The Economist headline: How Russia’s war could revive America’s uranium industry
Sub-headline: The climate crisis and invasion of Ukraine are transforming the politics of nuclear power
Edward Abbey, an author, national-park ranger and relentless curmudgeon, once described south-eastern Utah as the “most arid, most hostile, most lonesome…quarter of the state”, and “the best part by far.” Abbey’s favourite bit of Utah is home to red sandstone canyons, sacred tribal lands, all manner of desert critters—and America’s only operating uranium mill.
Uranium prospecting surged during the cold war as America built its nuclear arsenal. Low-enriched uranium fuels most nuclear reactors; very highly enriched uranium is used in bombs. Most mining took place on the Colorado Plateau, an area spanning swathes of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. At the industry’s peak in 1980 it produced nearly 43.7m pounds (19.8m kg) of the stuff. Then things went downhill. American firms couldn’t compete with cheap uranium imports from Canada and Australia, and, later, from former Soviet states. American companies produced just 21,000 pounds of uranium last year (see chart).
Yet the White Mesa mill in southern Utah is still converting uranium ore into yellowcake, a condensed powder. For decades the facility has seemed a relic of the region’s boom times. But two things have conspired to breathe new life into America’s uranium industry.