Despite 95 percent dependence on imports, including from Russia, uranium doesn’t meet new ‘criticality’ standards
President Joe Biden is guiding United States energy policy in directions designed to meet his stated goals of a “100-percent ‘clean electricity grid’” by 2035 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a baseload bias that radiates across the entire federal regulatory and rule-making circuitry.
Yet, despite carbon-free nuclear power providing nearly 20 percent of the electricity produced in the United States and having the capacity to produce much more, the administration continues to downplay nuclear power as a key component in achieving its 2035 and 2050 aims.
The most recent confirmation that carbon-free nuclear power is not the carbon-free energy the administration supports is the exclusion of uranium by the Department of the Interior (DOI) from the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) updated “critical minerals list.”
The listing is considered pivotal to reviving the nation’s uranium mining and enrichment industries, which have atrophied since the Russians flooded the global market with predatorily priced ore and processed fuels beginning three decades ago.
In 1980, domestic American operators produced and processed 90 percent of the uranium used by 251 nuclear power plants that generated 11 percent of the country’s electricity.
In 2021, only 5 percent of the uranium used by the 55 nuclear power plants operating in the United States—which now generate nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity—was produced domestically.
Russia, even after invading Ukraine, still produces more than 50 percent of the fuel used for nuclear power across the world. It supplies 14 percent of the ore and nearly 25 percent of the processed uranium American nuclear plants use.
This makes the USGS’s de-listing of uranium as a critical mineral “a very sad mystery,” House Natural Resources Committee Energy & Mineral Resources Subcommittee chair Rep. Pete Stauber (D-Minn.) said during a Sept. 13 hearing on the agency’s methodologies and motivations in defining what is and what is not a “critical mineral.”
“I am very curious why uranium was listed as a critical mineral in 2018 version of the list, but for some reason it no longer qualified just a few years later for the 2022 list under this current administration,” he said. “I hope this policy change was not political, but given this administration’s anti-mining agenda, I am skeptical.”
House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), who attended the nearly three-hour subcommittee hearing, recalled a recent tour of Arkansas nuclear power plants.
“As we were wrapping up, I asked, ‘Where do you get your uranium pellets?’ They immediately said, ‘100 percent from Russia,’” he said, calculating that means “100 percent of 40 percent of the energy in my state is dependent on uranium pellets from Russia.”
Days after his visit, President Biden designated Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni near the Grand Canyon as a national monument, heretofore barring access to rich uranium deposits, further confirming the administration is disincentivizing domestic uranium development despite the nation’s dependence on Russian ore and processing capacities.
“To me, that’s unacceptable. We can do better. We’ve got deposits of uranium and the Biden administration has put our most valuable uranium deposits off-limits,” Westerman said. “That makes absolutely no sense to me.”
‘Hard Rock’ Only
President Donald Trump issued a December 2017 executive order calling for a national strategy to develop a domestic supply of minerals vital to the nation’s economic and national security. Its immediate focus was to identify “critical minerals” with vulnerable supply chains that could benefit from regulatory relief.
As directed, the DOI, through the USGS, in 2018 developed three criteria in defining what a “critical mineral” is: (1) a “non-fuel mineral” or “mineral material” essential to economic and national security; (2) produced from a supply chain vulnerable to disruption; (3) and “serving an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have substantial consequences” for the nation’s economy and security.
Then-House Natural Committee chair Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.)—now its ranking member—was among mostly Democrats who objected to what they described as a GOP push to list uranium at the behest of the mining industry, which had been lobbying for a decade to allow uranium mining in 1 million acres of federally protected land around Grand Canyon National Park.
The act requires USGS to update the critical mineral list at least every three years, and it created three categories of minerals to be excluded: (1) “fuel minerals” like coal, hydrocarbons such as oil and gas; (2) water, ice, snow; (3) and aggregates, like sand, stone, and gravel.
USGS also installed new methodologies and standards for evaluating a mineral’s “criticality.” The review must include: (1) a quantitative evaluation of supply risk; (2) a semi-quantitative evaluation of whether the supply chain has a single point of failure; (3) and “a qualitative evaluation when other evaluations are not possible.”
Uranium, Helium, Potash De-Listed
Using standards imposed by The Energy Act, revised 2021 criteria, and the new evaluation process, when the USGS posted its updated critical mineral list in March 2022, uranium, potash, rhenium, strontium, and helium were no longer on it.
Nickel, zinc, and rhodium were among minerals not listed in 2018 that were deemed critical by the USGS in 2022, although most of the 20 “new” minerals had been initially included under “Platinum group metals” and “Rare Earth Elements.”
In the updated listing, USGS broke those groupings into individual minerals, adding three platinum metals—palladium, platinum, iridium—and 15 rare earth minerals, such as cerium, gadolinium, and thulium.
Leaving uranium off the critical minerals list drew raised eyebrows and objections from across the spectrum of federal agencies. The Energy Information Administration, noting uranium is both a “fuel mineral” and a “non-fuel mineral,” cited concerns about “high production concentration and significant import reliance” in what it considers a critical mineral.
The National Science and Technology Council, which has many federal agency members, said uranium “meets the criteria for inclusion” on the critical minerals list.
In February 2022, Mr. Westerman and other Republicans penned a letter demanding DOI reconsider excluding uranium from the list “given the deteriorating situation in Europe and its likely impacts on the global supply of uranium.”
Nevertheless, “The USGS wholly reversed its position on uranium from the 2018 list, and did not even consider uranium for inclusion on the list due to its fuel uses,” Mr. Stauber’s hearing memo states.
“This decision came in the midst of rapidly rising military tensions in Eastern Europe in late 2021 and early 2022, and despite the fact that Kazakhstan, Russia, and Uzbekistan are some of the world’s largest uranium suppliers,” the memo notes.
The revised critical minerals list was published in the Federal Register two days after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Grilled Over Uranium De-Listing
Since assuming a fragile 222–212 majority in the House after November 2022’s midterms, Republicans have been fiercely critical of what they see as the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats manipulating the USGS and its listing process to benefit minerals needed to drive the President’s much ballyhooed and booed “rush to green energy.”
“Unfortunately, the Biden administration has used these exclusions—especially the exclusion of ‘fuel minerals’—as a means of stymying future domestic uranium production,” Mr. Stauber’s staff memo states.
“The significant attention given to uranium’s treatment … by Congressional Democrats and outside groups seems to indicate that political pressure, rather than pure scientific analysis, contributed to the decision not to consider uranium as a critical mineral for the 2022 list,” it concludes.
During the Sept. 13 hearing, several panelists grilled USGS Chief of Minerals Intelligence Research Dr. Nedal Nassar about its determination that uranium, helium, and potash are not critical minerals.
Mr. Westerman, recalling the USGS’s “strong argument” to include uranium on its 2018 list, said that “seemed to change” under the Biden administration, asking, “Were there other factors involved?”
“I think what’s changed is that The Energy Act was passed [in 2020] and The Energy Act defines critical minerals as ‘non-fuel’ and specifically excludes ‘fuel minerals’ and, thus, USGS did not evaluate uranium,” Dr. Nassar said.
In other words, he said, the fuel and non-fuel uses “have not changed but the definition of what uranium is as a ‘fuel mineral’’ has changed.
“This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me,” Mr. Westerman said. “That’s why it’s important for us to have these hearings and to come up with better policy moving forward.”
Under questioning by Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho) about listing uranium to encourage domestic sourcing, Dr. Nassar said doing so would be more a policy matter rather than an administrative analysis based on supply risks.
“We look at … United States exposure to foreign supply disruptions, and our ability to weather the storm through our economic vulnerability. We are looking at whether or not suppliers to the United States are reliable suppliers, whether there will be potential for disruption due to the simple fact that the production is concentrated either in one trading partner or in a geographic region. So those are the things that concern us most,” he said.
But, Mr. Fulcher said, none of the uranium used right now in the United States is domestically sourced although the United States is an exporter of related commodities, such as molybdenum.
The USGS “doesn’t necessarily cover uranium production and consumption but my understanding is that we are a high-net importer [with] most of our imports coming in currently from Australia and a smaller degree from Canada,” Dr. Nassar said.
“That brings up another question,” Mr. Fulcher said. “Why is that why is uranium not of interest to you and you say that’s not covered by your jurisdiction? Why not?”
“I believe that is due to statute that requires the Energy Information Administration to cover uranium and not the national minerals information” the USGS is required to focus on, he said.
A List of Lists
While uranium and copper are not included on the USGS’s critical mineral list, they are included on a similar list maintained by the United States Department of Energy (DOE) updated in July 2023.
DOE defines critical minerals as any non-fuel mineral, element, substance, or material with “a high risk of supply chain disruption and serves an essential function in one or more energy technologies, including technologies that produce, transmit, store, and conserve energy” or if declared as such by the Secretary of the Interior.
“It’s important to fully understand how these lists differ, if minerals benefit in different ways from being on one list or the other, and if there are any considerations given to the DOE list that the USGS might incorporate into its own analysis,” Mr. Stauber said.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said USGS’s list identifies minerals that are “a true priority” in building a carbon-free energy system adding industry’s needs should not be part of an objective evaluation.
