The US apparently cannot give up Russian uranium

When the US cut ties with Russian energy products, uranium was not on the list. President Joe Biden banned Russian oil, coal and gas imports in March. The government was also reportedly considering sanctions against Russia’s state-owned nuclear power plant Rosatom. But industry lobbying and Biden’s plans to include nuclear reactors in the clean energy transition have left the uranium trade untouched.

Now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is forcing the US to address 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. The war quickly upped the ante.

The US exclusion of uranium from energy sanctions “was very frustrating because we understand that this is part of the Russian war machine,” says Kostiantyn Krynytskyi, head of the energy department at Ukraine’s environmental organization Ekodia. Krynytskyi spoke along the forgete on a Skype call from western Ukraine in a blue-tinted room as light filtered through the tape covering his windows. The tape was a preventive measure, he explained, to minimize glass fragments that a bomb might fly nearby.

Putin founded Rosatom in 2007, and the state-owned company now produces nearly 20 percent of the world’s nuclear fuel — making it an important source of revenue for Moscow, along with fossil fuels forces, although Russian officials have denied claims that Rosatom would take over permanent management of Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant.

Ekodia was one of several local and environmental groups that sent a letter to Biden and European leaders this month, urging them to sever ties with Rosatom and ban imports of nuclear fuel from Russia. It’s not an easy request. These imports accounted for about 16 percent of US uranium supplies in 2020 (Russian allies Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan provided another 30 percent). That’s a much larger share than the roughly 7 percent of oil imports that came from Russia that year (the US imports little coal and no natural gas from Russia).

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

Mines produce a solid form of uranium, which is then refined into something called yellowcake, which looks like yellow chalk. Then there are a few more steps to take to turn that yellow cake into fuel for a nuclear reactor. First, the yellowcake must be turned into a gas, a process called “conversion,” so that it can be “fortified.” Naturally occurring uranium has less than 1 percent concentration of a specific isotope, U-235. Typical reactors today require uranium with a U-235 concentration between 3 and 5 percent. Enriched uranium with higher concentrations of this isotope is then processed into fuel rods for reactors.

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

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

There are a couple of important reasons why this capacity is not more widely used. First of all, enriched uranium can be used for either nuclear energy or nuclear weapons. Therefore, not having so many of these facilities around the world was considered a good security measure. Second, the market for conversion and enrichment services was pretty saturated – so it didn’t necessarily make sense to invest in more capacity globally. At least until now.

The war in Ukraine is fueling demand for a more diversified supply chain. In the US, calls for domestic uranium mining are growing louder. The Biden administration is rushing to draft calls for proposals for two programs aimed at developing more highly enriched fuel and creating a strategic uranium reserve (similar to the country’s strategic petroleum reserve). Bloomberg law reports. There is currently only one operating American uranium mill in White Mesa, Arizona. And in 2020, its production was “too small to report,” according to the World Nuclear Association.

“We can no longer tolerate this reliance on nuclear fuel or the flow of US dollars for uranium purchases that props up the Putin regime. The US has extensive uranium resources and the capacity to produce them to the highest global standards,” said Scott Melbye, president of Uranium Producers of America and executive vice president of Uranium Energy Corp., in a press release with Republican senators supporting a bill introduced to ban uranium imports from Russia.

An old uranium mine in southeastern Utah.

An old boiler at the site of an old uranium mine in the canyon country of southeastern Utah.
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 sweeping ban on Russian uranium. “We’re seeing bans or sanctions really have a trickling effect on the world, on global utilities,” says Nima Ashkeboussi, senior director of fuel and radiation safety at NEI. “This disruption, and a potential mix-up between US utilities and global utilities, could leave some nuclear power plants unable to find fuel in the near term,” 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 combat climate change by turning to new nuclear technologies.

Next-generation nuclear reactors generally require fuel enriched with up to 20 percent U-235, called HALEU. (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 power plants can stay longer before refueling. The more energy-dense fuel also enables smaller reactor designs. But the only major supplier of HALEU is in Russia, experts say The edge.

“Any prospects for Russian supplies from HALEU basically went down the drain after they invaded Ukraine,” says Alan Ahn, senior resident fellow at think tank Third Way.

Two advanced reactor demonstration projects funded by the Department of Energy will require HALEU by the end of 2024, according to Ashkeboussi. The DOE has some HALEU in stock. But setting up a new manufacturing facility in the US would take at least four years, says Ashkeboussi.

Biden’s 2023 budget proposal includes a funding increase for the DOE, which includes funds to support HALEU’s “​​ensuring availability.” It is part of a broader push to accelerate the development of technologies that can transform the US economy to run entirely on carbon-free electricity.

Biden wants to do that by 2035. That feat would be a huge boost, and eliminating nuclear power would arguably make that even more difficult. Right now, nuclear power provides just under 20 percent of the nation’s electricity — but about half of the US’s carbon-free energy.

The urgency comes from another existential threat, the climate crisis. Climate scientists have found that the world has only a few decades before it virtually eliminates greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels or plunges into a catastrophic climate crisis. The relatively short timeframe for the complete transformation of 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 power come and go with the weather.

There are clear risks with nuclear power, especially at the beginning and end of the fuel’s life cycle, which make it a no-go for other proponents. The US is still cleaning up a legacy of Cold War-era uranium mining on Navajo land that has been linked to kidney disease, cancer and a neuropathic syndrome in children. The federal government has also struggled to find a permanent storage solution for nuclear waste, leaving it suspended in power plants.

Fresh calls to increase uranium production in the US have already raised a red flag for tribes and activists who have opposed nearby uranium mines and landfills. The guard reports. While yellowcake production has declined at the US’s only uranium mill, the Arizona site is still stockpiling leftover radioactive waste. And if the US increases its domestic uranium supply, uranium production at the mill could stall again. Members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe have pushed for the site to be closed; its tribal council also passed a resolution last year opposing the creation of a national strategic uranium reserve.

A fire breaks out at the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine

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

Even before the current conflict in Ukraine, Ukrainian activist Krynytskyi was skeptical about nuclear energy. His environmental group has pushed in the past to phase out both fossil fuels and nuclear power. Ukraine is more dependent on nuclear power than almost any other country in the world. But the nuclear power plants, which provide about half the nation’s electricity, are now at unprecedented risk. Its largest plant, Zaporizhia, has already survived Russian shelling. Fires have also reportedly broken out in Zaporizhzhia and Chernobyl, which have already been the scene of the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history – both seized by Russia.

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

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