The US can’t seem to quit Russian uranium

When the US cut itself off from Russian energy products, uranium was not on the list. President Joe Biden forbidden Russian oil, coal and gas imports in March. The administration reportedly considered also sanctions the Russian state nuclear energy company, Rosatom. But industry lobby and Biden’s plans to include nuclear reactors in a clean energy transition have left the uranium trade untouched.

Now, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is forcing the US to grapple with vulnerabilities in its uranium supply chain. It also fuels the long-standing debate about what role nuclear energy could play in the future of the power grid. War has quickly raised the stakes.

The US’s exclusion of uranium from energy sanctions “was very frustrating because we understand it is part of Russia’s war machine,” said Kostiantyn Krynytskyi, head of the energy division of Ukraine’s environmental organization Ekodia. Krynytskyi spoke to the Vergae on a Skype call from Western Ukraine in a room tinted blue as the light filtered through tape covering his windows. The tape was a preventative measure, he explained, to minimize any glass shards a nearby bomb could send flying.

Putin founded Rosatom in 2007, and the state-owned company now produces nearly 20 percent of the world’s nuclear fuel — providing Moscow with a significant revenue stream, much like fossil fuels. Rosatom officials have also reportedly attended two Ukrainian nuclear sites seized by Russian troops, although Russian officials refused allegations that Rosatom would take over the permanent management of Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant.

Ekodia was one of many local and environmental groups that letter Biden and European leaders this month called on to cut ties with Rosatom and ban nuclear fuel from Russia. It’s not a simple request. That input made approx 16 percent of the US uranium stock in 2020 (Russian allies Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan provided another 30 percent). That’s a much bigger slice than the approx 7 percent of the oil imports that came from Russia that year (imports from the US) small coal and new natural gas from Russia).

Uranium is a relatively common metal found around the world. But 85 percent of it is produced in just six countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Namibia and Niger, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Mines produce a solid form of uranium that is then refined into what is called yellowcake, which resembles yellow chalk. Then there are a few more steps you need to take to turn that yellow cake into fuel for a nuclear reactor. First, the yellowcake must be converted to a gas, a process called “conversion,” so that it can be “enriched.” Naturally occurring uranium has a concentration of less than 1 percent of a specific isotope, U-235. Typical reactors today require uranium with a concentration of 3 to 5 percent U-235. Uranium enriched to have higher concentrations of that isotope is then fabricated into nuclear fuel rods for reactors.

Uranium concentrate, commonly known as U3O8 or yellowcake, s

Uranium concentrate, commonly known as U3O8 or yellowcake, is on Thursday, October 18, 2007 at the Uvanas processing facility near the uranium deposit at East Mynkuduk in Kyzemshek, Kazakhstan.
Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The main bottleneck in the supply chain is in the conversion and enrichment processes. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, there are only a few places in the world to go for the conversion step: Russia, France, Canada and the United States. And again, only a handful of countries – Russia, the US and a few Western European countries – have the capacity to subsequently enrich the uranium.

There are a few big reasons why this capability is no longer widespread. For starters, enriched uranium can be used for both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. So the fact that there aren’t that many of these facilities around the world is seen as a good security measure. Second, the conversion and enrichment services market is quite saturated, so it hasn’t necessarily made good business sense to invest in more capacity globally. At least, until now.

The war in Ukraine has pushed up demand for a more diversified supply chain. In the US, calls to mine uranium domestically have been ramped up. The Biden administration is rushing to draft proposals for two programs aimed at developing more enriched fuel and creating a strategic uranium reserve (similar to the country’s strategic petroleum reserve), Bloomberg’s Law reports. There is currently only one US uranium mill in operation in White Mesa, Arizona. And in 2020 the production was “too small to report,” said the World Nuclear Association.

“We can no longer tolerate this reliance on nuclear fuel or the flow of US dollars for uranium purchases that support the Putin regime. The U.S. has adequate uranium reserves and the capacity to produce them to the highest global standards,” Scott Melbye, president of the Uranium Producers of America and executive vice president of Uranium Energy Corp, said in a statement. press release with Republican senators who have introduced a bill to ban Russian uranium imports.

