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Health, Science & Environment
KUER’s Southeast Utah Bureau is based in San Juan County. The Southwest Utah Bureau is based in the St. George area. Both initiatives focus on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues, faith and spirituality and other topics of relevance to Utahns.

The White Mesa Mill Will Stay Open, But Won’t Add Many New Jobs For Now

A photo of a sign at White Mesa Mill.
Kate Groetzinger
/
KUER
The White Mesa Mill is located in San Juan County. It is the only operating uranium mill in the country.

Energy Fuels executives are touting the potential of their uranium mill in San Juan County to process ore for rare earth elements, which are used in everything from iPhones to electric vehicles.

But that’s not likely to create many jobs, according to Curtis Moore, the company’s spokesman.

“We’re trying to crawl before we walk in this rare earth stuff,” he said. “And we aren’t going to make promises we can’t keep.”

Moore said the company plans to process 2,500 tons of uranium ore for rare earth elements this year, which is only a tiny fraction of the mill’s capacity. The mill currently employs around 50 people, down from around 75 last year.

To add jobs, Moore said the mill would need to further process the rare earth concentrate it produces — a process called separation. That could lead to the creation of around 100 new jobs, he added.

But right now, China does that cheaper, according to Kristin Vekasi, a professor at the University of Maine who studies international trade.

“We need these elements,” Vekasi said. “So having a more robust supply chain amongst Allies is, I think, really crucial.”

But she said it will be hard for Energy Fuels to justify building a facility to further process the metals without China limiting exports or new government subsidies.

STAYING VIABLE

While producing concentrates of rare earth elements will only add around 10 jobs, it will help keep the mill open, Moore said, as will plans to create a national uranium stockpile.

“[The] White Mesa [Mill] barely makes money,” Moore said, “It’s always at risk of permanent closure. That would give us the capital to continue to operate.”

Energy Fuels lobbied President Donald Trump in 2018 to subsidize the uranium industry, which eventually led Congress to designate $75 million for the stockpile in the omnibus spending bill passed in December 2020.

Moore said Energy Fuels plans to go after that money, which he said is enough to buy around 1.5 to 2 million pounds of processed uranium. Financial disclosures show Energy Fuels has around 700,000 pounds of processed uranium stockpiled at the mill.

OPPOSITION

Environmental groups and the Ute Mountain Ute community at White Mesa, which is just a few miles from the mill, worry these developments will further extend the mill’s lifetime.

It was supposed to operate for just 15 years when it was built in the 1980s, but has stayed in business by processing radioactive waste in recent years.

“Rare earth processing is the latest example of Energy Fuels pushing the boundaries of what the law allows to avoid closing the mill and cleaning it up,” said Aaron Paul, an attorney with the Grand Canyon Trust.

Both the Trust and the tribe said the mill is polluting ground water and emitting a carcinogenic gas called radon. Energy Fuels said the groundwater contamination is benign and not due to the mill’s activities. The company also denies that the mill emits unsafe levels of radon.

Updated: January 7, 2021 at 12:34 PM MST
This story has been updated to include the number of jobs that could be created if the mill adds a facility to process rare earth elements.
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