Uranium mining in the United States may be on the verge of revival.
Think of it as a component of this country’s supply chain problems. As the US seeks to decarbonize in response to climate change, the Biden administration has faced the fact that in many cases the technologies needed to create a low-carbon economy require metals – such as nickel, lithium and cobalt – which are in short supply domesticated and controlled by hostile countries such as China and Russia.
A similar situation is currently at play with uranium, a radioactive metal key to making fuel for nuclear reactors. America’s reliance on foreign sources leaves the nuclear power sector vulnerable to geopolitical conflict – such as Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Russia supplies 20 percent of the low-enriched uranium used to power American reactors and is a major supplier of ready-to-fuel uranium to the world market. While the US imports much of its uranium supply from other countries such as Canada and Australia, its partial reliance on Russian supplies can already be seen with rising fuel costs.
When the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Russia’s state-owned nuclear company, Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corp., the price of uranium dropped to about $60—a level not reached in more than a decade. Experts recently told E&E News that if sanctions are imposed on Russian imports, the move could further raise the cost of low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants globally, further unloading US utilities. – Can be vulnerable to ups and downs.
“They’re using it [uranium] as a geopolitical weapon against the United States, and we have the potential to be more self-reliant,” said Mark Chalmers, president and CEO of Energy Fuels Resources Corp., the largest US uranium mining company.
Now, US uranium miners say they see an opportunity to earn some money to help the country fight back against Russia. That would mean restarting dormant mines, restarting an industry in the US that shrank dramatically in recent years when uranium prices were low.
It is not clear how many uranium mines are currently operating in the United States. The World Nuclear Association estimated that only one US mine, the Nichols Ranch in Wyoming, produced uranium in 2020, the most recent year analyzed by the industry group.
How long it will take to ramp up uranium production is also unclear, as there are state and federal regulatory hurdles. When asked whether mines eager to restart would need approval and which organization would lead that work on conventional uranium mines, several agencies, including the Interior Department and the EPA, did not immediately respond.
An industry source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, pointed to several fully licensed and permitted mines in states such as Wyoming and Utah, which are increasingly without regulatory approval to increase prices under sanctions. But he said any operations coming online would require locking up of contracts to guarantee a rate of return. Exactly how much business a US operation can do on a net global price and competition with countries like Canada.
“I think it could be a revival of western supplies,” said the source. “I think there’s going to be a renewed interest in getting it closer to home, perhaps closer to a stable environment.”
‘A foregone conclusion’
The US is home to only one conventional uranium mill: White Mesa in Utah, which is owned by Energy Fuels Resources.
In 2019, US production of milled uranium – also known as “yellowcake” – fell to a historic low of £174,000 from the previous year’s record low of more than £1 million. Since then, the US Energy Information Administration has not reported annual uranium-concentrated production totals, as the totals have dropped so much that the agency had to “avoid disclosure of personal company data.”
Energy Fuels called the White Mesa churning an “alternative feed material” by updating the plant to produce uranium, which contains radioactive waste.
This week Chalmers said Energy Fuels is currently taking a look at mines that could be commissioned. If prices remain the same or rise, the company will bring some operations back online, he added.
One of the properties under consideration to start is the Pinyon Plain Mine, a controversial uranium open-pit project in Arizona located close to the Grand Canyon. Formerly called Canyon Mine, environmentalists have long opposed the project, citing fears that it would irreparably harm sources of drinking water for the indigenous communities living nearby.
The Obama administration put a moratorium on new mining claims near the Grand Canyon, but the Pinyon Plaine was grandparented—though it never operated. Chalmers said Pinyon is in a position to begin production if the company so chooses, citing a recent appeals court ruling that sought to block the opening of the mine against environmental and indigenous groups. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality said in an email that existing environmental permits are in place to allow the mine to operate, but the facility has not yet commenced activity (greenwireFebruary 23)
Energy Fuels isn’t the only uranium miner considering more digging amid supply shortages and geopolitical conflict.
