Uranium makes feds’ list of minerals ‘critical’ to national security, setting off a debate in Utah and beyond

(Tribune File Photo) With piles of uranium ore behind them, Rich Bartlett, left, and Harold Roberts discuss the operations of the White Mesa mill that processes uranium outside Blanding, Utah, in this May 23, 2007 file photo.

The Interior Department has identified 35 “nonfuel” mineral commodities that are essential to national security, including uranium and several others found in Utah.

Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey helped compile the list under an executive order President Donald Trump issued in December, calling for a national strategy for reducing reliance on critical minerals and promoting access to domestic supplies.

The appearance of uranium on the list, published Friday in the Federal Register, has spurred controversy among those who contend uranium does not qualify as either nonfuel or critical. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., sent a letter Monday to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke demanding an explanation.

“Given this administration’s commitment to fighting ‘secret science,’ it is particularly hypocritical for DOI to hide the data showing how noncritical minerals (as identified by the USGS screening tool) were added to the critical minerals list,” wrote Grijalva, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.

No one would blame those who don’t know many of the elements on the list, such as hafnium, gallium, rhenium and tantalum, but many are lightweight metals used in aerospace and electronics.

Others are familiar metals vital to everyday life, such as aluminum, tin, magnesium and chromium.

Utah produces magnesium, beryllium and potash, and holds significant deposits of lithium, uranium, vanadium, helium and some rare earth minerals. The nation’s last operating uranium mill is located in San Juan County outside Bluff.

U.S. Magnesium, the nation’s largest producer of the metal that appears as No. 12 on the periodic table, operates on the Great Salt Lake’s west shore, where it has produced more than 1 billion pounds over its 46 years, according to Tom Tripp, the firm’s technical services manager.

Its 75,000 acres of solar ponds make up 6 percent of the lakebed, yielding about 75,000 tons of magnesium a year, worth $323 million in 2016, according to the Utah Geological Survey. Through evaporation, these ponds harvest magnesium and other minerals from the lake’s briny waters, saturated with various chloride compounds.

Among all metals on the periodic table, magnesium has the highest strength-to-weight ratio behind titanium, making it a vital ingredient for lightweight alloys. It’s also used in dietary supplements and beverage containers, whose walls are 1.5 percent magnesium.

“If you are holding an aluminum can, you are holding a little piece of the Great Salt Lake,” Tripp said at the biennial Great Salt Lake Issues Forum earlier this month. Lithium, another element on the critical mineral list because of its importance to batteries, is a byproduct of this process.

Materion Natural Resources Inc. produces 85 percent of the world’s beryllium ore from Utah’s Spor Mountain in Juab County. Often mixed with copper to make lightweight alloys, beryllium has one of the highest melting points of any metal, giving it dimensional stability over a wide temperature range and great heat conductivity.

Trump ordered Interior to compile the critical mineral list and develop a plan for mapping deposits, “streamlining” the permitting process for developing leases, enhancing access and promoting production.

“This dependency of the United States on foreign sources creates a strategic vulnerability for both its economy and military to adverse foreign government action, natural disaster, and other events that can disrupt supply of these key minerals,” the order states. “Despite the presence of significant deposits of some of these minerals across the United States, our miners and producers are currently limited by a lack of comprehensive, machine-readable data concerning topographical, geological, and geophysical surveys; permitting delays; and the potential for protracted litigation regarding permits that are issued.”

After the draft list was posted in February, 183 comments were submitted arguing for uranium’s exclusion. By contrast only six letters argued for its inclusion. Five of those were from uranium firms, including Energy Fuels Resources, which operates Utah’s White Mesa mill and is seeking to expand its idled mines in San Juan County.

“Without a strong and stable domestic uranium industry, America’s nuclear infrastructure is at risk,” EFR executive William Paul Goranson wrote to Zinke. “Uranium is the fuel source for nuclear reactors, which account for 20 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. Unfortunately, domestic uranium production is falling to levels not seen since the 1940s, and we are at risk of becoming entirely dependent on imported uranium to fuel our nuclear reactors.”

Trump’s executive order defines “critical minerals” as nonfuel materials that are essential to economic and national security. They are supposed to serve an essential function in manufacturing, but their supply chain is vulnerable to disruption.

According to Grijalva, uranium doesn’t meet any of these criteria. This radioactive metal has been mined for decades on the Colorado Plateau, which yielded fissile material used in the nation’s first nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants. But uranium has also left a toxic legacy in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado that many would like to see never repeated.

“With two uranium mine expansions already approved in [Utah], the inclusion of uranium on this list makes it even more likely that residents will continue to be exposed to the dangers of toxic uranium pollution,” said the Sierra Club’s Utah director, Ashley Soltysiak. “We cannot allow mining projects to skate through without public input under the guise of national security. The health of our communities, our waterways and our lands is too important, and the threat of uranium pollution’s toxic legacy is too permanent to ignore.”

The USGS developed the six-point criteria for determining which minerals meet the threshold of “criticality.” Under the criteria, according to Grijalva, potash and helium should not have made the cut. USGS didn’t analyze uranium because it is a fuel mineral.

But comments from the uranium industry argued that it is essential to manufacturing, and international agreements required U.S. nuclear weapons to be made with domestically sourced uranium.