Russia’s aggression prompts calls to reconsider US uranium imports

WASHINGTON — While Western leaders have scramble to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with steps to reduce imports of Russian fossil fuels, U.S. lawmakers and officials face a thorny dilemma over another energy source: Russia’s uranium, which powers many American nuclear power plants.

While President Biden banned imports of Russian oil, gas and coal last month, his administration did not immediately take steps to halt uranium imports from Russia. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the United States relied on Russia for about 16 percent of its uranium in 2020, with another 30 percent from the country’s two close partners, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Russia’s oil and gas exports have received disproportionate attention as Western nations have sought to impose economic penalties on the country. But the invasion of Ukraine has also spotlighted Russia’s sale of uranium to the United States, the world’s largest consumer of the metal, where nuclear power accounts for about 20 percent of electricity generation.

The dismay over the war has given a common purpose to energy officials, who see nuclear power as key to Mr. Biden’s long-term vision to reduce carbon emissions, and members of Congress, who have advocated for years to expand domestic uranium production and enrichment. For both camps, Russia’s aggression raises the urgency for the United States to reduce its reliance on imported uranium and invest in domestic suppliers that could help power the next generation of nuclear power plants.

Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, introduced a bill to ban the import of Russian uranium in March, and a bipartisan bill to that effect was brought before the House of Representatives last week.

“While the import ban on Russian oil, gas and coal is an important step, it cannot be the last,” Mr Barrasso said in a statement. “The ban on Russian uranium imports will further disappoint Russia’s war machine, help revive American uranium production and enhance our national security.”

At her confirmation hearing last month, Kathryn Huff, the Biden-elected chief of the Department of Energy’s nuclear office, said the invasion of Ukraine had exposed the nuclear industry’s weaknesses and highlighted the need to increase domestic production.

“It is critical that we wean ourselves off unstable, untrusted sources of our critical fuels, including uranium,” she said.

The United States has been trying to reduce its dependence on Russian uranium since the end of the Cold War. Under a 1992 agreement with the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, the United States sought to limit purchases of Russian uranium to about 20 percent of its total requirements. An amendment to that agreement, signed in 2020, aimed to further reduce imports to 15 percent by 2028.

But as of 2020, nearly half of the uranium used for fuel in the United States was imported from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. The amended deal authorized the United States to buy up to 24 percent of its nuclear fuel from Russia over the next year.

To complicate matters further, the Department of Energy announced plans to use up to 3.2 billion in 2020 of uranium produced on a commercial scale only by Russia.

Domestic suppliers have been reluctant to invest in manufacturing this fuel — high-assay, low-enriched uranium, or HALEU — because the advanced reactors that could use it are years from completion.

“It’s not like anybody thinks we can’t do it,” said Matt Bowen, a research scientist at the Center on Global Energy Policy in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “But it would come at a cost and none of them, I think, were willing to make that investment for very understandable reasons, because they’re not sure if these reactor projects are really going to happen.”

The new reactors were designed to be cheaper, safer and more efficient than older ones. They were proposed in hopes of replacing some of the 93 reactors currently operating in the United States, many of which are more than 40 years old and nearing the end of their design life.

But in the face of Russia’s actions, TerraPower and other companies developing new reactors have said they will not use the more enriched fuel from Russia, even though there is no commercial alternative.

As aging nuclear power plants are phased out, renewable sources such as wind and solar power would need to increase dramatically to fill the gap in zero-carbon power generation if new nuclear power plants are not built.

At recent Capitol Hill hearings, some senators debated asking the Department of Energy to create near-term fuel needed for advanced reactor projects. The department maintains limited stocks of enriched uranium that can be “downmixed” or mixed with unenriched material to produce fuel that can be used in modern reactors.

But to provide a steady flow of uranium for existing nuclear power plants and future models, lawmakers have also required renewed funding for mines and enrichment plants that have long been idle or reduced production.

The United States has significant uranium deposits in states such as Wyoming, Texas and New Mexico. But the troubled environmental history of some sites and the impact they have had on tribal lands have also reignited long-standing concerns about resuming large-scale uranium production domestically.

At a hearing on critical mineral supply chains Thursday, Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, referred to the ongoing environmental problems being caused by a mine at the Pueblo of Laguna, a Superfund site in his state that has resisted cleanup efforts for decades resists.

“Uranium mining and milling plants are still dumping radioactive waste into our groundwater,” said Mr. Heinrich. “It’s still barely reclaimed.”

For Dr. Huff will most likely be an urgent priority that was confirmed by the Senate this month.

Last year, the Department of Energy advanced plans to establish a national reserve that would stockpile uranium bought from domestic producers, in part to spur the industry. Congress committed $75 million to fund the reserve in 2020, but no purchases were made.

But efforts to begin buying uranium for the reserve have met opposition from Democrats, including Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey. In a letter last year, Mr. Markey and five members of the House of Representatives argued that the creation of the reserve posed “a serious threat to the health of tribal and environmental rights communities, as well as to the environment at large.” Russia’s aggression prompts calls to reconsider US uranium imports

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