The energy crisis, exacerbated in recent months by Washington’s anti-Russian sanctions policy, is perhaps the worst such crisis since 1973, when Arab countries imposed an oil embargo to protest Western support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War. It has affected all Western states by now. While the search for new energy sources and improvements to existing relatively environmentally friendly ways of generating electricity on an industrial scale continues, nuclear power plants remain something of a lifeline for many of the world’s leading states. All of this has prompted countries to revisit the possibility of using nuclear energy to combat the energy crisis, to analyze the state of the nuclear fuel market and their own capabilities in this field.
The United States is no exception in this regard. Given that the world leader in installed nuclear capacity is the United States, the issue has been given serious thought there too. As of November 2021, the US had 93 nuclear reactors grouped into 56 nuclear plants located in 28 different states (out of 50) with a combined capacity of 95.5 GW, which generate 19.7% of the country’s electricity.
As everyone knows, uranium is the fuel for nuclear reactors in NPPs. However, unlike Russia, the US does not produce or process uranium, nor does it have uranium reserves, which the US has thought about creating, but has never done so. Even at its peak back in 1980, the US was only able to produce 40% of nuclear rods required for its nuclear power industry. As a result, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan provide about 50% of the uranium for the US industry, with Russia accounting for about 20% of US uranium needs. In 2021, the US imported $670 million worth of enriched uranium and radioactive isotopes from Russia.
US dependence on Russian uranium grew largely because Soviet centrifuge enrichment technology was almost 10 times more energy efficient than that developed in the United States, hence the lower cost of nuclear rods.
In 1993, Russia and the United States concluded the 20-year Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement, aka Megatons to Megawatts Program (also called the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement, after the names of its signatories), which provided for the commercial conversion of highly enriched uranium into low-enriched uranium for the purpose of making fuel for US nuclear power plants by Russian nuclear industry enterprises. The agreement stipulated that as part of the nuclear disarmament announced by the two sides, 500 tons of former weapons-grade uranium (i.e. 20,000 former Russian nuclear warheads) would be used for reactor fuel rods. The US wanted to add the same amount. In reality, it simply hoped to disarm Russia with its own hands and make a handsome profit, while getting almost gratuitous nuclear fuel. But the result was that the US own enrichment technology remained at the level of early 1990s, plus there was almost no previous capacity left.
Sergey Kiriyenko, back when he was head of Rosatom, once said that one in ten light bulbs in the US burns on energy derived from Russian uranium. During the 10 years of the Megatons to Megawatts Program, Russia sent the US 14,440,000 tons of reprocessed uranium out of 500 tons of former nuclear warhead stuffing. It was used to generate more than 7 trillion kWh of electricity by US nuclear power plants, which is, by the way, almost seven times Russia’s entire annual output (in 2021, for example, Russian produced 1.13 trillion kWh of electricity). Although the Megatons to Megawatts Program expired in 2013, Russia nevertheless continued exporting nuclear rods to the US, although it has not used former warheads as raw material since then.
The current critical situation in the US in terms of fuel supply for US NPPs particularly forces Washington to stimulate opportunities for uranium enrichment on its soil. It will not be possible to replace supplies from Russia with sources from any other country, the Washington Examiner reported, citing US Assistant Secretary of Energy Kathryn Hoff. To this end, back in June, US Republican congressmen Dan Newhouse and August Pfluger proposed recognizing uranium as a strategic raw material. In their explanatory note, the congressmen pointed out that the US is currently dependent on Russia and its allies for supplies of uranium, which is a critical raw material for a number of sectors of the US economy, including energy and health care. Meanwhile, lawmakers point out that it is the Biden administration’s ill-advised policies that have significantly aggravated the country’s current dire energy situation by allowing foreign governments, even strategic competitors such as Venezuela, China and Iran, to dominate the energy industry and forcing people to rely on costly imports instead of domestic production.
The Hill has previously expressed concern that enriched uranium supplies from Russia could be cut off. According to the publication, such a move would lead to the shutdown of most power units at US NPPs and the collapse of the country’s entire energy system. Meanwhile, the US media, in its Russophobic frenzy, have been scaring their audiences with news that Russia could inflict substantial damage on the United States by cutting its nuclear fuel supplies by half. This, in turn, could trigger an immediate and very steep rise in electricity prices in the US, which could be a very serious blow to Americans and the US economy on the back of rising oil and gas prices due to Washington’s sanctions policy.
This intimidation by the Russian bogeyman is quite remarkable considering the actions of the US itself, which on March 8 imposed a ban on energy imports from Russia – oil and oil products, LNG and coal. Russian uranium has not been sanctioned, clearly because of White House’s concerns that America’s energy security directly depends on Russian uranium.
Incidentally, amid Washington’s intensified whipping up of the illegal anti-Russian sanction hysteria, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak did say on March 21 that the Russian government was considering the issue of banning uranium supplies to the US in response to Washington’s Russophobic policy and the embargo on Russian energy resources…
Vladimir Danilov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.