The uranium industry, once a major economic force in Utah, has fallen in recent years to a fraction of its former importance. New competition from low-priced imports threatens to leave only piles of still-hazardous mill tailings to be cleaned up.
Legislation that the Senate, with support from Utah's members, passed on Aug. 8 would aid the industry with almost $10 billion in subsidies. The package, however, faces an uncertain future in the House.A dozen years ago, Congress provided that the Department of Energy maintain a "viable" domestic uranium industry, but under import pressure DOE has not been able to do that. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this spring that DOE need not restrict its enrichment of uranium ore to that produced domestically, saying that the availability of foreign enriched uranium made it impossible to rescue the domestic miners.
Responding to the court's decision, Sen. Peter Domenici, R-N.M., proposed forgiving $9 billion in charges the government says the industry owes for underpayment for enrichment of uranium since the beginning of the nuclear age. In addition, Domenici would have the U.S. buy up to $750 million in uranium ore and spend $1 billion to clean up uranium-mill tailings left at dozens of mine and mill sites.
The Senate put the Domenici package on a non-controversial Nuclear Regulatory Commission bill and sent it to the House. The bill had already been passed by the House, but influential House members declined, before Congress went into recess, to send it to a conference committee. Instead, they referred it to the House Interior and Commerce committees.
Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, a member of the commerce panel, fought for the uranium industry's protection, both in terms of DOE's enrichment program, and then against the U.S.-Canada trade agreement. That agreement, he said, would allow even more cheap Canadian uranium ore to enter the United States, further depressing the domestic industry.
And the industry does not have far to fall. From a high of 20,000 employees eight years ago, only 2,000 are now left, and their employment is precarious. Only one Utah mine remains, and it has been shut temporarily this summer.
A cleanup of tailings, like those of the former Vitro mill site in South Salt Lake, would be costly. In Utah alone, it would cost at least $42 million to clean up the tailings at the Atlas mine in Moab, the Rio Algom site in Moab, and the Union Carbide White Mesa site near Blanding.
But if the federal government does not do it, no one will, as the industry will not have the money.