Controversial uranium factory expands into rare-earth elements; CEO vows improved communication with Ute Mountain Ute Tribe
“Welcome to the restricted area,” says Curtis Moore, vice president of Energy Fuels Resources.
It was the beginning of a media tour Aug. 4 at the White Mesa Mill in southeast Utah near Blanding.
The Journal toured the sprawling chemical factory, which specializes in leach processing of uranium and vanadium, and now, rare-earth elements. No photos were allowed.
On elevated catwalks the tour passed an industrial ore grinder, massive tanks of chemicals, radiation precaution signs and views of enormous vats and settling tanks below. A giant crane moves overhead, and piping crisscrosses throughout.
Before leaving the factory, I grasp a beige wand that detects alpha radiation exposure and wave it over my clothing, hands and boots. Thankfully, no alarm sounds.
Welcome to the White Mesa Mill, the only conventional uranium mill still operating in the U.S. and a new focal point for the country’s renewable energy needs and carbon reduction goals.
Geopolitical energy markets, the fight against climate change, environmental hazards, Native American activism and nuclear power all converge in a single flashpoint on a remote sagebrush plain in southeast Utah where the mill has operated since 1980.
The mill is owned by Toronto-based Energy Fuels Resources and is situated off U.S. Highway 191 between Blanding and the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation community of White Mesa. The mill is on private land and is not associated with the tribe.
The chemical factory, piles of uranium ore and waste containment ponds go mostly unnoticed by visitors on their way to local high-desert attractions such as Bears Ears National Monument, the San Juan River, Lake Powell and Natural Bridges National Monument.
For locals, the mill is a controversial topic.
It enjoys strong support from nearby Monticello and Blanding residents, who embrace the jobs and economic benefits. But the mill is vehemently opposed by the adjacent Ute Mountain Ute Tribe community of White Mesa 3 miles south. Opponents are concerned about health threats to water and air from the mill’s toxic containment ponds, radioactive shipping deliveries and smoke stack emissions.
Energy Fuels recently expanded operations to process rare-earth elements, the only factory doing so in the U.S., allowing it to break into a market dominated by China.
The Journal toured the mill Aug. 4 and sat down with company officials to discuss its new rare-earth business venture, mill operations, environmental concerns and community relations.
“What we are doing today is different than what was done in the past,” said Energy Fuels CEO Mark Chalmers. “We are picking up our game, being more transparent, doing more interviews, doing a better job with engagement. We’re transitioning to what we believe is a good-news story.”
The company views its uranium processing for U.S. nuclear power plants and venture into rare-earths as an opportunity for the U.S. to become more energy independent.
“Everyone is waking up and saying we get our uranium from Russia, who’s bombing Ukraine,” Chalmers said. “We are so dependent on Russia.”
The main rare-earth supply chain is from China, company officials said.
The factory processes ore and radioactive wastes to extract a uranium concentrate called yellow cake, which is shipped for gasification and enrichment then used in fuel rods for nuclear power plants. The mill also produces vanadium needed for steel manufacturing.
Persistent low value of uranium in the U.S. market – now about $50 per pound – has made mining it unfeasible for quite a while, said Energy Fuels Marketing Vice President Curtis Moore.
According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2021, the U.S. imported 60% of its yellow cake and 20% of its enriched uranium from Russia and its allies Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan to fuel the 93 nuclear reactors at 55 power plants in the U.S.
“Notice the ban on Russian oil and coal, but not on Russian uranium because we are so dependent,” Moore said. “We are seeing U.S. utilities voluntarily moving away from Russian supply, and they are coming to us, realizing they have to pay a little more.”
The U.S. market is improving, Moore said, and Energy Fuels has signed term contracts to sell its uranium to U.S. power plants. The mill produces about 1 million pounds of yellow cake per year. It has a capacity to produce eight times that, but never has.
For the first time in decades, the U.S. government is seeking to purchase uranium to shore up the domestic supply for the power plants, and contracts with Energy Fuels are pending, Chalmers said.
Rare-earth elements are hot commodity
Moore said the White Mesa Mill is uniquely situated to process rare earths like monazite because they also contain small amounts of uranium, which the company is licensed to recover. It also can permanently store the waste tailings.
“There is a huge demand right now for monazite for electric vehicles. It’s a bit of a gold rush; car companies are ramping up production,” Moore said.
The element is used in the magnet technology that powers the vehicles.
The ore sands containing the rare earths are shipped from a mine in Georgia to the White Mesa Mill for processing.
The mill processes about 1,000 tons of the ore sands per year to extract a rare-earth carbonate and hopes to ramp up production to 15,000 tons to 20,000 tons per year.
It ships the product to Estonia for further processing called oxide separation, the basis for creating rare-earth alloys used for electric vehicle magnets.
The majority of the rare-earth supply chain comes from China, Moore said, and is needed for everything from electric vehicles and cellphones, to computers and wind turbines.
Moore said the White Mesa Mill is considering expanding into the rare-earth separation process, called solvent extraction. It already does this for its uranium and vanadium milling operation.
