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More Domestic Uranium Mining Could Mean Business For Southern Utah

White business sign with blue lettering gives hours of operationan and visitor information.
Steven Baltakatei Sandoval / Wikimedia Commons
White Mesa Mill, south of Blanding, Utah is a uranium ore processing facility operated by Energy Fuels.

The federal government could ramp up spending on domestically produced uranium, based on a recommendation from a working group created by President Donald Trump. 

That recommendation has not been made public, but sources familiar with the report told Bloomberg News it directs the federal government to add new domestic uraniumto its stockpile.

If the president acts on the suggestion, it could result in increased uranium mining in the United States. That news gave a bump to Energy Fuels’ stock price last week. The Canadian company owns assets in Utah, including a uranium mill in San Juan County. 

“If the administration starts buying uranium, we certainly think Energy Fuels would benefit from that,” said Curtis Moore, Vice President of Corporate Development and Marketing with the company. “It would certainly increase production down at our White Mesa Mill.”

Energy Fuels also owns the Nichols Ranch Mine in Wyoming. Uranium from the mine is shipped to Utah’s White Mesa Mill for final drying and packaging, according to Moore. He said that Energy Fuels could potentially produce 2 to 3 million pounds of uranium per year, if demand for U.S.-produced uranium increases. The company, which has mines across the U.S., reports producing around 100,000 pounds this year.

Moore said the radioactive waste produced from the increased production at White Mesa MIll would be minimal. But according to Amber Reimondo with the environmental advocacy group Grand Canyon Trust, the mill already poses a risk to the nearby Ute Mountain Ute reservation, 

“There are monitoring wells and those are picking up increasing levels of contaminants, including uranium,” she said.

Energy Fuels has denied responsibility for the contaminants in the past, attributing the change to naturally occurring elements.

The working group’s recommendation is the result of a process started almost two years ago by Energy Fuels. The company petitioned the federal government in 2018 to implement a buy-domestic quota for nuclear energy producers.

The president eventually denied that request, but formed the working group to explore the need for increased domestic uranium production. 

Currently, U.S. nuclear power producers import 90% of their uranium from Canada, Australia, Russia and Kazakhstan, all of which have higher grade ore than the U.S. And foreign producers typically disallow use of their uranium for defense. 

Between 2013 and the end of 2019, nine nuclear plants will have closed, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade association. And an additional eight reactors are scheduled to close in the next several years.

Experts at the institute also say that no uranium has been added to the defense stockpile since the 1990’s. Because of that, the stockpile of low-enriched uranium, which is used in nuclear weapons, could run out as soon as 2038. 

There is no deadline for the president to take action on the working group’s recommendations.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.

Correction 1:12 p.m. 12/12/19: A previous version of this story misnamed the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. 
Correction 8:16 a.m. 12/12/12: An earlier version of this story also misidentified White Mesa Mill's role in uranium processing. The mill is responsible for final drying and packaging. 

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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