From the moment the United States split the atom more than seven decades ago, America has led the world in nuclear energy and advancements in nuclear technology. From safely powering our homes to treating cancer, nuclear technology has undoubtedly improved our lives. Regrettably, this critical advantage, with all the economic and national security implications it brings with it, has been unmistakably slipping away.
Around the world, American nuclear companies face increasingly fierce and unfair competition from state-owned enterprises, including those of China and Russia. Congresswoman Liz Cheney noted in an October 2019 letter to President Trump that “Chinese state-owned companies are acquiring large uranium mines that constitute significant free world supply in Africa as part of the ‘one belt one road’ initiative.”Now, the United States risks losing its ability to produce domestic uranium. While this decline was decades in the making, regulatory actions under the Obama-Biden Administration further hampered our domestic uranium industry.
This is particularly significant for Wyoming, which is home to our nation’s largest uranium mining operations and nearly all of our operating capacity for producing the uranium ore that fuels nuclear power plants. According to the Energy Information Administration, Wyoming saw a nearly 90 percent decrease in uranium production between 2018-2019 alone. Those aren’t just numbers on graphs and tables. They represent high-skill Wyoming jobs. In fact, at one time the uranium industry employed more than 5,000 Wyomingites. Today, the industry employs just under 200.
Thankfully, President Trump and this administration have taken note of these challenges and are responding in a comprehensive way. Immediately upon taking office, President Trump reversed the harmful Obama era regulations. And last July, the President established the United States Nuclear Fuel Working Group (NFWG), to develop policy options across the nuclear fuel supply chain.
In September 2019, Governor Mark Gordon wrote a letter to President Trump asking that “the working group [recommend] bold and immediate action to support uranium miners in Wyoming and across the West.” As directed by the President, we are doing just that. Last month, the Department of Energy announced the working group report, “The Strategy to Restore American Nuclear Energy,” which includes a series of sweeping recommendations for potential future action that span the nation’s executive, regulatory and legislative landscape.
As Secretary of Energy, I strongly embrace this strategy as a blueprint for progress.
The report confirmed the presence of unfair competition from abroad. In the words of Senator John Barrasso, it showed that Russia “weaponized its energy supplies to undercut uranium miners in Wyoming and across the country.”
The strategy responds by considering immediate and longer-term measures to strengthen the domestic uranium mining and conversion industries and restore the viability of the entire front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle.
It aims to ensure a healthy and growing nuclear energy sector to which domestic uranium miners, fuel cycle providers and reactor vendors can sell their products and services. It supports making critical research, development and deployment investments to spur next-generation civil nuclear technologies.
The strategy reflects an understanding that the United States has well-defined defense needs that depend on a healthy nuclear fuel cycle in the long-term. Enriched uranium is needed to produce tritium required for nuclear weapons and to fuel Navy nuclear reactors.
Finally, the strategy outlined in the report fully recognizes that the entire credibility of the U.S. non-proliferation endeavor rests on a robust civilian nuclear energy industry and technology leadership position, as well as the world-leading standard embodied by the U.S. nuclear safety regulatory structures. In short, this strategy envisions and supports a full-scale effort by the United States to reinvigorate key elements of civil nuclear energy and restore global leadership in this vital arena.
The good news is that the President and his administration have already taken an important step forward toward meeting its goals. The President’s Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Request for the Department of Energy includes $150 million to stand up a domestic uranium reserve. It will be launched by the purchase of uranium from U.S. mines and of U.S. conversion services.
The uranium reserve would support strategic U.S. fuel cycle capabilities and provide critical assurance of uranium availability in the event of a market disruption. Creating a uranium reserve would clearly address near-term challenges to the production and conversion of domestic uranium, where the risks are most immediate. This will be the first of many steps forward toward a full restoration of American leadership in a critical form of energy and technology for our nation and world. Wyoming is playing and will continue to play a crucial role in our country’s energy security, national security and economic health.
Dan Brouillette is the United States Secretary of Energy
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