Is Utah’s uranium industry key to a green energy future or a radioactive threat?

High uranium prices and new rare earth production capabilities at the White Mesa Mill could revive the aging facility in San Juan County.

(Courtesy of Energy Fuels) Guests tour the White Mesa Mill in San Juan County, which produces uranium, vanadium and rare earth minerals. Sept. 16, 2021.

White Mesa • In a white tent set up in a parking lot beside the rust-streaked metal towers of the last conventional uranium mill in the United States, investors, miners, engineers and executives were giddy for the future.

For years, the White Mesa Mill, just south of Blanding, had been “hanging on by a thread, literally,” said Mark Chalmers, CEO of Energy Fuels, the company which has owned and operated the mill for a decade. But that is beginning to turn around this year.

Earlier in the summer, the mill processed its first shipment of radioactive monazite sands from a Georgia mine and successfully produced rare earth carbonite along with its staple product: yellowcake uranium. The carbonite was exported to a plant in the Eastern European country of Estonia to separate out numerous rare earth elements, which are used in batteries, magnets, weapons and computers.

And when the White Mesa Mill opened its gates to over 100 people recently for the third open house in the facility’s 40-year history, the spot price of uranium had just soared past a nine-year high, opening the possibility for cost-effective uranium mining at the company’s idled mines across the Southwest — if the trend holds.

Chalmers and other Energy Fuels executives see the developments as a potential boon to the beleaguered domestic mining industry. Politicians and government officials on both sides of the aisle beamed in messages of support to the gathering, including a Biden administration official in the Department of Energy.

(Courtesy of Energy Fuels) The White Mesa Mill near Blanding was built in 1980 and still utilizes much of the original equipment. The facility processes uranium, vanadium and rare earth elements. Sept. 16, 2021.

“Nuclear energy, working in tandem with other clean energy sources, is the only way to reach our ambitious goals of a 50% reduction in our carbon emissions by the end of the decade,” Kathryn Huff, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy, told the open house, noting that nuclear power supplies the majority of fossil fuel-free energy in the U.S. “The Biden administration’s focus on nuclear energy is not just talk.”

Rep. John Curtis and Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, all Utah Republicans, also prerecorded video messages for the event, invoking national competition with China — the world’s largest producer of rare earth elements — and applauding Energy Fuels’ efforts to bring portions of the rare earths supply chain back to the U.S.

Uranium executives want to ‘change the narrative’

“We’re rebranding San Juan County as the green energy, clean energy hub of Utah, and maybe the world,” Chalmers said while outlining plans for the facility, including the expansion of rare earth processing capabilities and the possible construction of a plant capable of separating the rare earth carbonite on-site instead of exporting it to Estonia.

But environmental groups and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has reservation land four miles south of the mill, have long advocated for the mill to close permanently. Pushing back on notions that uranium production is clean, they see the potential expansion of operations at the facility as a threat to environmental safety and public health in the region.

The uranium boom of the mid-20th century briefly made San Juan County — which today has the highest poverty rate in Utah — one of the richest counties in the state. But it also left behind a high rate of cancers in Monticello, contaminated groundwater near former mill sites, hundreds of abandoned mines, and homes built with radioactive material on the Navajo Nation.

“There are people that are like, ‘The mill’s great,’” Chalmers said, “And other people are like, ‘This is a black hole, dirty industry.’ We’ve got to change that narrative in a positive way.”

Evidence of the company’s new public relations push was on full display at the open house, which featured presentations that touted experimental methods that could use radioactive isotopes in targeted cancer treatments. A mill manager spoke about safety precautions in place for the facility’s employees, which he said expose them to less yearly radiation than airline pilots.

Energy Fuels has also been expanding its philanthropic initiatives, hosting a training program for high school students from the nearby Navajo Nation at the mill. The company also has announced the launch of a new charitable foundation to support area communities.

