Record low uranium production noted as Congress debates reserve funding

July 21, 2020, 3:03PMNuclear News

Uranium producers around the world have suffered through years of record low uranium prices. In 2019 the United States recorded its lowest total uranium production—174,000 lb U3O8—since the U.S. Energy Information Administration began collecting data in 1949, according to the agency’s Today in Energy analysis of July 17.

U.S. uranium producers asked the federal government to come to their aid in January 2018, and President Donald Trump created the U.S. Nuclear Fuel Working Group (NFWG) in July 2019. While the NFWG issued a report in April 2020 recommending support for the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle, uranium producers are in a waiting game once again as the U.S. House of Representatives works on Fiscal Year 2021 appropriations legislation.

Impetus and action: The Trump administration’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget request, released in February, held out hope for relief for U.S. uranium producers in the form of a federal uranium reserve. In late April the NFWG released a report, “Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage,” which prioritized support for U.S. uranium producers as an action in the national security interests of the United States. While the administration’s budget request and the NFWG called for $150 million per year for the next 10 years, it is up to Congress to provide appropriations.

In the Energy and Water Development bill that emerged from the House Appropriations Committee on July 13 by a party line vote of 30-21, funding for the reserve was blocked and specific information about the funding request was requested from the Department of Energy. (Curious about the committee’s comments? See “What they said” below.)

The next step for the bill is deliberation on the House floor. The House Appropriations Committee said on July 20 that consideration by the full House of H.R. 7617 (a seven-bill appropriations minibus) was expected during the week of July 27.

Production numbers: Domestic U3O8 production has declined since its peak of 43.7 million lb in 1980, according to the EIA, and uranium from international origins has supplied the bulk of the fuel requirements for U.S. power reactors. In 2019, fuel assemblies loaded into U.S. commercial reactors contained 43.2 million lb of U3O8. About 9 percent of this amount was U.S.-origin, and 91 percent was foreign-origin. Since 1990, purchased imports of U3O8 have exceeded domestic U3O8 production each year. Canada was the largest source of imported uranium in 2019, followed by Kazakhstan, Australia, and Russia. Some countries, such as Canada and Australia, have accessible, high-quality uranium deposits that allow them to produce uranium at a lower cost than the United States, while production in some countries, such as Kazakhstan, is subsidized by the state.

What they said: On the subject of a uranium reserve, the full House Appropriations Committee report of July 13 says: “The budget request proposes to establish a new uranium reserve. The [DOE] has been unable to provide specific information about how it would implement the program, including in congressional justifications, briefings, and in responses to questions from the committee about how the funds would be spent, including the process for the purchase, conversion, or sale of uranium in a reserve. The committee is concerned about the lack of justification for a reserve and potential market implications of establishing a reserve for commercial purposes. The committee also notes that the [DOE] will require a domestic source of uranium for defense purposes in the coming decades. The [DOE] is directed to submit to the committee not later than 180 days after enactment of this Act a plan for the proposed establishment of a uranium reserve. The plan shall include the legal authorities in place or needed to establish and operate a uranium reserve, including the purchase, conversion, and sale of uranium; a ten-year implementation plan of the activities for establishment and operations of a uranium reserve; and a ten-year cost estimate. No funds are provided for the establishment of a uranium reserve, and no funds may be spent on activities related to the establishment of a uranium reserve other than the development of the required plan.”

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