Biden banned Russian uranium imports. Here’s why Utah will feel that.

The president signed the ban into law on Monday night.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ore from the La Sal Complex of uranium and vanadium mines on Monday, April 29, 2024. President Joe Biden signed a ban on Russian uranium imports into law on May 13.

Utah’s uranium is about to be in higher demand.

President Joe Biden on Monday night signed a bipartisan ban on Russian uranium imports into law. Approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in December, the Senate unanimously passed the legislation on April 30.

“It will jumpstart new enrichment capacity in the United States and send a clear message to industry that we are committed to long-term growth in our nuclear sector,” U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement.

In addition to the ban, Congress recently appropriated $2.7 billion to expand domestic uranium fuel production, specifically the conversion and enrichment aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Uranium is the most widely used fuel for nuclear power, a zero-emission energy source. The U.S. imports the majority of its uranium, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, with 12% of imports purchased from Russia in 2022. The U.S. imported 25% of its uranium from Kazakhstan, a Russian ally, the same year.

“We have this amazing way to produce carbon-free electricity, but you’re dependent on an irresponsible world player for the fuel,” said Curtis Moore, senior vice president of marketing and corporate development for Energy Fuels Resources Inc., the largest producer of uranium in the U.S. “Congress is acting to resolve that, and that’s smart in our opinion.”

Energy Fuels recently ramped up production at two uranium mines in southeastern Utah. The company also owns the White Mesa Mill near Blanding — the only conventional uranium mill in the country.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, nuclear power makes up 20% of the electricity generated in the country. The Biden administration has expressed its intent to “reestablish U.S. leadership in nuclear energy.”

“Utah and the United States do extraction better than the rest of the world, hands down,” said Harry Hansen, deputy director for the Utah Office of Energy Development, pointing to state and federal regulations for mining and processing uranium. “So, let’s enable that. Let’s unleash that potential.”

Hansen referred to Utah’s potential to establish a vertically integrated nuclear energy supply chain. Uranium mining and processing already take place in the state, he said, and the coming decades could bring the funding and infrastructure necessary to round out the nuclear fuel cycle.

Other voices remain skeptical of that potential.

“Nuclear power still has the same issues that it’s always had,” said Lexi Tuddenham, executive director of the nonprofit Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, “and I haven’t seen those go away. Especially over the past year, we’ve seen projects collapse.”

In April, Rocky Mountain Power — the state’s largest energy provider — walked back its plans to replace two coal power plants in Emery County with nuclear power plants. And in November, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and nuclear power company NuScale gave up on their plans to power 27 communities, many in Utah, with nuclear energy by 2029.

Despite these setbacks, Utah’s representatives in Washington are still pushing for progress in nuclear power. Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Advanced Nuclear Reactor Prize Act, sponsored by Rep. John Curtis, to incentivize nuclear innovation through grants.

“The costs and red tape associated with our permitting process are proving to be duplicative and ineffective,” Curtis said in a statement. “We need innovation in the nuclear space to ensure affordable, reliable and clean energy in our future and Congress must do more to ensure that can happen.”

Along with the new ban on Russian uranium imports, the U.S. has stopped importing crude oil, petroleum, natural gas and coal since the country invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The ban on Russian uranium imports is set to expire in 2040.

Mining for uranium ore is the first step in the nuclear fuel cycle. Then, that ore goes to a uranium mill, like the White Mesa Mill, where the ore is processed into uranium oxide, often called “yellowcake.” Yellowcake must go through two more processes — conversion and enrichment — before power generation.

Russia owned 40% of the world’s uranium conversion infrastructure in 2020 and 46% of the world’s uranium enrichment capacity in 2018. The funding unlocked by the Russian uranium import ban will go toward building U.S. conversion and enrichment capacity.

Moore predicts that the ban will result in an increase in the price of uranium and the demand for uranium oxide produced by the White Mesa Mill. “That could result in more mines coming online in the Four Corners region,” he said.

Tuddenham agreed: “Utah is really going to bear the brunt of this.”

Energy Fuels has started mining uranium at Pinyon Plain Mine, near the Grand Canyon, and at two mines in La Sal: the La Sal Mine and the Pandora Mine. Moore said that the company hopes another mine near Gateway, Colo., will start producing next year.

IsoEnergy, a Canadian uranium company, may also reopen mines in southeastern Utah following the Russian import ban. And two other Canadian companies — Atomic Minerals Corp. and Kraken Energy Corp. — recently commenced exploratory drilling for uranium near Bears Ears National Monument.

The U.S. will still import uranium from allies like Australia and Canada, which made up 9% and 27% of American uranium imports in 2022, respectively.

“We’re not going to be energy independent on uranium unless there’s a massive change in public and political opinion,” Moore said.