At the request of two domestic uranium producers, the US Department of Commerce (DOC) has launched an investigation into whether “the present quantity and circumstances” of uranium imports threatens national security. However, the US nuclear energy industry has warned that a suggested quota on imports would have a significant financial impact on the country’s reactor operators.
The department said the investigation follows a petition filed under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 on 16 January by Ur-Energy Inc and Energy Fuels Inc. It said the review also comes after consultation with industry stakeholders, members of Congress, the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and other administration partners. DOC said the investigation will “canvass the entire uranium sector from the mining industry through to enrichment, defence, and industrial consumption”.
The two uranium mining companies said at the time they submitted their petition, “As recently as 1980, US producers supplied nearly 100% of our domestic uranium needs, and in 1989 the DOC initiated a Section 232 investigation at the request of the US Department of Energy because of concerns that uranium imports exceeded 37.5% at that time. The problem is far worse now.”
In their petition, Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels noted that US uranium production met just 5% of domestic reactor requirements last year. This year, domestic producers are projected to fulfil about 2% of US reactor demand. “Today’s extreme dependence is not a matter of foreign competition legitimately under-pricing domestic production,” they said. “It is the result of certain foreign state-subsidy policies that undermine US companies who could otherwise compete fairly on a global basis.”
“In 2016, the combined uranium imports from three geopolitically and commercially linked countries – Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – fulfilled nearly 40% of US requirements,” the petitioner said. “While the US does not import significant quantities of uranium from China at this time, China has grown significantly their state-owned nuclear enterprises and announced that they intend to penetrate the US nuclear market with nuclear fuel that will compete directly with US uranium miners. Furthermore, the approaching expiration of the Russian Suspension Agreement [in 2020] will remove existing limits on Russian uranium imports.”
The petition wants a quota set to limit imports of uranium into the USA, effectively reserving 25% of the US market for US uranium production. It also suggests that US federal utilities and agencies are required to buy US uranium. “These remedies are expected to result in US utilities purchasing approximately 12 million pounds of uranium per year from US production, based on recent data,” Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels say. “US uranium producers will continue to compete with global uranium producers, but on a more level playing field.”
In a joint statement, Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels noted the Secretary of Commerce now has 270 days to conduct the investigation and submit a report to the US President containing his findings and proposed remedy, if any. Following receipt of the report, the President has 90 days to act on the Secretary’s recommendations and, if necessary, take action to “adjust the imports of an article and its derivatives” and/or pursue other lawful, non-trade related actions necessary to address the import “threat”.
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said, “The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security will conduct a thorough, fair, and transparent review to determine whether uranium imports threaten to impair national security.”
Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy are both based in Denver, Colorado. Energy Fuels’ uranium production includes the country’s only currently operating conventional uranium mill, White Mesa Mill in Utah, the Nichols Ranch in-situ leach facility in Wyoming, and the Alta Mesa ISL project in Texas, which is currently on care and maintenance due to low uranium prices. Ur-Energy operates the Lost Creek ISL facility in Wyoming.
Negative impact of quota
A study produced by the NorthBridge Group said the measures proposed by Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels are likely to create additional economic stress on an already vulnerable US nuclear industry. The proposed quota could ultimately lead to additional retirements of nuclear facilities, it concluded. The study suggests the quota would impose an additional USD500 million to USD800 million per year in costs to US utilities.
Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the US Nuclear Energy Institute, said: “The entire US commercial nuclear energy industry is facing significant economic stress. We encourage steps that will help to protect the nation’s uranium mining industry – the loss of domestic mining would have a significant detrimental impact on US strategic interests. However, any action taken should not impose onerous financial burdens on companies operating the US nuclear power fleet.”
Canadian uranium mining company Cameco – which has operations in the USA – said it was too early to speculate what impact the investigation would have on its business. However, it said there will be no immediate impact on its existing contracts, with deliveries to its US utility customers continuing as usual.
Cameco President and CEO Tim Gitzel said, “If the issue in question is the over-reliance of the United States on uranium supplied by state-controlled enterprises from countries not aligned with American policy interests, this clearly does not apply to Canada or Cameco.”