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Federal nuclear fuel group calls for creation of domestic uranium reserve
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Federal nuclear fuel group calls for creation of domestic uranium reserve

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Nichols Ranch

The central production facility at the Nichols Ranch uranium mine is seen in August 2017 in the Powder River Basin. The mine is located roughly midway between Kaycee and Wright. In the Trump administration's recent budget request, the U.S. Department of Energy asked for $150 million in fiscal year 2021 to build an uranium reserve fund and boost demand for the mineral. 

The U.S. Department of Energy released a report Thursday calling for the creation of a domestic uranium reserve, a move that could resurrect parts of Wyoming’s ailing uranium mining industry.

In the report, the Nuclear Fuel Working Group outlined ways the country could strengthen its nuclear fuel cycle capabilities and national security, including reviving domestic uranium production.

In the Trump administration’s recent budget request, the U.S. Department of Energy asked for $150 million in fiscal year 2021 to build a uranium reserve fund and boost demand for the mineral. If approved, the $150 million reserve fund could start production back up at two uranium mines in the country, according to the Department of Energy. The group also recommended allowing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to block some uranium imports from Russia and China.

Sen. John Barrasso has long championed expanding federal support for the U.S. uranium industry. He applauded the new report’s push to restore the commodity’s competitive edge in the country.

“The administration’s long anticipated report calls for bold and immediate action to revive and strengthen American uranium production,” Barrasso said in a statement Thursday. “Providing immediate, impactful relief is critical or we will lose America’s ability to produce uranium.”

Wyoming leads the nation in uranium production, but the industry has been decimated by record-low demand for U.S. uranium. Other state-run producers, in countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan and China, dominate the global market. American uranium production nationwide has plummeted to an over 70-year low as nuclear power companies turn to cheaper international suppliers.

In last year’s fourth quarter, only about 38,614 pounds of uranium concentrate was produced at four mines in Wyoming. That’s an 88 percent decline from the same quarter in 2018, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Travis Deti, executive director for the Wyoming Mining Association, called Thursday’s report from the working group “great news.”

“A strong uranium mining industry is critical to both American clean energy goals and our national defense,” he said. “Wyoming producers stand ready to meet the goals of a strategic uranium stockpile while providing good paying jobs in these tough and uncertain times.”

But several citizen and conservation groups have made calls to halt uranium mining on public lands and sacred sites, saying critical drinking water and human health would be even more endangered if mining resumed.

“The Trump administration appears ready to use a global pandemic as cover to greenlight dangerous mining operations that could contaminate one of America’s natural wonders and landscapes across the West,” Executive Director Jennifer Rokala of the Center for Western Priorities said in a statement Thursday. “Voters have made it clear that reopening the Grand Canyon watershed to uranium mining is a political third rail, but the Trump administration today paved the way for more mining with far less environmental protection.”

The working group supports “streamlining” regulatory processes to expedite mining on public land, in line with the Trump administration’s previous calls to overhaul the National Environmental Policy Act, according to the report. As it stands, the act requires the government to undertake sweeping environmental reviews of proposed infrastructure projects, investigating how potential development could impact the nation’s land, air, wildlife and water resources.

Wyoming energy groups have been pressing President Donald Trump to institute new trade policies, like quotas, to intensify domestic demand of uranium. Right now, most utility companies import cheaper uranium from other state-run producers, displacing demand for U.S. production of the commodity. To many politicians and industry leaders here, importing the commodity from non-U.S. producers not only delivers an economic blow to the nation and state, but the practice also threatens the country’s national security. Foreign uranium companies that are state-owned can often deflate prices and make it difficult for U.S. companies to compete.

Deliberations over how to reverse the drought in domestic uranium production stretch back several years. In 2018, leading uranium companies submitted a petition, calling on the federal government to investigate the national security consequences of importing the vast majority of uranium from other countries.

The pair of uranium companies — Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy — urged the Trump administration to adopt quotas for domestic uranium. Instituting quotas could limit the country’s dependence on foreign adversaries for the commodity devoted mainly for energy and defense purposes, they reasoned. The uranium companies recommended requiring that 25 percent of uranium bought by government entities come from the U.S.

Yet several nuclear energy companies, which rely on uranium to do business, have opposed the imposition of domestic quotas. Regulating the uranium market would likely hike production costs and lead to layoffs in the nuclear sector, some companies warned.

Last summer, the Trump administration formed a Nuclear Fuel Working Group. The working group was tasked with drumming up recommendations that could strengthen the country’s nuclear fuel cycle, which includes uranium mining. The president ultimately declined to introduce uranium quotas, but the working group still recommended the Energy Department establish a reserve fund next fiscal year.

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry at @camillereports

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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