At the dawn of the atomic age, U.S. government incentives and trade barriers sparked a gold rush for uranium, the chemical element that was fueling the nuclear arms race at the time.
Now, 60 years later, American uranium miners want the government to use similar tools to prevent the collapse of the industry — and the few remaining U.S. companies still producing uranium for the nation's fleet of nuclear power plants.
The numbers tell the tale. At the height of activity in 1980, U.S. companies produced nearly 44 million pounds of uranium concentrate and provided most of the supplies purchased by nuclear power plants. Last year, American miners produced 2.4 million pounds and supplied just 7 percent of the uranium bought by domestic plants.
The industry, which once supported nearly 22,000 jobs, now employs just a few hundred people each year.
The story of uranium mining in the United States is little known, but it's intertwined with some of the defining events of the 20th century: the Cold War, the dawn of nuclear energy, the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of globalization.
The latest chapter dovetails with the re-emergence of Russia as America's primary political adversary and a revolution in the U.S. energy industry.
Last month, the U.S. Commerce Department opened an investigation to determine whether the nation's growing dependence on foreign uranium supplies poses a risk to national security. The outcome of the review could result in the government restoring trade barriers — torn down more than 30 years ago — to ensure U.S. miners remain involved in servicing the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, submarines, aircraft carriers and power plants.
The two miners that petitioned Commerce to conduct the review, Energy Fuels and UR-Energy, want the United States to take steps to ensure U.S. producers control 25 percent of the market. They say they can't compete with subsidized supplies from places like Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
To be sure, nearly half of the uranium used in the United States comes from allies like Canada and Australia. From the moment they lost trade protections, U.S. miners had trouble competing with these foreign supplies.