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US revives forgotten uranium mines to replace Russian supplies

Underground uranium mining in Colorado.
Underground uranium mining in Colorado.
Bill Gillette via Wikipedia Commons

Publish date: March 17, 2024

As uranium supplies from Russia fall under the shadow of potential sanctions, and while Ukraine’s allies look to wean themselves off nuclear fuel produced by Moscow’s Rosatom corporation, owners of left-for-dead mines in the US are looking to revive their deposits.

Five US producers are restarting operation in Texas, Wyoming, Arizona and Utah, where production boomed until the 2011 Fukushima disaster, which led to a worldwide downturn in nuclear plant building, Bloomberg reported.

But Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and Rosatom’s subsequent takeover of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, have cast a dim political light on continued reliance on fuel imports from Russia.

The global dependence on Russian fuel was again highlighted by Bellona’s discovery that most nations of the EU doubled their purchases of Russian fuel supplies over the last year — despite their political support of Ukraine as the war grinds into its second year.

While reopening the idled US mines — most of which are small and ending the end of their productive years — would account for only a small fraction of the world’s uranium supply, their reinvigoration nonetheless underscores market fears of price tremors thanks a Russian import ban.

But the renewed mining operations are drawing criticism from native tribes and environmentalists. One of the Arizona mines is located in a new national monument President Biden designated last year, while the other two are located in Utah’s quarter of the Four Corners region, where the impacts of  20th-century uranium mining persist to this day

In the US, 20 percent of the low-enriched uranium supply used to power its 93 reactors comes from Russia. Russia is further the lead supplier of fuel-ready uranium on the world market. While the US does import some of its uranium supply from other nations, like Canada, Kazakhstan and Australia, its partial reliance on Russian supplies has been spiking fuel costs.

In the wars early days, when the Biden administration and its European allies discussed the notion of sanctioning supplies from Rosatom, the price of uranium shot to roughly $60 per pound— a high not reached in more than a decade, E&E News reported.  As of March 11 this year, the price had reached $80 per pound.

Congressional Legislation that would ban Russian fuel supplies has yet to pass, but the bill’s existence has contributed to the market’s fragility.

Experts have suggested that full-blown sanctions against the Russian state corporation could further raise the cost of low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants globally, and leave US utilities vulnerable to more wild fluctuations.

“They’re using it [uranium] as a geopolitical weapon against the United States of America, and we have the ability to be more self-sufficient,” Mark Chalmers, president and CEO of the largest US uranium mining company, Energy Fuels Resources Corporation, told E&E News.

Atop considerations of sanctions is a worldwide shift toward nuclear power as a zero-emissions tool to fight climate change, which also fuels an increase uranium demand. I May of last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency estimated that the world will need more than 100,000 metric tons of uranium per year by 2040 — an amount that requires nearly doubling mining and processing from current levels.

Canada’s Cameco Corporation and Kazakhstan’s Kazatomprom — which together account for half of global supply — have struggled to ramp up production and have warned that operational setbacks will result in less uranium output than expected in the coming years, Bloomberg said.

Production has sagged in recent years thanks to underinvestment in mining and exploration,” Scott Melbye, executive vice president of Texas-based Uranium Energy Corporation, told Bloomberg.  Uranium Energy Corporation says it will reopen mines in Wyoming and Texas that were idled in 2018.

Underinvestment in mining and exploration in recent year has caused production to sag, said Melbye. Uranium Energy is reopening mines in Wyoming and Texas that have been idled in 2018. Energy Fuels Inc likewise initiated plans late last year to restart operations in Arizona, Utah and Colorado, while Ur-Energy Inc. said it will revive an idled mine in Wyoming.

But more mining could have a negative impact on tribal lands. The US Environmental Protection Agency continues cleanup at 500 abandoned uranium mine within the Navajo Nation, which spans the Four Corners area of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

The Navajo have cited impacts to water supplies and water quality, the negative health outcomes uranium mining has historically brought to Indigenous communities in their pushback against revived mining in Arizona and Utah.

Uranium miners pledge they have learned from past environmental damage and technological improvement assure mistakes of the past won’t be repeated.  

“We’re talking about 21st century, world-class mining operations in the United States,” Melbye said in a separate interview with E&E News. “I think if environmentalists actually came out and saw a uranium operation in the United States, they’d actually be pretty impressed.”

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