The low price of uranium has forced Energy Fuels Resources Inc. to consider temporarily shutting down its White Mesa uranium mill, south of Blanding, Utah.
Energy Fuels spokesman Curtis Moore said the decision is preliminary but will likely happen unless the price rebounds soon.
“We’re looking at potentially putting the mill on standby in 2014 if the market does not come back,” Moore said. “But by 2015, we plan to reopen the mill to process uranium bearing wastes.”
Currently, the price of milled uranium, called yellow cake, is about $35 per pound, down from a 1-year high of $45 and $90 per pound five years ago. Industry officials say the price needs to be in the low-to-middle $40s for operations to be profitable.
“The primary reason for the shutdown is the low current price, but we also determined that we have enough inventory to satisfy deliveries for the next couple of years so we don’t need the production,” Moore said.
The White Mesa Mill employs 66 workers, who would face layoffs if the shutdown occurs. It is the only operating uranium mill in the U.S.
Energy Fuels operates two uranium mines in the Southwest — the Pine Nut mine, south of Fredonia, Ariz., and the Arizona 1 mine north of Grand Canyon National Park.
Moore said the Arizona 1 mine is nearing depletion, and the Pine Nut mine will be put on standby pending a market rebound. The mines each employ around 30.
The ore is trucked to the White Mesa Mill, which, along with the two mines were purchased by Energy Fuels from Dennison Mines for $107 million in 2012.
White Mesa is also licensed to accept alternative feed material, described as uranium bearing material not derived from conventional ore.
The material is shipped in from facilities in New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Missouri, California, Tennessee and Canada.
White Mesa Mill utilizes sulfuric acid leaching and a solvent extraction recovery process.
The mill’s operations have been criticized by the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, which has a reservation community nearby, also named White Mesa.
Last year, the tribe’s environmental department challenged the mill’s radioactive materials license renewal, citing lack of environmental controls. But the five-year permit was ultimately approved by the radiation control division of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
We’ve always had concerns of contamination from the mill onto our land and water sources,” Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, said in an interview. “I would like to see it permanently shut down.”
The tribe specifically wants better controls for dust, and improved waste facilities at the 32-year-old mill to safeguard surface and groundwater.
Ute officials pushed for improved liners at on waste tailing ponds from the milling process to secure against seepage into springs and groundwater. They also wanted ore piles to be stored inside to prevent potentially toxic material from blowing into the White Mesa community. But their demands were not met, tribal officials said.
“The community of White Mesa (population 200) depends on groundwater resources . . . for its municipal and domestic needs, and traditional practices which include hunting and gathering of wildlife and plants,” Ute Mountain attorneys H. Michael Keller and Celen Hawkins wrote in the tribe’s comments on the permit application.
“It is reasonable to expect that those resources are not contaminated with hazardous materials regulated by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.”
Energy Fuels stated that they have complied with Utah regulators, and assured the plant is environmentally safe. Leak-detection systems are in place, and reclamation plans have been strengthened in the new permit, Moore said.
According to the permit, White Mesa mill production rate shall not exceed 4,380 tons of yellow cake per year. Moore is confident that demand will increase.
“There are 430 nuclear power reactors in the world that need uranium,” he said. “Right now one-third of our yellow cake is shipped to South Korea.”
But Ute leaders wonder about the risk of the mill to their land, water and health.
“It is going to affect the future of air and water quality,” Heart said. “Our scientific data show the liners are of poor quality. We have pictures of a huge dust plume coming from the ore piles.”
Energy Fuels had planned to build the Pinon Ridge uranium mill in Paradox Valley, west of Naturita, but the $150-to-$200 million project is on hold.
“It is on standby for now. We have a valid license, but we are defending it in court from environmental groups,” Moore said.