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Sanctions? What sanctions? U.S. pays billions to Russia for nuclear fuel
America’s reactors need enriched uranium from Russia. And Putin needs dollars for his war in Ukraine.
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(Bill Sternberg is a veteran Washington journalist and former editorial page editor of USA Today.)
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Callaway Climate Insights) — For the United States to reach its climate goals, nuclear power will have to play an important and growing role. Nuclear already provides more than half of the nation’s clean power, and it’s the most reliable low-carbon source of electricity when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. The Energy Department estimates that, to meet its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. will have to more than double its nuclear power capacity.
But just as fossil fuel plants require coal or natural gas to produce electricity, nuclear power plants require enriched uranium. And therein lies the rub.
Nearly half of the world’s uranium enrichment capacity is in — you guessed it — Russia. Despite the talk about the mother of all economic sanctions being imposed on Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, American companies send as much as $1 billion a year to Rosatom, the government-owned nuclear company, for nuclear fuel.
It’s a devil’s bargain. America’s nuclear utilities need Russia’s enriched uranium to run their reactors. Vladimir Putin needs cash to finance his war of aggression and to maintain his increasingly tenuous grip on power after this past weekend’s aborted rebellion. Nearly $1 billion appears to be the amount the Russian government paid the mercenary Wagner Group in the year that ended in May, Putin acknowledged Tuesday.
How America got itself into this bind is a tangled tale that dates back decades and reflects shortsighted decision-making by leaders of both political parties. There is a way out, however, and it runs through a mostly mothballed uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio, that I began covering 40 years ago as a regional reporter in Washington.
First, a few terms and numbers: Enrichment capacity is measured in something known as separative work units, or SWU (pronounced “SWOO”). America’s 92 nuclear reactors require about 15 million SWU each year. Just 5.4 million SWU are produced in the United States, all of it at a facility in New Mexico owned by Urenco, a British-Dutch-German consortium. Russia, by comparison, has an enrichment capacity of 27.7 million SWU.
If Russia were to decide to engage in uranium blackmail and cut off access to its enrichment services, some 46% of the world’s nuclear power generation capacity would be at risk of being unable to refuel, according to a recent white paper by Global Health Strategies, an international consulting firm. Between one-fourth and one-third of America’s supply of enriched uranium comes from Russia.
Where the world’s enriched uranium is produced (2020 data):
Russia (Rosatom): 46%
Germany-Netherlands-U.K. (Urenco): 23%
France (Framatom): 12%
China (CNNC): 10%
United States (Urenco): 8%
Sources: James Krellenstein for GHS Climate; World Nuclear Association
Even worse, an unstable Russia is the only nation able to produce the high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU, pronounced “HEY, LOU”) required by the next generation of advanced reactors. Earlier this year, TerraPower, the Bill Gates-backed energy company, announced it has delayed construction of its Natrium reactor in Wyoming for two years because it can’t acquire non-Russian HALEU fuel.
The United States used to have enormous enrichment facilities in Piketon and Paducah, Ky., that used a process called gaseous diffusion. Meanwhile, the Russians developed a process using centrifuges that was 20 times more energy efficient. The non-competitive gaseous diffusion plants in the U.S. were shuttered.
The U.S. sank billions of dollars into a centrifuge complex, the size of 30 football fields, at the gaseous diffusion site in Piketon. But the centrifuge plant was put on ice, partly because the Three Mile Island accident chilled the industry and partly because officials became enamored with an alternative laser-based technology that, like nuclear fusion, holds promise but hasn’t yet panned out.
Prescient warnings from Ohio lawmakers — that the nation could be held hostage by Russia for our nuclear fuel — were largely ignored. America’s uranium enrichment industry was privatized in the late 1990s, and a company called Centrus Energy LEU 0.00%↑ is trying to revive the cavernous complex in Piketon, now dubbed the American Centrifuge Plant.
“We really think there needs to be an American producer (of enriched uranium). We want to be that producer. It will require a public-private partnership,” Dan Leistikow, Centrus’ vice president of corporate communications, told me. “There’s not enough non-Russian capacity to fuel the world’s reactors … The most important thing is to start investing in U.S. capacity so we are not so dependent on imports.”
Centrus has a contract for a HALEU demonstration project involving 16 centrifuges. With enough investment, thousands more centrifuges could be added to raise production to 7 million SWU per year, both for existing reactors and the new advanced reactors.
Bringing the Piketon plant up to its fully licensed capacity would also create 600 full-time jobs and 900 indirect jobs in an economically depressed area of southern Ohio that was devastated by the opioid epidemic, as chronicled in the book Dreamland by Sam Quinones.
Beyond Ohio, Urenco’s enrichment facility in Eunice, N.M., could nearly double its capacity, to 10 million SWU annually, under current licensing authorities.
Increasing domestic production of enriched uranium will take several years and billions of dollars. In Congress, three senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Jim Risch of Idaho — have introduced bipartisan legislation directing the Energy Department to onshore nuclear fuel production. “It’s time for America to ramp up uranium production so we can eliminate our dependence on Russia,” Barrasso said.
Actually, the time to do that was years ago, when Putin showed he was an unreliable trading partner bent on trying to recreate the old Soviet Union. Because U.S. leaders failed to act then, Putin retains dangerous leverage over America’s electricity production and climate goals, and he’s using U.S. dollars to fuel his brutal war of aggression. For national security and environmental reasons, that can’t be allowed to continue.
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