Trump could revive Utah’s uranium mines any day now, but activists worry about the industry’s toxic legacy

(Dom Smith | EcoFlight) This undated aerial photo shows the White Mesa Uranium Mills evaporation ponds.

A decision expected from the Trump White House in coming weeks could have far-reaching consequences for Utah’s uranium mining industry, which has been largely dormant in the face of competition from overseas producers.

U.S. nuclear power plants get the vast majority of their uranium fuel from foreign sources — such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and China — even though there are ample reserves of the radioactive mineral at home in the Colorado Plateau.

President Donald Trump could change that with a stroke of the executive pen should he sign an order requiring — in the name of national security — power generators to receive 25 percent of the uranium they use from domestic sources.

Such a measure could breathe new life into an extractive industry that has a storied past in Utah, along with a troubling environmental legacy and public health history whose impacts still sting decades after Cold War-era uranium mines and mills closed.

At the behest of two U.S. producers, the Trump administration has until July 15 to decide whether to impose the quota, which would make mining near Grand Canyon National Park and Bears Ears National Monument much more likely, warn critics such as Amber Reimondo, energy program director of the Grand Canyon Trust.

“It would give U.S. uranium miners their own safe space in the market so they’re no longer competing in the global saturated uranium market,” Reimondo said. “They now have this private part of the market that’s all for themselves, which means their prices are going to go up because nuclear power reactors and the U.S. government utilities have no choice but to buy from them.”

Southeastern Utah holds significant uranium resources and has been an important supplier for nuclear power plants and U.S. defense and national security, according to Paul Goranson, chief operating officer for Energy Fuels Resources, one of the two companies seeking the quota.

“This year, our once robust industry is expected to provide less than 1% of the uranium our country’s nuclear power plants need to generate 20% of U.S. electricity,” Goranson said. “By acting to protect the domestic uranium mining industry, President Trump can help ensure the infrastructure in Utah, including Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill, which employs 60 local workers and is the last operating uranium mill in the U.S., continues to support these important needs.”

His firm maintains several idled mines, including Utah’s Daneros and La Sal complex mines, which the Bureau of Land Management has greenlighted for substantial expansion, and has a stake in about 300 uranium claims on public lands that Trump removed from Bears Ears National Monument.

At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, uranium mining and processing were largely unregulated, and the federal government failed to disclose the risks of exposure. Hundreds of miners, their families and communities — including southern Utah’s Moab, Marysvale, Mexican Hat and Monticello — have endured a toxic legacy that persists to this day. Unreclaimed mines dot San Juan, Grand and Emery counties.

Through the years, the government paid out billions compensating people sickened by uranium exposure. Billions more have have been spent cleaning up contaminated sites, such as the massive Atlas tailings pile near Moab on the banks of the Colorado River.

“People think of the toxicity of nuclear power as being the end product of nuclear waste as stored at nuclear power plants, but, in fact, the entire uranium fuel chain has toxicities to some communities,” said Scott Williams, executive director of HEAL Utah. “Mining has had toxicities to primarily the Native [American] populations in southeastern Utah and the Four Corners area. That’s an issue of environmental justice because it’s disproportionately visited on people of color.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) In this 2010 photo, a white line along the face of the Oljato Mesa in Monument Valley marks the Skyline uranium mine and its rubble piles that contaminate the land with radiation, just a few hundred feet from where Navajo residents have lived since the 1950s.

Energy Fuels, which operates the nation’s only uranium mill near the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa, joined Ur-Energy last year in filing a petition under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act. This provision authorizes such quotas on the basis of national security.

The Commerce Department studied the proposal for nearly a year. On April 15, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross provided the White House a report on the department’s “investigation into the effects of imports of uranium on the national security,” triggering a 90-day time frame for a decision.

The Commerce Department has declined to release the report or divulge its recommendations, which are considered public by law, while they remain under consideration by Trump’s team. A department spokesman said it would be released after the president announces a decision.

Trump’s controversial tariffs on imported aluminum and steel arose through the same Section 232 process now being used by uranium producers.

As was the case with those tariffs, which boosted the price of steel and aluminum for U.S. businesses, the uranium-quota petition pits producers against another domestic industry that relies on its products: nuclear power generators.

A white paper commissioned by the Nuclear Energy Institute predicted that a requirement to source a quarter of its fuel needs from domestic sources would drive up prices. Those costs would undermine the industry’s viability, it cautioned, and be passed along to consumers.

Maria Korsnick, institute’s president and CEO, acknowledged “a strong, competitive fuel supply chain is critical to our nation’s leadership in nuclear energy” but argued a quota was the wrong way to reverse a slide in domestic uranium production.

“U.S. nuclear plants contract with a worldwide network of suppliers to guarantee energy security and reduce the risk of fuel disruptions. We applaud steps to strengthen the U.S. commercial nuclear industry and lift barriers on U.S. uranium suppliers,” Korsnick said. “However, these solutions should not be at the expense of U.S. nuclear power companies already under severe economic stress. We are eager for the public release of the Department of Commerce’s report and remain committed to working with the [Trump] administration to explore solutions that would protect both fuel suppliers and fuel users.”

The institute’s report concluded a quota could speed the retirements of many nuclear plants, costing jobs and raising utility rates. Fuel costs for nuclear plants would shoot up by at least $500 million and as much as $800 million, increasing the cost of electricity by up to $1 per megawatt hour.

In a related development, the Trump administration added uranium to a list of 35 “critical minerals” over the objections of House Democrats who say the special designation is reserved for nonfuel minerals. Earlier this month, the White House released a plan for increasing access and speeding development of these minerals, many of which are mined on the West’s public lands.

“Uranium mining often carries with it environmental and human health impacts that stretch well beyond the life of a company; we are still dealing with over 15,000 abandoned uranium mines in the western United States,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., wrote in a letter to Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy CEOs. “Decisions regarding new uranium mines need to be based on the national and public interest, not the financial interests of individual companies.”

As head of the House Natural Resources Committee, Grijalva sent the letter last February demanding documents as part of an investigation into Trump’s actions boosting the uranium industry.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune.