The United States has begun investigating whether uranium imports threaten national security, launching a process that could lead to more tariffs being imposed on imports from Russia and Central Asian countries.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced the probe on July 18 and said it would cover the entire uranium sector, including mining and enrichment, as well as both defense and industrial uses of the radioactive metal.
"Our production of uranium necessary for military and electric power has dropped from 49 percent of our consumption to 5 percent," Ross said, suggesting that to be so overwhelmingly dependent on imports could jeopardize U.S. security.
He pledged a thorough, fair, and transparent investigation of the matter.
The United States imported $1.4 billion worth of enriched uranium last year, along with $470 million in uranium ores and $1.8 billion in uranium compounds and alloys, according to Commerce Department data.
In addition to being used in nuclear weapons, uranium fuels about 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation and is used to power nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.
Canada and Kazakhstan account for about half of the imported uranium used in U.S. power generation, according to the Energy Department.
Former Soviet republics provided more than one-third: Kazakhstan 24 percent, Russia 14 percent, and Uzbekistan 4 percent. About 10 percent came from four African countries.
Washington this year outraged major U.S. trading partners, including Canada, China, and the European Union, by citing national security concerns as justification to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum.
Those tariffs, which hit Russia's steel and aluminum industries hard, touched off a wave of countermeasures against U.S. agriculture and other goods, alarming many U.S. businesses and lawmakers.
The announcement that Washington is now targeting uranium comes after the Commerce Department said it was investigating hundreds of billions of dollars worth of cars and auto parts imported every year to determine whether that undermines U.S. national security.
The probe of uranium imports is in response to petitions for an investigation filed in January by two U.S. mining companies: Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels. They called for a quota that reserves 25 percent of U.S. demand for domestic production.
"Increasing levels of state-subsidized nuclear fuel are expected to be imported from Russia and China in the coming years, which would likely further displace U.S. uranium production," the mining companies said in their petition.
"If Russia and its allies take control of this critical fuel, the threat to U.S. national and energy security would be incalculable," they said.
According to the Energy Department, as uranium prices tumbled to just over $25 per pound between 2009 and 2015, employment in the U.S. uranium sector fell more than 60 percent, to just over 600 workers.