Only mill in the US able to process uranium-rare earth ores open for business

White Mesa mill. (Image courtesy of Energy Fuels).

As the US pushes to dilute China’s monopoly and develop a domestic rare earth supply,  Colorado-based Energy Fuels (TSX: EFR) is working towards being at the forefront in the race.

Energy Fuels is the owner of the White Mesa Mill in Utah, the only fully-licensed and operating conventional uranium mill in the United States. The facility is normally used to process radioactive ore and produce yellowcake but now some areas are likely to be transformed to allow for the processing of uranium-rare earth ores.

“Our rare earth elements program intends to make the mill available for miners to process their uranium-rare earth ores in the US. Such a facility does not currently exist,” Mark Chalmers, president and CEO of Energy Fuels, told MINING.COM.

According to Chalmers, the mill’s ability to remove and recover uranium and manage the radioactive byproducts from rare earth ore potentially makes it a key link in the US rare earth supply chain. This is because many rare earth separation facilities are unable to handle uranium or the radioactive byproducts due to either technical or regulatory reasons, which explains why China’s rare earth industry is closely tied to its nuclear industry. 

“We are simply looking to do something similar in the US,” the executive said. 

It took Energy Fuels one year to assess the possibility of using the White Mesa mill to process REE ore streams and produce rare earth concentrates. Can you explain what this evaluation process consisted of?

Over the past year or so, we were approached by several private entities and the US government, asking about the capabilities of the White Mesa Mill in the rare earth space. So we began to educate ourselves. 

We discovered that uranium occurs in many rare earth minerals and that these elements need to be removed before the individual rare earth elements could be separated. Of course, uranium recovery is our main business. We began internal laboratory testing on a number of rare earth mineral samples and got very positive results. 

Only mill in the US able to process uranium-rare earth ores open for business
White Mesa mill tank. (Image courtesy of Energy Fuels).

We also began talking to rare earth industry folks who were not aware of the White Mesa Mill, and once they learned about our capabilities, they told us that the White Mesa Mill could fill a vital role in bringing rare earth production back to the US. 

We hired some exceptional consultants, including ANSTO, a mining consultancy group in Australia with considerable experience in rare earth mineral processing; Brock O’Kelley, who also has considerable experience in the mining and processing of rare earths in the US; and Constantine Karayannopoulos, who has substantial global experience and relationships in rare earth markets. At the current time, we think we are well on our way toward creating a viable rare earth business.

Will the mill have to undergo any modification to be able to process REE ore?

We are currently evaluating minor modifications to our operations at White Mesa Mill to enable the processing of uranium-bearing rare earth ores and to recover uranium and produce a rare earth concentrate. However, we do not believe significant investment will be required for our initial phases of rare earth recovery.

Can you explain how the process of removing and recovering uranium and thorium from rare earth ore works?

The mill has a long history of recovering uranium from a number of ores and alternate feed streams, including some that contained rare earths. We just didn’t attempt to recover those rare earths in the past. To create a rare earth concentrate, mill personnel will apply chemicals to the rare earth ores and place the rare earth elements, along with uranium, into solution. Then, the mill will use solvent extraction to remove the uranium and the radioactive byproducts. These processes are actually quite similar to what the mill has done over its 40-year operating history.

When do you plan to start this new phase? 

We intend to test and evaluate potential sources of rare earth element ores with the goal of entering into commercial processing arrangements with the owners of those ores, potentially as soon as late 2020 or early 2021. If the program is successful, we will produce rare earth oxide concentrates, which can then be sent to existing rare earth separation facilities for further processing.

Why is it important for a company like Energy Fuels to enter the REE market?

China is the dominant supplier of rare earth elements that are used in everything from smartphones to medical devices to clean energy production. The US government declared that rare earth elements are critical to our economy and national defense and has made it a priority to develop domestic production capabilities. 

We see an opportunity for our White Mesa Mill, which is already licensed and constructed, to help fill this critical gap and bring rare earth production capabilities back to the US. We don’t expect to significantly displace China in global rare earth markets. However, we would like to play a role in helping the US to rebuild our domestic capabilities.

A little bit of background

Energy Fuels acquired the White Mesa Mill as part of its acquisition of Denison Mines Corp. back in 2012. This transaction combined the only operating uranium mill in the US with Energy Fuels’ resources base.

Built in 1980, the facility has a licensed capacity of 8+ million pounds of uranium per year.

Ore from Energy Fuels mines in Utah, Arizona and Wyoming is crushed into smaller particles and delivered to the mill. Once there, expert personnel use a chemical solution to extract the uranium, which is concentrated and dried to create yellowcake. The yellowcake is then transported to a conversion facility to continue the process of creating nuclear fuel.