Skip to main content
It’s One Thing For Trump To Like Uranium. It’s Another For Him To Save It.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A mining industry is trapped in a state of slow economic decline and looks to the Trump administration to reverse its fortunes.

That could be the lead-in to a story about coal — an industry the administration has made a point of promoting. But it’s also similar to the story of uranium, the radioactive mineral that serves as a raw material for manufacturing fuel for nuclear power plants and the explosive cores of nuclear weapons. The key difference: Although coal companies have pushed for reduced regulation, representatives of uranium mining companies told me in an interview that they don’t want less environmental protection. They want protection of a different kind, however.

In its efforts to make coal great again, the Trump administration has made a point of embracing the industry, cutting regulations and talking up the mineral’s importance. Uranium hasn’t gotten quite the same level of personal attention from the president. (There’s been a distinct lack of “Trump Digs Uranium” signs, for instance.) But his administration has made several moves in the past year that seem to favor uranium mining interests: It shrunk the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah in a way that would make it easier for companies to mine uranium on hundreds of previously established claims in the area; it proposed ending a ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon; it moved forward on a proposed uranium mine near the Black Hills; it nominated a deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency who used to be a lobbyist for a uranium mining company; and it left an Obama-era proposal about groundwater protections at uranium mining sites in limbo — neither approving the proposed rule nor rejecting it.

But while it’s taken outside economists to point out that environmental protection rollbacks aren’t going to save the coal industry, uranium industry insiders say they have little interest in taking advantage of the loosened environmental protections the Trump administration has offered them. “There’s not a big push to start up new mines [on former federal lands]; the price is way too low,” said John Cash, vice president for regulatory affairs at the uranium mining company Ur-Energy. “The market is really oversupplied at this point.” He said uranium mining companies don’t want to roll back environmental regulation. Instead, they’d rather the government block foreign competition.

There was a time when it was good to be a U.S. uranium mining company. During the Cold War, the federal government set up a series of policies that had the effect of guaranteeing uranium miners a high price for their product, said Luke Danielson, president of the Sustainable Development Strategies Group, which consults on minerals development projects around the world. “People made massive amounts of money in this boom,” he said. “But in the mid-’60s, the government realized we had enough uranium stockpiled to last a really long time, and it pulled the plug.” Production rebounded in the 1970s — a time of optimism about the future of nuclear energy — but the output of the U.S. uranium industry has been on the decline since 1980.

That trend continues as old nuclear power plants close and aren’t replaced. Meanwhile, contrary to the collective wisdom of the 20th century, demand for electricity doesn’t seem to have to go up, exponentially, forever. Back then, the industry believed that there would always be new demand and that new power plants would have to be built to meet it, said Nick Carter, executive vice president for uranium at the UX Consulting Co., a nuclear industry data and consulting firm. But demand has stagnated, and the nuclear industry hasn’t had much luck competing, cost-wise, against cheaper natural gas, wind and solar resources. So when utility companies buy nuclear fuel, they are focused on keeping costs low and are looking for the best deal. And that usually isn’t coming from the U.S.

In 2016, just 10 percent of the uranium purchased by the owners of nuclear power plants was domestically sourced. That’s why Cash and Paul Goranson, chief operating officer for Energy Fuels, another uranium mining company, want help on the demand side of the equation. In January, their two companies filed a petition with the U.S. Commerce Department asking for an investigation into whether the industry needs government protection against foreign competitors. Only 14 of these investigations have taken place since 1980, and it’s rarer still for the government to take action. Ultimately, though, Cash and Goranson would like to see the administration mandate that 25 percent of all the uranium purchased by U.S. electric utility companies come from U.S. uranium mines. Fighting foreign competition would matter more, they say, than repealing environmental protections.

But it still might not be enough to rebound the industry to its previous highs or keep it solvent over the long term.

The international market for uranium has been decidedly less grim — at least, it was up until the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan (and the subsequent closure of power plants there and in Germany). That event sent the price of uranium into a tailspin and left the world with large stockpiles of uranium and little demand for it. Even countries usually seen as the big winners in the global uranium mining industry have scaled back production. There are new nuclear power plants being built in China, India, Russia and other countries, said Keith Florig, who is a research scholar at the University of Florida and studies risk and the nuclear energy industry. But those countries’ power plants are primarily buying uranium from domestic mines or from mines they have developed and control in other countries. Worldwide demand for uranium could go up and still leave U.S. producers behind.

One reason that U.S. companies would have trouble competing with producers from those other countries is the difference in environmental regulations. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, around 40 percent of the world’s uranium came from Kazakhstan, a country that, according to experts, can offer its uranium at a very cheap price because it’s not doing much in the way of environmental protection. Kazakhstan mines uranium by pumping a sulfuric acid solution into the ground and processing the uranium that binds to it. In the U.S., this process, called in-situ mining, is less toxic, but more expensive, using a sodium bicarbonate solution. U.S. uranium miners also have to remediate the groundwater at in-situ leaching sites, something that Cash and Goranson said isn’t required in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan is the world’s uranium miner

Top 10 uranium-producing countries and their share of resources in the ground, as of Jan. 1, 2015

Share of global uranium
Country production resources in the ground
Kazakhstan 41%
Canada 16
Australia 9
Niger 7
Namibia 6
Russia 5
Uzbekistan 4
United States 3
China 3
Ukraine 2

Sources: OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, International Atomic Energy Agency

Uranium producers and politicians from uranium-producing states have pushed back against recent EPA efforts to increase groundwater protections at in-situ mining sites, but Cash said the U.S. uranium industry doesn’t want to mine the way that Kazahkstan does. “We want to protect the environment,” he said. “We think we should be good stewards of the environment.” But that lack of environmental protection in Kazhkstan makes a difference on price — $10 per pound according to calculations put together by his engineers. Cash framed the 25 percent purchase mandate that he and Goranson have requested as a way to make up for that price difference between the two countries.

Of course, the catch is that while the Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels plan would help prop up the American uranium industry in the short term, it doesn’t account for the fact that the nuclear power industry here isn’t growing. In fact, it’s contracting. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s projections for nuclear power demand are even worse than for coal. By 2050, the agency expects the U.S. electric system to use about 20 percent less nuclear power than it did in 2016. Uranium mining companies are asking for a guaranteed slice of an ever-shrinking pie.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.