Trump administration recommends supporting U.S. uranium mines as a strategic interest

Washington • The Trump administration on Thursday urged government intervention to rescue U.S. uranium mining and nuclear fuel industries in a tough global marketplace, from making it easier to mine public lands out West to blocking some imports of foreign nuclear fuel.

The recommendations, which include Trump's earlier request to Congress for $1.5 billion over 10 years to buy domestic uranium to create a national stockpile, are meant to "pull America's nuclear industrial base back from the brink of collapse," a task force appointed by President Donald Trump in July said in Thursday's report.

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the United States risked losing position in the industry globally, costing it leverage when it comes to encouraging safe nuclear use around the world. It "threatens our national interest and our national security," Brouillette told reporters.

Opponents say the Trump administration is trying to do for sagging U.S. uranium interests what it's tried, and failed, to do for U.S. coal — save businesses from marketplace beatings in competition.

[Read more: San Juan County uranium producer seeks federal bailout, copper mine loses its state permits]

"This is a wasteful solution in search of a problem," said Geoff Fettus, with the Natural Resources Defense Council environmental group. "We get much of our uranium from allies like Canada and Australia. There's no national security reason to protect these polluters."

One of the recommendations likely to spur the most protests is one to make it easier to mine for uranium, an essential mineral for nuclear power, on federal public lands, including streamlining environmental reviews.

Western tribes say past uranium mining has left a legacy of death and disease among their people. They and other opponents fear the administration will greenlight uranium mining in northern Arizona, outside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park, potentially contaminating water sources that they and millions of others rely on.

"Risking the health of tribal communities -- especially during a global pandemic -- and jeopardizing one of the wonders of the world does not make any sense," Tracy Stone Manning with the National Wildlife Federation environmental advocacy group said in a statement.

The mining and nuclear-power industries have asked for a range of government action on their behalf. A nuclear industry trade association, the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the report didn't go far enough to support the nuclear power industry — struggling in competition against cheaper natural gas, solar and wind. It said Thursday it would keep asking Congress for tax credits and other help.

Much of the uranium from U.S. mines is lower grade than some imported uranium, helping make U.S. production less attractive on the marketplace. In 2018, Canada was the main source of uranium bought in the U.S., at 24%, followed by Kazakhstan at 20%, Australia at 18%, and Russia at 13%. U.S. mines supplied only one-tenth of U.S. uranium bought.

"After decades of neglect, the entire U.S. commercial nuclear sector, from mining through power generation, is at high-risk of insolvency," the administration task force said.

The task force supported research and promotion for the country's civil nuclear technology. It called for capping imports of Russian uranium, accusing Russia of dumping uranium below cost, and recommended authorizing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to block nuclear fuel fabricated in Russia or China for national security purposes.

Republican Sen. John Barrasso of the mining state of Wyoming, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said Thursday Russia had "weaponized" its nuclear fuel to undercut uranium miners in the U.S.

“The coronavirus pandemic has clearly demonstrated why America should not rely on other nations to supply critical materials. That includes uranium,” Barrasso said in a statement.