Utah's uranium industry will see no immediate effect from a Supreme Court decision that has the effect of widening foreign uranium import access to the U.S., a Utah uranium analyst said.
And despite Wednesday's decision, which ruled the government does not have to place restrictions on imported uranium to help protect domestic producers of the nuclear fuel, a long-term domestic uranium market will likely remain, the analyst said."It (he ruling) won't have any immediate affect on the Utah industry except in the sense that they now have to compete with foreign suppliers for future contracts," said analyst Rod Millar, of the Utah Energy Office.
The unanimous ruling overturned a decision barring federal officials from enriching foreign uranium, particularly from Canada and Australia, for import into the United States.
Reagan administration officials had argued that the ban seriously jeopardized U.S. supply of fuel used to run electric utility company nuclear reactors.
Wednesday's decision reversed a ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Denver, which said last year that the Department of Energy must restrict enrichment of foreign uranium to safeguard the deteriorating domestic industry.
Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in his opinion for the high court, said federal law does not require the department to restrict enrichment unless it is assured such action would maintain "a viable domestic uranium industry."
Federal officials have determined that the industry has not been viable since 1983.
The industry has suffered in recent years with the decline of nuclear power due to its high cost and concern over safety triggered by the accident at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania.
The number of operating uranium mines in the United States has dropped from 362 in 1979 to just three in 1986. The industry has operated at a loss over the past several years and imports have accounted for an increasing share of domestic requirements.
Federal energy officials say the U.S. uranium industry has collapsed and the government is not required by law to prop it up by limiting imports.
In 1983, federal law was amended to require the secretary of energy to annually determine if the industry was viable. The secretary then determined the industry was not viable and the U.S. Trade Representative recommended no action be taken to restrict import of uranium.
"Most analysts look at the recovery of the uranium industry as a long-term process, not fixable by a quick action such as restricting imports," Millar said.
"What this will mean is that uranium is a market commodity and companies will have to compete on the open market," he said.
Despite competition with countries like Canada, which can mine and produce uranium much cheaper than the United States can, there will always be a market for Utah uranium, he said.
Umetco's White Mesa Mill near Blanding currently has a contract that will ensure uranium buyers for the immediate future, he said.
Additionally, many uranium buyers prefer to buy domestically and the government, for national security purposes, is compelled to maintain a domestic market.
Uranium must be enriched to serve as nuclear fuel because in its natural state it lacks an adequate concentration of a fissionable material known as isotope U-235.
The enrichment process increases uranium's U-235 content from less than 1 percent to 3 percent.
The government has a U.S. monopoly in providing enrichment services.
Federal officials said at least $300 million a year in fees for enrichment services was at stake in today's case.
Also, the Justice Department said restricting enriched uranium from other countries could force up prices of electricity to consumers here as supplies of the nuclear fuel dwindle.
The department said also at stake were U.S. trade relations with Canada and Australia, the major suppliers of uranium to his country.
Finally, U.S. officials said barring uranium imports could harm nuclear non-proliferation efforts because foreign suppliers of uranium likely would turn for enrichment services to other nations that do not have as strict a non-proliferation policy as the United States.
Underscoring Wednesdays ruling are conflicts in Congress over the recently signed U.S.-Canada free trade agreement. The administration recently has begun negotiating an alternative plan in which the government would buy guaranteed amounts of domestic uranium.
But that plan, estimated to cost $750 million from 1989 to 1994, also faces stiff resistance from House leaders who say it would be too costly to the taxpayers.
Meanwhile, the Senate passed a bill in March designed to revitalize the domestic uranium industry by imposing a schedule of escalating fees on nuclear utilities that load their reactors with more than 37.5 percent of foreign uranium.
That bill has run into stiff opposition in the House.
In Wednesday's case, the government was opposed by three U.S. uranium producers, Western Nuclear Inc., Energy Fuels Inc. and Uranium Resources Inc.
The producers were supported by officials from Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Nevada. They said their state economies would be hurt by the collapse of the uranium industry.