Attorneys for the uranium mining industry and the U.S. Department of Energy argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this week over whether the department can make the industry viable by halting enrichment of foreign ore.

Western Nuclear Inc., the lead company in the industry suit, won a decision last year in the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals directing the DOE to halt its enrichment of foreign ore under a provision in the Atomic Energy Act, which requires that the domestic mining industry be viable.The government has argued that even if it did halt such enrichment, the domestic uranium industry would not recover from its current depression.

Thomas W. Merrill, deputy solicitor general, told the justices that nothing DOE has the authority to do could give the domestic industry more than about 27 percent of the U.S. uranium market.

Peter J. Nickles, representing Western Nuclear, appeared to agree that a halt to enriching foreign ores would not support enough domestic mines to supply 100 percent of U.S. uranium requirements, even in an emergency. Still, Nickles argued that DOE should give the industry what help it could by treating only domestic uranium.

Since 1978 U.S. utilities have been buying cheaper foreign uranium, much of it from Canada, at prices near $16 a pound, less than half the cost of producing uranium in the United States.

Since uranium can be enriched overseas as well, at costs lower than those of the Energy Department, DOE argues that a halt to its enrichment of foreign ores offers no help to the U.S. industry and could be counterproductive.

The court must decide if DOE is to be forced to enrich only domestic ore, even if that action would not significantly improve the position of Western Nuclear and its sister companies.

The justices gave no signal during their questioning of the attorneys as to what their thinking might be. Their comments appeared to be critical of both sides.