The upgrade would likely create a separate factory circuit for rare-earths and require an investment of $150 million to $200 million, Moore said. If the expansion went forward, it would create 80 to 100 jobs. Now, the mill has about 65 employees, and recently hired five new staff to accommodate rare-earth processing.
To provide a source of rare-earth sands, Chalmers said Energy Fuels is securing a land position on the Brazil coast north of Rio de Janeiro where rare-earth minerals can be mined for the White Mesa Mill. Another area in Tennessee is being studied.
“Companies we have talked to say they are desperate for rare-earths and do not want to be totally dependent on China,” Moore said.
The White Mesa Mill has faced criticism for management of its waste containment cells from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and environmental groups, including Grand Canyon Trust.
Cell 4B was recently drained of its water cover, which triggered action from the Environmental Protection Agency that prevented the mill from acceptance of Superfund radioactive waste to the facility. It has since modified the order and allowed the wastes as long as Cell 4B was not used, pending inspections.
The company and the EPA dispute whether the water cover is required for Cell 4B.
The Clean Air Act requires a water cover on containment cells with solid uranium tailings to prevent cancer-causing radon emissions, a health hazard.
Energy Fuels claims Cell 4B is evaporative and does not have solid uranium tailings; therefore, it does not require the water cover, according to Moore. The company believed it had EPA permission to drain it.
Moore said the company has agreed to re-cover Cell 4B with water, and the refill is ongoing, adding, “that it’s a waste of water.”
In July, a flyover by EcoFlight revealed another waste pond, containment Cell 1, which does contain solid uranium tailings, was losing its water cover, a violation of the Clean Air Act.
A bright green substance could be seen exposed in one corner of Cell 1.
“The observation on Cell 1 is concerning,” said Scott Clow, environmental programs director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. “With 40 years of accumulated materials in there, having them exposed may be very hazardous. Energy Fuels is aware of what the regulations require, and they participated in the rule-making process, starting with the first meeting I attended with them and the Utah Division of Air Quality. They need to comply with it.”
Moore said the problem is being corrected and was caused by evaporation during the heat of the summer. He said water is being added to the cell.
Environmental groups dispute Energy Fuels’ position on whether Cell 4B should be covered with water.
“We should not be playing whack-a-mole when it comes to managing radioactive material,” said Grand Canyon Trust Staff Attorney Chaitna Sinha, in a July 27 news release. “The mill has still not complied with the law on Cell 4B, and now there are signs that the mill may be out of compliance with the law when it comes to Cell 1. We hope the EPA will carefully inspect Cell 1 and take into consideration the photographic evidence documenting the changes in Cell 1 obtained during the July 7 over flight. Cell 1 is subject to the same rules as Cell 4B and must be covered in liquid to reduce emissions of cancer-causing radon.”
In August 2021, the Ute Mountain Tribal Council passed a resolution that opposes a federal uranium reserve program, which stated “the operations of the White Mesa Mill has had severe health impacts on the residents of White Mesa and should cease entirely.”
Every Fall, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and environmental groups participate in a protest march against the mill, walking the 3 miles from the reservation town of White Mesa along U.S., Highway 191 to the mill entrance.
Mill tour highlights process
The mill tour documented the uranium and rare-earth milling processes. No photography was allowed.
In the mill, uranium, vanadium, rare earths and radioactive alternate feed materials go through an elaborate leaching and solvent extraction system. Extracted industrial wastes are delivered to containment cells for permanent storage.
As we walked along catwalks, large tanks and vats could be seen below, and an odor similar to kerosene filled the air. A control room monitored and regulated the factory systems.
A platform overlooked a waste containment pond Cell 1 and water-quality wells around it.
A radiation warning instructs workers to not pass a certain point if a red light is flashing, indicating an exposure risk.
In the yard, a fenced area has rows and rows of blue of barrels containing processed vanadium ready for shipping out. There is one black barrel of yellow cake uranium.
Large piles of low-level uranium ore, much of it from the Mount Taylor mine in New Mexico, are waiting for processing. The ore is part of a cleanup of the mine.
The ore is stored outdoors and regularly sprayed with water to create a crust that prevents the dirt from blowing away in the wind, said Radiation Safety Officer Terry Spade.
Nearby are barrels of so called alternate feed materials that contain uranium bearing waste and are shipped to the mill for processing and permanent storage.
In the lab, scientists work on an array of equipment, and more has been added for the science of processing rare-earth elements. There are rows of mixer settlers, and mass spectrometer
Back in the conference room, CEO Chalmers emphasized that uranium milling is highly regulated these days, and they feel wrongly chained to the problematic legacy from the 1950s and 60s.
“We get held back by that, and are focused on improving that image,” he said. “More regulations have been put in place, bonding has been put in place, design of facilities has improved.”
On public engagement, Chalmers said it needs improvement, especially to critics.
“We are reaching out to tribal leadership and members,” he said. “We absolutely need to up our game there. There is a lot of misinformation making people afraid. We got to do a better job at making people understand.”