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Nichols Ranch

Brian Thacker, a technician for Energy Fuels, performs maintenance on a well in August 2017 at the Nichols Ranch uranium mine in the Powder River Basin. Energy Fuels and another Wyoming company, UR-Energy, have asked the federal government to investigate whether low-priced imports of uranium pose a national security risk. 

The Department of Commerce has made a recommendation to the White House on whether uranium imports threaten national security, a spokesman confirmed Monday.

Wyoming mining firms that prompted the investigation — hoping for a reduction of low-priced imports that dominate the market — have yet to hear what advice was sent to the president.

The Commerce Department confirmed in a Monday email to the Star-Tribune that it had submitted its report to the White House, but did not respond to questions about its content. Reuters, which first reported that the White House had been given the results of the probe, noted that the department cited confidentiality in its decision not to comment.

Two Wyoming uranium mining companies asked the Commerce Department early last year to investigate whether the cheap imports of uranium were a threat to national security and provide remedies that would boost national production at a time of near-historic low prices.

Littleton, CO-based Ur-Energy and Denver-based Energy Fuels argued that production out of countries like Kazakhstan and Russia is being sold below the cost to get that fuel out of the ground, eroding the U.S. market share. They suggested in their petition reserving 25 percent of the uranium market for U.S. companies, and that the federal government purchase about 12 million pounds of uranium per year.

The ask was supported by Wyoming political officials and discouraged by the nuclear power industry, which obtains the majority of its uranium from low-cost imports and faces its own challenging market.

In 2017, nuclear power plants bought 40 million pounds of uranium from suppliers in other countries, with the top five exporting countries responsible for 84 percent of all the uranium bought in the U.S. that year, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Just 7 percent of U.S. uranium purchases, or 3 million pounds, came from national producers in 2017, according to the EIA.

President Donald Trump has 90 days to act on the Department of Commerce’s suggestion.

Paul Goranson, chief operating officer of Energy Fuels, said the petitioning companies remained in the dark about the results of their petition and whether it may convince the president. Contrary to popular belief, access to the president or his advisers is difficult, he said, noting the companies had elected to try and keep a consistent message in lobbying efforts and had declined to buy into the “cottage industry” that’s sprouted promising access to the Trump administration.

“We have no visibility as to what they are actually recommending to the president,” he said. “I wish we had better information. But sometime I think the folks in the press will find out before we do.”

Goranson said the industry, and his company, face a near impossible market in the near term. If production guidance from public companies holds this year, primary production from the U.S. would total just a half million pounds, Goranson said.

“(It’s) is not enough to reload one reactor,” he said.

Sen. John Barrasso voiced support for action from the White House in a statement Monday to the Star-Tribune.

“For years, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan have undermined America’s uranium producers, including those in Wyoming,” Barrasso wrote. “Now that this important investigation is complete, the Trump administration should take prompt, meaningful action to make sure America is not wholly reliant on foreign countries for our uranium supply.”

The senator did not respond to a question as to his preference of how relief for uranium miners in the U.S. should be achieved, whether by the 25 percent reservation for national producers or some other mechanism to try and depress imports, such as tariffs.

Last year, the senator wrote an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal detailing how the U.S. uranium sector had contracted in part due to policy choices and calling on the Trump administration to expedite the investigation.

Uranium firms in Wyoming have sought relief from local policy as well as in Washington.

Energy Fuels was one of the firms behind a request to Wyoming lawmakers for a tax break two years ago. That requests failed, but a senator from Converse County — where Energy Fuels’ Nichols Ranch is located — reprised the cuts in the legislative session in January. It died again.

Goranson said the company’s Nichols Ranch mine would likely be shut in if no relief is granted in the near term, though producers expect the market will improve in the years’ to come.

Despite uncertainty about the result of the probe, Goranson said the petitioners remained optimistic.

“Though it sounds like we’re running blind, we still feel pretty good about it,” he said. “If we didn’t, we’d be all dejected. We’re not.”

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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