Russian Uranium Dominance Hamstrings US Nuclear Plans

Photo credit: Ron Reiring/Flickr

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Joe Biden isn’t just dipping into America’s oil reserves, but its radioactive stockpiles as well.

Russia’s stranglehold on energy supplies also extends to nuclear power, according to a Reuters report that highlights how The Kremlin’s ongoing truculence is holding the US nuclear power infrastructure hostage, forcing the US to tap its reserve of weapons-grade uranium. That’s what we call it a chain reaction.

From Russia, Without Love

The war in Ukraine has precipitated energy crises so severe that even European countries with strong public opposition to nuclear power have had to embrace the technology. Germany, which had been on track to shutter its three remaining power plants by the end of this year in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, announced this week it will keep all three running until at least April next year. As the world’s top producer of oil and gas, the US doesn’t have to worry about energy rationing, but it’s still eager to wean itself off fossil fuels for both environmental and geopolitical reasons.

The US, which already gets nearly 20% of its electricity from nuclear plants, is funding developments of a new type of reactor called a Small Modular Reactor (SMR). SMRs need less refueling, are more efficient, and produce cheaper energy than traditional reactors, but there’s one problem: the majority of the SMRs the US is funding need a type of uranium only sold by, you guessed it, Russia:

  • Out of the SMR projects funded by the US government 90% require high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) as fuel because HALEU is enriched up to 20%, 15% more than the uranium used by traditional reactors. The only commercial supplier of HALEU is TENEX, a subsidiary of Russian state-owned nuclear power company Rosatom, meaning America’s SMR hopes and dreams could be dashed before they even begin.
  • The US has tried in years past to break Russia’s chokehold on the HALEU supply, even awarding a contract to UK energy company Centrus in 2019 to start producing it. Centrus was supposed to begin making HALEU this year but it’s been delayed until 2023 by pandemic-inflicted supply chain woes forcing the US to dip into its shallow reserve pool.

Catch Uranium-22: One Centrus exec told Reuters it’s a lose-lose situation. “Nobody wants to order 10 reactors without a fuel source, and nobody wants to invest in a fuel source without 10 reactors,” he said.

Heavy metal: The US nuclear industry isn’t the only one trying to disentangle itself from Russian suppliers. The London Metal Exchange is facing calls from traders to stop allowing Russian metals into its warehouses over concerns that a stockpile of untouchable Russian metal will contaminate market prices. Meaning they think it may as well be radioactive.