Although the White Mesa Mill was built to higher safety standards than the first waves of uranium production in the region, when dust from the mills regularly blew into homes and businesses of mill towns like Moab, Monticello and Mexican Hat, Scott Clow, the environmental programs director for the Ute Mountain Ute, worries that Energy Fuels’ forays into rare earths production have been allowed to advance without additional permitting.

“This is not the same facility that was licensed in 1980,” Clow said. “It’s a different business; it’s a different process. They are changing what they do, and there is no additional environmental assessment [required by federal or state regulators] for having a different facility. We’re very concerned about that”

Clow’s department is tracking increasing levels of groundwater contaminants beneath the mill, which Energy Fuels says are the result of naturally occurring oxidation of minerals present in the bedrock. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has drilled monitoring wells on Bureau of Land Management property around the perimeter of the facility and is conducting its own testing and analysis in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency.

A recently retired mill employee Harold Roberts, who gave a presentation about the mill’s containment ponds, acknowledged that an evaporation cell beside the mill was installed in 1981 and remains in use. It is lined with a single layer of plastic that former mill workers have said is aging and prone to cracking. The company said there is no evidence that any of the cells are leaking, however, adding that it monitors the site’s air and groundwater and is in compliance with all federal and state environmental regulations.

The newer tailings-containment cells at the facility are triple-lined and have more advanced leak-detection systems, but the tribe worries about air quality impacts from those cells. Clow said photographs from a recent flyover of the facility show that one of the containment ponds, Cell 4B, didn’t have a liquid cover that helps mitigate emissions of radon, a radioactive gas that, according to the EPA, is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S.

The EPA was aware of the issue in 2017, Clow said, but did not take action against the mill. He hopes the EPA’s new leadership under President Joe Biden will reconsider allowing the White Mesa Mill to process low-level radioactive material from federal Superfund sites until the cell is fully covered.

“This is, from our perspective,” Clow said, “a pretty blatant violation.”

Curtis Moore, vice president of marketing and corporate development for Energy Fuels, said the objection isn’t new.

“The EPA and Utah [Department of Environmental Quality] are well aware of the complaints by the Utes and activist groups,” Moore said, “and they have concluded that there are no concerns regarding the amount of water cover on Cell 4B.”

From ‘alternate feed’ to rare earth elements

On a tour of the mill operations, guests were shown incoming shipments of “alternate feed,” radioactive materials from around the world that are often classified as low-level radioactive waste and are processed at the mill to extract uranium.

Energy Fuels was recently granted a permit by Utah to import 2,000 drums of uranium-bearing material that were stored at the same Estonian rare metals plant that will process the rare earth carbonate from White Mesa. European environmental regulations made it difficult to dispose of or recycle the material on that continent, and environmental groups rallied against the proposal to import the drums to San Juan County.

“We caught a lot of heat on that,” Chalmers said, “and there’s a certain point where you sit there you go, ‘It’s not worth it.’ We’re not saying we’re not going to do it in the future, but there are some battles that aren’t worth fighting.”

Piles of uncovered uranium ore are stored near the mill, waiting to be fed into the crusher and processed in a series of tanks containing sulfuric acid, sodium chlorate, ammonia and other chemicals used to separate out the uranium. The same system, most of which was installed in the late 1970s or early ‘80s, has been modified to also process the rare earth-bearing monazite sands on a smaller scale.

Some of the ore was transported from an abandoned uranium mine in northern New Mexico near the Navajo Nation, and Chalmers would like to expand the mill’s mine reclamation program. That effort has been opposed by some mill critics who see environmental justice concerns with shipping the radioactive material from the Navajo Nation to the doorstep of Ute Mountain Ute lands at White Mesa.

Without having accepted alternate feed at the mill over the past decade, Chalmers said, “the facility would probably have been reclaimed and wouldn’t be here.” But now he is setting the company’s sights on more traditional revenue streams, and Energy Fuels has a goal of producing more than half the American demand for rare earths in coming years.

“People ask what keeps me up at night,” Chalmers said. “I say: excitement.”

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.