In July 2017, lobbyists from Energy Fuels Resources, a Canadian uranium mining company with operations in the United States, urged the Trump administration to shrink the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument in order to free up uranium deposits for future mining.
Some observers found it odd. After all, foreign competition and low prices had beaten the domestic uranium industry down to just about nothing, and lobbyists — including Andrew Wheeler, who has since been appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency— had already convinced the Obama administration to leave Energy Fuels’ Daneros Mine out of the new national monument. Why would they want to go after more deposits?
Now we know: Those same lobbyists are pushing the Trump administration to order utilities to purchase at least 25% of their uranium domestically. Such a quota would throw a lifeline to the handful of uranium mining companies still operating in the U.S. and likely spur more uranium mining in the West — including, perhaps, within Bears Ears’ former boundaries as well as near the Grand Canyon. And it would continue the federal government’s long history of propping up the uranium industry at the expense of the people and places of uranium country — and maybe, even, of the nuclear power industry.
When prospectors with Geiger counters started scouring the Colorado Plateau in the 1940s, the government supported them, building roads to potential deposits, giving federal land to anyone interested in staking a claim, and paying $10,000 bonuses to those who found uranium. When corporations arrived to develop the prospects, the government again stepped in, becoming the sole buyer of the yellowcake they produced, virtually eliminating any economic risk.
Hundreds of mines and mills popped in Wyoming and across the Colorado Plateau, many of them within or near the borders of the Wind River Reservation, the Navajo Nation and New Mexico’s Laguna and Acoma pueblos. Many, if not most, of the miners and millers — and the people who eventually suffered from radiation — belonged to those tribes.
Decades before the U.S. boom got going, researchers had firmly established that European uranium miners (before the bomb, uranium was used to make dye) got lung cancer at much higher rates than the general populace. And in 1952, U.S. scientists uncovered the mechanism by which radon — a radioactive “daughter” of uranium found in at dangerously high levels in mines and mills — caused lung cancer. And yet the miners were never informed of the risks, nor were protective measures taken. In fact, the federal Atomic Energy Commission actively withheld this information from the public in a cover-up that benefited the corporations.
The government ended its uranium-buying program in the 1970s, but by then nuclear power was catching on worldwide, and demand for reactor fuel kept U.S. mines afloat and spurred new mining in Canada, Australia and elsewhere. After the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, though, U.S. utilities stopped building new reactors. A global glut resulted in a uranium price crash, and with cheaper yellowcake flooding in from overseas, the industry withered. As of 2017, U.S. utilities were buying only 5% of their nuclear fuel from domestic producers, and mines and mills employed just 424 people, compared to 16,000 in 1979. While the industry’s future remains in question, its past legacy endures in the form of hundreds of sick miners and millers; abandoned, contaminated mines; and the ongoing, taxpayer-funded effort to clean up giant tailings piles near communities.
Now, the industry — led by Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy — is hoping the government will once again step up, meddle in the markets, and throw it a lifeline. The 25% quota would immediately and substantially up demand — and prices — for domestic uranium, potentially raising production to levels that haven’t been seen in decades. It could breathe new life into Energy Fuels’ Canyon Mine, which is near the Grand Canyon, along with its Daneros Mine and White Mesa Mill — the only conventional mill in the U.S — both located near Bears Ears National Monument. Ur-Energy, meanwhile, would see more demand for its products from the spill-prone Lost Creek in-situ facility in Wyoming near Jeffrey City, a community that bet everything on the uranium boom in the 1970s, only to see it all crash a few years later, leaving the town a husk.
If these existing, active mines can’t keep up with demand, uranium companies could revive long-dormant ones or seek new deposits. Both can be found in the White Canyon uranium district, which was part of the original Bears Ears National Monument but was cut out by the Trump administration’s shrinkage at Energy Fuels’ request.
Late last year, U.S. Department of Commerce officials visited the White Mesa Mill, the Energy Fuels mines near the La Sal Mountains outside Moab, Utah, and other uranium facilities. This spring, they submitted their report on the quota proposal to the Trump administration, which has 90 days to act. Indigenous and environmental activists, including citizens from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe near White Mesa, Utah, are protesting the proposal. And this time, they have an unexpected ally: The nuclear power industry. That’s because the proposed quotas will drive up fuel prices for nuclear reactor operators, which are already having a hard time competing against cheap natural gas-generated power.
That puts President Donald Trump — who hasn’t hesitated to interfere in the free market in order to boost the coal and nuclear power industry — between a rock and reactors.