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Trump decision on uranium imports draws praise from nuclear industry

Washington — The US nuclear industry, including nuclear plant operators and other fuel cycle companies, applauded President Donald Trump's decision over the weekend not to require US utilities to buy a portion of their annual uranium requirements domestically.

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Trump, in a memorandum Friday explaining the decision, said he did "not concur" with the Department of Commerce finding that "uranium imports threaten to impair the national security of the United States as defined under section 232 of the [1962 Trade Expansion] Act."

But in an acknowledgement that the challenges domestic uranium miners face are of national security importance, the president called for a broader analysis of national security considerations for the entire nuclear supply chain.

Related story: Trump rejects uranium import limits, but begins nuclear fuel review

US utilities meet about 93% of their uranium requirements from overseas. US uranium production totaled 721,000 lb in 2018, the lowest volume of domestic production since 1949, when 360,000 lb was produced, according to US Energy Information Administration data.

US Senator John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, called the decision "a missed opportunity."

In a statement released Saturday, Barrasso said, "America should not rely on Vladimir Putin and his satellites to supply our uranium. It's dangerous and unacceptable."

According to EIA data, Russia's uranium exports fell to 5.4 million lb U3O8-equivalent in 2018, comprising 15% of foreign uranium US utilities buy, from 7.1 million lb U3O8e in 2017.

Most of the uranium produced in the US comes from Wyoming mines, and one of the two petitioners, Ur-Energy, owns the Lost Creek operation there.

The Friday memo set up a new Nuclear Fuel Working Group tasked with developing recommendations for the White House within 90 days to revive and expand domestic nuclear fuel production and "the entire nuclear fuel supply chain."

NEI applauded the decision, noting Saturday that quotas would have had "a crippling impact on the economic health of the US nuclear fleet."

Major US nuclear utilities likewise commended President Trump's decision.

Exelon, the largest US nuclear power plant operator, called the president's decision "balanced" for not imposing uranium quotas. Duke said it looked forward to collaborating with the working group "to craft clean-energy policies."

Both Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy, the two companies that petitioned the US Department of Commerce in 2018, praised the working group's formation in their joint statement on the White House decision Saturday.

"We commend President Trump for recognizing the significant challenges facing the American uranium mining industry," the petitioners wrote. "Over the next 90 days, the working group will examine the current state of US nuclear fuel production and develop recommendations for reinvigorating the entire nuclear fuel supply chain consistent with US national security and nonproliferation goals. Our two companies will stand ready to support the working group as it conducts its study."

Energy Fuels said separately in a statement Monday that the petition "has been very successful. It demonstrated the national security risks to the US from increasingly relying on imported uranium, particularly from countries that are strategic competitors and that action needs to be taken."

There has been no indication from the executive branch about what remedies the panel is considering.

The Trump administration has tried, without success, to help US nuclear operators stay competitive.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected last year a Trump administration plan to financially support coal and nuclear generators with a notice of proposed rulemaking initiated by the Department of Energy that sought to guarantee full cost recovery and a return on investment for generators with 90-day on-site fuel supplies.

Trump announced in 2017 an initiative to revive and expand the nuclear energy sector and directed a complete review US nuclear energy policy "to help find new ways to revitalize this crucial energy resource," according to the memo. No results of that initiative have been announced.

The US requires domestically produced uranium to meet Department of Defense requirements, including the Nuclear Navy's fleet of nuclear-power aircraft carriers and submarines and source material for nuclear weapons.

It is estimated that annual US military requirements are about 4 million-5 million lb U3O8.

-- Andrea Jennetta, andrea.jennetta@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Valarie Jackson, newsdesk@spglobal.com