Hopes that Johnson County’s languishing uranium mine could be back on the road to full capacity were dashed Friday. That’s when President Donald Trump announced he will not impose trade restrictions on foreign uranium in the name of national security.
Energy Fuels, Inc., which owns and operates Nichols Ranch, had said a nod from Trump would generate enough economic incentives to return the mine to its 2016 peak. At that time, it employed 55 workers, plus 16 full-time contractors, and extracted more than 335,000 pounds of uranium concentrate, commonly known as yellowcake. Today, just 17 workers remain and Energy Fuels predicts only 50,000 pounds of production in 2019.
Trump’s decision broke with the recommendations of his own Commerce Department’s analysis.
Both U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., released statements criticizing the president’s decision.
“The decision by the Trump administration is a missed opportunity to protect America’s uranium producers,” Barrasso said Saturday. “Uranium producers, including those in my home state of Wyoming, deserve to compete on a level playing field. Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have unfairly undermined America’s uranium producers for years.”
There are only four active uranium mines in the United States, and all are in Wyoming.
Multiple industry analysts predict that, by the end of the year, less than 2 percent of the uranium used in the U.S. will be of domestic origin. Energy Fuels and another prominent uranium producer, Ur-Energy, Inc., submitted a petition in 2018. It asked the federal government to require that 25 percent of uranium used in the U.S. come from domestic sources. The companies say underpriced, foreign government-subsidized uranium is causing the domestic extraction industry to disappear — and they say it will be difficult to resurrect.
However, nuclear power producers spoke out strongly against the petition, claiming it would raise costs and threaten the long-term viability of domestic nuclear power.
In rejecting the petition, Trump wrote that, “although I agree that the Secretary [of Commerce]’s findings raise significant concerns regarding the impact of uranium imports on the national security with respect to domestic mining, I find that a fuller analysis of national security considerations with respect to the entire nuclear fuel supply chain is necessary at this time.”
There is still a chance that Nichols Ranch could see a domestic uranium renaissance: Trump announced the creation of a U.S. Nuclear Fuel Working Group that will “develop recommendations for reviving and expanding domestic nuclear fuel production.” The president gave the group 90 days to report back with findings.
Rep. Cheney was optimistic that the group’s recommendations could still lead to action.
“I appreciate the president’s thoughtful consideration of this issue and am hopeful that after the further review requested he will agree that we must intervene to protect this critical industry,” she said.
Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy said they appreciated the Trump administration’s consideration and are looking forward to the working group’s recommendations. “We will continue to work with Congress and the administration to reduce the nation’s dangerous dependence on uranium imports from our strategic adversaries,” the companies said.