The writer, of Omaha, is a retired engineer and member emeritus of the American Nuclear Society.
Time is running out on our nation’s uranium industry, which is crucial to national defense and energy security. Unknown to many Americans, this industry — which once supplied most of the fuel for nuclear power plants and nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers — is collapsing under the weight of cutthroat competition from Russia and China. Those countries are using state-subsidized exports of nuclear fuel to drive free-market companies in the U.S., Australia and Canada out of business.
At present, 93% of the uranium used in the United States is imported, much of it from Russia and countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, and our dependence is likely to reach 99% by the end of this year. Also, China, our adversary in a trade war, has emerged as a major player in the world uranium market, controlling many of the mines in Africa that supply uranium to the U.S.
Clearly, this is a national security problem. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already threatened to restrict uranium exports in the event the U.S. imposes trade sanctions against Russia or its client states. China has a history of embargoing countries for geopolitical reasons. During a dispute with Japan nearly a decade ago, China cut off exports of rare earth minerals needed for making high-tech consumer products. Those minerals are essential to Nebraska’s growing wind turbine industry. Next time it could be uranium.
The Trump administration and Congress must restore credibility to our policy on nuclear fuels. Our floundering uranium industry can be saved if steps are taken to revive U.S. mining and require U.S. government entities and nuclear utilities to buy at least a portion of their uranium from U.S. mines. A crisis may not be imminent, but the long-run implications are just as serious.
President Donald Trump acknowledged as much in April, when he created a working group to make recommendations for reviving and expanding U.S. nuclear fuel production. The working group is expected to deliver its recommendations to Trump in October.
A strategy designed to bolster U.S. uranium mining would ease the crisis facing our defense and electricity systems.
An estimated 1.1 billion pounds of uranium resources exist in the U.S., mainly on public lands in the Western states. But U.S. mining companies have been hamstrung by excessive regulation and unfair competition from overseas suppliers. Some U.S. uranium companies have already folded, while others are just hanging on.
The long-run implications are serious. Uranium is needed not only for nuclear-powered vessels but also for our nuclear deterrence and advanced nuclear research and development. Nuclear reactors fueled with uranium supply nearly 20% of the nation’s electricity and 55% of the carbon-free power. Also, radionuclides derived from uranium have extensive medical and industrial uses.
Meanwhile, the sharp decline is the U.S. share of the world uranium market has exacted a heavy toll in lost jobs, lost income for governments at all levels and higher costs to taxpayers for defense production.
By contrast, an ideal uranium policy would limit regulatory intrusion, promote U.S. uranium production, help restore mining jobs and prove durable when the political winds change. This would protect American competitiveness and punish countries that are using state-subsidized exports to drive our companies out of business.
Although there are only two U.S. uranium mines in operation — one in Utah, the other in Wyoming — other mines could be reopened, including one or two in western Nebraska, and production could be restarted fairly quickly.
But first there needs to be assurance that U.S. government entities and companies will obtain their uranium from domestic suppliers. This will restore credibility to our policies while setting priorities for the future.