Nuclear power, uranium and the war in Ukraine
By Günter Wippel, for the uranium network
Although little known to the public, the European Union obtains about 20% of the uranium it needs for nuclear power plants from Russia, and another 20% from Kazakhstan, which is considered a close ally to Russia.
While for Germany the issue of nuclear power will be settled by the end of this year in regard to demand for uranium, the EU will have to continue importing almost 100% of the required nuclear fuel.
If sanctions against Russia are to be taken seriously, uranium supplies will have to be sourced from countries not belonging to, or not close to, the Russian Federation.
The number of (potential) suppliers is manageably small: eight countries worldwide produce more than 90% of the uranium supply, led by Kazakhstan, followed by Australia, Namibia and Canada, Uzbekistan and Niger. Eight companies provide about 85% of the supply, with Kazakhstan’s KAZATOMPROM alone delivering 25%.
Thus, Australia or Canada, for example, might be considered as alternative sources of supply.
However, in both countries, there are regular conflicts between uranium mining companies, the state and Indigenous People. Currently operating Canadian uranium mines – all of them in the north of the province of Saskatchewan – are located on the land of the Dene and Cree, who have been opposing the mines and further exploration for decades.
In Canada’s province of Quebec, uranium companies have been trying to gain a foothold since 2008 – without success. The Cree in Quebec were able to stop uranium mining plans, also through cooperation with environmental protection organizations. Since 2016, there has been a de facto moratorium.
In Nunavut, Canada’s far North (formerly Northwest Territories), a large-scale uranium mining project was rejected by the Inuit people in 2016 after years of conflict with French uranium miner AREVA (now renamed ORANO).
In Namibia, uranium mining is now firmly in the hands of Chinese companies, which primarily extract uranium for Chinese nuclear power plants.
In Australia, uranium mining is also highly controversial: Indigenous / Aboriginal people are generally critical or opposed to it. Ranger Uranium mine was to be closed in 2021. An expansion to mine neighboring deposits was rejected by the Mirrar Aboriginal people and by environmental organizations.
The nearby Jabiluka Uranium Mine was rejected after more than 20 years of disagreement between Aboriginal people, environmental organizations and the company. Another Australian uranium deposit, Koongarra , was saved from exploitation by the refusal of the traditional Indigenous landowner, Jeffrey Lee, to release his land for uranium mining. Today, it is a national park and inscribed as a World Heritage Site.
The US and uranium
In the US, the situation is not much different. Domestic uranium production has dropped to nearly zero for various reasons. The fuel for nuclear power plants is 100% imported. Similar to the EU, just under 40% comes from Russia’s sphere of influence (16% from Russia, 22% from Kazakhstan). Another 22% comes from neighboring Canada, while Australia supplies 11% of the uranium needed in the US.
Attempts by the domestic mining industry to revive uranium mining in the United States were unsuccessful under Trump’s presidency, despite great efforts on the part of some companies. Under President Biden, the creation of a “national uranium reserve” was considered, but no money was allocated for it in the budget.
In May 2022, US Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm, stated that the US is working on a strategy to ensure a stable uranium supply. What it might look like was not clarified.
Nevertheless, some media outlets are speculating about a ‘revival ‘ of the domestic uranium industry.
In June 2022, there was discussion about allocating over $4 billion for the construction of uranium enrichment capacities, since lack of such plants makes the US also heavily dependent on Russian plants and companies. However, it is not clear yet how uranium enrichment plants might help to break the dependency on uranium imports from CIS-states.
In any case, the risk for uraniferous regions to become a sacrifice area is growing: this applies also to the Grand Canyon region. The danger has not escaped the attention of Indigenous Peoples who view this development with great concern after their very bad experiences with uranium mining in the past, the New York Times reported. Carletta Tilousi , Havasupai , who with her people has been resisting the Canyon Mine Uranium Mining (now renamed Pinyon Mine) for decades, found clear words: “We’ll lie down in front of the mine’s entrance to keep it from fully functioning if we have to,” she said. “We’ll make them understand this is about much more than money.”
Günter Wippel manages the uranium network, which works to inform the world of the hazards of uranium mining.
Headline photo: Rossing Uranium Mine inspection, Namibia, by IAEA Imagebank.
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