Russian Uranium Ban Reopens Threat of Uranium Mining Escalation in US

Inkai Uranium Mine, Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan uranium comprises 25% of all US uranium imports. (Photo: NAC Kazatomprom JSC/Wikimedia Commons)

When Russia first invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, no one knew how long the fighting would continue and what the outcome might be. Kyiv was expected to fall immediately. It didn’t. More than two years on, the war continues and the rumblings from Russia about nuclear weapons use grow frighteningly louder.

The rush by the United States and its NATO allies at the time of the invasion to help defend — and to some extent arm — Ukraine included a quick decision to sanction Russian fossil fuel imports. On March 8, 2022, just 12 days after the invasion, US president, Joe Biden, signed an Executive Order banning the import of Russian oil, liquefied natural gas, and coal to the United States. Russian uranium was not included.

At the time of the 2022 ban on Russian fossil fuels, many of us in the anti-nuclear movement were agitating for a Russian uranium ban as well. At least 12% of US uranium imports comes from Russia to fuel domestic US reactors. That number rises to close to 50% if you also factor in uranium sourced from Russian satellites Kazakhstan (25%) and Uzbekistan (11%). (Canada is the other major single-source supplier of uranium to the US at 27%.)

On May 13, 2024, President Biden finally signed into law a bipartisan bill — the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act — banning imports of Russian low-enriched uranium. According to the bill, the ban affects: “Unirradiated low-enriched uranium that is produced in the Russian Federation or by a Russian entity” (read Rosatom operating outside Russia).

When we were pushing for a Russian uranium boycott at the start of the war, it was in the context of highlighting the detriment of nuclear power and fed into our agenda to permanently end the use of this dangerous and discriminatory technology. We asked then why the nuclear sector was getting a pass. Now we have the answer. The bill is a poisoned pill, almost literally.

The bill’s enactment “releases $2.72 billion in appropriated funds to the Department of Energy to invest in domestic uranium enrichment further advancing a secure and resilient global nuclear energy fuel supply consistent with our international obligations,” said the US State Department.

This is all part of the absurd agenda to triple global nuclear capacity by 2050 (too late) and, said the State Department, “to establish a secure nuclear fuel supply chain, independent of adversarial influence, for decades to come.” It will do nothing of the kind.

While the new law may claim to end US dependency on Russian uranium, it does not end American addiction to a fatal energy source that victimizes the communities least resourced to fight back. Furthermore, it will make America’s path to a renewable energy economy all the harder, redirecting funds and precious time toward the most expensive and slowest way to address the climate crisis (nuclear) instead of faster, cheaper renewables.

There are no prizes for guessing who was cheering the loudest as Biden wielded his pen last week.

Executives from Uranium Energy, Terrapower, Centrus and Energy Fuels couldn’t contain their excitement. Nor can they wait to begin mining, milling, and enriching uranium again in the US, to the detriment most especially of Native American tribes living on the land already permanently scarred and poisoned by previous such operations and who are still waiting for adequate or any cleanup and reparations.

One of those places, the Grand Canyon, is already under threat from the Pinyon Plain uranium mine, a project of Canadian-owned Energy Fuels and which started operations in January 2024, against the strong opposition of the Havasupai tribe who live there.

“We have been against uranium mining for decades because of the known risks to land and air, water and people,” said Carletta Tilousi, a leader of the Havasupai tribe who is fighting to cancel the uranium operations at Pinyon Plain, which is located near Red Butte, a sacred site to the Havsupai people.

Carletta Tilousi and others testify in a meeting chaired by Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, herself a member of the New Mexico Laguna Pueblo tribe. (Photo: Office of Secretary Haaland/Wikimedia Commons)

“Uranium mining in the southwest has scarred and left a horrifying legacy of death in our communities. Thousands of abandoned uranium mines on federal and tribal lands have not been cleaned up,” she said.

“Uranium will continue to poison the Grand Canyon including the aquifers that feed into the Colorado River,” added Tilousi. “Contaminants from the uranium mine are likely to make their way to the deep aquifers that feed Havasu Springs. The mine closure is the only way to avoid this risk.”

The Navajo Nation, who have banned uranium mining on their territory, was home to more than 500 uranium mines at peak operations, all of which are now abandoned but not cleaned up. (There are more than 4,000 abandoned uranium mine sites across the US.) Tribal members understand all too well what uranium mining can do to the health and wellbeing of a community.

