The scramble to ban Russian uranium is the right move. A total ban would be even better
By Linda Pentz Gunter
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, and its ensuing violations of human rights have pulled back the curtain on some uncomfortable realities in the US nuclear energy sector.
When the Biden White House quickly moved to ban imports of Russian crude oil, liquefied natural gas and coal, uranium wasn’t on the list. The move was an attempt, thus far unsuccessful, to squeeze the Russian economy hard enough to prompt submission on the battlefield. But US oil imports from Russia are dwarfed by its reliance on Russian uranium fuel.
Nevertheless, the US nuclear power industry initially lobbied heavily to keep the supply of Russian uranium fuel flowing, knowing the drastic set-back such a ban would mean for both its existing fleet, and its pipe dream for survival — so-called new, advanced and small modular reactors.
Uranium is big business for Russia. Rosatom, Russia’s state energy company, along with its subsidiaries, supplies more than 35% of uranium enrichment to global buyers including, according to Power Magazine, “to 73 of the world’s 440 reactors in 13 countries”.
The United States gets almost 50% of the uranium fuel that powers its current reactor fleet either directly from Russia (16%) or from Russian-controlled Kazakhstan (22%) and Uzbekistan (8%).
Already financially struggling US nuclear power plants reportedly have enough fuel supplies for six months but then could start feeling an unwelcome economic pinch from sanctions on Russian imports if these included uranium.
But now, apparently, the US Senate and the American nuclear sector is having a sudden rethink. Or, more accurately, a self-interested epiphany.
Previously undeterred by doing business with a country that locks up political opponents, journalists and LGBTQ activists at will — or worse — the US nuclear industry and its Congressional supporters suddenly found their consciences a little too sharply pricked as Russia invaded Ukraine. A way out had to be found.
To the rescue came Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, historically one of the biggest uranium mining states, who introduced a bill in late March to ban uranium imports from Russia.
“The time is now to permanently remove all Russian energy from the American marketplace,” said Senator Barrasso on his website. “We know Vladimir Putin uses this money to help fund his brutal and unprovoked war in Ukraine. While banning imports of Russian oil, gas and coal is an important step, it cannot be the last. Banning Russian uranium imports will further defund Russia’s war machine, help revive American uranium production, and increase our national security.”
Navigating through all the sanctimonious baloney we find the key phrase: “help revive American uranium production.” And what that would mean would be further desecration of the human rights of Indigenous Americans, on whose land most of that uranium production takes place. It is dollar signs, not morality, that are glittering in the eyes of the uranium industry and its Congressional allies.
Wyoming is also the intended home for construction of Bill Gates’s delusional dream, his Natrium TerraPower reactor (or should that be TerrorPower?) which relies entirely on something called High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium fuel or HALEU.
Only one country manufacturers HALEU. Russia. So now the scramble is on to set up the domestic infrastructure necessary to kickstart a HALEU program in the US, something even Andrew Griffith, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear fuel at the Department of Energy (DOE), admitted would not be an overnight sensation. “It’s going to be a challenge,” he told the Wyoming Eagle Tribune.
The Natrium was the recipient of an opening “down-payment” from the DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) of $160 million with the expectation of more and a completion date of 2028.
But without the fuel readily available from Russia, the “advanced” reactors — fundamentally all old and already rejected designs — remain even sketchier drawing-board fantasies than before. Indeed, the entire Small Modular Reactor program, so embraced by Congress, has been described as “based on little more than slogans.” Nine out of the ten SMR designs of one kind or another already funded by the ARDP rely on HALEU.
The Natrium has come under fire from non-proliferation experts as a security liability, designed as it is for export, and appealing to countries like Saudi Arabia that can easily retrofit it to produce plutonium for a future nuclear weapons program.
However, this is of no consequence to US nuclear industry leaders, once quietly content to buy Russian HALEU, but whose eagerness to sustain the Natrium remains unabated as long as it’s not fissioning Russian uranium.
“The United States must urgently launch a comprehensive plan to produce industrial quantities of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) as closing supply chains from Russia leave the US’s advanced reactor program in danger, say industry leaders,” blasted a March 22 headline on the Reuters Events nuclear website.
Ramping up a domestic uranium supply chain will, of course, have drastic consequences for those who can least afford it; ratepayers and taxpayers. As John Kotek, senior vice president of policy development and public affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry’s lobbying arm, told POWER Magazine, such a program will take a while and will need an injection of cash. That would be our cash.
“If you look at the types of tools that the federal government and state governments used to create a very strong wind and solar sector in the U.S, they used demand-inducing policies like renewable portfolio standards and production or investment tax credits to give investors confidence that there would be a return at the end of their investment,” Kotek told POWER.
“We need to use the same type of thinking to get new enrichment and conversion capability available—not just to the U.S. market, but to the broader set of partners who want to rely on somebody other than the Russians for this material.” Plain and simple; it’s seen as a lucrative money-maker, a market waiting to be captured.
The other communities it will hurt are of course, the same ones who have already taken the brunt of the environmental and health damage from uranium mining and fuel production activities the first time around; Native Americans who have made up the bulk of the uranium mining workforce, and uranium plant workers and the communities nearby.
As Amber Reimondo, the energy director of the not-for-profit Grand Canyon Trust, told The Guardian: “If this ban is aimed at saving lives, the answer can’t just be to ramp up US uranium production,” Reimondo says. “The answer has to involve truly respecting and listening to communities on the frontlines of uranium production, especially Indigenous communities … Otherwise, this is not about protecting human life. It is about protecting profits.”
As is clear from the sudden mad scramble to revive moribund domestic uranium production, the US nuclear industry is quite happy to shift the human rights violations from Russian soil to their own.
Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.
Headline photo of destruction in Kharkiv by Kharkivian (Сергій Петров)/Wikimedia Commons