Colorado-based Energy Fuels announced Dec. 21 that it has commenced uranium production at three mines, including two locations in San Juan County. The company is the largest domestic producer of uranium.
The mines include the Pandora and La Sal mines, which are part of the La Sal Complex, a group of interconnected mines near the community of La Sal.
“We’re hiring people, we’re acquiring equipment and we’ve started, at least on a small scale, to mine at those locations,” said Curtis Moore, senior vice president of marketing and corporate development for Energy Fuels.
The La Sal Complex has not been operational since 2012, though Moore said that Energy Fuels performed test mining at the site in 2019.
Production is also ramping up at the Pinyon Plain Mine on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Tusayan, Arizona. The facility has never produced ore before, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
The company plans to stockpile uranium ore at the company’s White Mesa Mill in Blanding next year for processing in 2025. The facility is the country’s last conventional uranium-processing facility.
Sara Fields, the program director of Uranium Watch, said the announcement was not a surprise. “It’s something everybody’s been expecting,” she said.
She said she is concerned about the impact of radon emissions, heavy trucking, ventilation noise and waste on the community.
She is particularly concerned that there are no radon monitoring devices near the La Sal Elementary School.
Radon is a radioactive gas that is formed during uranium production. It is dispersed into the air through ventilation shafts.
Moore said the company complies with all radon emission regulations. “We’ve been within the regulatory limits historically and we plan to be in the future,” he said.
Fields said she is also concerned about the impact that increased production will have on the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, which is located near the White Mesa Mill.
In October, members of the tribe protested the impact of radiation emitted by the facility on the area’s air, water and wildlife.
Energy Fuels also plans to advance permitting and development at the Bullfrog Project mine near Ticaboo, proximate to the White Mesa Mill, as well as the Roca Honda Project in New Mexico and the Sheep Mountain Project mine in Wyoming, this year.
The company has also begun producing rare-earth compounds used in electric vehicle batteries and wind turbines. The mineral is trucked to the White Mesa Mill from Florida and Georgia, where it is processed.
Moore said the company’s decision to accelerate production was motivated by the high price of uranium and government support for nuclear energy.
In March, the Department of Energy released a plan to scale up the nation’s nuclear power infrastructure in the hopes of achieving the Biden administration’s aims of halving emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
“Nuclear energy is seeing this major resurgence in the United States and around the world,” Moore said. He noted that that 50% of all carbon-free electricity in the country comes from nuclear power.
Currently, 20% of electricity generated in the United States is powered by nuclear energy.
U.S. nuclear power plants import 27% of their uranium from Canada, 25% from Kazakhstan and 12% from Russia. Less than a tenth is produced in the U.S.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Moore said. “…Our company in particular has been … the lonely voice in the wilderness saying, ‘maybe we shouldn’t be relying on [Russian President Vladimir Putin] for our uranium.’”