pockets of foreign mining companies.”

“Only five companies produced uranium from seven domestic facilities in 2018, according to the Energy Information Association,” the coalition wrote. “None are based in the United States.”

Both Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy, two companies that have lobbied for increased government support for the domestic uranium mining, are incorporated in Canada and headquartered in Colorado. Energy Fuels characterizes itself as a U.S.-based company and emphasizes that all of its assets and employees are in the United States.

Chalmers also pushed back on concerns over environmental contamination, stating in recent interviews with The Salt Lake Tribune that Energy Fuels’ Utah facilities are in compliance with all environmental regulations.

He added that Energy Fuels is currently working to clean up two abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation by processing tailings at the company’s White Mesa Mill, and he said he would like to expand that effort in the near future.

“Any funds used through a Department of Energy program to purchase uranium from the White Mesa Mill can have a ‘multiplier effect’,” he said, “by not only supporting the domestic uranium mining industry, but also by advancing other important clean energy priorities, including rare earth production, abandoned mine cleanup and supporting Native American communities.”

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe, which has federally recognized reservation land near the mill, has long opposed the facility’s continued operation and has advocated against the company’s plans to import radioactive material from Japan and Estonia.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently analyzed the Nuclear Fuel Working Group’s report and questioned the $150 million figure that the group recommended to fund the uranium stockpile.

“We cannot conclude that the estimate is reasonable because it is unclear how the funding needs for the reserve were determined,” the report stated, recommending that the “Secretary of Energy should ensure … that any future funding requests for the uranium reserve are based on cost estimates that have been thoroughly reviewed and deemed reasonable.”

U.S. Senator John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has been an advocate of the uranium reserve, and the proposal has received bipartisan support according to Energy Fuels. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; and Cory Booker, D-N.J., joined Barrasso in introducing the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020 in November, which authorizes the creation of the stockpile.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.