Tag Archives: uranium mining

Builiding a Nuclear War Chest: the US Uranium Reserve

The US electricity production from nuclear plants hit at an all-time high in 2019… generating more than 809 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is enough to power more than 66 million homes.  Yet, despite operating the largest fleet of reactors in the world at the highest level in the industry, US ability to produce domestic nuclear fuel is on the verge of a collapse.  

Uranium miners are eager for work, the United States’s only uranium conversion plant is idle due to poor market conditions, and its inability to compete with foreign state-owned enterprises (most notably from China and Russia) is not only threatening US energy security but weakening the ability to influence the peaceful uses of nuclear around the world. Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage was recently released by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to preserve and grow the entire U.S. nuclear enterprise…. The first immediate step in this plan calls for DOE to establish a uranium reserve.   Under the Uranium Reserve program, the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) would buy uranium directly from domestic mines and contract for uranium conversion services. The new stockpile is expected to support the operation of at least two US uranium mines, reestablish active conversion capabilities, and ensure a backup supply of uranium for nuclear power operators in the event of a market disruption [such as that caused the COVID-19 pandemic]. 

NE will initiate a competitive procurement process for establishing the Uranium Reserve program within 2021.  Uranium production in the United States has been on a steady decline since the early 1980s as U.S. nuclear power plant operators replaced domestic uranium production with less expensive imports. State-owned foreign competitors, operating in different economic and regulatory environments, have also undercut prices, making it virtually impossible for U.S. producers to compete on a level-playing field.  As a result, 90% of the uranium fuel used today in U.S. reactors is produced by foreign countries.

Establishing the Uranium Reserve program is exactly what United States needs at this crucial time to de-risk its nuclear fuel supply. It will create jobs that support the U.S. economy and strengthen domestic mining and conversion services….The next 5-7 years will be a whirlwind of nuclear innovation as new fuels and reactors will be deployed across the United States.

Excerpts  from USA plans revival of uranium sector, World Nuclear News, May 12, 2020.  See also Building a Uranium Reserve: The First Step in Preserving the U.S. Nuclear Fuel Cycle, US Office of Nuclear Energy, May 11, 2020.

How Many Uranium Mines Do We Need?

At the height of activity in 1980, U.S. companies produced nearly 44 million pounds of uranium concentrate and provided most of the supplies purchased by nuclear power plants. In 2017, American miners produced 2.4 million pounds and supplied just 7 percent of the uranium bought by domestic plants.  The industry, which once supported nearly 22,000 jobs, now employs just a few hundred people each year…

In July 2018, the U.S. Commerce Department opened an investigation to determine whether the nation’s growing dependence on foreign uranium supplies poses a risk to national security….The two miners that petitioned Commerce to conduct the review, Energy Fuels and UR-Energy, want the United States to take steps to ensure U.S. producers control 25 percent of the market. They say they can’t compete with subsidized supplies from places like Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

To be sure, nearly half of the uranium used in the United States comes from allies like Canada and Australia. From the moment they lost trade protections, U.S. miners had trouble competing with these foreign supplies.
“It’s been government-sponsored, government-subsidized just since the beginning. Trying to sort that out and find where there’s a free market in uranium — I find that very questionable.”-Luke Danielson, Sustainable Development Strategies Group president

The U.S. uranium mining industry is relatively young. It went through a brief golden age between about 1955 and 1980, beginning when the United States offered generous incentives to shore up its stockpiles of the nuclear weapons fuel during the Cold War….By the 1960s, the program had packed U.S. storehouses so full of uranium stockpiles that the government stopped paying the incentives. However, it left in place rules barring the use of foreign uranium until 1975, when it began to allow a growing percentage of overseas supplies into the market.  That opened the door to high-quality, low-cost supplies from Canada and Australia. By 1987, the United States was importing nearly 15 million pounds of uranium, and domestic output fell by about a third to roughly 13 million pounds.

While competition weighed on U.S. uranium production, the excitement around nuclear energy in the 1970s kept mines busy. However, the American love affair with atomic power proved short-lived. The 1979 meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania sparked fierce backlash against nuclear energy. Seven years later, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster turned a Ukrainian city into a ghost town…

By the early 2000s, U.S. uranium production was at its lowest in a half century.  Around that time, the former Soviet state Kazakhstan was ramping up uranium mining. In just a few short years, it would become the world’s top uranium producer and the second biggest supplier to the United States.
The Central Asian nation accomplished that feat in large part by exploiting a process called “in situ leaching” (ISL) or in situ recovery  (ISR)*** increasingly being used to extract uranium.  Along with countries like Niger, Mali and Mongolia, Kazakhstan has an advantage: lax regulations that allow it to process uranium cheaply from in situ leaching, which involves pumping chemicals into uranium reserves and carries serious risks to the environment if it’s not carried out responsibly…

And then in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan created a backlash unlike anything seen since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In the aftermath, Japan shut down all of its nuclear reactors, and Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy by 2022.  The U.S. nuclear renaissance has also fizzled as flagship projects have turned into costly boondoggles. The venerable Westinghouse Electric Company filed for bankruptcy last year under the weight of billions of dollars in losses tied to its troubled nuclear power plant projects in Georgia and South Carolina. “There’s such a glut of inventory in the market that it’s just not profitable for some of the mines to produce, so the price has just really plummeted as a result of that,” said Sean Davis, a research analyst at IHS Markit who tracks the chemicals used in uranium mining.