“I think for us, we deal with a profound incentive, because it creates a lot of pressure for people who want to add minerals to this list and have access to some of those perks and benefits,” including accelerated permitting and some regulatory relief, she said.
“And so, we have to make sure that we are having the appropriate amount of minerals on this list while also dealing with, frankly, very real political incentives to pile on things to this list that perhaps may not be necessary,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said.
In addition to USGS and DOE, the Department of Defense and the Defense Logistics Agency, for National Defense stockpile, also maintain separate critical mineral lists, said Dr. Roderick Eggert, Mineral Economics Coulter Foundation Chair at the Colorado Schools of Mines.
Each presents “a more nuanced” list geared to their regulatory obligations, he said. “So, the USGS list is U.S.-centric, broad, and based largely on” legislation adopted by Congress whereas “the DOE assessment is energy centric, narrower, and more, forward-looking,” Dr. Eggert said, adding “it is noteworthy that both the DOE in the USGS lists have significant overlap.”
Dr. Nassar noted the USGS provides data for the Defense Logistics Agency, DOD, and DOE “to analyze their issues and provide their reports.”
Utah Mining Association President Brian Somers said all governments would best serve taxpayers by adopting the National Mining Association’s simple definition of “criticality,” which is “minerals that are unavailable when we need them should be considered critical.”
Mr. Somers, citing a 2020 Utah geological survey, said 28 of the 35 minerals on USGS’s 2018 critical minerals list can be found in Utah. Four of the five critical minerals removed from the 2022 list—uranium, potash, helium, rhenium—are commercially mined in the state.
“In the aftermath of [Russia’s February 2022 Ukraine] invasion, global prices for uranium spiked and remained at near record highs as alternatives to uranium supplied by Russia and Russian-aligned countries are explored,” Mr. Somers said, “especially in light of the greatly diminished capacity of the U.S.’s once-thriving uranium mining, milling, and enrichment industries.”
The Biden administration was guiding the USGS’s listing process to de-list uranium while “in real time, world events were highlighting the criticality of uranium and potash and helium” he said, noting “Utah is home to the nation’s last functioning conventional uranium mill and is also the only state in the union which produces the higher value sulfate of potash, which made the exclusion of uranium and potash and the revised critical minerals list especially puzzling to Utahans.”
Prices for potash have also spiked since Russia’s Ukraine invasion “and have remained high given that Russia and Belarus account for 41 percent of global trade and potash, with resulting negative effects on food supply and prices,” Mr. Somers said.
Asked “yes or no” by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) if the “Biden administration’s decision to leave uranium, helium, and potash off the list had any adverse impacts on job creation or economic development in Utah, Mr. Somers said, “I think has. Yes,”
This is utterly unnecessary, Mr. Fulcher said, noting the United States has ample phosphate rock and phosphorus but, because of litigation and regulatory entanglements, has to import up to 35 percent of domestic consumption—from China and Russia.
Mr. Somers said the “Byzantine and burdensome” helium exclusion has exacerbated “ongoing shortages and high prices” and is also “putting further strain on the global semiconductor shortage, which began during the COVID pandemic as semiconductor manufacturing constitutes the second-largest use of helium worldwide.”
“Helium is vital to our economy, including defense semiconductors, health care, and more. And there’s also a well-documented shortage of helium,” Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) said, citing a 2021 Department of Commerce report that emphasized the criticality of helium.
Maybe so, Dr. Nassar said, but the United States has plenty of helium.
“One of the key factors that we look at is import dependence and the United States is the world’s largest producer of helium and has been, for a long time, an exporter of helium. That is the main reason it was taken off the critical minerals list,” he said.
And yet, Mr. Curtis repeated, “There is a well-documented shortage of helium. Can you explain why helium was taken off the list?”
Any helium shortage is induced by “commercial issues,” Dr. Nassar said. “The fact of the matter remains that the U.S. is a net exporter of helium, producing significantly larger quantities of helium than it consumes domestically.”
According to the USGS, there are 8.5 billion cubic meters of helium reserves available right now. “That’s not all there is. That’s just the reserves that are known,” he said. “So, there’s significant supply for decades, if not centuries, of helium.”
Maybe on paper but not on hand, Mr. Stauber said, meaning for those who need helium and can’t find it, it is a critical mineral, asking Dr. Eggert, “True?”
“You can’t use it if you don’t have it. Correct,” he replied.
“It seems like all this technology is going down these roads with helium and nuclear and critical hardware yet it’s amazing how many things we have not taken into consideration,” Mr. Stauber said. “It’s a very sad mystery.”