The Senate has approved legislation designed to revive the domestic uranium industry in a move that bodes serious problems for a U.S.-Canadian trade pact.
The measure, sent to the House on a 62-28 vote Wednesday, also would restructure the government-owned industry, which prepares uranium ore for use as fuel in commercial nuclear reactors.The legislation has prompted concern over the trade agreement because it would impose a schedule of escalating fees on nuclear utilities that load their reactors with more than 37.5 percent foreign uranium.
Opponents, including Sens. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., and Daniel Evans, R-Wash., argued that the provision would violate the recent free trade pact signed with Canada, a leading exporter of uranium that is cheaper and of higher grade than the ore produced by U.S. mills.
An attempt by Bradley and Evans to strike the import penalties lost 47-45.
In arguing for the bill, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., complained that President Reagan's treaty negotiators let the Canadians say, in effect, that "We not only want your (uranium) market, we want to wipe you out."
Reagan has vowed to veto any bill that violates the trade pact.
The legislation would convert the Department of Energy's uranium enrichment program, a multibillion-dollar loser since the mid-1970s, into a corporation owned by the government. If the enterprise begins turning profits, the treasury could sell the stock in a bid to recover previous investments.
Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., who guided the measure through his Energy Committee, said it is "the culmination of six years of legislative effort to fashion a sound, sensible, and well-balanced program to address the challenges we face today in the uranium industry and the nuclear fuel cycle."
He estimated the bill would restore 20,000 jobs in the uranium mining industry, which has dwindled to just 2,000 workers in this decade.
One section of the bill would create a $1 billion fund to clean up or stabilize large, mildly radioactive piles of uranium tailings at 26 sites in Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington state and Wyoming. The cost would be shared equally by uranium mill owners, nuclear utilities and the government.