Since their peak in 2007, uranium prices have crashed from nearly $140 per pound to $20-$25.

Excerpts from Nuclear wasteland: The explosive boom and long, painful bust of American uranium mining, CNBC, Aug. 4, 2018

***”No remediation of an ISR operation in the United States has successfully returned the aquifer to baseline conditions.”

The Right to Drinkable Water and Uranium Mining in the USA

[T]he uranium mining industry in the United States is renewing a push into the areas adjacent to Navajo Nation, Utah: the Grand Canyon watershed to the west, where a new uranium mine is preparing to open, and the Bears Ears National Monument to the north.

The Trump administration is set to shrink Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent in February 2018, potentially opening more than a million acres to mining, drilling and other industrial activity….[T]here were more than 300 uranium mining claims inside the monument, according to data from Utah’s Bureau of Land Management (B.L.M.) office that was reviewed by The New York Times.  The vast majority of those claims fall neatly outside the new boundaries of Bears Ears set by the [Trump] administration. And an examination of local B.L.M. records, including those not yet entered into the agency’s land and mineral use authorizations database, shows that about a third of the claims are linked to Energy Fuels, a Canadian uranium producer. Energy Fuels also owns the Grand Canyon mine, where groundwater has already flooded the main shaft.

Energy Fuels, together with other mining groups, lobbied extensively for a reduction of Bears Ears, preparing maps that marked the areas it wanted removed from the monument and distributing them during a visit to the monument by Mr. Zinke, Energy Secretary,  in May 2017.

The Uranium Producers of America, an industry group, is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw regulations proposed by the Obama administration to strengthen groundwater protections at uranium mines. Mining groups have also waged a six-year legal battle against a moratorium on new uranium mining on more than a million acres of land adjacent to the Grand Canyon…

Supporters of the mining say that a revival of domestic uranium production, which has declined by 90 percent since 1980 amid slumping prices and foreign competition, will make the United States a larger player in the global uranium market.  It would expand the country’s energy independence, they say, and give a lift to nuclear power, still a pillar of carbon-free power generation. Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia, Russia and a few other countries now supply most of America’s nuclear fuel.

The dwindling domestic market was thrust into the spotlight by the contentious 2010 decision under the Obama administrationthat allowed Russia’s nuclear agency to buy Uranium One, a company that has amassed production facilities in the United States. The Justice Department is examining allegations that donations to the Clinton Foundation were tied to that decision.

“If we consider nuclear a clean energy, if people are serious about that, domestic uranium has to be in the equation,” said Jon J. Indall, a lawyer for Uranium Producers of America. “But the proposed regulations would have had a devastating impact on our industry.” “Countries like Kazakhstan, they’re not under the same environmental standards. We want a level playing field.”…

In Sanders, Arizona, hundreds of people were exposed to potentially dangerous levels of uranium in their drinking water for years, until testing by a doctoral researcher at Northern Arizona University named Tommy Rock exposed the contamination.  “I was shocked,” Mr. Rock said. “I wasn’t expecting that reading at all.”

Mr. Rock and other scientists say they suspect a link to the 1979 breach of a wastewater pond at a uranium mill in Church Rock, N.M., now a Superfund site. That accident is considered the single largest release of radioactive material in American history, surpassing the crisis at Three Mile Island.

It wasn’t until 2003, however, that testing by state regulators picked up uranium levels in Sanders’s tap water. Still, the community was not told. Erin Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said the department had urged the now-defunct local water company for years to address the contamination, but it had been up to that company to notify its customers….The town’s school district, whose wells were also contaminated with uranium, received little state or federal assistance. It shut off its water fountains and handed out bottled water to its 800 elementary and middle-school students.  “I still don’t trust the water,” said Shanon Sangster, who still sends her 10-year-old daughter, Shania, to school with bottled water. “It’s like we are all scarred by it, by the uranium.”

