Brady McCombs and Ellen Knickmeyer
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Trump administration is asking Congress for $1.5 billion over 10 years to create a new national stockpile of U.S.-mined uranium, saying that propping up U.S. uranium production in the face of cheaper imports is a matter of vital energy security.
But some Democratic lawmakers, and market analysts across the political spectrum, charge that the Trump administration's overall aim is really about helping a few uranium companies that can't compete in the global market. Demand for the nuclear fuel has languished worldwide since Japan's 2011 Fukushima disaster. U.S. uranium production has plummeted 96% in the last five years, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported Thursday.
Trump made the request for a new national uranium reserve in his 2021 budget request this week — the latest illustration that trying to rescue the U.S. nuclear and coal industries is a political priority for the Republican president who often invokes national security as justification.
"It's not the responsibility of the taxpayer to bail out an industry, whether that's uranium, solar, coal, what have you," said Katie Tubb, a senior energy policy analyst at the conservative Washington Heritage Foundation.
The Energy Department said the plan would boost work for at least a couple of the U.S. West's nearly dormant uranium operations, although residents near one of the mines say they fear an increase in radioactive threats. Last year energy companies asked the administration to require U.S. nuclear power plants to source one fifth of their uranium fuel from domestic sources, arguing that an over-reliance on foreign suppliers posed a national security risk. That request was rejected.
One proposed project could be at Bears Ears National Monument. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, "Energy Fuels, whose Utah operations surround Bears Ears National Monument, was one of two uranium producers that had petitioned the Trump administration to impose uranium quotas on the nuclear power industry, requiring it to domestically source a certain percentage of its fuel needs. Trump turned down the request and instead impaneled the Nuclear Fuel Working Group, which has since offered recommendations that remain under wraps."
Another uranium facility that is currently idled is near Ute Mountain Reservation in Utah. The White Mesa Mill reduced its staff last month, laying off nearly a third of its workforce. White Mesa is the last conventional uranium mill in the U.S.
"Whatever Trump does, we'll be standing our ground to let the people know that we're not going to give up," said Yolanda Badback, a resident of White Mesa, Utah, a town of 200 people on the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation that is near a uranium mill in southern Utah.
Trump's plan would need approval from a highly partisan Congress. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has opposed Trump's effort to make domestic uranium mining a strategic issue, His aides said they needed to see more details from the administration on the stockpile proposal.
Demand for nuclear and coal power sources has fallen against marketplace competition from ever-cheaper natural gas and renewable wind and solar. Trump has been unable to stop a string of coal and nuclear power plant closings.
The U.S. nuclear industry has sought help from the Trump administration, including asking for taxpayer subsidies to promote use of U.S. uranium. U.S. nuclear power plants in 2018 got 90 percent of their uranium from Canada, Kazakhstan and other foreign suppliers, and only 10 percent from U.S. mines.
Trump in 2019 rejected a request from U.S. uranium mining operators that he set a minimum quota for domestic uranium. But he agreed to set up a task force of national security, military and other federal officials to look for other ways to revive domestic production of the whole nuclear fuel supply chain.
That task force's findings are expected within two weeks. Trump's budget proposal would be part of an effort "to put the United States back in the nuclear game around the world," Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette told reporters Monday.
While Trump has called propping up U.S. uranium mining essential to national security, the Energy Department acknowledged in its budget presentation that "no immediate national security need has been identified" for the uranium reserve. The same document contends that the funds aren't meant to "disrupt market mechanisms."
"That is exactly what it is designed to do," said Luke J. Danielson, president of Colorado-based Sustainable Development Strategies Group, which advises foreign governments about mineral policies.
"The history of the government of trying to subsidize the energy sector and pick winners and losers is abysmal," Danielson added.
Many Democratic lawmakers have challenged Trump's security argument for domestic uranium. Existing uranium reserves and production and trade with allies Australia and Canada were already adequate to securing the U.S. uranium supply, Rep. Alan Lowenthal, a California Democrat, said last year.
The Energy Department didn't say which U.S. uranium mines would benefit from the proposal, but the Nuclear Energy Industry trade group pointed to existing mines in Wyoming as likely candidates.
"It's a good step to show that the administration recognizes the strategic value" of the U.S. nuclear industry, said Nima Ashkeboussi, the group's director of fuel cycles programs. "We expect more good signals to come out" with the upcoming report from Trump's nuclear fuels task force.
Energy Fuels Inc., a Canadian-owned company with an office in Colorado, called the Trump proposal "a good lifeline for the industry." Spokesman Curtis Moore acknowledged that the company is likely to benefit since it has operating mines in east-central Wyoming and southern Utah.
Moore said the program should lead to production of 2.5 million pounds of uranium per year. U.S. uranium mines produced less than 174,000 pounds in 2019, according to Thursday's Energy Information Administration report. That's down from 4.9 million pounds in 2014.
Energy Fuels recently laid off nearly one-third of the company's 79 employees at the White Mesa Mill in Wyoming and La Sal Complex mines in Utah, he said.
At another mine, the Nichols Ranch facility in east-central Wyoming, nearby residents participate in a yearly protest walk to draw attention to negative impacts the mine has on an otherwise wide open and remote stretch of land.
Former mine owner Uranerz Energy Corp. in 2014 agreed to pay a $5,000 state fine for two spills that year of more than 30,000 gallons (114,000 liters) of uranium-bearing solution.
Knickmeyer reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, contributed to this report.