Environmentalists trying to halt U.S. uranium projects are emphasizing the foreign ownership of mining companies.
A key issue: Companies that mine uranium and other hardrock minerals do not pay royalties to the U.S. government. Several companies that mine or are seeking permits to mine U.S. uranium are based in Canada.
Those companies are "able to take this uranium off of U.S. soil without paying taxpayer compensations," said Jane Danowitz, public lands director for the Pew Environment Group.
"It just goes to show," Danowitz said, "that this is an issue that should raise concerns beyond environmental impacts."
Among the concerns being raised about foreign ownership of uranium companies is that U.S. uranium could end up in hostile hands. Republican lawmakers last year raised alarms over the Russian-owned company ARMZ taking control from Canadian interests of Uranium One Inc., which has significant U.S. operations.
"This transaction would give the Russian government control over a sizable portion of America's uranium production capacity," Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told President Obama in a letter last December. "As you know, Russia has a disturbing record of supporting nuclear programs in countries that are openly hostile to the United States."
Critics say Russia has helped Iran with its nuclear energy program and agreed last year to help develop one for Venezuela, both are countries with governments hostile to the United States.
"This record is at great odds with our own national security," Barrasso wrote.
Uranium One is also involved in a joint venture with Vane Minerals PLC, a British company with U.S. uranium development plans.
Adding to the worries is an ownership stake by Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO) in Denison Mines Corp., a Toronto-based company that wants to mine uranium near the Grand Canyon. The company has already secured Arizona state permits for three projects (Greenwire, March 11).
KEPCO, a leading South Korean utility, was tapped by the United Arab Emirates to help build the first nuclear reactors in the Middle East.
A National Mining Association spokesman said concerns about foreign mining interests are "misplaced and misinformed." And Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told Barrasso that the United States has put in place legal safeguards to prevent American-mined uranium from ending up in hostile countries.
Companies that want to export U.S. uranium must get an NRC license, Jaczko wrote in a March 21 letter to Barrasso.
"Before issuing such a license, the NRC would have to determine that the proposed export would not be inimical to the common defense and security of the United States," he wrote.
Other steps, including White House involvement, are also employed to ensure adequate review and to prevent third parties from obtaining uranium originally exported to approved countries.
Denison has an export permit on file with NRC that allows shipments of uranium to France. That uranium would then be enriched and returned to the United States for fuel fabrication and use in U.S. reactors, a company spokesman said.
Mestena Uranium LLC, which extracts uranium at its Alta Mesa facility in Texas, also has an export permit authorizing the company to send uranium to Canada.
Uranium One, on the other hand, does not have an export permit. Still, the buyout opened the door to increased Russian involvement in U.S. uranium mining efforts.
"Once fully operational, the ARMZ licenses will represent approximately 20 percent of the currently licensed uranium in-situ recovery production capacity in the U.S.," Jaczko wrote, adding that the company's Willow Creek facility in Wyoming is expected to start production this year. "In-situ" uranium recovery involves drilling wells and then extracting dissolved uranium from underground.
Grand Canyon proposal
Meanwhile, today is the last day for the Bureau of Land Management to take public comment on an Obama administration proposal that could withdraw about 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon from new mining claims for 20 years.
So far, BLM has received more than 276,000 public comments, according to the Pew Environment Group, which released a report last month about mining claims proliferating near several national treasures (Greenwire, April 15).
Several environmental groups have sent Interior Secretary Ken Salazar a letter urging protection for the Grand Canyon.
The mining industry is opposing the Grand Canyon proposal, saying the United States should promote domestic uranium mining as a means to energy independence. Right now, the United States depends on uranium imports to fuel its reactors. Much of that uranium comes from Russia.