Now Utah uranium mill plans to export rare earth materials to Estonia

A permit request to import radioactive material from the same Eastern European plant is pending.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Energy Fuels, which operates the only conventional uranium mill in the United States near Blanding, Utah, has applied for a permit to reprocess 660 tons of radioactive powder stored at the Silmet rare metals plant in Estonia, more than 5,000 miles away, for its uranium content. It also plans to export rare earth material to the same plant.

Utah regulators have yet to decide whether the White Mesa uranium mill will be allowed to import 2,000 drums of radioactive powder from a rare metals facility in Estonia.

But that won’t prevent Energy Fuels, the Colorado-based company that operates the mill in San Juan County, from exporting material to the same Estonian plant to be processed into rare earth elements as soon as this month.

On March 9, Energy Fuels announced that the White Mesa Mill had received its first shipment of radioactive, uranium-bearing monazite sands from a mine in the U.S. state of Georgia. The company will process the ore to extract both yellowcake uranium and a concentrated rare earth carbonite. The latter material then will be shipped to the plant in Sillamäe, Estonia, near the Baltic Sea, which is owned by the Canadian company Neo Performance Materials and is the only rare earth separation facility in Europe.

Energy Fuels CEO Mark Chalmers said the world-spanning supply chain will show it’s possible to produce rare earth materials without relying on facilities in China or Russia, where many of the world’s rare earth products — critical components in wind turbines and electric vehicles — are produced.

“Even though it’s not huge quantities,” Chalmers said, “we’ve put it together pretty creatively [using] stuff from Georgia that was going to China. … People are seeing at least it can be done.”

Most of the final product will become the property of Neo, Chalmers said, but some heavy rare earths could come back to White Mesa eventually.

Energy Fuels first applied to amend its radioactive material license with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality in 2019 to import the drums from Neo’s Estonian plant. The materials were created as a byproduct of metals production and cannot legally be disposed of at any Estonian facilities. The proposal — and a separate plan to import radioactive material from Japan — drew strong condemnation from Indigenous and environmental groups, and the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, which has land a few miles from the White Mesa Mill.

(Courtesy of Megan Lucas) A truck carrying radioactive material turns into the White Mesa Mill near Blanding, Utah, on March 17, 2020.

The state held a public hearing and accepted comments on the license amendment last year. A decision could be announced in the next month, said Phil Goble, manager of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Uranium Mills Radioactive Materials program.

“We are still in the process of putting together a public participation summary,” he said. “When that is [finished], that’s when the director makes the decision whether he’s going to approve it or deny it.”

Scott Williams, executive director for the environmental advocacy group HEAL Utah, said the plan raises environmental justice concerns since the production of rare earth elements results in radioactive waste that will be stored next to the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa.

“This is just one more example of environmental degradation occurring adjacent to the lands of Indigenous people,” he said. “That’s just a repetitive pattern that needs to be looked at and addressed.”

Energy Fuels stated that it complies with all state environmental requirements and that concerns over environmental contamination are overblown. But Williams worries about the mill’s increasing role in importing and exporting materials.

“The state already drew a line in the sand with [Salt Lake City-based company] EnergySolutions on this issue of not taking waste from Italy [in 2008],” Williams said. “And there is a firm line saying we’re not going to give EnergySolutions a permit to accept foreign waste. … It seems like Energy Fuels should be playing by the same rules.

“This is a business model decision,” he added, “that allows [Energy Fuels] to generate revenue sort of as an end run around what they’re licensed to do. It’s a loophole.”

Energy Fuels sees rare earth production as a way to diversify its products beyond uranium and vanadium. The monazite sands, mined in Georgia by the chemical giant Chemours, contain up to 0.3% uranium — roughly the same uranium content as uranium ore mined in southeastern Utah — and include 50% to 60% rare earth content.

Chemours spun off from DuPont in 2015 and holds many of DuPont’s former environmental liabilities, including alleged contamination of water sources in the Southeast with Teflon and related chemicals.

Energy Fuels hopes eventually to begin rare earth production at the White Mesa Mill instead of relying on the Estonian plant.

“We very much want to do separation at White Mesa,” Chalmers said. “Doing the separation there and getting more quantities [of rare earths] would drive 100, 200 jobs — that’s where the big job growth is ultimately if we can pull that all together.”

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.