Washington — Two Colorado-based uranium producers on Tuesday jointly asked the US Department of Commerce to investigate uranium imports that they said threaten national security, saying uranium from state-owned and state-subsidized companies in Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan fill nearly 40% of US demand while domestic production meets less than 5%.
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"The domestic uranium mining industry needs US government assistance to survive the foreign onslaught -- particularly from Russia and Kazakhstan -- that has undermined the US uranium industry while new players -- particularly China -- will soon make the situation worse," Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy said in a petition they jointly filed with the department.
Their petition seeks relief under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which was enacted to protect essential national security industries threatened by imports. Section 232 is not used often.
US steel producers filed a Section 232 petition with the department last year that focused on steel imports from China but also included other countries. That case is still underway.
Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy proposed in their petition a quota under which US uranium would supply 25% of the domestic market and establish a "Buy America policy" that would require US government operations that use uranium to buy uranium produced in the US. It is unclear whether the 25% would involve uranium in all forms or only that in the form of uranium hexafluoride, or UF6.
The companies noted in their statement that the petition asks President Donald Trump to "use his authority to adjust imports to ensure the long-term viability of the US uranium mining industry."
Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy described themselves in the petition as "the two most significant remaining US uranium mining companies." They said that without the relief requested, they would not be able to sustain their low-cost uranium recovery operations and the US uranium industry would cease to exist.
The companies noted in their petition and statement that without a "viable nuclear fuel cycle," US commercial and nuclear defense capabilities would be diminished "and the nation is likely to become 100% dependent on foreign parties that compete with the US for geopolitical influence and commercial advantage to fuel a majority of our clean, baseload electricity."
The petition cited Russia's cutoff of its supply of natural gas to Ukraine in 2009 and 2014, saying that showed Russia "is willing to use its control of energy resources as an economic and political weapon." It added, "This sort of geopolitical risk should be unacceptable to the US nuclear utilities and their ratepayers, who currently depend heavily on Russia and nations under Russia's influence to fuel their reactors."
It is "conceivable," the companies said, that a similar supply disruption could be triggered in the US by "sanctions or other geopolitical developments."
In addition, international treaties require that the uranium used for US defense purposes -- such as for the production of tritium, a radioactive gas used to boost the explosive power of nuclear weapons -- be sourced from the US. "Unless steps are taken now to foster a healthy domestic uranium mining industry, the defense stockpiles currently held by the DOE will be depleted, and it is unlikely that domestic producers will have sufficient capabilities to meet our defense needs in the future," they said.
The companies said in their statement that once the US Department of Commerce initiates an investigation, the secretary has 270 days to submit a report to the president.
After the president receives the report, he would have 90 days to act on the secretary's recommendations and to take any necessary action "to 'adjust the imports of an article and its derivatives' and/or pursue other lawful non-trade related actions necessary to address the threat," their statement said.
In its annual uranium marketing report released June 19, the US Energy Information Administration said that uranium from Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan accounted for 38% of the U3O8 used in the US in 2016. Uranium also was imported from Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Germany, Malawi, Namibia, Niger, South Africa and Ukraine, the report said.
'QUOTA BASED ON HISTORICAL IMPORT SHARES'
"By implementing a flexible quota based on historical import shares, the US can reserve a portion of its market for US producers to compete and provide the essential domestic sourced uranium the US national security requires," the petition stated.
It said the quota proposal takes into account "existing business relationships between US utilities and their foreign suppliers, while setting reasonable limits on the amount of imported uranium so that US producers have sufficient commercial opportunities to survive."
It added that the Buy America policy would help offset the financial harm to the US mining industry from DOE's selling some of its stockpiled uranium to raise money for the remediation of some of its facilities.
These remedies sought would result in US utilities buying roughly 12 million lb/year of US uranium, based on recent data, Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy said in the statement.
"This would be expected to create a healthy US uranium mining industry, bolster national defense, and improve supply diversification for US utilities and their customers," they added.
"This is not a matter of foreign competition legitimately underpricing domestic producers," their petition stated. "It is foreign, state-mandated production undermining US companies that have the ability to compete on a level playing field."
They said in the petition that "state-sponsored, price-insensitive competition" by uranium producers in Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan resulted in the closure of several US mines and "dramatically reduced US uranium production."
The petition noted that in 1980 the US was the world's leading uranium producer. The US supplied 43.7 million lb of U3O8 that year, more than 300% of the US uranium consumption of roughly 14 million lb and 60% of the global consumption of 73.3 million lb, it said.
But by 2016, US uranium production dropped to 2.5 million lb U3O8, its lowest level since 2003 and 1.5% of global uranium consumption of 164.8 million lb for that year, the petition stated.
"This represented a 32% decrease from 2015, a one-third decrease in a single year," it said. "Final statistics for 2017 are expected to confirm that US uranium mine production declined even further to approximately 1.5 million lb of U3O8, or a further 40% drop from 2016's historically low levels, and approaching the 1.0 million lb U3O8 production rate of 1949, the dawn of the nuclear age."
The petition said, for instance, that uranium imports from Kazakhstan "have benefited from an 87% devaluation of the national currency in comparison to the US dollar."
It also said that uranium producers in Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan "are state-owned and continue to produce at uneconomic levels despite a global uranium surplus."
The petition added that the Russian industry has said it plans to increase its share of the US market when the US-Russia Suspension Agreement expires in 2020.
The US Department of Commerce suspended an antidumping investigation of uranium imports from Russia in 1992 in exchange for Russia's restricting the volume of uranium it directly or indirectly exports to the US.
The petition also noted China is in the process of becoming a major uranium supplier with its investments in mines in Kazakhstan, Namibia and elsewhere.