US miners applaud 'bold action' to restore uranium mining

The US government on Thursday outlined its strategy to arrest the decline of the country’s industrial base in the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including “immediate and bold action” to strengthen the uranium mining, milling and conversion industries.

The strategy is the outcome of the US Nuclear Fuel Working Group that President Donald Trump established in July 2019.

Besides actions on uranium mining, the strategy also aims to “enhance the positive attributes of nuclear power, strengthen US technology supremacy and drive US exports”, while assuring consistency with US nonproliferation objectives and supporting national security.

“As a matter of national security, it is critical that we take bold steps to preserve and grow the entire US nuclear energy enterprise,” said Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette.

The US has identified two future defence needs for domestic uranium supply: Low-enriched uranium needed to produce tritium required for nuclear weapons in the 2040s, and highly-enriched uranium needed to fuel Navy nuclear reactors in the 2050s.

As an initial step, the Trump’s 2021 Budget request for the Department of Energy (DoE) includes $150-million a year over ten years to stand up a domestic uranium reserve. The US government make direct purchases of 17-million to 19-million pounds of uranium, beginning in 2020.

The US’s sole uranium conversion plant should be restarted by 2022 and produce 6,000 t to 7,500 t of UF6. Domestic enrichment should also be restarted in the 2023 timeframe, with at least 25% being unobligated. Unobligated material has to be sourced domestically.

The report further recommends that the DoE end its uranium battering programme, which has directly competed against uranium miners in the past. It also supports the Department of Commerce’s efforts to extend the Russian suspension agreement to prevent dumping of Russian uranium in the US and to consider further lowering the cap on Russian imports.

The US's leading producer of uranium, Colorado-based Energy Fuels applauded the strategy, with president and CEO Mark Chalmers saying that the recommendations outlined in the strategy were “much-needed steps toward re-establishing US nuclear leadership, while protecting national security”.

“We are extremely pleased that the US government has expressed such a strong commitment to supporting domestic uranium mining and nuclear fuel capabilities. It is our belief that this report is the first step toward reversing a multidecade trend, where the US has ceded global nuclear leadership to Russia, China and other geopolitical challengers.”

The company expects to be a beneficiary of the government actions on uranium, with its assets having produced about 34% of all uranium domestically mined since 2006.

Energy Fuels had more than 515,000 lb of finished uranium in inventory at the end of 2019, and expects to produce another 125,000 lb to 175,000 lb of uranium by the end of 2020. The company stated that it would have up to 690 000 lb of uranium potentially available for sale into the US uranium reserve this year.

“We have proven, low-cost uranium mines and constructed production facilities in the western US that can increase uranium production more quickly and on a greater scale than any other US company, making us an obvious candidate to supply US uranium requirements,” said Chalmers.

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