Why the Russian uranium ban won’t —and shouldn’t —lead to more uranium mining in the U.S.

May 30, 2024

By Rachael Hamby

Uranium mining and milling has been dormant in the United States for decades, but after years of aggressive advocacy, mining companies are hoping that will change with recent congressional actions to prop up the domestic uranium industry. In May 2024, President Joe Biden signed the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act, which bans the import of Russian uranium and complements an appropriation of nearly $4.4 billion in a funding bill signed in March 2024 to support the domestic uranium industry and invest in research and development. Do these actions actually solve a problem, or was this just an easy way for lawmakers to appear tough on Russia while directing taxpayer dollars to the domestic uranium industry? Let’s take a closer look at domestic and global uranium mining and processing — and why ramping up domestic uranium mining on Western public lands does nothing to reduce reliance on Russia or advance the energy transition.

Who actually has all the uranium?

According to the World Nuclear Association, in 2022 Russia was the sixth-largest producer of uranium, with 2,508 metric tons of uranium produced from its mines. This production is an order of magnitude smaller than that of the world’s leading producer, Kazakhstan, which produced 21,227 metric tons of uranium from its mines in 2022, accounting for 43 percent of world supply that year. (Rounding out the top five: Canada, Namibia, Australia, and Uzbekistan.) The U.S. is the twelfth-largest producer, at just 75 metric tons of uranium produced from its mines in 2022.

The Rossing uranium mine in Namibia, jbdodane via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

According to “Uranium 2022: Resources, Production and Demand,” the latest edition of a joint report published every other year by the Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency, when it comes to estimated global uranium resources — identified and reasonably recoverable deposits of uranium that can be recovered for less than $130 per kilogram of uranium — as of 2021, Russia was estimated to hold eight percent of uranium resources, while the U.S. is estimated to hold just one percent. Both are dwarfed by Australia, with 28 percent of identified resources (followed by Kazakhstan, with 13 percent, and Canada, with 10 percent).

In addition to the quantity of uranium, the estimated cost to recover uranium is also important to consider. This is influenced by a number of factors including the concentration of the uranium and the type of mining (such as open-pit versus underground) that would be required to extract it. Uranium deposits found in the U.S. are generally lower quality, with no deposits in the highest-quality category (costing less than $40 per kilogram of uranium to extract) and over half falling into the lowest-quality category (costing up to $260 per kilogram of uranium to extract) according to “Uranium 2022: Resources, Production and Demand.”

Considering the tiny amount of economically recoverable uranium in the U.S. compared to other countries and the high cost to extract it, it’s no surprise the industry has struggled in recent years — and given global market forces, domestic uranium mining is unlikely to ever be profitable without significant government intervention.

An aerial view of the White Mesa Mill in Utah, Ken Lund via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Enrich uranium, enrich yourself — controlling the boring, but crucial, links in the supply chain

Regardless of where in the world uranium is mined, once it has been extracted from the ground it must go through more processing steps before it can be used to generate energy. After uranium has been separated from the rocks and other material that was mined from the earth (milling) and converted from a solid powder into a gas (conversion), it must go through yet another step called enrichment before it is usable in a nuclear reactor. In the U.S., there is only one operating uranium mill — the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah, owned and operated by Energy Fuels — and one uranium enrichment facility, the Urenco plant in Eunice, New Mexico. The majority of enriched uranium used in the U.S. comes from the United Kingdom and the European Union, while about 20 percent of the enriched uranium used in the U.S. comes from Russia.