Excerpts from HIROKO TABUCHIJAN,  Uranium Miners Pushed Hard for a Comeback. They Got Their Wish,  NY Times, Jan. 13, 2018

Uranium in Central Asia-Water Pollution

Kyrgyzstan:   Dr Osekeeva’s 38 years practising family medicine in this idyllic-looking valley in southern Kyrgyzstan make her a cataloguer of death. Cancer rates are rising, she says, and she thinks she knows the culprit. Buried along the river in and around Mailuu-Suu, a town of some 20,000 people, lurks the poisonous legacy of the Soviet Union’s first atom bombs: 2m cubic metres of radioactive waste leaching into the water supply.  Mailuu-Suu was once closed to outsiders. Its well-paid workers were treated as members of the elite: they received perks such as handouts of beer and beach vacations in Crimea. Over the years, they mined and milled 10,000 tonnes of uranium ore into yellowcake, ready for conversion into bomb material. Uranium was also sent from as far as East Germany and Czechoslovakia to be processed here.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and local industry in 1991, the specialists left. Supervision of the town’s 23 tailings sites—dumps containing the hazardous leftovers—became sporadic. Fences and warning signs have been looted for scrap metal. Today, cows graze atop the invisible menace. Goats sleep inside an abandoned uranium mineshaft. Local dairy products and meat are often unsafe; kitchen taps spew silty river water laced with heavy metals.

Neighbouring countries worry. The river through Mailuu-Suu is prone to earthquakes and floods. It is only about 15 miles (25km) upstream from Central Asia’s breadbasket, the Fergana Valley, which is home to over 10m people. Every few years landslides block the flow, threatening to flood the dumps and wash radionuclides over the melon patches and cornfields downstream. A European aid official warns of a “creeping environmental disaster”.

Mailuu-Suu is only a small part of the picture. Dotting hills above the Fergana—straddling the post-Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—lie dozens of other tailings dumps. Many also contain other heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and cadmium, which can be more dangerous to the body than radiation. Few are secured or monitored.

The three countries are hardly on speaking terms, so cross-border co-operation is non-existent. …Kyrgyzstan, however, has made a little progress. Between 2010 and 2012, an $8.4m World Bank-led project moved 150,000 cubic metres of waste from one of the most accident-prone tailings dumps in Mailuu-Suu to a safer spot up the hill. But locals complain they were not briefed properly about this. They say workers stirred up radioactive dust; many claim cancers have grown more frequent since the transfer.

The government is appealing to the European Union for $50m to deal with ten sites at Mailuu-Suu it says are in need of “urgent” relocation. Others estimate that even this relatively small project would cost hundreds of millions. Kyrgyz officials grumble that donors are slow to make decisions, spending millions on assessments that take years.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says the landslides and flooding make Mailuu-Suu “high risk” and a top priority. But donors can be forgiven for hesitating. Corruption and inertia have eroded many government institutions in Kyrgyzstan and its neighbours.

Uranium in Central Asia: Poisoned legacy, Economist, July 11, at 40

Choking Uranium Markets to Stop Nuclear Weapons

Making nuclear weapons requires access to materials—highly enriched uranium or plutonium—that do not exist in nature in a weapons-usable form.   The most important suppliers of nuclear technology have recently agreed guidelines to restrict access to the most sensitive industrial items, in the framework of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Nevertheless, the number of countries proficient in these industrial processes has increased over time, and it is now questionable whether a strategy based on close monitoring of technology ‘choke points’ is by itself a reliable barrier to nuclear proliferation.  Time to tighten regulation of the uranium market?

Not all the states that have developed a complex nuclear fuel cycle have naturally abundant uranium. This has created a global market for uranium that is relatively free—particularly compared with the market for sensitive technologies….

Many African states have experienced increased investment in their uranium extractive sectors in recent years. Many, though not all, have signed and ratified the 1996 African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (Pelindaba) Treaty, which entered into force in 2009. Furthermore, in recent years, the relevant countries have often worked with the IAEA to introduce an Additional Protocol to their safeguards agreement with the agency…

One proliferation risk inherent in the current system is that inadequate or falsified information connected to what appear to be legitimate transactions will facilitate uranium acquisition by countries that the producer country would not wish to supply….

A second risk is that uranium ore concentrate (UOC) is diverted, either from the site where it was processed or during transportation, so the legitimate owners no longer have control over it. UOC is usually produced at facilities close to mines—often at the mining site itself—to avoid the cost and inconvenience of transporting large quantities of very heavy ore in raw form to a processing plant.,,,UOC is usually packed into steel drums that are loaded into standard shipping containers for onward movement by road, rail or sea for further processing. The loss of custody over relatively small quantities of UOC represents a serious risk if diversion takes place regularly. The loss of even one full standard container during transport would be a serious proliferation risk by itself. There is thus a need for physical protection of the ore concentrate to reduce the risk of diversion at these stages.

A third risk is that some uranium extraction activity is not covered by the existing rules. For example, uranium extraction can be a side activity connected to gold mining or the production of phosphates. Regulations should cover all activities that could lead to uranium extraction, not only those where uranium extraction is the main stated objective.

Restricting access to natural uranium could be an important aspect of the global efforts to obstruct the spread of nuclear weapons

Excerpts, from  Ian Anthony and Lina Grip, The global market in natural uranium—from proliferation risk to non-proliferation opportunity, SIPRI, Apr. 13, 2013