When the latest COVID-19 relief bill was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 27, uranium companies with mines in the United States cheered. And that included a big one with operations in Utah.
The legislation provides $75 million to create a stockpile of domestically mined uranium that will reduce the need to import ore from abroad. Although details of how exactly the stockpile will be managed have yet to be determined, the funding will prop up a sector of the mining industry that has been flagging for decades. It also comes on the tail end of an extensive lobbying effort by uranium companies.
The funding was tucked into the massive $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill under a section titled “National Nuclear Security Administration” and subtitled “weapons activities.” But earlier discussions of the uranium reserve program in Congress and from the industry indicated the stockpiled material would be used in power plants, not nuclear weapons.
Curtis Moore, vice president of the uranium company Energy Fuels, which has a mill and mines in Utah, said he believes that’s still the case.
“Our understanding is that it is to be basically a backup source of fuel for our nuclear power plants,” Moore said. “I have not heard anything about this material being available or being needed for weapons.”
Environmental groups opposing the stockpile said they were waiting for more details, stating that Moore’s interpretation could be correct despite the sparse details included in the legislation itself. The reserve’s future will be negotiated by the Biden administration.
“We hope that the strategic uranium reserve will get a second look because we’re not sure it’s anything more than a handout to the uranium industry and specifically to Energy Fuels,” said Amber Reimondo, energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust, adding that tribal governments whose citizens might be impacted by new uranium mining should be included in those discussions.
Years of lobbying
Creating the stockpile wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. It followed years of lobbying by two companies incorporated in Canada but that operate in the United States — Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy.
Energy Fuels owns the country’s last conventional uranium mill, near Blanding, as well as uranium mining operations in Utah, Wyoming, Arizona and Texas. With around 50 Utah employees, it is among the largest private employers in rural San Juan County, even after laying off a third of its workforce last year.
Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy pressed Congress and the Trump administration for domestic mining protections. In 2018, they filed a petition with the Department of Commerce, requesting the government require nuclear power plants to obtain at least a quarter of their nuclear fuel from domestic mines.
In recent years, U.S. power plants have imported more than 90% of their fuel from abroad, including from Russia and Kazakhstan, which according to Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy posed a national security risk.
The quotas proposal was rejected, but Trump ordered the creation of a Nuclear Fuels Working Group in 2019. It released recommendations last year that a uranium reserve be created and funded with up to $150 million annually for 10 years. The Government Accountability Office analyzed the Nuclear Fuel Working Group’s report and questioned the $150 million figure, which was cut in half in the relief bill.
The report noted that Department of Energy officials believe the fund will keep domestic uranium companies “commercially viable” through direct support “of at least two U.S. uranium mines.” The military would receive an “ancillary benefit” from the program, the report added.
From 2017 through 2020, Energy Fuels paid $310,000 to the lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels (now known as Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath) to press the company’s agenda with the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. trade representative, the White House and others, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Additionally, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of campaign contributions from executives and board members at Energy Fuels found a series of donations over the past five years targeted to some of the biggest allies of the uranium industry, mostly conservative members of Congress. The analysis found no donations during that time frame to Utah lawmakers.
Publicly available filings with the Federal Election Commission show scattered, small donations from Energy Fuels employees and executives throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. An apparent shift occurred on April 27, 2016, when Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., received $4,000 from six Energy Fuels executives who each donated either $500 or $1,000. Barrasso’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Over the next five years, the company’s leaders donated a total of $50,500 to almost exclusively Republican members of Congress from Western states who have championed domestic uranium mining. Barrasso — the only lawmaker thanked by name in Energy Fuels’ news release celebrating the passage of the $75 million fund — was the primary beneficiary, and donations to the senator correlate with public actions he took that align with Energy Fuels’ goals regarding domestic mining protections.
On Feb. 7, 2018, several weeks after Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels filed the petition with the Department of Commerce, Barrasso published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal arguing in favor of government support for uranium companies mining in the United States.
That same day, 15 individuals and two political action committees with ties to the uranium industry donated nearly $12,000 to Barrasso’s Senate campaign. Donors included executives at Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy as well as Strata Energy, Neutron Energy, Uranium Energy Corp. and the National Mining Association as well as an attorney who has worked for uranium companies.
“Our trade group, the Uranium Producers of America — we might hold a fundraiser for a particular candidate or something like that,” Moore said of the same-day donations. “But $50,000 over five years — we’re not exactly high rollers here, and these are a lot of personal funds.”
Another large rush of contributions came in late February and March last year, when seven board members and executives at Energy Fuels donated $13,000 to Barrasso. During that same time period, the senator was championing the creation of the uranium stockpile through legislation, and, on March 3, he pressed then-Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette to provide “immediate relief” to uranium miners in the United States.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., a steadfast supporter of the uranium industry, received $1,500 from Energy Fuels executives two days after he made dubious claims at a congressional hearing that uranium mining improves water quality.
Funding climate skeptics
Energy Fuels executives, including Moore, who sits on the board of Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks, often promote the important role nuclear energy plays in combating climate change.
A recent sustainability report released by the company states, “The materials that Energy Fuels responsibly produces and recycles are helping to address some of the most daunting health and environmental issues facing the world today: air pollution and climate change.”
Nuclear power supplies about 20% of the electricity consumed in the United States and the majority of carbon-free electricity. And unlike wind and solar power, it is capable of providing a consistent, round-the-clock source of power.
But campaign contributions from uranium executives have funded the campaigns of climate change skeptics in Congress. Barrasso opposed the Obama administration decision to sign onto the Paris climate agreement in 2016, and as recently as 2019, he declined to concede human use of fossil fuels is the leading cause of climate change in an interview with the Washington Examiner.
Other recipients of campaign contributions — including then-President Trump, Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., and Gosar — have been even more outspoken in their climate change skepticism.
Moore said the contributions skewed heavily toward the GOP because Republicans are most likely to represent districts where the company has uranium operations, and noted that several Democrats have also received donations. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, for example — a conservative Democrat who last year fended off a high-profile primary challenge from left-wing immigration attorney and climate activist Jessica Cisneros — received $1,000 from an Energy Fuels executive during the primary.
“We’re not going to meet anybody’s climate goals without nuclear and without uranium,” Moore said. “But ultimately we mine uranium, so we have to support the candidates that support our mining activities. So whether or not they agree with us on climate goals, I don’t think is particularly relevant.”
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.