The 2022 production of uranium concentrate (U3O8) production in the USA was almost ten times higher than the previous year, partly as a result of higher uranium prices. Nonetheless production remained near historic lows despite operations resuming at the White Mesa Mill, the USA’s only operating conventional uranium mill.
Using different processes, five facilities in the United States produced U3O8 in 2022. Despite only reporting production in the last three months of 2022, White Mesa accounted for 84% of the U3O8 in 2022. The rest was produced at four in–situ recovery facilities. White Mesa operates on a campaign basis; it only produces U3O8 as when mill feed, contract requirements, or market conditions warrant. It can also process other minerals, including rare earths. In 2021, White Mesa focused on ramping up rare earth carbonate production and didn’t produce any U3O8.
U3O8, aka ‘yellowcake’ for its powdered, yellow appearance, is produced from mined uranium ore by a milling process, where uranium is extracted from the ore. This is then processed at conversion and enrichment facilities.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the United States introduced financial incentives, procurement programmes, and trade policies to help spur domestic uranium production. Domestic U3O8 production significantly declined in the 1980s as production incentives and subsidies ended, trade barriers were removed, and uranium prices fell. Since then, most of the uranium supplied to US nuclear plants has been imported, because it is more abundant and cheaper to produce in other countries. In 2022, 95% of the uranium purchased by US nuclear power plant operators originated in other countries. Canada, which has large, high-quality uranium reserves, was the largest source in 2022 at 27%. Kazakhstan was the second-largest at 25%, followed by Russia at 12%.
Although the United States banned imports of oil, natural gas and coal from Russia following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, uranium was not sanctioned.
The US Department of Energy has announced its aim to increase domestic uranium production to reduce reliance on uranium imports. In 2020, Congress established a strategic uranium reserve, a stockpile of domestically produced uranium that serves as backup supply for US nuclear power plants and incentivises domestic uranium production. At the end of 2022, the US Department of Energy awarded the first U3O8 supply contracts for the reserve, including one to White Mesa’s operator, Energy Fuels.
Image: US EIA Uranium production (Source: US Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review and Domestic Uranium Production Report)
Note: Data for 2020 withheld to avoid disclosure of individual company data