President Donald Trump declared Friday he will not set a minimum on domestic uranium production, despite persistent calls from Wyoming uranium operators and legislators to protect the industry by curtailing the unprecedented influx of uranium from foreign countries.
Before taking any further action, the president instituted a 90-day government working group to consider the national security risks associated with nuclear energy production.
Proponents of the quotas consider restricting foreign sourcing of uranium vital to the country’s economy and national security.
“The quotas were intended to provide a significant level of demand so we can continue to support uranium production in the United States,” said Paul Goranson, chief operating officer for Energy Fuels Inc., one of two companies that filed a petition in 2018 with the Department of Commerce to institute a quota on uranium imports. “Without some sort of market solution or (increased) demand, we will see some retraction in the uranium industry, … which is a continued decline in production, employment, expenditures, everything.”
To Goranson, Trump’s decision was “not a complete win” for the uranium industry, but he will be keeping a close eye on the government-led working group chaired by national security adviser John Bolton.
Last year was among the worst years ever for the American uranium mining sector, falling to its lowest level in nearly 70 years. Production also declined in uranium-producing countries friendly to the U.S., like Australia and Canada, and increased in countries like China and Russia, flooding the international markets with low-priced uranium.
Foreign uranium companies that are state-owned, such as Kazakhstan, can deflate prices and make it hard for U.S. companies to compete, according to Goranson. For instance, Kazakhstan supplies U.S. nuclear reactors with about 12 percent of its uranium, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
To several Wyoming legislators, the reliance on foreign imports of uranium is a threat to national security.
“The domestic uranium industry is vital to both our energy and national security,” Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming said in a statement. “While I would have preferred immediate implementation of the import quota and ‘Buy American’ provisions needed, I appreciate the President’s thoughtful consideration of this issue and am hopeful that after the further review requested he will agree that we must intervene to protect this critical industry.”
But nuclear energy companies around the country opposed the proposed domestic uranium quota and welcomed Trump’s decision. Regulating the uranium market would likely hike production costs and lead to layoffs in the nuclear sector, experts warned.
Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of Nuclear Energy Institute, thinks a quota will not solve the nation’s energy challenges and will only impede the nuclear refineries that depend on uranium.
“Quotas on uranium imports would have a crippling impact on the economic health of the U.S. nuclear fleet,” she said in a statement. “The formation of the Nuclear Fuel Working Group to support the front-end of the domestic fuel cycle aligns with one of NEI’s recommendations to address the very real challenges faced by the U.S. uranium miners and other fuel cycle suppliers.”
Christopher Guith, acting president of the U.S. Chamber Global Energy Institute also applauded the president’s decision.
“Any serious effort to reduce emissions and address climate change must include nuclear energy, so it is vitally important that nuclear fuel trade not be impeded. That’s why the Chamber vigorously opposed efforts to impose quotas that would drive up costs and make nuclear power less competitive,” he said in a statement.
In this year’s first quarter, about 58,000 pounds of uranium concentrate was produced at four mines in Wyoming, far below the nearly 227,000 pounds produced by that time last year.
Over the past few decades, employment in uranium mining has plummeted too. The U.S. uranium industry employs less than 400 workers, with about 50 percent of workers based in Wyoming, according to a 2019 uranium report published by the Environment Information Administration. Since 1980, the number of workers employed in uranium production has declined 98 percent.
To Goranson at Energy Fuels, investing in domestic uranium production will lead to needed job prospects for Wyomingites.
“We see this as an opportunity to make a difference as it comes to rebuilding the uranium industry. We want to put people back to work,” he said. “There has been a lot of talk about the job losses from Blackjewel and other places, a lot of those jobs are directly transferable to our uranium mining. … We would love to get back in operation and be able to start hiring people.”