US ban on Russian uranium could backfire

US President  Joe Biden has now signed into law HR 1042, the Prohibiting Russian Uranium Imports Act, banning the import of uranium products from Russia  The ban goes into effect 90 days after it was signed into law and prohibits any import of unirradiated low-enriched uranium (LEU) produced in the Russian Federation or by a Russian entity.

Waivers may be granted to allow the import of limited amounts of LEU, under certain circumstances, until January 1, 2028. The new legislation permits the Department of Energy (DOE) to issue waivers authorizing the entire volume of Russian uranium imports allowed under export limits set in an earlier anti-dumping agreement between the Department of Commerce and Russia which expires in 2027.

There are predictions that waivers will be needed and granted. “No one will dare” to enforce the law without granting waivers, says Alexey Anpilogov, a Russian political scientist and expert in nuclear energy – “because American nuclear reactors produce cheap electricity. And the green transition that was declared in the United States also implies the preservation of nuclear energy as a carbon-neutral sector of electricity production.”

A long history

US concern over Russian enriched uranium has a long history. In an effort to prevent an influx of cheap Russian enrichment services into the US after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US nuclear energy industry instigated an anti-dumping petition in 1991. This resulted in the adoption in 1992 of the Russian Suspension Agreement (RSA) between the US Department of Commerce and Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy (now Rosatom). The agreement introduced formal quotas on the import of Russian enriched uranium. It was amended in 2008 and 2020.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, Russia has been supplying about 24% of enriched uranium used to fuel the US fleet of 94 commercial reactors, with 12% coming from Germany and 11% from the UK. US production accounts for 27%.

The US DOE says Russia has roughly 44% of the world’s uranium enrichment capacity and supplies approximately 35% of US imports for nuclear fuel.

The United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) ceased production in 2001. Following bankruptcy in 2014, USEC re-emerged as Centrus Energy Corp. While Centrus is developing new centrifuge technologies with the aim of restoring US domestic uranium enrichment capability, it primarily acts as a broker of enriched uranium, sourcing foreign supplies for US and international customers.

According to Centrus’s 2023 annual report to the US Securities & Exchange Commission, Russia’s Tenex is Centrus’s largest supplier, followed by French company Orano. Centrus has commitments with Tenex for the supply of Russian enrichment services to 2028.

Centrus has made clear that it will apply for waivers from the secretary of energy and other applicable government agencies to request permission to continue supplying LEU to its customers. “It is uncertain whether any waiver would be granted and, if granted, whether any waiver would be granted in a timely manner,” it noted. “The Company anticipates having adequate liquidity to support its business operations for at least the next 12 months.”

The only commercial enrichment operation in the US is Urenco’s facility in New Mexico, which began operations in 2010. Urenco is jointly owned by the UK, Germany and the Netherlands.

At the end of last year, Urenco approved an investment to expand enrichment capacity at its facility in the Netherlands. Earlier in May, the UK government awarded £196 million ($245 million) to Urenco to build a new uranium enrichment facility at its Capenhurst site in northwest England.

Aside from Russia, other countries with enrichment capacity include Argentina, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, the Netherlands, North Korea, Pakistan, and the UK. Some are now seeking to expand their facilities.

Currently Russia is the world’s only commercial source of the more highly enriched high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel that’s needed for many of the small and advanced reactors now in the design stage.

Some providers in the US, with federal support, are in the process of producing HALEU. Under a 2019 contract with  DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, Centrus licensed and built a new cascade of 16 centrifuges at Piketon, Ohio, to demonstrate production of  HALEU. The Piketon demonstration project last year produced its first amounts of HALEU for next-generation reactors, with plans to increase production to 900 kilograms in the near future. However, this is nowhere near enough to fill the gap that will be left  if Russian supplies cease. 

Optimism in the Biden administration

US officials have been upbeat about the ban.  National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the new law “re-establishes America’s leadership in the nuclear sector. It will help secure our energy sector for generations to come. And – building off the unprecedented $2.72 billion in federal funding that Congress recently appropriated at the President’s request – it will jump-start new enrichment capacity in the United States and send a clear message to industry that we are committed to long-term growth in our nuclear sector.” 

Sullivan said the law also delivers on multilateral targets, including an announcement last year by the USA with Canada, France, Japan and the UK of plans to collectively invest $4.2 billion to expand their enrichment and conversion capacity. “With these funds from Congress, we have well-exceeded that pledge and are working with industry to realise this ambition,” Sullivan said.  

