Despite 95 percent dependence on imports, including from Russia, uranium doesn’t meet new ‘criticality’ standards
President Joe Biden is guiding United States energy policy in directions designed to meet his stated goals of a “100-percent ‘clean electricity grid’” by 2035 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a baseload bias that radiates across the entire federal regulatory and rule-making circuitry.
Yet, despite carbon-free nuclear power providing nearly 20 percent of the electricity produced in the United States and having the capacity to produce much more, the administration continues to downplay nuclear power as a key component in achieving its 2035 and 2050 aims.
Nuclear power generates half the carbon-free electricity in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), but the Biden administration’s proposed Fiscal Year 2024 budget request cuts nuclear power development by more than $210 million, or 12 percent, from this year’s $1.77 billion budget, and nearly $100 million from two years ago.
The most recent confirmation that carbon-free nuclear power is not the carbon-free energy the administration supports is the exclusion of uranium by the Department of the Interior (DOI) from the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) updated “critical minerals list.”
The listing is considered pivotal to reviving the nation’s uranium mining and enrichment industries, which have atrophied since the Russians flooded the global market with predatorily priced ore and processed fuels beginning three decades ago.
In 1980, domestic American operators produced and processed 90 percent of the uranium used by 251 nuclear power plants that generated 11 percent of the country’s electricity.
In 2021, only 5 percent of the uranium used by the 55 nuclear power plants operating in the United States—which now generate nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity—was produced domestically.
Russia, even after invading Ukraine, still produces more than 50 percent of the fuel used for nuclear power across the world. It supplies 14 percent of the ore and nearly 25 percent of the processed uranium American nuclear plants use.
The proposed Nuclear Fuel Security Act (NFSA), co-filed by Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee Chair Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) allocates billions to improve uranium supply lines with an emphasis on domestic production.
House Energy & Commerce Committee chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ (R-Wash.) proposed Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act would ban the import of the ore from Russia within 90 days of adoption. It has idled because it is uncertain how Russian ore will be replaced.
This makes the USGS’s de-listing of uranium as a critical mineral “a very sad mystery,” House Natural Resources Committee Energy & Mineral Resources Subcommittee chair Rep. Pete Stauber (D-Minn.) said during a Sept. 13 hearing on the agency’s methodologies and motivations in defining what is and what is not a “critical mineral.”
“I am very curious why uranium was listed as a critical mineral in 2018 version of the list, but for some reason it no longer qualified just a few years later for the 2022 list under this current administration,” he said. “I hope this policy change was not political, but given this administration’s anti-mining agenda, I am skeptical.”
House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), who attended the nearly three-hour subcommittee hearing, recalled a recent tour of Arkansas nuclear power plants.
“As we were wrapping up, I asked, ‘Where do you get your uranium pellets?’ They immediately said, ‘100 percent from Russia,’” he said, calculating that means “100 percent of 40 percent of the energy in my state is dependent on uranium pellets from Russia.”
Days after his visit, President Biden designated Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni near the Grand Canyon as a national monument, heretofore barring access to rich uranium deposits, further confirming the administration is disincentivizing domestic uranium development despite the nation’s dependence on Russian ore and processing capacities.
“To me, that’s unacceptable. We can do better. We’ve got deposits of uranium and the Biden administration has put our most valuable uranium deposits off-limits,” Westerman said. “That makes absolutely no sense to me.”
‘Hard Rock’ Only
President Donald Trump issued a December 2017 executive order calling for a national strategy to develop a domestic supply of minerals vital to the nation’s economic and national security. Its immediate focus was to identify “critical minerals” with vulnerable supply chains that could benefit from regulatory relief.
As directed, the DOI, through the USGS, in 2018 developed three criteria in defining what a “critical mineral” is: (1) a “non-fuel mineral” or “mineral material” essential to economic and national security; (2) produced from a supply chain vulnerable to disruption; (3) and “serving an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have substantial consequences” for the nation’s economy and security.
Based on that criteria, the USGS published a list of 35 “critical minerals” in 2018. Although a “fuel mineral,” uranium was on the list because it also has non-fuel uses.
Then-House Natural Committee chair Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.)—now its ranking member—was among mostly Democrats who objected to what they described as a GOP push to list uranium at the behest of the mining industry, which had been lobbying for a decade to allow uranium mining in 1 million acres of federally protected land around Grand Canyon National Park.
Mr. Grijalva’s “Uranium Classification Act of 2019” seeking to remove uranium from USGS’s critical minerals list passed through the House Natural Resources Committee but was not adopted by the full chamber.
“Whatever your political philosophy, there is simply no reason to prop up the uranium industry,” Mr. Grijalva wrote in an October 2019 USA Op-Ed. “We have no domestic uranium shortfall, and our supply chain is perfectly stable. The price of uranium is low, and the business case for more uranium mining—at least without massive federal subsidies at taxpayer expense—does not exist. Uranium cheerleaders tend to gloss over these issues, but that doesn’t make them less relevant.”
As it turned out, what Mr. Grijalva failed to achieve legislatively was secured by regulatory fiat with the adoption of The Energy Act of 2020, which prioritized “hard rock” minerals, such as lithium, zinc, and cobalt, for critical mineral listing over other types.
The act requires USGS to update the critical mineral list at least every three years, and it created three categories of minerals to be excluded: (1) “fuel minerals” like coal, hydrocarbons such as oil and gas; (2) water, ice, snow; (3) and aggregates, like sand, stone, and gravel.
USGS also installed new methodologies and standards for evaluating a mineral’s “criticality.” The review must include: (1) a quantitative evaluation of supply risk; (2) a semi-quantitative evaluation of whether the supply chain has a single point of failure; (3) and “a qualitative evaluation when other evaluations are not possible.”
Uranium, Helium, Potash De-Listed
Using standards imposed by The Energy Act, revised 2021 criteria, and the new evaluation process, when the USGS posted its updated critical mineral list in March 2022, uranium, potash, rhenium, strontium, and helium were no longer on it.
Nickel, zinc, and rhodium were among minerals not listed in 2018 that were deemed critical by the USGS in 2022, although most of the 20 “new” minerals had been initially included under “Platinum group metals” and “Rare Earth Elements.”
In the updated listing, USGS broke those groupings into individual minerals, adding three platinum metals—palladium, platinum, iridium—and 15 rare earth minerals, such as cerium, gadolinium, and thulium.
Leaving uranium off the critical minerals list drew raised eyebrows and objections from across the spectrum of federal agencies. The Energy Information Administration, noting uranium is both a “fuel mineral” and a “non-fuel mineral,” cited concerns about “high production concentration and significant import reliance” in what it considers a critical mineral.
The National Science and Technology Council, which has many federal agency members, said uranium “meets the criteria for inclusion” on the critical minerals list.
In February 2022, Mr. Westerman and other Republicans penned a letter demanding DOI reconsider excluding uranium from the list “given the deteriorating situation in Europe and its likely impacts on the global supply of uranium.”
Nevertheless, “The USGS wholly reversed its position on uranium from the 2018 list, and did not even consider uranium for inclusion on the list due to its fuel uses,” Mr. Stauber’s hearing memo states.
“This decision came in the midst of rapidly rising military tensions in Eastern Europe in late 2021 and early 2022, and despite the fact that Kazakhstan, Russia, and Uzbekistan are some of the world’s largest uranium suppliers,” the memo notes.
The revised critical minerals list was published in the Federal Register two days after Russia invaded Ukraine.
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