Scott Melby, head of U.S. trade group Uranium Producers, said many U.S. uranium miners are preparing projects to restart and move through permission processes in response to higher prices.
Melbye said his own mining firm, Uranium Energy Corp., is “accelerating” toward production by doubling its drilling rig count at the site of a proposed expansion of its Burke Hollow uranium mine in Texas, which is fully permitted but currently is not in operation.
UEC also has mines that can be easily resealed that were recently acquired from Uranium One, a Rosatom subsidiary known for its involvement in the GOP political attack during the 2016 presidential campaign. goes.
Melby said mines formerly owned by Uranium One have a shorter restart time.
While some of these uranium market changes were happening before Russia invaded Ukraine, Melby said, his company and others “want to be prepared.”
“The industry’s attention, now, is a foregone conclusion that Russian supplies going to the US will not be getting ahead,” he said.
Over the past decade, the US uranium mining industry was close to extinction due to low prices driven by the response in some countries to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. That crisis prompted some governments to halt nuclear plant projects, later leading to a glut of uranium that floated around the global market without consumption.
But those market dynamics are fundamentally transferred,
The spread of covid-19 forced uranium miners Canada And Kazakhstan To shut down some of their production for months at a time. This had the unintended consequence that nuclear reactors used up some of the supply, resulting in the estimated future supply deficit for industry.
In addition, an investment vehicle Called The Sprout Physical Uranium Trust launched last year and began hoarding millions of pounds of uranium left on the market with no destination. The trust is designed to hold indefinitely on the uranium it purchases.
As of Wednesday, the trust held approximately 51.9 million pounds of uranium, worth $2.9 billion.
Ed Lyman, director of nuclear energy security at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said spot prices are fluctuating rapidly, yet it is unclear how “elastic” is given to the market in the presence of speculators. They agreed that a ban on Russian uranium could send a long-lasting signal to the market and drive up prices further, making it more economical to reactivate American uranium mines.
Catherine Huff, a senior adviser to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, acknowledged the need for a “Western alternative to the Russian component of the uranium market” during a hearing yesterday on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine goes against the importance of our energy security,” Huff said. She called for “substantial support from appropriations”.
More “direction” from the Department of Energy will help find solutions to “current fleet needs for uranium,” Huff said.
However, like other commodities, the US uranium repurchase could have negative consequences.
Over 500 Abandoned Uranium Mines continue To release toxic contaminants and are being cleaned up by the EPA. In addition, uranium mining has a long legacy of pollution among indigenous communities in the western part of the Americas that continues today.
In 2019, a federal health official said Congressional lawmakers found an ongoing study by the University of New Mexico of Navajo Women and Infants found that nearly a quarter of people suffered from high levels of uranium and radioactivity in their bodies.
Radioactive particles can have devastating effects on the human body, increasing the chances of developing lung and bone cancer, poor kidney function, and other health problems.
Navajo communities are so opposed to uranium mining that they filed a petition The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sought to find that the US violated the human rights of indigenous peoples by allowing mining on and near their land. The petition was determined admissible late last year, and the case is still ongoing.
that’s why while some Democrats And while environmental groups recognize that clean energy purposes may require new mining of some minerals, advocates are more wary about expanding mining of uranium (greenwire, 10 March).
“I think uranium mining is going to be a much bigger threat than people realize,” said Raquel Dominguez, a policy associate at Earthworks, an environmental group.
With uranium prices rising, “the danger is very real that uranium operations will have a further impact on indigenous communities,” said Amber Rimondo, energy director of the environmental nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust, which has campaigned against the Pinyon Plain mine.
Uranium miners vow that they have learned their lesson from the days when their projects corrupted the lives and futures of Native American peoples. He says technology has improved enough to ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again.
“We are talking about 21st century, world-class mining operations in the United States,” said Melby of Uranium Producers of America. “I think if environmentalists actually came out and saw uranium operations in the United States, they would be really impressed.”