Utah uranium mines being eyed by Australian company

Foreign investors consider $75 million in federal funding that was supposed to boost uranium production in the United States, but the Biden administration indicates it won’t renew the program.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Survey stakes along a hillside 14 miles north of Monticello indicate a renewed interest in uranium mining in San Juan County. June 14, 2021.

East Canyon • On the flank of a remote mesa in San Juan County, where the abandoned shafts of the None Such uranium mine cut into the hillside amid a yellowing juniper forest, Utah’s uranium boom days seem part of a distant past.

Rusting metal machinery and other trash protrude from eroding, unfenced tailings piles left by operators in the 1970s. Small Bureau of Land Management signs warn passersby — mostly adventurous all-terrain vehicle riders braving washed-out roads — it’s unsafe to enter the mines.

But a few scattered survey stakes along the mesa, located 14 miles north of Monticello, provide a subtle indication that the area’s rich uranium and vanadium deposits may soon be tapped once again.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Bureau of Land Management sign warns public land users to stay out of the abandoned None Such Mine, which was recently purchased by Australian uranium mining company TNT Mines. June 14, 2021.

In May, TNT Mines — an Australian zinc, gold and uranium mining company — acquired dozens of mining claims in the East Canyon uranium-vanadium project area, and according to a recent presentation to investors, the company is currently mapping the geology of the area.

The renewed interest in the region’s uranium deposits, TNT said in the presentation, is being driven by two major factors: East Canyon’s proximity to Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill near Blanding (the only conventional uranium mill operating in the United States) and policies implemented by then-President Donald Trump that sought to boost domestic uranium production.

Although there are several fully permitted uranium mines in San Juan County, including Energy Fuels’ Daneros Mine near Bears Ears National Monument, they have remained mostly idle in recent decades due to low global uranium prices.

Energy Fuels and Ur Energy, two uranium companies incorporated in Canada with operations in the U.S., petitioned the Trump administration in 2018 to provide protections to American uranium operations, citing the nuclear power industry’s dependence on imported uranium, mostly from Canada, Kazakhstan, Russia and Australia.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trash outside the abandoned None Such uranium mine in San Juan County, which was recently purchased by the Australian mining company TNT Mines. June 14, 2021.

Trump added uranium to the U.S. “critical minerals list” in 2018, a move that President Joe Biden’s Interior Department recently announced it would reverse this fall.

In December, the massive COVID-19 relief package set aside $75 million to create a stockpile of domestically mined uranium, another Trump administration recommendation that was ostensibly part of the former president’s “American energy dominance” agenda. But the promise of government subsidies and low taxes has drawn the attention of foreign companies such as TNT Mines.

The Australian company pointed to both Trump’s inclusion of uranium on the critical minerals list and the creation of the federally funded stockpile as reasons for its decision to move forward with its East Canyon projects.

TNT Mines did not respond to a request for comment.

In May, TNT Mines announced drilling permits for East Canyon could be secured as soon as August, and the first phase of shallow drilling could begin in October. Samples taken from the area in recent years showed visible mineralization of uranium and vanadium. The timeline for full-scale production has not yet been announced.

Congress provided the $75 million in funding to the domestic uranium stockpile this year, and the Trump administration recommended extending the program for 10 years. But under Biden, the Energy Department has reversed course, leaving funding for the uranium reserve out of its 2022 budget request.

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.