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Opening Up The Mountain West To Uranium Production For Nuclear Energy Is The ‘Third Rail’ Of American Politics


A fallout of the coronavirus may be more uranium mining in the West and outside of the Grand Canyon. At least that is the proposed policy of the Trump administration, which is arguing that more domestic production is necessary to avoid an over-reliance on foreign sources. 

Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan supply two-thirds of the world’s uranium, which fuels nuclear power plants. Only 10% of it comes from domestic mines. And given that prices are already low, it is illogical to increase domestic supplies — especially in environmentally-sensitive places. 

Uranium prices have never covered production costs and they now stand at nearly $33 a pound. Low prices do not necessarily motivate developers to search for new supplies. Add to that the coronavirus, and some fear fuel shortages at nuclear power plants. But is that an accurate read? 

To that end, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group proposed on Thursday opening up about 1,500 acres outside the Grand Canyon — places that are now off-limits to production. It wants to spend $1.5 billion over a decade buying uranium from American producers. U.S. companies Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy are pushing the White House to do so, asking it to create a uranium stockpile that would buy as much as 10 million pounds a year. 

To be precise, Canada’s Cameco and Kazakhstan’s Kazatomprom provide more than half of the global uranium supplies. The French company Orano accounts for 13% while the Russian/Canadian enterprise Uranium One, Russia’ ARMZ Uranium Holding, the China National Nuclear Corp. and the China General Nuclear Power Group make up smaller percentages, all according to World Nuclear Association.

“It is in the U.S. national security interest to preserve and grow the assets and investments of the entire U.S. nuclear enterprise,” Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said in the report. “We can do so by addressing domestic and international security interests, expanding nuclear generation, minimizing commercial fleet fiscal vulnerabilities, assuring defense needs for uranium, and leveling the playing field against state-owned enterprises.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute supports that position, saying that at a federal stockpile would lead to the development of next-generation technologies and advanced fuels.  

Think Twice

The working group’s report says that the United States has two important needs for domestic uranium supplies. The first is for low-enriched uranium to produce tritium for nuclear weapons through th 2040s and the second is for highly-enriched uranium, which is needed to fuel Navy nuclear reactors through the 2050s.

But the Center for Western Priorities has a different position. It says that the Trump administration’s move to expand domestic uranium production on public lands is not just unnecessary but that it would also weaken environmental protections: in 2012, the Obama administration established rules to chemicals tied to uranium mining from harming groundwater. Moreover, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a long list of uranium mining sites that need to be cleaned up.

“The Trump administration appears ready to use a global pandemic as cover to green-light dangerous mining operations that could contaminate one of America’s natural wonders and landscapes across the West,” says Executive Director Jennifer Rokala. “Voters have made it clear that re-opening the Grand Canyon watershed to uranium mining is a political third rail …” 

She points to 2020 Colorado College Conservation in the West Poll that concludes that 77% of Arizona voters and 71% of those in the Mountain West oppose new uranium mining on public lands next to the Grand Canyon.

About 400,000 megawatts of nuclear energy capacity provides 10% of the world’s electricity, says the World Nuclear Association. There are 440 nuclear reactors in 30 countries, it adds, noting that 55 more are now under construction. So is there enough uranium to meet the projected demand? 

The International Atomic Energy Agency said in 2016 that the global nuclear fleet has enough for 130 years. If supplies ever became tight, markets would respond accordingly — as they have in the past.

“Regardless of the role that nuclear energy ultimately plays in meeting future electricity demand and moving towards global climate objectives, the uranium resource base … is more than adequate,” it says. “In the wake of recent significant reductions in uranium production, the coming challenges are likely to be those associated with constrained investment capabilities …” 

The U.S. nuclear energy sector is vital to the country’s energy picture, providing most of its carbon-free power. But using the coronavirus as a rationale to open up the Mountain West to more uranium development is a stretch, given that the mineral is both abundant and cheap. Politically, it would also be a death knell and something that won’t fly in an election year.

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