By Judd Gregg
August 17, 2018 at 5:00 am ET
America’s uranium mining industry and its employees are facing unprecedented challenges. Changes to supply and demand coupled with a growing global economy have tested many mining businesses and diminished their position in the overall market. As a U.S.-based industry that employs hard-working Americans, the uranium mining industry and its challenges deserve attention.
Recently, the uranium mining industry utilized “Section 232” of the Trade Expansion Act to petition the federal government to conduct a review of the uranium supply chain, which would determine if foreign uranium supplies pose a threat to national security. This has since led to an investigation by the Department of Commerce, a required action following this type of petition.
While the industry and its miners deserve the consideration of the federal government, it is important to understand that this petition and subsequent investigation could lead to tariffs and quotas, which could have unintended consequences. One of these consequences could be a negative impact on another critical U.S. industry that uranium is uniquely tied to — nuclear energy.
That’s why, as the investigation continues and stimulates discussions throughout the federal government, our leaders must consider the impact of their work. Going down a path that imposes tariffs and quotas is not good for anyone involved and does not account for the realities of the U.S.-mined uranium industry and its relationship to our domestic nuclear energy fleet.
For years, shifts in uranium supplies have fundamentally changed the way that American nuclear facilities source and obtain this resource. Today, only a fraction of uranium used to power nuclear reactors comes from domestic sources.
Instead, facility operators procure their uranium from a diverse set of suppliers in several countries, including our allies in Canada and Australia. Those contracts, coupled with the long lead time these operators build in for fuel procurement, help nuclear plant operators anticipate and resolve any potential disruptions in fuel supply well ahead of when it is needed.
Given how critical uranium is to ensuring the reliability of nuclear power, the U.S. nuclear energy industry takes careful steps to ensure no country has the ability to hold our nuclear plant operators hostage over fuel delivery. Additionally, the U.S. military has safeguarded our nuclear weapons and naval propulsion needs by creating a stockpile of enough uranium to last for several decades.
Over the lifetime of the evolving supply landscape, these steps have enabled the nuclear energy industry to maintain its ability to provide Americans with reliable, clean, affordable energy. In fact, two of nuclear energy’s most valuable attributes include its ability to generate electricity 24/7 and that it only requires refueling every 18-24 months — making this unwavering baseload generator critical to the resilient and reliable grid that powers our homes and the economy. That is, in large part, why President Donald Trump and his administration have rightly identified the need to maintain nuclear power plants as a primary contributor to our strong and secure energy grid.
The nuclear energy industry is facing its own challenges, given historically low natural gas prices, along with state and federal subsidies that value non-nuclear forms of carbon-free energy. Despite producing nearly 20 percent of the country’s energy, more than half of its clean energy generation, and contributing nearly $60 billion annually to the gross domestic product six nuclear power reactors have shuttered, and 13 more have announced they will prematurely close over the next several years. Once these facilities are taken offline, they can never be restarted.
Simply put, by possibly creating an unnecessary hurdle for nuclear power plant operators, this recent petition and investigation could further risk the future of the critical, emissions-free power source that is nuclear energy. It is my hope that the administration carefully considers its next steps and the potential unintended consequences this process may have on the future of domestic nuclear energy production, including the ability of U.S. nuclear operators to procure uranium.
The administration must continue to focus on finding a path forward for nuclear energy, so its many benefits can be utilized for generations to come.
Judd Gregg is a former Republican member of the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire and former governor of New Hampshire.
Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.