DOE said the  ban “brings us one step closer to developing a reliable supply of nuclear fuel that will be required by the United States and its allies to triple nuclear capacity by 2050, creating thousands of high-paying jobs along the way.”  

Squeezing the industry

However, even before the ban became law, concerns about fuel supplies  were having an effect on the myriad of companies that have produced designs for small and advanced modular reactors, some with significant government support. Many companies have highly optimistic targets of deploying their first reactors by 2030, although most are still in the design stage. 

For example, the Natrium technology being developed by US TerraPower and GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy features a 345-megawatt liquid-sodium-cooled fast reactor with a separate molten-salt-based energy storage system.  Along with PacifiCorp and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, members of the demonstration project team include engineering and construction partner Bechtel, Energy Northwest, Duke Energy and nearly a dozen additional companies, universities and national laboratory partners.

Natrium is one of two competitively-selected Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) projects supported by DOE. The company originally had hoped to commission the plant in 2028 using Russian-supplied HALEU fuel to get a demonstration unit up and running by 2028. However, concerns about  Russian HALEU deliveries have pushed the commissioning date to 2030.

The uranium ban legislation expires at the end of 2040. In the meantime, while one of its purposes is to undermine Russia’s dominance of the international market for nuclear fuel and technology, Russian offiicials have been quick to point out that its most negative effects are likely to be on the global market.

Kremlin reaction

Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom called the ban a discriminatory political move that would undermine the international market for enriched uranium but would not stop Russia from developing its global business.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a news briefing that “it’s hard for the Americans to compete with us on the international market,” adding that the ban was “nothing more than unfair competition” and not critical for the Russian nuclear industry. “Our nuclear industry is one of the most advanced in the world,” Peskov said. “We will continue to develop this industry.”

Russia’s ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov,  said:

The Administration continues its stillborn policy of inflicting strategic economic defeat on us. The current attack – not only on Russia, but also on the world market for uranium fuel used in nuclear power plants – will lead to new shocks in international economic relations. The delicate balance between exporters and importers of uranium products is under threat. Washington lacks sufficient national enrichment capacity and so is harming its own economy. Moreover, the financial losses for the United States will be much greater than for Russia.

The world leader

Rosatom is the world leader in terms of the number of nuclear reactor construction projects being undertaken simultaneously, with three units in Russia and 33 abroad.

Moreover, its foreign projects all involve ongoing technical support, training and 60-year-long fuel supplies. Since 2023 Rosatom also become the exclusive supplier to Brazil of products related to enriched uranium. This long-term partnership with Brasilia replaces previous imports from Canada and European consortia. 

Rosatom’s foreign projects include:

  • the four-unit Akkuyu NPP under construction in Turkiye Akkuyu;
  • the four-unit El Dabaa NPP under construction in Egypt;
  • four more units at Kudankulam NPP in India, with promises of further contracts;
  • four units in China; and
  • two units in Bangladesh.

Several countries in sub-Saharan Africa including Burkina Faso, Mali, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya and Ethiopia also have agreements related to nuclear energy with Rosatom. It is also in talks with South Africa and Sri Lanka. In Bolivia it is finishing construction of a research reactor and laboratory complex.  

Anpilogov, the specialist quoted in the third paragraph of this article, told the Sputnik news agency that the ban would mean halting a quarter or even a third of all American nuclear generation and that the US would be unable to replace Russia’s deliveries of both LEU and HALEU for a long time.

He emphasized that, if the DOE should fail to issue waivers, the US nuclear fuel market could collapse, leading to skyrocketing costs of enriched uranium. He also suggested that US companies might resort to “gray schemes” to purchase Russian nuclear fuel, disguising the deals as contracts with French or other foreign companies.   

“Back in the 1980s, the Americans de facto destroyed their enrichment industry because it was ineffective, being based on old gaseous-diffusion technologies,” said Ampilogov, who is president of Russia’s Foundation for Support of Scientific Research and Development of Civil Initiatives Research. “For 30 years they bought relatively inexpensive Russian uranium. The cornerstone of America’s nuclear energy generation can’t be abandoned through a simple vote in Congress.”

Ampilogov observed that it took the United States some four years to produce the first 20 kilograms of HALEU after launching a similar initiative back in 2019. He noted that the planned UK enrichment plant is expected to produce its first batch of HALEU only in 2031, and by that time “a lot is going to change on the market.”

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