Commentary

Can a once-thriving industry, all but given up for dead, come back to life in Nebraska?

May 9, 2022 3:00 am

Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station with electricity pylons, Ohio. (Getty Images)

Reviving uranium mining has long been in the works, but production plans have been held up by funding hurdles and problems with federal regulations. Now, as a result of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, that may change.

Nearly 50% of the uranium used at U.S. nuclear power plants, in nuclear medicine and for distant space missions is imported from Russia and two of its closest allies, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, both former Soviet states. Yet despite Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine, the United States continues to pay Russia $100 million a month for uranium. This is absurd.

Congress is considering legislation to ban imports of Russian uranium, but the Biden administration — which has imposed sanctions against Russian sales of oil and natural gas — wants the uranium shipments to continue.

Let’s be clear: Sanctions have been only partly successful in putting pressure on Russia’s economy and slowing its war machine. But combined with arms shipments, sanctions have been critical in checking Vladimir Putin’s goals. We clearly need a vigorous commitment to both.

For nuclear power plants, nothing is as important as a reliable supply of uranium. Years ago, there were more than 300 uranium mines in the United States. Today, there is one operating mine, in Utah. Virtually all the uranium we need for our energy needs is imported from other countries. It is one example of the atrophy of minerals mining in the United States, something our enemies use to exploit our energy security.

This isn’t a time to pretend that Putin would not dare cut off uranium shipments to the United States. A Russian embargo would severely disrupt the production of electricity at nuclear plants that provide nearly 20% of U.S. power and 55% of the nation’s emission-free electricity.

Halting the use of uranium from Russia and its satellites would be a major step in the right direction. Given the risk of a uranium shortage, we must make a major push to create new uranium mines and reopen old mines that have been closed, such as Crow Butte.

Situated in northwest Nebraska near Crawford, Crow Butte was the first uranium mine developed in Nebraska. A roll-front uranium mine, it began production in 1991, using an in-situ method for recovery. However, the import of cheap uranium led to weakening of the uranium market, and production stopped in 2018. Cameco Resources, owner of the mine, says the mine is under care and maintenance pending an improvement in uranium prices.

Reopening Crow Butte and other mines would help deter Putin from engaging in uranium blackmail against the United States. Also, the federal government should consider establishing a uranium strategic reserve, similar to the petroleum strategic reserve, and switch to friendly countries such as Canada and Australia for uranium supplies.

Were Putin to cut off uranium shipments, we can’t say we weren’t warned. Putin is a brutal dictator whose military has crushed cities and murdered thousands of people. Not to think he might pull the plug on U.S. nuclear plants would be naive.

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Barry Butterfield
Barry Butterfield

Barry Butterfield is a civil engineer who worked in the public and private sector for over 40 years. He has done energy-related projects in Colorado, Texas, Minnesota, Iowa and Connecticut. He also worked on two of Nebraska’s more controversial projects, including the Central Interstate Compact Low-Level Radioactive Waste facility near Butte, Nebraska, and the Keystone XL pipeline. He has also done extensive environmental analysis on freight rail projects in Wyoming, Illinois, Texas and Kansas. He has published papers for the American Nuclear Society and Energy Research and Social Sciences, and is an emeritus member of the American Nuclear Society.

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