The United States has the world’s largest fleet of nuclear power plants operating in 30 states and supplying 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Having once led the world in the production of uranium—the energy resource used in nuclear plants—the U.S. now imports nearly 90 percent of the uranium needed to fuel its nuclear fleet of 99 reactors. Instead of utilizing domestic resources to decrease our reliance on foreign sources of energy, the U.S. imports approximately 50 million pounds of uranium each year. A large portion of our uranium is imported from Kazakhstan, which produces over 30 percent of the world’s uranium.
As with other hardrock minerals, millions of dollars are spent on exploration activities to find elusive and economically recoverable deposits. Nonetheless, the discovery potential for domestic uranium remains vast, especially as exploration technologies advance. Uranium miners share the concerns of other U.S. interests regarding access to the mineral rich federal lands that are critical to maintain a strong domestic supply of the minerals needed to propel our economy.
There are several methods for extraction of uranium, including underground uranium mining, open pit mining and in situ recovery (ISR). The type of mining undertaken depends on a number of factors including the nature of the deposit and ore grade. The majority of uranium currently mined in the U.S. is though ISR. Modern techniques for ISR uranium make it a controlled, safe, and occupationally and environmentally sound method of uranium recovery that preclude any significant adverse impacts
to workers, lands or water, including underground sources of drinking water.
Despite these fundamentals, new U.S. production is still lagging, in part because of uncertainty over the regulatory environment for new domestic production. Uranium mining and processing is hindered by the permitting quagmire that exists for all hardrock minerals. The five to 10 years involved in obtaining the necessary
permits to operate is, in part, caused by a process that requires redundant reviews at federal and state levels, often by multiple agencies. Since mining is a capital-intensive process that often takes years of development before minerals are produced, claimants need to have certainty they will be able to bring a project to fruition. Additional uncertainty causing investors to reevaluate involvement in domestic uranium projects are threats to impose unreasonable royalties or to convert uranium mining to a less
predictable leasing system. The United States needs a coherent minerals policy that includes an efficient permitting process and a consistent, rigorous and sound regulatory framework to encourage development of domestic uranium mining projects.