A $75 million fund for domestically mined uranium came after years of lobbying and campaign donations from the industry.
The legislation provides $75 million to create a stockpile of domestically mined uranium that will reduce the need to import ore from abroad. Although details of how exactly the stockpile will be managed have yet to be determined, the funding will prop up a sector of the mining industry that has been flagging for decades. It also comes on the tail end of an extensive lobbying effort by uranium companies.
The funding was tucked into the massive $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill under a section titled “National Nuclear Security Administration” and subtitled “weapons activities.” But earlier discussions of the uranium reserve program in Congress and from the industry indicated the stockpiled material would be used in power plants, not nuclear weapons.
Curtis Moore, vice president of the uranium company Energy Fuels, which has a mill and mines in Utah, said he believes that’s still the case.
“Our understanding is that it is to be basically a backup source of fuel for our nuclear power plants,” Moore said. “I have not heard anything about this material being available or being needed for weapons.”
Environmental groups opposing the stockpile said they were waiting for more details, stating that Moore’s interpretation could be correct despite the sparse details included in the legislation itself. The reserve’s future will be negotiated by the Biden administration.
“We hope that the strategic uranium reserve will get a second look because we’re not sure it’s anything more than a handout to the uranium industry and specifically to Energy Fuels,” said Amber Reimondo, energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust, adding that tribal governments whose citizens might be impacted by new uranium mining should be included in those discussions.
Creating the stockpile wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. It followed years of lobbying by two companies incorporated in Canada but that operate in the United States — Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy.
In recent years, U.S. power plants have imported more than 90% of their fuel from abroad, including from Russia and Kazakhstan, which according to Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy posed a national security risk.
The report noted that Department of Energy officials believe the fund will keep domestic uranium companies “commercially viable” through direct support “of at least two U.S. uranium mines.” The military would receive an “ancillary benefit” from the program, the report added.
Additionally, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of campaign contributions from executives and board members at Energy Fuels found a series of donations over the past five years targeted to some of the biggest allies of the uranium industry, mostly conservative members of Congress. The analysis found no donations during that time frame to Utah lawmakers.
On Feb. 7, 2018, several weeks after Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels filed the petition with the Department of Commerce, Barrasso published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal arguing in favor of government support for uranium companies mining in the United States.
That same day, 15 individuals and two political action committees with ties to the uranium industry donated nearly $12,000 to Barrasso’s Senate campaign. Donors included executives at Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy as well as Strata Energy, Neutron Energy, Uranium Energy Corp. and the National Mining Association as well as an attorney who has worked for uranium companies.
“Our trade group, the Uranium Producers of America — we might hold a fundraiser for a particular candidate or something like that,” Moore said of the same-day donations. “But $50,000 over five years — we’re not exactly high rollers here, and these are a lot of personal funds.”
Another large rush of contributions came in late February and March last year, when seven board members and executives at Energy Fuels donated $13,000 to Barrasso. During that same time period, the senator was championing the creation of the uranium stockpile through legislation, and, on March 3, he pressed then-Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette to provide “immediate relief” to uranium miners in the United States.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., a steadfast supporter of the uranium industry, received $1,500 from Energy Fuels executives two days after he made dubious claims at a congressional hearing that uranium mining improves water quality.
Nuclear power supplies about 20% of the electricity consumed in the United States and the majority of carbon-free electricity. And unlike wind and solar power, it is capable of providing a consistent, round-the-clock source of power.
Other recipients of campaign contributions — including then-President Trump, Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., and Gosar — have been even more outspoken in their climate change skepticism.
“We’re not going to meet anybody’s climate goals without nuclear and without uranium,” Moore said. “But ultimately we mine uranium, so we have to support the candidates that support our mining activities. So whether or not they agree with us on climate goals, I don’t think is particularly relevant.”