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Federal officials push to revive domestic uranium production

The White Mesa uranium mill is located in Blanding, Utah, near the uranium mines of the Four Corners region of the United States.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Flickr Creative Commons
The White Mesa uranium mill is located in Blanding, Utah, near the uranium mines of the Four Corners region of the United States.

News brief: 

Some officials in the Mountain West want to ramp up American uranium production to power future nuclear reactors. But expanding operations in the region is concerning for many local residents, particularly tribal communities.

Nuclear power produces zero carbon emissions. It also generates about 20 percent of America’s electricity, more than wind, solar and hydropower combined. Advanced reactors using newer technology – like the one currently being planned in Kemmerer, Wyo. – have the potential to be even more efficient than what’s already connected to the U.S. power grid.

But a critical component of nuclear energy is uranium. Energy companies have dug thousands of uranium mines in the West in previous decades, but only a handful are operational today. Instead, the U.S. imports much of its supply, including a sizeable chunk from Russia.

Rising uranium demand is already prompting at least one company to restart operations at its Wyoming mines, as Lee Enterprises newspapers reports. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso is among the politicians arguing the U.S. is too dependent on other countries and needs to bolster its own uranium supply.

“It's a disgrace that we don't have the capability to fuel our own nuclear reactors,” he said during a recent Senate committee hearing.

Barrasso and two other senators, Jim Risch, R-Ida., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., have introduced a bipartisan bill to create a domestic nuclear fuel program that would increase onshore production. For its part, the federal government is already investing in a larger strategic uranium reserve.

But ramping up local mining makes many Mountain West residents worried due to the industry’s painful legacy. During a uranium boom in the mid-20th century in the Southwest, companies exposed many Navajo people to radiation, which led to adverse health effects and pollution that the federal government is still cleaning up. In recent years, some members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in Utah have suspected that a nearby uranium mill is leading to increased health risks among members.

Nuclear energy companies have responded saying that technologies and regulations have been updated to make the industry safer, but advocates quoted in the Lee Enterprises story said scientists need to study potential impacts before another uranium boom takes hold in the Mountain West.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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