While Wyoming remains the nation’s leader in uranium production, the American uranium mining industry is, unfortunately, quickly collapsing before our very eyes.
Despite being blessed with some of the world’s best uranium deposits, American uranium production is expected to be basically zero in 2020 for the first time since WWII. You read that right, the United States – long the global leader in nuclear energy – is about to have no uranium production.
Uranium fuels our nuclear reactors, which supply 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and 55 percent of our carbon-free electricity. Uranium also fuels the U.S. Navy’s nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines, plays an important role in nuclear nonproliferation and is critical in deterrence and other defense missions.
An estimated 665,600 pounds were mined in Wyoming for 2018, which represented about 78 percent of American production. We expect final 2019 numbers to be much lower, and the outlook for Wyoming, and the rest of America, in 2020 is bleak. The industry employs about 190 people in Wyoming, down from about 5,300 in the late 1970s. Even fewer were employed in New Mexico, where more than 15,000 family-wage jobs have been lost over the last two decades as the industry withers away.
So why is this happening? As the U.S. uranium industry disappears, geopolitical rivals including Russia and China are expanding their industries. They are extending their global influence through their state-owned nuclear and uranium industries. These countries have flooded global markets with cheap uranium, depressing world prices and effectively blocking American producers.
For the past two years, the U.S. uranium mining industry has urged lawmakers in Washington to act decisively to support domestic uranium mining. It’s more than an economic and jobs issue; it’s an issue of U.S. national and energy security.
We believe the White House has heard us. In July 2019, President Trump created the U.S. Nuclear Fuel Working Group, comprised of cabinet-level secretaries and other high-level government officials, asking for recommendations on “reviving and expanding” the production of domestic nuclear fuel. However, seven months have now passed, and the Trump administration still has not acted.
In the meantime, critical domestic uranium infrastructure is disappearing and real people are losing their jobs. This decline has only accelerated in the first few weeks of 2020. On January 8, 2020, news came that the Mount Taylor Uranium Mine in New Mexico, the largest and richest permitted uranium mine in the U.S., was closing forever. Not long thereafter, Energy Fuels, the largest remaining uranium miner in the U.S., laid off 30 percent of its Utah workforce. Then in early January 2020, Kennecott Uranium Company (a subsidiary of mining giant Rio Tinto) informed Wyoming regulators it is planning to dismantle its Sweetwater Uranium Mill. Once the Sweetwater Mill is gone, it is estimated that more than 200 million pounds of conventional uranium resources in Wyoming will become inaccessible. It would take approximately 10 to 15 years to relicense and hundreds of millions of dollars to reconstruct these facilities. In New Mexico, the Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources estimates that more than 400 million pounds of uranium reserves remain in the state. But the window of time for meaningful action from the federal government is quickly closing.
How much more critical infrastructure must be dismantled – and how many more mining and milling jobs must be lost – before the Trump administration acts? We don’t have years, or even several months, to fix this problem. The U.S. uranium industry is collapsing today. We need action now.
The Wyoming Mining Association, along with our sister organizations, the New Mexico Mining Association and the American Exploration & Mining Association, urge President Donald Trump – and the co-chairs of the U.S. Nuclear Fuel Working Group, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien – to act now to save jobs and ensure America’s ability to produce uranium and nuclear fuel isn’t lost forever.
Travis Deti is the executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.
Mike Bowen is the executive director of the New Mexico Mining Association.
Mark Compton is the executive director of the American Exploration & Mining Association.