The U.S. was once the dominant global force in the uranium industry, but since the 1990s the country’s involvement in the sector has been declining. This week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration released an update on the sector that showed just how far the U.S. has fallen when it comes to its foothold on uranium.
U.S. production of uranium concentrate, refined from uranium ore, began in 1949 and grew rapidly to exceed 35 million pounds per year by 1960. Production levels remained relatively high through the early 80s, reaching nearly 44 million pounds in 1980. But, they quickly collapsed, and since 1990, U.S. uranium concentrate production has averaged just over 4 million pounds per year, the EIA reported stated.
Uranium concentrate production slumped further in response to low uranium prices in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, according to the EIA, production of U.S. uranium concentrate decreased 40% between 2014 and 2016 to 2.9 million pounds U3O8 in 2016, the lowest annual total since 2005. Production of uranium concentrate has remained low in 2017, totaling just 0.45 million pounds during the first quarter. If production stays at the same level over the year annual production in 2017 would be the lowest level since 1952.
Now that U.S. uranium production has slumped, domestic nuclear generation relies heavily on foreign-origin uranium that is enriched domestically. Over the period from 2012 to 2016, foreign-origin uranium made up nearly 90% of uranium purchases by owners and operators of U.S. civilian nuclear power reactors.
Even though imports have taken an increased amount of market share, the U.S. is not without the uranium it needs.
Total commercial uranium inventories continue to build, and they ended 2016 at 144 million pounds U3O8 equivalent, the highest level since 1988.