Industry hopeful U.S. ban on Russian uranium imports revives Western mines

Uranium Resurgence
Ross D. Franklin/AP
A uranium ore pile is the first to be mined at the Energy Fuels Inc. uranium Pinyon Plain Mine Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, near Tusayan, Ariz.

President Biden on Monday signed a bill blocking Russian imports of enriched uranium, a move designed to help revive U.S. nuclear fuel production and sever a stream of money flowing from American power plants to Russia’s state-owned nuclear agency.

The bipartisan law, which cleared its final Senate hurdle in April, is a boost to Lakewood-based Energy Fuels, the largest producer of uranium in the U.S. That company has been ramping up production at its mines and the controversial White Mesa Mill in Utah, the country’s only functioning uranium mill.

“This is a long time coming,” Curtis Moore, senior vice president of corporate development, said on a conference call with reporters.

The new law frees up $2.7 billion in federal funding for domestic uranium enrichment that was requested by the White House and added to a government funding bill. 

The company expects its three operating mines will be buoyed by the Russian import ban. Executives said a growing U.S. market for uranium — the primary feedstock that becomes fuel for most nuclear power plants — could also boost operations at the Whirlwind Mine, which straddles the Utah border near Gateway, Colo.

The Whirlwind mining project is fully permitted and on standby to ramp up production, according to the company. The Colorado portion of the mine could produce 50,000 tons of uranium ore annually, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records show.

The new law highlights both a renewed interest from some climate advocates in carbon-free electricity from nuclear power plants and geopolitical concerns that underscore a national interest in shoring up domestic supplies of a key nuclear fuel amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

Russia supplies 20 percent of the enriched uranium used to fuel the 54 power nuclear plants operating across the U.S. The new law, the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act, goes into effect in 90 days. The U.S. Department of Energy will grant waivers to 2028 for utilities that face shutdowns once Russian uranium supplies are halted. 

U.S. utilities are paying about $1 billion annually to buy enriched uranium from Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear power agency, which has been working to supply that country’s arms manufacturers with materials used for missile fuel.

Energy Fuels executives on Tuesday said the company would also benefit from Biden’s move this week to impose steep tariffs on a slate of Chinese imports, including electric vehicles, solar cells and advanced batteries, since some of the company’s mines produce rare earth elements used in key components for those products.