An old uranium mine in southeastern Utah.

An old steam boiler on the site of an old uranium mine in southeastern Utah’s canyon country.
Photo by: Jon G. Fuller/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group that includes utilities, says more conversion and enrichment capacity is needed — and still opposes a blanket ban on Russian uranium. “We see that bans or sanctions really have a trickle down effect on the world, on global utilities,” said Nima Ashkeboussi, NEI’s senior director of fuel and radiation safety. “That disruption and a potential muddle between U.S. utilities and global utilities could pose a near-term threat to some nuclear power plants to find fuel,” he says.

Nuclear power plants in the US typically refuel every 18 to 24 months, so it would take a little longer for shocks in the uranium supply chain to affect people’s power supply. In the longer term, however, the loss of Russian uranium could disrupt plans to tackle climate change by adopting new nuclear technologies.

Next Generation Nuclear Reactors generally require fuel enriched with up to 20 percent U-235, called HALEEU† (This is short for high-assay low-enriched uranium. The fuel older reactors use is called LEU, short for low-enriched uranium.) With higher enrichment, nuclear plants can take longer to refuel. The more energy-dense fuel also allows for smaller reactor designs. But the only major supplier of HALEU is in Russia, experts say The edge

“All prospects of a Russian supply of HALEU have basically been dashed after they invaded Ukraine,” said Alan Ahn, senior fellow at the Third Way think tank.

Two Department of Energy funded demonstration projects for advanced reactors, according to Ashkeboussi, will need HALEU by the end of 2024. The DOE does have some HALEU stocks. But getting a new manufacturing facility in the US would take at least four years, Ashkeboussi says.

Biden’s budget proposal for 2023 includes a funding increase for the DOE that includes money to help ensure availability of HALEU. It is part of a wider drive to accelerate the development of technologies that can transform the US economy into one that runs entirely on carbon-free electricity.

Biden wants that done by 2035. That achievement would be a huge boost, and abolishing nuclear power would arguably make that even more difficult. Nuclear power currently supplies just under 20 percent of the country’s electricity — only about half of the US’s carbon-free energy.

The urgency comes from another existential threat, the climate crisis. Climate scientists have discovered that the world is just a few decades to virtually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels or create a catastrophic climate crisis. The relatively short timeline to completely overhaul the world’s energy systems has made nuclear power more palatable to some environmentalists, who say reactors are needed to provide consistent power as wind and solar energy ebb and flow with the weather.

There are obvious risks with nuclear power, especially at the beginning and end of the fuel life cycle, making it a no-go for other proponents. The US is still cleaning up a legacy of Cold War uranium mining on Navajo land linked to kidney diseasecancerand a neuropathic syndrome in children. The federal government has also struggled to find a permanent storage solution for nuclear waste, leaving it in limbo at power plants.

New calls have already been made to ramp up uranium production in the US raised a red flag for tribes and activists who have opposed nearby uranium mines and waste sites, the guard reports. While yellowcake production at the only uranium plant in the US has declined, the Arizona site still stores scraps radioactive waste† And if the US takes steps to increase its domestic uranium stockpile, uranium production at the plant could really start churning again. Members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe have pushed for the site to be closed; his tribal council also has a solution last year against the creation of a national strategic uranium reserve.

Fire breaks out at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant site in Ukraine

A screenshot of a video shows a view of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant during a fire following clashes around its site in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on March 4, 2022.
Photo by Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Even before the current conflict in Ukraine, Ukrainian activist Krynytskyi was wary of nuclear energy. His environmental group has historically pushed for phasing out both fossil fuels and nuclear power. Ukraine is more dependent nuclear power than almost any other country in the world. But the nuclear plants that supply about half of the country’s electricity are now at unprecedented risk. The largest factory, Zaporizhzhya, has already survived the Russian shelling. Fires have also reportedly broken out in Zaporizhzhya and Chernobyl, already the site of the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history – both of which have been seized by Russia.

“When the whole country and the whole world trembles, thinking about what will happen to nuclear power plants in Ukraine,” says Krynytskyi. “Look what could happen here. You have to phase it out.”


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