“This decision by Biden is terrible news,” said former uranium mine worker, Larry King of the Navajo Nation, a member of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining that has advocated mine cleanup for decades. Added King: “They’ve never returned an aquifer to pre-mining stages,” after extracting uranium through in-situ leach mining, the predominant technique currently used. “The companies got what they want out of Navajo and moved on.”

Despite the ban, the Navajo Nation had already been under a renewed threat of resumed uranium mining when Uranium Resources tried to open a new in situ leach mine at Church Rock, a plan that was defeated by tribal opposition. But Toronto-based Laramide Resources has since bought out Uranium Resources and wants to mine uranium there because the land is surrounded by — but not within — the boundaries of the Navajo reservation.

King’s home lies within view of Laramide’s plans. “The environmental impact statement says there are certain dwellings within the diameter of the project and those people will have to move,” King said. “I’m not moving. This is where I’m from. I’m not moving a foot.”

After Biden signed the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act, the Washington Post ran a disgracefully slanted article, in which not a single Native American voice was heard. Reporter Maxine Joselow quoted executives from four nuclear corporations and two politicians, all of whom favored the legislation. She made only a glancing reference to mine opponents as “others” and “still others” after prefacing their anonymous mention with “Though some environmentalists support nuclear power…”

But she was more than happy to repeat the utter nonsense spewed by Energy Fuels senior vice president, Curtis Moore, who said the company’s Grand Canyon mine would have “zero” risk to water supplies there and that “Uranium is absolutely essential to the fight against climate change.”

The Church Rock, NM, uranium mine and mill site has never been cleaned up and still harms the health of local Navajo communities. (Photo: US Environmental Protection Agency)

Americans, and especially Native Americans, will pay the price for this bill which, instead of banning uranium imports and transitioning away from nuclear power, seeks instead to stimulate exponential domestic growth of this dirty industry.

At the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Scott Melbye, Executive Vice President of the trade group, Uranium Producers of America, and also VP of the mining company, Uranium Energy, said in a statement:

“Russia’s aggression in Ukraine highlights the danger of relying on the Kremlin and its allies for strategically critical energy supplies and minerals. Nearly half of the uranium needed to fuel U.S. reactors is purchased from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Despite ample U.S. uranium resources and the capacity to produce them at the highest environmental, safety, and health standards, U.S. production has almost completely halted. The Uranium Producers of America have repeatedly warned policymakers of the consequences of this overreliance as the predatory market tactics of these state-owned competitors have eroded the domestic uranium supply chain.”

After Biden’s May 13 announcement, Melbye said, “It’s kind of ridiculous that it took as long as it did to get to this stage.”

However, it’s unclear how deeply the boycott will actually harm Russia and when. As bne IntelliNews clarified in a January 19, 2024 article: “even though Kazakhstan is the world’s biggest player in uranium supply, much of its milled uranium travels through Russian conversion plants before it is exported to global markets.” Russia has “control of over 26% of Kazakh uranium deposits and holds rights to an additional 22% of annual production.”

However, the Russia uranium ban doesn’t specifically include Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan and the “Russian entity” wording in the bill leaves the situation vague.

Kazakhstan seems to have no doubt about the opportunity presented by the Russia ban and is eager to fill the void. “This bill represents a significant opportunity for Kazakhstan, the world’s largest producer of uranium, which could potentially step into the breach and provide the mineral necessary to meet the U.S.’ nuclear energy needs,” reported The Times of Central Asia in January after the bill had passed the US House last December.

Furthermore, there is a pretty big waiver included in the bill which could keep the door wide open to Russian uranium. It states that imports can continue if “no alternative viable source of low-enriched uranium is available to sustain the continued operation of a nuclear reactor or a United States nuclear energy company; or importation of low-enriched uranium described in paragraph (1) is in the national interest.”

This is in place to insure against a resulting shortage of uranium fuel supplies that could cause US reactors to shut down prematurely or permanently. The waiver extends until January 2028. So a win-win for Rosatom, Kazatomprom, North American uranium corporations, the US Congress and the Biden Administration, and another tragic betrayal of Native American people.

This first appeared in Beyond Nuclear International.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.