Working group presents strategy for US uranium revival

24 April 2020

Directly purchasing uranium by establishing a uranium reserve, ending the Department of Energy's bartering of uranium and re-evaluating DOE's excess uranium inventory management policy are among the US Nuclear Fuel Working Group's (NFWG) recommendations to the US Administration in a strategy it published yesterday on reviving the USA's nuclear fuel cycle.

Restoring America's Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage: A strategy to assure US National Security (Image: DOE)

President Donald Trump established the NFWG on 12 July last year to undertake a fuller analysis of national security considerations with respect to the entire nuclear fuel supply chain. This followed a presidential decision in response to a Section 232 Petition from two US uranium miners, Energy Fuels Inc and Ur-Energy, which called for a quota on uranium imports.

In its report, titled Restoring America's Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage: A strategy to assure US National Security, the NFWG says: "The clear outcome of the Working Group's efforts is confirmation that it is in the nation's national security interests to preserve the assets and investments of the entire US nuclear enterprise and to revitalise the sector to regain US global nuclear leadership. We can accomplish this by addressing domestic and international security interests, expanding nuclear generation, minimising commercial fleet fiscal vulnerabilities, assuring defence needs for uranium, and levelling the playing field against [foreign] state-owned enterprises."

The NFWG says it recognises "the importance of taking focused, deliberate action to prevent the near-term collapse of the domestic uranium mining, milling and conversion industries, and the need to support US strategic fuel cycle capabilities".

It says that "immediate and bold" action needs to be taken to strengthen the country's uranium mining and conversion industries, and that investments are must be made in research, development and demonstration "to consolidate technical advances and strengthen American leadership in the next generation of nuclear energy technologies".

It also says the government should ensure "there will be a healthy and growing nuclear energy sector to which uranium miners, fuel cycle providers, and reactor vendors can sell their products and services".

There needs to be a "whole-of-government approach" to supporting the US nuclear energy industry in exporting civil nuclear technology in competition with foreign state-owned enterprises, while assuring consistency with US non-proliferation objectives and supporting national security, it adds.

It recommends the government streamlines regulatory reform and land access for uranium mining and supports efforts by the Department of Commerce to extend the Russian Suspension Agreement to protect against future uranium dumping in the US market. In addition, it should enable Nuclear Regulatory Commission to deny imports of nuclear fuel fabricated in Russia or China for national security purposes.

The group also called for the government to "create a level playing field for all energy sources in power markets" and encourage Federal Energy Regulatory Commission action to improve competition in the wholesale energy markets.

"The decline of the US industrial base in the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle over the past few decades has threatened our national interest and national security," Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said on announcing the release of the Working Group's report. "This Strategy to Restore American Nuclear Energy Leadership recognises this challenge and lays out an array of policy options to restore America's leadership in nuclear energy and technology. As a matter of national security, it is critical that we take bold steps to preserve and grow the entire US nuclear energy enterprise. The Trump Administration is committed to regaining our competitive global position as the world leader in nuclear energy."

The US Administration's 2021 budget request, unveiled on 10 February by President Trump, included USD150 million to set up a uranium reserve to address challenges to the production of domestic uranium. It will begin with the purchase of uranium from US mines and of US conversion services.

In its report, the NFWG said: "The new uranium reserve will provide assurance of availability of uranium in the event of a market disruption and support strategic US fuel cycle capabilities, and is not designed to replace or disrupt market mechanisms."

US uranium miners welcome recommendations

Energy Fuels is the owner of the White Mesa mill in Utah, the only operating conventional uranium mill in the USA, as well as in-situ leach projects at Nichols Ranch in Wyoming and Alta Mesa in Texas. Its CEO Mark Chalmers said, "We are extremely pleased that the US government has expressed such a strong commitment to supporting domestic uranium mining and nuclear fuel capabilities." He added, "Energy Fuels is ready to play a significant role in helping the US restore nuclear leadership. 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."

Ur-Energy CEO Jeff Klenda said, "We are grateful for the President's leadership on this matter and are excited to see the results of the NFWG's holistic review of the entire industry. While awaiting today's report, we have maintained operational readiness at our fully-permitted Lost Creek Mine with experienced technical and operational staff and a well-maintained plant ... Ur-Energy is prepared to rapidly expand uranium production at Lost Creek, to an annualised run-rate of one million pounds. And, soon we will add production from our Shirley Basin Mine."

Wayne Heili, CEO of Australia-based Peninsula Energy - owner of the Lance uranium project in Wyoming - said that, when implemented, the recommendations would provide an immediate boost to US uranium producers, such as Peninsula, through supply agreements with the DOE. He said: "This looks to be a very good outcome for Peninsula and all US uranium producers."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News