Uranium mines in Southeast Utah will remain idle — for now — as President Trump has delayed a decision to impose a buy-American quota on U.S. nuclear producers that would have bolstered domestic mining.
The announcement comes in response to a Department of Commerce investigation into the national security risks posed by importing over 90% of the uranium used by U.S. producers. The Commerce Department submitted a report on the topic to the White House in April.
In delaying the decision, Trump said that he did not concur with the Commerce Department’s finding that importing uranium poses a national security threat as outlined by federal law, but he said he is still concerned about the issue.
“Although I agree that the Secretary’s findings raise significant concerns regarding the impact of uranium imports on the national security with respect to domestic mining, I find that a fuller analysis of national security considerations with respect to the entire nuclear fuel supply chain is necessary at this time,” Trump said in a presidential memo released by the White House.
The memo also announced the creation of a work group to study the implications of importing most of the uranium used by the U.S. for nuclear power production and national defense. The work group will have 90 days from July 12 to submit a report to the White House.
The announcement was welcomed by environmental groups, who say that a quota would spur uranium mining in close proximity to national parks and monuments.
“It’s obviously very good news that the quotas were not imposed. Those would have padded the pockets of mining companies and put some of our most treasured public lands in the crosshairs of uranium mining,” said Amber Reimondo, an energy analyst with Grand Canyon Trust.
But the contradictory nature of the memo is still cause for concern, according to Reimondo, who said she expects the work group will look for a justification to increase domestic uranium mining.
The investigation was prompted by U.S.mining companies Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy. The companies petitioned the Department of Commerce to consider requiring the U.S. nuclear power industry to source 25% of its uranium supply domestically.
In a joint statement, the companies commended the president for recognizing the challenges facing the American uranium mining industry, which they described as being under siege.
“We will continue to work with Congress and the administration to reduce the nation’s dangerous dependence on uranium imports from our strategic adversaries,” the statement read.
In Utah, Energy Fuels owns the Daneros Mine and the La Sal Complex, which consists of five mines. The former is located within the originally proposed boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, while the latter is situated within the Manti La-Sal National Forest. Both are currently idle but could go into production if a domestic quota is imposed, according to Grand Canyon Trust energy analyst Amber Reimondo.
Critics of the proposed quota say that sourcing uranium from outside the United States does not pose a threat to national security. Currently, the United States sources over half of its uranium from Canada and Australia, which have higher grade uranium than domestic production. The rest comes from Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Uranium is easy to procure from U.S. allies and thus relying on other countries to supply uranium does not constitute a national security risk, said Sharon Squassoni, a nuclear researcher at George Washington University.
“What is happening here is a deliberate muddling of national security and economic reasons to prop up a domestic industry,” Squassoni, who studies the security implications of importing fissile materials like uranium, said.
Industry analysts attribute the president’s decision to postpone the imposition of a domestic quota for uranium sourcing to opposition from the nuclear power industry. The Ad Hoc Utilities Group represents major nuclear power producers in the U.S..
Dave Tamasi, a spokesperson for the group, said that imposing a 25% domestic sourcing quota for uranium would increase the cost for producing nuclear power by $500 to $800 million per year and could lead to the loss of thousands of jobs.
“It’s not clear what the benefits would be of having a government-mandated quota on uranium when the only beneficiaries would be the profit seekers at the two mining companies,” he said.
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.
Correction 11:51 a.m. MDT 7/17/19: A previous version of this article stated that Energy Fuels owns two conventional uranium mines in Southeastern Utah. Energy Fuels in fact owns the Daneros Mine and the La Sal Complex, which consists of five mines. This story has been updated to clarify Energy Fuels' holdings.