The mining industry is praising President Joe Biden’s signature of legislation that puts in effect a ban on Russian uranium coming into the country and also jump-starts the necessary enrichment process with an infusion of $2.7 billion in additional funding.

“This is a great day for the United States and its allies,” said Curtis Moore, vice president of marketing and corporate development for Energy Fuels, a Colorado-based company that operates the only uranium processing mill in the U.S., located in Utah’s San Juan County.

“We took very quick action as a country to ban Russian oil imports, gas imports, coal imports and impose a whole host of sanctions on Russia, but it has taken them quite a while to ban Russian uranium imports. This is a long time coming,” he said.

Moore added: “We get about 20% of all electricity in the United States from nuclear and 50% of our carbon free electricity comes from nuclear, and it was just not a good place for the United States to be so dependent on a country like Russia for all of this clean energy.”

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Biden signed the ban Monday, heralding a future that Energy Fuels and others in the industry say will help shape a new future for a carbon-free energy and breathe life into an industry that has struggled with low uranium prices and market domination by foreign countries. During the past decade, the U.S. has imported 99% of the uranium it uses for nuclear energy, with domestic uranium accounting for just 1% of the country’s consumption.

Why it really matters for the United States

“Over the last 20 to 30 years, we have essentially offshored most of our nuclear fuel capabilities to malignant actors, including Russia, and this $2.7 billion will be used to help expand capacity,” Moore said, for conversion of uranium ore and enrichment to ultimately end up for use as nuclear fuel.

“This does create a bit of a bottleneck in the uranium conversion and uranium enrichment markets. Russia controls on the order of 40% to 45% of global uranium enrichment capacity, and on the order of 30% to 35% of global uranium conversion capacity. So that is a big bottleneck.”

Moore said it will take time to clear that bottleneck, as one facility in Illinois has been idled for years but is now looking to restart its operations.

“The Russia-Ukraine conflict really puts a light on how we became overly dependent on Russian nuclear fuel products, and we are also overly dependent on other countries like China. And I think this is a day where we can say we’re taking a significant step to reduce that dependency,” said Mark Chalmers, president and chief executive officer of Energy Fuels.

Energy Fuels operates three mines in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah in which uranium ore is extracted for the first step in the process for the ultimate conversion and enrichment process for nuclear fuel.

“Those are all indispensable steps in the nuclear fuel supply chain. And so right now, with Russia being removed from the market, there’s not enough uranium conversion and enrichment capacity,” Moore said. “And in fact, over the last several years, as utilities have moved away from Russian uranium conversion and enrichment prices — they’ve gone up by by eight, 10, 12 times because there’s a there’s a real pinch point or a real bottleneck in those crucial functions. And so this money will help the U.S. converters to access more of its existing capacity.”

The U.S. is rich with uranium deposits and can also rely on allies like Canada and others to import uranium.

Moore said he does not think the newly signed ban will make permitting new mines any easier, but this is an important step and will foster development of next-generation nuclear facilities such as small modular reactors — one of which had been planned for the Idaho National Laboratory but was scrapped due to costs and, to an extent, uncertainty over fuel.

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“It certainly provides a support for continuing to produce newly mined uranium and recycling uranium that we’ve done for years at the mill,” Moore said. “It’s really an exciting time for the uranium industry in the nuclear fuel cycle as a whole. And it’s great to see that momentum but we need support because there’s been a long hiatus where there has been reduced activity.”

The National Mining Association on Tuesday also reacted to news of new tariffs imposed via executive order by Biden to curtail imports from China dealing with rare earth elements vital in so much manufacturing, including electric vehicles.

“From minerals to batteries, China already has a decades long global start, and its dominance of the world’s supply chains shows it,” said Rich Nolan, president and chief executive officer of the National Mining Association. “It’s encouraging to see the Biden administration take bold action to counter the forceful hold China has on these markets, but this action must be coupled with support for, and approval of, U.S. mining projects.”

Energy Fuels is also at the forefront of rare earth element processing in the United States and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their program, acquiring property in Brazil to secure monazite. That development has the potential to supply up to 10,000 metric tons of monazite concentrate per year. Monazite is a mineral that binds rare earth elements that go on to be used in clean energy technology used in wind turbines, electric vehicles and F-35 fighter jets, such as those that operate at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.

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