In fact, Russia dominates this link in the global uranium supply chain; in 2020, Russia’s enrichment capacity was nearly 28 million SWU per year (separative work units, a standard measure of the effort required to enrich uranium), nearly half of the total global capacity of just over 60 million SWU per year, according to the World Nuclear Association. Part of Russia’s advantage in enrichment traces back to post-Cold War de-escalation steps, including a 20-year agreement signed in 1993 between the U.S. and Russia in which the U.S. agreed to purchase Russian weapons-grade uranium and use it in power plants. Since the U.S. committed to these purchases, and since Russian enriched uranium was cheap, this made it uneconomical to invest in American enrichment infrastructure. Despite having been a global leader in uranium enrichment in the decades following World War II, the U.S. enrichment industry atrophied significantly and has never recovered. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan in 2011 dampened international interest in nuclear energy, and uranium prices remained low for years in the wake of that disaster. Today, the U.S.’s sole enrichment facility, the Urenco plant in New Mexico, has a capacity of just under 5 million SWU per year — less than one-fifth of Russia’s capacity. For all of these reasons, nuclear reactors in the U.S. (which supply about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity) depend on Russia for roughly 20 percent of the uranium they consume.

Milled uranium in a powder form called “yellowcake,” Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Mining companies want to ride the enrichment coattails

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, policymakers have been looking for ways to appear tough on Russia. To build a case for federal government investment in domestic uranium production, lawmakers and others have tied uranium production and processing to concerns over Russian actions and influence, arguing that the U.S. needs to increase domestic uranium production in order to reduce reliance on Russia for uranium. “American energy security and independence is impossible when we continue to rely on Russia and Vladimir Putin for the uranium we need to power our nuclear reactors,” Senator Joe Manchin said in a statement following the introduction of the Nuclear Fuel Security Act (different from the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act, but with similar overall goals). “Now is the time to take a hard look at how we source the raw materials necessary to power our nation,” Manchin continued. “It’s time for America to ramp up uranium production so we can eliminate our dependence on Russia,” Senator John Barrasso said in the same statement. “We are stronger and safer as a nation when our nuclear fuel supply chain starts at home.”

Though it’s a stretch to refer to the 20 percent of enriched uranium purchased from Russia as “reliance,” it presents a ready target that can be addressed through government support for domestic enrichment capacity to partially or fully replace the 20 percent of enriched uranium that will be lost due to the self-imposed ban on uranium imports from Russia. However, it’s important to understand the difference between support for domestic enrichment capacity, which may be needed to make up some of the shortfall, and support for domestic mining, which is a different link in the supply chain and makes much less sense to prop up with taxpayer dollars.

Barrels containing yellowcake uranium, International Atomic Energy Agency

In addition to the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act, the Department of Energy funding bill signed by President Biden in March includes appropriations intended to address the enrichment link of the supply chain. In addition to $1.7 billion for the Office of Nuclear Energy to conduct research and development, the bill provides $2.7 billion to increase domestic enrichment capacity and strengthen the domestic fuel supply chain. The Department of Energy described the investment as “the strongest possible signal the U.S. government can send to industry to give them the confidence they need to invest in increasing their uranium enrichment capacity.” A report by the House Energy and Commerce Committee accompanying the recently-signed H.R. 1042, the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act, states that the purpose of the law is to “create the market conditions for the long-term commercial contracts that domestic fuel producers need to invest in new U.S. supply capacity,” freely admitting that the domestic uranium industry struggles to survive in a free market without government intervention.

With significant policy and funding support for domestic uranium enrichment hitting the ground, companies interested in uranium mining in the U.S. have reacted with enthusiasm, hoping policymakers and the public will conflate enrichment with mining and continue to throw money and political support at both. “All things are looking very, very positive for our industry,” said Mark Chalmers, the CEO of Energy Fuels, a Canadian mining company with headquarters in Lakewood, Colorado and the owner of the only operating uranium mill in the U.S. “It’s just a great time for the state of Colorado and the United States of America.” Harry Hansen, deputy director for the Utah Office of Energy Development, took it a step further: “Utah and the United States do extraction better than the rest of the world, hands down. So, let’s enable that. Let’s unleash that potential.” Whether this was willfully misleading on Hansen’s part or merely the result of an incomplete understanding of the steps involved, this rhetorical collapsing of the complex uranium supply chain wraps up uranium mining with uranium enrichment to try to make the case that all of the steps in the process need to happen domestically — which is simply not the case, as America has better, cheaper options for securing uranium than mining it at home.

Gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium, Nuclear Regulatory Commission

This is nothing new and Hansen is hardly alone: Energy Fuels and other mining companies, ever alert to opportunities to extract and profit from public resources, have spent years trying a variety of angles to secure government welfare for domestic uranium. During the Trump administration, Energy Fuels and other mining companies and industry groups lobbied aggressively for the illegal attempt to shrink Bears Ears National Monument so that uranium deposits within the original monument boundaries could be accessed by mining companies. (President Biden later restored the original monument boundaries.)

Given the low quantity and quality of U.S. uranium resources compared to those of other countries, including allies such as Canada and Australia, increasing mining of uranium that is more expensive to extract doesn’t make sense without a guaranteed buyer or other price supports. This is exactly what the Trump administration proposed in 2020 when it requested $150 million in its 2021 budget request, and $1.5 billion over ten years, to create a U.S. uranium reserve — a proposal that could be resuscitated by a future administration. These funds would have been used to purchase domestically-mined uranium and stockpile it, creating exactly the guaranteed buyer the domestic uranium industry would need for its product to be viable and essentially subsidizing domestic uranium that would otherwise struggle to compete with uranium that is already being mined and processed more cheaply elsewhere by America’s allies.

Centrifuges at a Urenco facility, NucleairNederland via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

Even if domestic uranium mining increases and is profitable, it still would not solve the problem of enrichment capacity. This problem, of course, is one that the U.S. has created for itself by banning the import of Russian-enriched uranium. The U.S. has options to replace the 20 percent of enriched uranium that Russia has been supplying. One is to make up some of the shortfall by increasing domestic enrichment capacity, which the Russian uranium ban and the Department of Energy funding both aim to do. Another is to seek to increase purchases from existing enriched uranium suppliers in the U.K. and the E.U. who already supply the U.S. with the majority of enriched uranium used in nuclear reactors. Feeding more expensive domestically-mined uranium into existing supply chain bottlenecks, at the expense of Western communities, watersheds, and landscapes, is not the answer.

There are better ways to use taxpayer dollars to increase our energy independence

While nuclear energy has been receiving renewed attention recently as a “carbon-free” energy source, the reality is that nuclear energy has a long list of significant impacts when the full life cycle of the fuel is considered. Uranium mining and milling have significant long-term impacts on land, water, air, and the health of nearby communities. Transporting uranium long distances on trucks from mines to mills to enrichment facilities exposes more areas and communities to the risk of harm if any material escapes or spills, which has happened on the Navajo Nation and elsewhere in the West.

The Yucca Range in Nevada, BLM Nevada

In addition, once uranium has been used to generate electricity, it cannot be used again, and the spent fuel remains radioactive and extremely dangerous for centuries, making waste storage an enormous challenge. Long-term nuclear waste storage has been proposed for sites in Nevada and New Mexico, but these proposals have yet to move forward due in large part to opposition from Nevadans and New Mexicans who don’t want to take on the risks of living next to a radioactive waste dump. Communities across the Southwest, including Tribal communities on the Navajo Nation and elsewhere, have made it clear they don’t want to take on the risks of having radioactive waste transported past their homes and schools en route to a disposal site, especially given the toxic legacy of uranium mining and milling in the Southwest to begin with.

With the many challenges associated with uranium mining, processing, and enrichment, policy and funding support to prop up links in a domestic uranium supply chain has become complicated and expensive — a puzzling choice when the U.S. has abundant renewable energy resources that avoid many of these complications. Instead of investing in expensive supply chains for an extracted non-renewable resource with a long list of complications and dangers, the U.S. would be better served investing those dollars in building out renewable energy facilities, including sorely-needed transmission capacity. The U.S. has abundant areas well suited to capturing solar, wind, and geothermal energy, which can be developed and distributed without the myriad complexities of the global uranium production and processing chain. When facilities and transmission are thoughtfully planned and sited, renewable energy can complement land conservation efforts while bringing the nation closer to achieving the goals that are necessary to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

 

Feature image: The St. Anthony uranium mine in New Mexico, Doc Searls via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0