US nuclear power cannot be without Russian uranium, the Biden administration is in trouble

According to Power, Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine and the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow in the short term will not affect the US nuclear industry too much. But in the long run, it poses a big risk that Washington must be cautious about imposing sanctions on uranium imports and exports from Russia.

The US nuclear industry stands still because of the embargo

During a conference in Houston in early March, Maria Korsnick – president of the National Energy Institute (NEI) – a group of US nuclear power companies warned that Washington’s introduction of import bans for Gas products from Russia will likely have a negative impact on the US nuclear industry.

According to Ms. Korsnick, even if this ban does not include uranium, this does not mean that US nuclear power companies are not affected, NEI has its own assessment of the impact of sanctions on Russia. .

Even the NEI is said to be lobbying to ensure uranium does not become the next name on the White House sanctions list.

And Bloomberg, citing unnamed sources, said that the administration of US President Joe Biden may remain open to the possibility of imposing sanctions on companies that exploit and produce nuclear fuel in Vietnam. Russian state-owned assets like Rosatom, even as the NEI has warned of the negative effects of such a ban.

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The US imports uranium fuel from many countries, but Russia is the only country with enough resources to enrich uranium for US nuclear power plants. (Picture: Edibobb)

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the World Nuclear Association, the US nuclear industry depends on uranium supplies from Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which account for about 50% of nuclear fuel demand (about 10,000 tons) of the United States in 2020.

The nuclear industry will soon suffer if Washington imposes an embargo on uranium from Russia because nuclear power plants generate 20% of all electricity in the US, but that is not all.

According to Ms. Korsnick, the US will not lack uranium supply even if it stops importing from Russia because there are still other partners willing to fill the gap such as Canada and Australia. But what the NEI wanted was not raw uranium, it needed enriched uranium.

Currently Russia is the only country that can provide low-cost commercial uranium enrichment. In general, no US partner or ally can do this.

America needs Russian enriched uranium

The United States currently leads the world in the production of more than 809 billion kWh of nuclear power, enough to power more than 66 million homes. Yet while the United States operates the world’s largest nuclear reactors at the highest level in the energy industry, its domestic capacity to produce nuclear fuel is unbelievably meager. .

Between 2014 and 2018, the United States imported most of its uranium in its raw form, mainly from Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and a significant part from Russia. During the same time period, the amount of enriched uranium American nuclear power companies bought from Russia amounted to 20%.

Russian Nuclear Energy Corporation (Rosatom) currently holds 16.3% of the global nuclear fuel market, supplying nuclear fuel to 73 of the world’s 440 reactors in 13 countries through 13 countries. Techsnabexport company. Even nuclear power plants in Ukraine use enriched uranium from Russia.

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The chart shows US uranium fuel use from 1950 to 2020, US nuclear power plants are now almost dependent on imported enriched uranium. (Photo: EIA)

Of the five facilities that have the capacity to enrich uranium for commercial purposes in the world, only one in the United States belongs to the ConverDyn company in Illinois. Ironically ConverDyn has stopped producing uranium hexafluoride (UF 6) since 2017, which is expected to resume in 2023.

Uranium hexafluoride, also known as “hex” in the nuclear industry, is the compound used in the uranium enrichment process that produces fuel for nuclear reactors.

The reason ConverDyn is no longer interested in the nuclear industry is because they cannot compete with foreign companies like Rosatom of Russia or CNNC (China) in terms of price and scale. This leads to the fact that up to 90% of the uranium fuel used today in US reactors is produced abroad.

The US nuclear industry understands their weakness and has long been prepared to limit the impact if uranium fuel supplies are disrupted, but this process is quite slow when it is not attractive enough. the investors. Even URENCO USA’s low-enriched uranium (LEU) project in New Mexico is expected to meet 50% of the need for enriched uranium for nuclear power plants in the US (operating since 2010), but Up to now, only a part of LEU has been supplied on request.

According to NEI chairman Korsnick, if sanctions are imposed on uranium products from Russia, US nuclear power companies may have to turn to buying enriched uranium from other countries, such as France. , Japan and China. However, these partners are unlikely to be able to sustain long-term supply to the US nuclear industry.

Ms. Korsnick said that the US nuclear industry still has time to prepare if it wants to minimize the impact from the loss of traditional uranium sources. Nuclear fuel production projects may be promoted more in the near future, but they need support from the US government.

However, NEI officials must also admit that even with preferential policies from the US government, expanding and building new uranium fuel production facilities will take a lot of work and time. This is exactly what the NEI fears if Washington imposes a ban on this Russian uranium lAustralia.

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Immediately after taking office, US President Joe Biden repeatedly proposed to the US Congress to invest more in the country’s nuclear program, focusing mainly on nuclear power plants. (Photo: E&E News)

Russia holds 43% of global uranium enrichment capacity

The world’s uranium resources are fairly widely distributed. Kazakhstan produces more than 40% of the global supply, followed by Canada (12.6%), Australia (12.1%) and Namibia (10%). Russia is a country with small reserves, accounting for about 5% of the supply, while the US and Europe produce less than 1%.

However, most of Kazakhstan’s raw uranium material is shipped to Russia before being exported to other markets around the world. Many other parts of the supply chain also pass through Russia. There are only a handful of facilities in the world capable of converting uranium into uranium hexafluoride. Russia accounts for a third of uranium hexafluoride supplies in 2020, most of which is made from raw Kazakhstani uranium.

Russia also accounts for 43% of the global uranium enrichment capacity, followed by Europe (about 33%), China (16%) and the US (7%). Before the conflict in Ukraine, Russia had a national strategy to increase its nuclear energy exports.

In addition to uranium, Russia is also the world’s top supplier of nuclear reactors. Moscow builds factories abroad and then supplies fuel to many countries. Russia’s customers include former Soviet Union or former Warsaw Pact members, such as Ukraine and Hungary, as well as new nuclear energy users such as Egypt.

Many European countries also buy converted or enriched uranium from Russia, and China is a major market for Russian nuclear exports.

If U.S. nuclear trade with Russia were affected by the Ukraine conflict, the most severe impact would be on two planned advanced reactor projects: Xe-100 in Washington state and Natrium in Washington state. Wyoming. These reactors require fuel enriched with nearly 20% uranium-235 and Russia is currently the sole supplier in the world.

The production of nuclear fuel is a complex five-step process. The first is to extract raw uranium ore from the ground, which contains less than 2% uranium. The second step is grinding the ore to separate the uranium from the other materials, creating a powder known as “gold cake”. This powder will be chemically treated to convert it into gaseous uranium hexafluoride. Uranium hexafluoride is then further processed to increase the concentration to uranium-235, which can be separated in reactors to produce large amounts of energy. Uranium-235 makes up only 0.7% of natural uranium. The enrichment process to fuel commercial reactors increases the concentration by up to 5%. Finally, enriched uranium is made into fuel rods for the reactor.

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