This week, the US Department of Commerce opened an investigation into the nature of uranium imports, ostensibly with an eye to imposing tariffs on ore and other uranium products.
Uranium is used in the production of nuclear energy, and currently only five percent of uranium used in the US nuclear energy industry comes from the US.
The investigation announcement invokes Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, which allows the federal government to assess imports on the basis of national security. Section 232 has been seldom used since it was signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, but it was used most recently this March by the Trump administration to levy tariffs on steel and aluminum.
In a press release announcing the uranium investigation, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was quoted as saying: “Our production of uranium necessary for military and electric power has dropped from 49 percent of our consumption to five percent.”
The press release added that the investigation was spurred by petitions from two US uranium mining companies and was pushed forward after consultation with the US Department of Defense and the Department of Energy.
If the federal government does decide to place import tariffs on uranium, higher prices for reactor fuel could make it harder for nuclear power plants to produce power economically. Such a move would be at odds with the apparent motives of the Department of Energy, which has spent more than a year trying to find ways to keep economically struggling coal and nuclear plants in operation.
Ars reached out to the Department of Energy for comment but did not receive a reply. The Department of Commerce told Ars that “Section 232 investigations take into account the domestic production needed for projected national defense requirements, including the nuclear power utility industry,” adding, “Any further inquiry along this line should be forwarded to DOE.”
Bloomberg reports that the two US uranium-mining companies that petitioned the Department of Commerce were Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy. Among nuclear power companies that could lose out if tariffs are imposed is FirstEnergy Corp., which filed for bankruptcy in April and petitioned the Department of Energy to bail it out. FirstEnergy also owns coal plants throughout the Midwest.