America has been turning to other countries for uranium supply in the past decades. The technology needed to establish a low-carbon economy in many cases involve metals that are in short supply domestically and controlled by antagonistic nations such as China and Russia.
A similar situation is currently unfolding with uranium, a radioactive metal essential for the production of nuclear reactor fuel. The nuclear energy sector is vulnerable to geopolitical conflicts, such as Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, due to the United States’ reliance on foreign suppliers.
Such foreign conflict may lead uranium mining in the United States to rise again. Learn more about this new development in the mining industry below.
Uranium and Russia
Russia provides 20 percent of the low-enriched uranium used in U.S. reactors and is the world’s leading supplier of fuel-ready uranium. While the United States imports much of its uranium from other countries such as Canada and Australia, its partial reliance on Russian supplies is already showing in rising fuel prices.
According to experts, placing restrictions on Russian imports might raise the cost of low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants all around the world, making U.S. utilities more subject to dramatic price swings.
Uranium Miners in America
Now, uranium miners in the United States say they see a chance to make money while helping the U.S. combat Russia. That would imply reopening inactive mines and reviving a sector in the United States that has shrunk substantially in recent years due to low uranium prices.
It’s uncertain how many uranium mines are currently operational in the United States. According to the World Nuclear Association, only one U.S. mine produced uranium in 2020—Nichols Ranch in Wyoming.
The exact length of time it would take to ramp up uranium production and the state and federal regulatory hurdles remain unknown. When asked if mines ready to resume would need approval and which agency would lead the work on conventional uranium mines, a number of departments, including the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, did not respond promptly.
An anonymous industry source pointed to a number of fully licensed and approved mines in Wyoming and Utah that could quickly scale up without regulatory approval if prices rise as a result of the sanctions. Still, they cautioned that any new operations would want to lock in contracts to ensure a rate of return.
The worldwide price and competition with countries like Canada may determine how much business American operations generate.
A Pattern of Mine Restarts
Only one conventional uranium mill exists in the United States: White Mesa in Utah, which is owned by Energy Fuels Resources.
Milled uranium output in the United States plummeted to a historic low of 174,000 pounds in 2019, down from more than 1 million pounds the year before. Since then, the U.S. Energy Information Administration has not disclosed yearly uranium concentrate production totals, citing the need to “prevent exposure of specific firm data” because totals had gone so low.
Energy Fuels has kept White Mesa running by upgrading the plant to manufacture uranium concentrate from alternative feed resources like radioactive waste.
Energy Fuels is currently investigating the mines that might be opened. If prices remained the same or increased, the company would resume some activities.
In reaction to the rising pricing, a number of uranium miners in the United States, including Uranium Energy Corp. and UEC, are preparing to restart operations and moving through with permitting processes.
With over 440 power reactors generating 10 percent of the world’s electricity, nuclear energy is seen as a significant part of the green energy story.
The United States is also the world’s greatest producer and user of nuclear energy, with 96 commercial reactors producing around 1,888 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, accounting for 20 percent of the country’s electricity.
The United States dominated uranium production until the 1980s when it began to decline rapidly. Now that uranium mining is making a comeback in the United States, the country’s status as a major player in the field may be restored as well.
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