For more than two decades, Wyoming has been the leading uranium producer in the United States, and in that time, the industry has seen its fair share of ups and downs.
Though the industry is facing an unprecedented downturn, a number of factors could spell a better outlook than expected only a year ago, said Travis Deti, executive director for the Wyoming Mining Association.
According to the Argonne National Laboratory, the price of uranium soared from about $10.75 per pound in early 2003 to almost $100 per pound in 2007. By March 2017, the spot price of a pound of uranium was down to $25.50. This year, Cameco listed the price of the privately sold commodity at around $27 per pound in mid-March.
In fall 2018, Wyoming took over regulation of its own uranium mining operations when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted the state the authority to regulate in situ uranium recovery within its own borders.
The agreement, which was in the works for several years before being signed by former Gov. Matt Mead, allows for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to take on the regulatory role formerly filled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
According to the office of U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the agreement allows the state to provide cost-effective and timely decisions on project proposals.
Wyoming is now responsible for licensing, rulemaking, inspection and enforcement activities needed to regulate source material involved in uranium or thorium milling, and the management and disposal of milling waste, according to World Nuclear News.
“Wyoming’s efforts to take over regulatory primacy from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission through (the) Agreement State Program is fully in place,” Deti said. “Producers started seeing benefits from the elimination of the dual regulatory regimen almost immediately.”
Also in late 2018, the U.S. Department of Commerce initiated what it calls a Section 232 investigation into uranium imports, specifically looking at whether the present quantity and circumstances of uranium ore and product imports into the United States threaten to impair national security.
The investigation, according to the department, will canvass the entire uranium sector from the mining industry through enrichment, defense and industrial consumption. In January 2018, two U.S. uranium mining companies, UR-Energy and Energy Fuels, filed a petition requesting that the Commerce Department initiate the investigation, and it is something Barrasso and other legislators have supported.
“Should it get the president’s signature and barriers on uranium imports be put in place, our domestic producers would certainly benefit,” Deti said.
However, a November report by the Heritage Foundation stated that uranium imports are irrelevant to the military’s current and expected needs, and action under Section 232 would be misapplied.
“There is also little risk to civilian customers from imported uranium, such as the nuclear power industry. Although imposing tariffs may give the short-term impression of helping the uranium mining industry, doing so ignores the longer history of damage inflicted on the industry by protectionist policies,” Katie Tubb, a policy analyst for energy and environmental issues in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, wrote last winter.
Deti said efforts by Barrasso to halt the federal government’s dumping of excess uranium into the market, which had created unfair competition with domestic producers, have been helpful. The industry is also receiving growing support for tax relief at the state level during what has proven to be an unprecedented downturn.
“That could also provide some immediate benefit if passed in the state Legislature,” Deti said.
As many are looking to address the issue of CO2 emissions, nuclear power is an attractive option, Deti said.
“It has support at the international level and (is) growing support domestically,” he said. “So the opportunity is there. The downside is that a rapid ramp up of America’s nuclear fleet, while certainly possible, carries a very high price tag.”
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Barrasso has made working for Wyoming’s uranium producers a top priority, according to spokesman Mike Danylak. The EPW Committee has jurisdiction over the EPA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Last year, Barrasso published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling on the Trump administration to end America’s dependency on uranium from nations like Russia and Kazakhstan and instead launch an investigation into what he called unfair uranium import practices – much like the ongoing Section 232 investigation. In February, the Uranium Producers of America presented Barrasso with an award for his work.
“Barrasso was also very active in calling on the administration to remove unnecessary regulations on America’s uranium producers and to allow the State of Wyoming to regulate uranium production within its borders,” Danylak said.
Nuclear energy, according to Barrasso’s office, creates American jobs and is the nation’s largest source of carbon-free energy.