FROM THE BEGINNING of the Atomic age until 1980, the USA was the largest producer of uranium. Naturally occurring U-238 is the building block of the industry. It is nearly everywhere in small quantities, on the order of three parts per million, on average, in all the material on the earth’s crust (even the ocean), and higher in common rocks like granite, and soil. While it has a half-life that is nearly as long as the earth is old, it is not fissile, and its danger to humans comes more from the radon it produces as it decays, and from the other isotopes and elements produced from it by industrial processes, than the material itself.
Though the USA has some of the largest known high-grade deposits on earth, most of it is now imported, more inexpensively, from Australia, Canada and Russia. But that could be changing. At present, there are only a couple active uranium mines in the USA, but dozens are in standby mode, awaiting favorable economic conditions, political will, and permitting. There is only one operating uranium mill and one fully operational enrichment plant, though another is under construction, and another is being planned.
The weapons industry has more than enough stockpiled, so the main demand for the material is for nuclear energy. There are 104 commercial nuclear reactors at 65 power plants around the nation, generating around 20% of the power consumed in the USA.
Mount Taylor Uranium Mine, NM
One of several major uranium mines sitting idle at the moment, the Mount Taylor Mine sits atop one of the largest uranium deposits in the country, in western New Mexico. It was first developed in 1986 by Chevron, and for three years extracted and shipped eight million pounds of ore to the company’s Panna Maria uranium mill in southern Texas, before being placed on stand-by status in 1989. Like most uranium mines, this is an underground operation, with vertical shafts accessing the ore body, which is 3,000 feet beneath the surface. Efforts to reopen the mine are ongoing, and the site is staffed and maintained. It is now owned by Rio Grande Resources, a division of General Atomics. The company also acquired Chevron’s south Texas mills and uranium operations.
White Mesa Uranium Mine, UT
The only conventional uranium mill currently operating in the USA is the White Mesa Mill, at Blanding, Utah. It is owned by the Energy Fuels corporation, a Canadian uranium company, which has proposed building a new uranium mill in the Paradox Valley of Colorado.
Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, KY
Currently the only fully operational uranium enrichment plant in the United States, the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is a massive industrial site that produces uranium 235 for use in nuclear power plants and nuclear propulsion systems, such as submarines. The plant is owned by the Department of Energy, and operated by the United States Enrichment Company, with most of the operations actually run by the Lockheed Martin Company. 2,200 people are employed on a 3,423-acre site. Two other uranium enrichment plants in the United States, at Piketon, Ohio and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, ceased operations more than a decade ago. A new $3 billion plant proposed by the French company Areva, to be built in Idaho, has been permitted but construction has not yet begun. And its partner company, Urenco, is currently building the National Enrichment Facility, in New Mexico.
The National Enrichment Facility, NM
A new uranium enrichment plant being built in the ranchlands near the town of Eunice, in the southeastern corner of New Mexico, the National Enrichment Facility is currently one of only two uranium enrichment plants in the nation (the other is the Paducah Plant). It is being built by Urenco, a European company that controls around a quarter of the world’s uranium enrichment. The facility uses the more efficient centrifuge enrichment process, rather than the older gaseous diffusion method used at Paducah. One of the largest single industrial projects built in the USA in the last decade, the $2 billion+ project broke ground in 2008, and was licensed to begin processing feed materials in June 2010, though most of the site is still under construction. If completed at the intended scale in the next few years, the facility would be capable of producing half the uranium fuel needed for the domestic nuclear power industry.