WASHINGTON (CN) – The Commerce Department on Wednesday said it is investigating U.S. dependence of foreign uranium imports, relying on the same legal grounding the Trump administration recently used to impose massive tariffs on a wide range of imported whoelsale and consumer products.
The investigation, opened at the request of two U.S.-based uranium mining companies, will examine whether the nation’s reliance mainly on internationally-mined uraniun is a national security issue.
In a letter sent to Defense Secretary James Mattis Wednesday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the investigation has begun under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. This section is the same legislative language used by Trump to conduct an investigation into, and eventually put tariffs on, imports on steel and other goods.
Known as the “national security clause,” it gives the president, Defense Department and Commerce Department “broad discretion … to define the scope of the investigation,” according to a white paper released by the Federation of American Scientists.
In a press release issued Wednesday, Secretary Ross explained 20 percent of the country’s power comes from uranium-fueled plants. The fuel also powers U.S. Navy submarines and aircraft carriers. And while about half ot the nation’s uranium needs were fulfilled domestically in the 1980s, only 5 percent is mined in the states today.
According to industry officials, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan provide almost half of the United States’ nuclear fuel.
“The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security will conduct a thorough, fair, and transparent review to determine whether uranium imports threaten to impair national security,” Ross said in a statement.
And while steel and other import tariffs have caught ire from industry advocates and elected officials from both sides of the aisle, U,S.-based uranium manufactures appear ready to embrace such a federal intervention in the international market.
A Section 232 request can come from “any interested party” and in this case, one of the parties was Energy Fuels Inc., a U.S.-based mining company with offices throughout the Midwest. They operate one of the few uranium mines in the U.S., Canyon Mine, less than 10 miles away from Grand Canyon National Park.
In a statement sent out Wednesday, the company expressed gratitude for the agency looking into their request. In it they too listed the importance of uranium and the trouble the company, and the industry as a whole, has faced in bringing uranium mining back to the states.
“While U.S. producers can fairly compete with foreign production on a level playing field, it is difficult for them to compete with heavily subsidized foreign production,” the company said. “Foreign policies of other nations should not be permitted to jeopardize this crucial U.S. industry.”
In a profile by Bloomberg News published earlier this year, representatives of Energy Fuels Inc. spoke at length about the issues they face compared to companies in other countries where environmental restrictions, or additional funding from state actors, makes it harder to compete. This market manipulation has caused the price of the ore to drop significantly and with it efforts to mine in the US.
Energy Fuels’ president and CEO Mark Chambers told Bloomberg his company could not cover the cost of operation unless the ore nearly doubled in price from about $20 to $50 per pound.
“The project just might break even,” he said of hitting the higher price point.
The fight to bring uranium mining back to the US has long been a priority for the Trump Administration. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has long championed the return of nuclear power, saying last summer he “wants to make [it] cool again” so young people will study it more and increase the US’s ability to benefit from it.
Perry told the Washington Examiner that the industry has long been “strangled all too often by government regulations” and he wants to “bring us to that place where nuclear energy is part of a portfolio, and be able to sell it in great truthfulness and honesty about what it can add to America from an environmental standpoint and from a security standpoint.”
As the Examiner points out, interest in nuclear power by Americans shifted drastically in the late 1970s with the Three-Mile Island incident and the lovable idiot Homer Simpson’s role as “safety inspector” for Springfields nuclear plant on the long-running animated TV show that bears his moniker.
More recently, the fallout – literally and figuratively – from 2011’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, as well as the drop in gasoline and natural gas prices, have reduced the nation’s interest in the alternative energy source.
A March 2016 Gallup poll put support for nuclear power at just 44 percent while 54 percent survey respondents opposed it.
Still, advocates like Perry point to nuclear power, and the uranium mining required to fuel it, as a safe and healthier alternative to fossil fuels, if not a bandaid before other green power sources become more readily available.
“If you really care about this environment that we live in — and I think the vast majority of the people in the country and the world do — then you need to be a supporter of this amazingly clean, resilient, safe, reliable source of energy,” Perry said during a May 2017 news conference, according to the Associated Press.
With today’s announcement, the agency now has 270 days to investigate the problem before reporting solutions to Trump.
Wednesday’s letter pointed to several “key considerations” the agency plans to examine including regulations that slow the permitting process mines as well as the impact the closure, and reopening, of uranium mines might have on the broader market.